Friday, February 3

Luke 2:41-52: Although the story of Jesus lost and found in the Temple is chiefly significant for its Christological import, its narrative structure, as I remarked before, conveys the “action” through the eyes and understanding of Mary. Luke invites us to take this approach in his final comment: “His mother continued to keep all these things in her heart.” Indeed, unless the reader approaches the story through Mary’s perception, he will miss much of its drama.

We observe, first, that the lostness in the story is objective: Jesus is not lost in the sense that he does not know where he is, but in the sense that he is missing—his mother does not know where He is. We readers, too, part company with Jesus in this scene: Until his parents find him, we don’t know where he is either. The story’s movement is advanced by what Mary and Joseph do:

When they had finished the days, as they returned, the boy Jesus lingered behind in Jerusalem. And Joseph and his mother did not know; but supposing him to have been in the company, they went a day's journey, and sought him among relatives and friends. So when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, seeking him (Luke 2:43-45).

The narrative action, taking us readers along with it, first moves north. The storyteller and his readers travel towards Galilee with Mary and Joseph. The evangelist speaks of their worried search, though he does not directly mention their anxiety—indeed, it is made explicit only by Mary herself in the closing dialogue (Luke 2:48)—because the anxiety is implied in the details of the search. Not finding the boy Jesus after a day's journey, Mary and Joseph return south to Jerusalem—and we go back with them, of course—to continue their pursuit in the same place they last saw Jesus:

Now so it was that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions (2:46).

Jesus, we all discover, is the center of attention: “And all who heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.” The boy's parents are bewildered: "So when they saw him," writes Luke, "they were amazed." Every parent comprehends their amazement: This was the child they had raised for a dozen years. Yet, he did not accompany them back home after the Passover, as he had done on every prior trip. Mary and Joseph searched for him frantically, but even when they find him, the child displays not the slightest remorse or concern for their anxiety. The mother of Jesus finds this insouciance on the part of her twelve-year old a bit more than she is disposed to accept without complaint: "Son, why have you done this to us? Look, your father and I have sought you anxiously" (Luke 2:48).

Then, the boy, instead of apologizing and promising it will not happen again, turns the question back on his mother: "Why did you seek me? Did you not know that I must be about the things of my Father?" From any other twelve-year old, this kind of answer would be called "back talk" and treated as impertinent. I suspect that Jesus’ answer to Mary was a sort of continuation of his discussion with the rabbis. Recall that Jesus, when his parents discover him in the Temple, has been engaged (for three days, apparently) in discourses with the rabbis; he has been asking them questions and answering theirs. In other words, Jesus has been engaged in a pedagogical and rhetorical method where a favored device is the "counter-question"—the answering of a question by a further and more probing inquiry. We find this style of debate frequently in rabbinic literature and in the gospels. The boy Jesus, then, so recently exposed to this pedagogical and rhetorical method here in the Temple, spontaneously has recourse to it in order to answer his mother. When she inquires, "Why have you done this?" He responds with a counter-question, "Why did you seek me? Did you not know?" No, as a matter of fact, Mary did not know, nor did she and Joseph find much reassurance in this brief dialogue with Jesus. Luke tells us, "But they did not understand the statement which he spoke to them" (2:50). Then, the three of them return to Nazareth—in silence, one suspects. Mary is portrayed as "anxious"—her own word—amazed, and confused. Considered from her perspective, as Luke clearly intends, the story is most noticeable as a test of Mary's faith. The angel Gabriel had spoken to her nearly thirteen years earlier, when she was perhaps half of her present age. At that time, indeed, she may not have been much older than Jesus was when they found him in the Temple. From that day when the angel visited her, it appears, Mary has understood rather little of what transpired. Like Abraham her father, she followed God's will in faith but can hardly guess where it was all leading. She walked obediently, day by day, not knowing whither she went. Luke’s story, which chronicles Jesus’ growth in wisdom, is told here through the person who witnessed that growth, and was obliged, in a very personal way, to explore its meaning. It was certainly from her that Luke learned the facts of the case.

