Friday, November 2
James 3:13—4:7: Perhaps following up his comment about the dangers of teaching (verse 1), James goes on to contrast two kinds of wisdom, one demonic and the other godly. These two kinds of wisdom are distinguishable in three ways.
First, they may be distinguished by their immediate fruits. Like faith, says James, wisdom is manifest in its works. Demonic wisdom is marked by bitter envy (zelon pikron) and contention in the heart (eritheian en te kardia), boasting, and lying against the truth (verse 14). Godly wisdom, on the other hand, is manifest in “good conduct and works in the meekness of wisdom” (verse 13). That is to say, a truly wise man is a humble man, readily distinguished from the arrogant, contentious blusterer who is full of himself. Both the Gospels (Matthew 5:5; 11:29) and the Epistles (2 Corinthians 10:1; Galatians 5:23) commend the spirit of meekness. Not all meek people are wise, but all wise people are meek.
A second difference between the two kinds of wisdom is found in their differing origins. Evil wisdom is earthly, animal, and diabolical (verse 16). It is the wisdom of death. It comes from below, not from above. Godly wisdom is “from above” (anothen—verses 15,17).
Third, these two types of wisdom are distinguished by where they lead. The wisdom of envy and strife leads to confusion and “every evil work” (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:20). Godly wisdom, however, leads to purity, peace, gentleness, deference, mercy, sincerity, and a reluctance to pass judgment (verse 17). We recognize here some of St. Paul’s “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23).
James’ teaching on wisdom, then, is of a piece with his teaching on faith. If a person claims to have faith, let him show his works. If someone claims to be wise, let us see his works. The truth is always in the deeds, not the talk.
Having spoken of the great evils that come from an undisciplined tongue (3:2-12) and having listed the contentions characteristic of demonic wisdom (3:13-16), James begins the next chapter by speaking of those strifes that destroy peace of soul (4:1-6).
Saturday, November 3
James 4:7-17: James begins (verses 7-10) by prescribing the proper remedy for the spiritual problem indicated at the beginning of this chapter.
Then, he gives two practical applications of his teaching about submission to God. This teaching is opposed to two sins by which man attempts to usurp the place of God—first, with respect to other men, and second, with respect to the future. Both other men and the future lie outside our ability to know for certain, and the man who pretends otherwise is attempting to take the place of God.
Man must know his limits, especially his limits about what he can know. Proper epistemology, then, is simply a form of humility. Now there are two things a man cannot know: First, someone else’s heart. Second, the future.
First, true submission to God is incompatible with passing judgment on, or speaking ill of, our brother or neighbor. The one who does so, sins against the Law, the Law here evidently understood as the law of charity. Therefore, the man who maligns his brother brings the Law into disrepute. The person who does this is not a doer of the Law but a judge thereof (verse 1). The one ultimately offended by such behavior is the Lawgiver and Judge, whose place is usurped by the man who passes judgment on his neighbor (verse 2).
This enormous sin of presumption lies totally at variance with James’ counsel to “submit to God” (verse 7). The judging of one’s neighbor is an expression of pride, which God resists (verse 6).
Second, true submission to God demands that the future be left to God’s determination. Highly presumptuous is the man who imagines himself in control of his future (verses 13-14). His fortunes may change like the air, says James; his life is no more than a vapor.
A proper attitude toward the future prompts a man to treat his plans somewhat hypothetically—namely, with the proviso, “if God wills.” This hypothesis, sometimes called the conditio Jacobaea, places a man’s soul in the correct posture of humility and submission to God (Acts 18:21; Romans 1:10; 1 Corinthians 4:19; 16:7; Philippians 2:19,24; Hebrews 6:3). It means that a man does not make his plans like an atheist (for whom God does not exist) or a theist (for whom God neither cares nor interferes). Neither the atheist nor the theist can really “submit to God.”
Sunday, November 4
James 5:1-12: His manifest familiarity with the Old Testament prophets prompts James to dwell on the causal relationship of greed to many and grievous social evils. Indeed at the pen of James the word “wealthy” becomes nearly a synonym for “unjust,” and those thus described are sternly warned and summoned to repentance.
Since it is very difficult to believe that many wealthy people were among those who first heard read this epistle of James (2:6-7; 1 Corinthians 1:26-28), this section of the epistle is reasonably regarded as a warning to those who are not rich but would prefer to be. Perhaps the latter number for a majority of James’ readers. It seems obvious that more people love wealth than have it. This preference for wealth over poverty, because it is nearly universal, prompted the Apostle Peter to ask, “Who, then, can be saved?” (Matthew 19:25)
It is the love of wealth. after all, not the wealth itself, that is spiritually dangerous, and a preference for wealth opens the door to the love of wealth. The very thought of wealth, then, because it is an attractive thought, is already freighted with moral and spiritual peril.
As we observed earlier, James fears that a preference for wealth over poverty is readily translated into