Saturday, February 4

Matthew 9:1-13: Since the call of Levi falls in exactly the same sequence in the Gospels of Mark and Luke as Matthew’s call in the Gospel of Matthew, we are surely correct in regarding these two men as identical, notwithstanding the contrary opinions mentioned by Heracleon, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen. Mark and Luke place this tax collector’s calling fairly early, soon after the calling of the fishermen, where we might naturally expect it. Matthew puts it somewhat later in the narrative, after the Sermon on the Mount.

It is much more significant, however, that all three Synoptic Gospels treat the call of the tax collector (Levi/Matthew) as a centerpiece bracketed between two stories about sinners: the paralytic being forgiven his sins and Jesus having dinner with notorious sinners. Thus set between these two events, the call of the tax collector represents above all the evangelical summons to repentance and the forgiveness of sins.

Hebrews 13:10-25: The closing verses of Hebrews contain two parts: First, there is a blessing, which invokes Jesus as the Great Shepherd (verses 20-21). This blessing closes the body of the work, which is here called a “word of exhortation.” Second, there is a very brief “cover letter,” or postscript, which follows the book itself (verses 22-25). We may examine these separately.

First, it may be the case that the work’s closing benediction already existed as a standard form of blessing. The reason for this supposition is that the benediction introduces two ideas that are not explicit or elaborated in the work itself.

The first of these “new” ideas is that of Jesus as the Shepherd: “that great Shepherd of the sheep.” Whereas the Epistle to the Hebrews is rich in its development of Christological titles—Son of God, High Priest, Mediator, Author of the faith, and so on—it does not otherwise speak of Jesus as Shepherd. Nor does our author otherwise describe Christians as sheep. These images, which are introduced, without elaboration, right at the end, remain thematically separate from the core collection of the book’s Christological and ecclesiological motifs. It is reasonable, therefore, to think of these images as simply borrowed from the early Church’s standard forms of closing benediction. As matters of theme, we would associate them especially with the Gospel of St. John.

The second “new” idea is the Resurrection: “the God of peace who brought up our Lord Jesus from the dead.” Except for the brief mention of Isaac’s restoration to Abraham in 11:19, Hebrews does not otherwise speak of the Lord’s Resurrection. On the contrary, his Christological and soteriological emphasis is consistently placed on the Lord’s Ascension into heavenly glory. That is to say, the sudden reference to the Resurrection, at the work’s very end, is better explained as coming from a common benediction in use among the early Christians.

Hebrews ends with a common Christian greeting: “Grace with you all. Amen.”

Sunday, February 5

Matthew 9:14-17: The terms of the question point to a feature that distinguished the disciples of Jesus from the followers of John the Baptist. In due course the followers of John the Baptist were absorbed into the Christian Church, a process of which we see evidence in the New Testament itself, notably the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel according to John, and it seems likely that the final stages of this assimilation may have been contemporary with the composition of Matthew. In His response to the question, Jesus made it clear that the Christian freedom from fasting was a very temporary arrangement, entirely limited to the time of His earthly ministry, and we know that even prior to the end of the first century the Christian Church had already established Wednesday and Friday each week as fast days. This arrangement would distinguish the Christians from the Pharisaic Jews, who fasted on Mondays and Thursdays.

Psalm 34 (Greek & Latin 33): Summarizing an entire Wisdom theme of Holy Scripture with a single question, Psalm 34 asks: “Who is the man who desires life, and loves many days, that he may see good?” At first the question may appear merely rhetorical. After all, doesn’t everyone desire life? Would anyone intentionally choose or prefer death over life?

The Bible is not so confident on this point. Deuteronomy distinguishes a true choice between life and death. It really is a matter of choosing, and some people do, in fact, prefer death over life (Deut. 30:19). That person shows little familiarity with history, or even his own soul, who would deny this deep, inveterate death wish at work in the human heart. Our psalm’s question, then, is well directed; in very truth, just who is the man who desires life?

By “life” we mean, of course, much more than material, animal survival, for man does not “live” by bread alone. True human life is a far more ample thing, a matter of the soul’s relationship to God; true life involves living in a particular way. The psalmist goes on, then, to answer his own question: “Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit. Depart from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.”

Our choices really do count in the sight of God. Even though He causes His rain to fall on both the just and the unjust, it would be a serious mistake to suppose that God has no regard for the difference between a just and an unjust man. God actively resists the proud man and gives His grace to the humble (Proverbs 3:34; James 4:6). God really does discriminate, and our psalmist elaborates the consequences of this discrimination: “The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their cry. The face of the Lord is against those who do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.”

Monday, February 6

Matthew 9:18-26: From this point on, Matthew breaks away from the Markan sequence that he has been following. This sequence will be picked up again in Matthew 12. Matthew’s version of this double miracle, the seventh and eighth in the current ten miracles, involves significant shortening of the 22 verses with which Mark 5 tells the story. The expression “from that hour” in Matthew 9:22, which is not found in the parallel accounts in Mark and Luke, serves to tie the story back to the account of the centurion’s servant in 8:13. Matthew is also the only one of the evangelists to mention the flute players already assembling for the funeral of Jairus’s daughter. The raising of the little girl is to be contrasted with the killing of the first-born, which was the tenth of the Mosaic plagues.

Psalm 80 (Greek & Latin 79): The situation in Psalm 80 is pretty rough: “Will You feed us with the bread of tears, and give us only tears as our measure of drink? You have made us a contradiction to our neighbors, and our enemies regard us with scorn.” The problem in this psalm is not private, so to speak; it has to do with afflictions brought upon the Church.

The remedy requested against this plight is the revelation of God’s glory, a theme that appears early in our psalm: “You who sit upon the Cherubim, reveal Yourself to Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh; stir up Your might and come to save us.” Then, three times comes the refrain that makes the same prayer: “Convert us; show forth Your face, and we shall be saved.” The order in this refrain is important, in that God shows His face only to the converted—“when one turns [or “is converted” to the Lord, the veil is taken away” (2 Corinthians 3:16). So the psalm prays for a conversion, a change in our hearts, that we may behold the glory of God and thereby be saved.

But it is important to note that this is a prayer of the Church, a petition for conversion made by those who are, presumably, already converted and already have been enlightened and tasted the heavenly gift, and already were made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and already have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the world to come. Even these, our psalm is saying, still need even further to be converted and further to be saved.

Tuesday, February 7

Matthew 9:27-38: The healing of two blind men in verses 27-32 parallels a very similar account in 20:29-34. This earlier healing of the two blind men stands in contrast to the growing spiritual blindness of Jesus’ enemies in these two chapters, terminating in 9:34. The healing of blindness is a manifestation of the messianic era foretold in a number of Old Testament texts, notably Isaiah 29:18; 35:5; 42:7. This messianic note is particularly emphasized by the blind men calling Jesus “son of David.” The Lord’s answer, “Let it be!” (genetheto), by which the light floods into the eyes hitherto blind, repeats the verb in Genesis 1:3, “Let there be light!” (genetheto phos). It is also worth mentioning that this cure of blindness, which is the ninth of Matthew’s series of ten miracles in chapters 8 and 9, is parallel to the ninth plague of Egypt, the darkness.

Matthew’s account of the ten miracles in chapters 8-9 terminates with the Pharaoh-like hardness of heart on the part of Jesus’ enemies (9:34). Very much as Matthew 4:23-25 set the stage for the Sermon on the Mount, the closing part of this section, verses 35-38, sets the stage for the calling of the Lord’s first missionaries and the missionary discourse of Matthew 10. Indeed, Matthew 9:35 repeats 4:23 nearly word-for-word. This early mission-circuit of Jesus (periegen in verse 35, “He went around”) was stern work. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that there were 204 villages in Galilee. It was a foreshadowing of the Great Commission to “all nations” with which Matthew’s gospel will end.

Psalm 78 (Greek & Latin 77): Just as the early Christians saw the Passover and other events associated with the Exodus of the Old Testament as types and foreshadowings of the salvation brought by Jesus (cf. 1 Cor. 5:7; John 19: 36, etc.), so they interpreted the forty years of the Israelites’ wandering in the desert as representing their own pilgrimage to the true Promised Land. Thus, the passage through the Red Sea became a symbol of Baptism, the miraculous manna was a foreshadowing of the Eucharist, and so forth. In particular did they regard the various temptations experienced by the Israelites in the desert as typical of the sorts of temptations to be faced by Christians. This deep Christian persuasion of the true significance of the desert pilgrimage serves to make the Books of Exodus and Numbers necessary and very useful reading for serious Christians.

In the New Testament there are two fairly lengthy passages illustrating this approach to the Israelites’ desert pilgrimage. One is found in 1 Corinthians 10:1–13. In this text the Apostle Paul begins by indicating the sacramental meanings of certain components in the Exodus story: “All our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink” (vv. 1–4). The Apostle’s chief interest, however, is moral; by way of warning to the Corinthians he points to the sins and failures of the Israelites in the desert: “Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted. And do not become idolaters as were some of them. . . Nor let us commit sexual immorality, as some of them did, . . . nor let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, . . . nor complain, as some of them also complained” (vv. 6–10). For Saint Paul the entire story of the Israelites in the desert is a great moral lesson for Christians: “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (v. 11).

The second New Testament text illustrating this theme is even longer, filling chapters 3 and 4 of Hebrews. The author of this book was much struck by the fact that almost none of those who had departed from Egypt actually arrived in the Promised Land. And why? Because of unbelief, disobedience, and rebellion in the desert: “For who, having heard, rebelled? Indeed, was it not all who came out of Egypt, led by Moses? Now with whom was He angry forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose corpses fell in the wilderness?” (3:16, 17). Here, as in 1 Corinthians, the story of the desert pilgrimage is remembered as a moral warning for those in Christ.

Wednesday, February 8

Mark 6:7-13: When these men were originally called, they could hardly guess how their lives would change. First, sharing the lot of someone who had no place to rest his head (Matthew 8:20), they wandered with him all over Galilee and with him sailed on fishing boats to towns and villages all around the Sea of Tiberias, assisting his ministry in various ways, such as baptizing new followers.

When Jesus dispatched them, in pairs, to other places, the ministry of these men was an extension of his own, inasmuch as he “gave them power over unclean spirits.” Consequently, they went out and preached repentance. And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick, and healed them.”

These men traveled light, taking “nothing for the journey except a staff—no bag, no bread, no copper in money belts” (6:8). It is not entirely clear how many trips they made this way, nor were these the only men thus sent out. At one point, Jesus “appointed seventy others also, and sent them two by two before His face into every city and place where He Himself was about to go” (Luke 10:1).

In due course, the function and purpose of these missionaries changed, just as Jesus’ own ministry did. Originally summoned to assist the Savior in the spiritual renewal of Israel, they shared his rejection by Israel’s official leaders. Especially during the final year of this ministry, Jesus’ followers were reduced to a mere handful, a “little flock” (Luke 12:32).

When it became clear that Jesus would be completely rejected by official Judaism, he began to lay the foundation of a new community, a remnant, united in the foundational confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16-18).

When the new community, based on this confession, began to take shape, Jesus provided for it organizational leadership. After a night spent praying about this development, the Savior appointed twelve of these men—commonly called “those sent,” or apostles—to be the patriarchal foundation stones of the new congregation (Revelation 21:14). As we continue to reflect on Jesus in the flesh, there will be occasion to speak of some of these men, to whose preaching and writing we owe everything we know of him.

Jesus' love for these men comes from God's love for him: “As the Father loved me, I also have loved you; abide in my love” (15:9). Indeed, the Father loves them because they love Jesus: “the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved me” (John 16:27). Jesus’ friendship with these men introduces them—in the measure that it can—to his personal intimacy with the Father.

Thursday, February 9

Mark 6:14-39): The Lord’s assessment of John the Baptist as “more than a prophet” was no denial that John the Baptist was a prophet (Luke 7:26). Indeed, He said, “there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist” (7:28). A common persuasion on this point commenced early. John’s own father “was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied” (1:67), with respect to his newborn son: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest” (1:76). John’s contemporaries, moreover, certainly regarded him as a prophet (20:6), as even Herod knew (Matthew 14:5).

Although our Lord said that “among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11), only Luke thought to provide us with the name of the woman who gave John birth. In fact, Luke went into some detail to tell of that lady named Elizabeth and the circumstances surrounding her unexpected conception of a son in her advanced years. The Angel Gabriel, who had been somewhat quiet in Israel after the days of Daniel, appeared to Elizabeth’s husband and predicted the pregnancy (Luke 1:13).

Moreover, God clearly intended to leave a special mark on John even before his birth. Six months into the gestation, Elizabeth received another visitor, this one human, her young kinswoman from Galilee named Mary. At Mary’s greeting, John’s mother sensed another Presence, as “the babe leaped in her womb” (1:41). Mary, in fact, like a new Ark of the Covenant, bore within her body God’s newly-incarnate Son, whose Father chose her greeting and that moment to sanctify the un-born John the Baptist. This event fulfilled an earlier prediction of Gabriel with respect to John: “He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (1:15).

In drawing our attention to John’s prophetic consecration before his birth, Luke portrays him in the likeness of the Prophet Jeremiah, to whom God said, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; / Before you were born I sanctified you; / I ordained you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5).

The “violence” associated with John was readily discerned in his asceticism, which prompted his enemies to say, “He has a demon” (11:18). Violence was also evident in his apocalyptic preaching, all about “the wrath to come,” with axes laid to the roots of trees and the burning of chaff with unquenchable fire (3:7–12). John’s hearers could never tell God that they had not been warned!

One of these was Herod Antipas, whom Herodias manipulated into beheading the violent John (Mark 6:14–29). Resenting the Baptist’s condemnation of her “meaningful and fulfilling,” albeit adulterous, relationship with Antipas, Herodias had longed for that day of vengeance. Indeed, in the New Testament triangle of the anemic Antipas, the hateful Herodias, and the relentless John, we have a striking parallel to the Old Testament triangle of the anemic Ahab, the hateful Jezebel, and, of course, the unrelenting Elijah.

Friday, February 10

Matthew 10:16-26: Four animals are mentioned in the first verse, all of them for their symbolic value. Although this initial mission is only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” it is significant that the “nations” are mentioned in 10:18; again, this foreshadows the Great Commission given at the end of Matthew. These verses make it clear that the proclamation of the gospel by the Church will be met with resistance, just as we saw to be the case in chapters 8 and 9. Like Jesus, the disciples will be “handed over” to “councils” (synedria). This description, contained here in prophecy, was very much the experience of the Christians whom Matthew knew when he was writing these words. Similar experiences are recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.

Psalms 88 (Greek & Latin 87): One of the obvious reasons people pray is to be strengthened and comforted by the experience of doing so. Such comfort and strength derive sometimes from the words of the prayer, and sometimes from the sense of God’s close presence, but perhaps more often from both together.

Beyond our ability to number them, men have approached prayer feeling depressed, anxious, weak, or desperate, but they finish their prayer full of hope and with a sense of calm. If this were not the case rather often, I suspect, some men would seldom pray.

Indeed, it makes sense to suppose the Lord confers grace on the habit of prayer precisely for the purpose of prompting us to pray resolutely, more often, and with greater persistence. If this were not so, His Holy Spirit would hardly have inspired so many prayers in which we detect this pattern. Such a prayer is Psalm 88, a meditation of Ethan the Ezrahite. This is a struggling prayer in which we detect no obvious signs of exultation or spiritual joy. The man devoted to God feels “adrift among the dead” and suffers from the terror of the divine wrath. Not once in this psalm is there a hint of joy. Feeling abandoned throughout his prayer, he is just as lonely at the end: “Loved one and friend You have put far from me, / my companions into darkness.”

It is very important to take note of such prayers, because they testify that the final purpose of prayer is not spiritual consolation. It is, rather, the gift of oneself to God—the placing of one’s life in God’s will.

Because the Lord confers so much joy on man’s serious, disciplined quest for prayer, it can happen that the desire for spiritual comfort may replace the desire for God. A man may come to prayer, no longer to place himself in God’s will, but in order simply to experience the joy of praying.

At various times in our life in Christ, the Lord will thwart prayer of this sort, because it has become just a subtler form of selfishness. The Holy Spirit will hold back the warm blessings normally attendant on prayer, precisely in order to concentrate a man’s attention on God, and not on himself. When this happens, the man devoted to God must remember that he is not less pleasing to the Lord, and, if faithful, he will become even more pleasing.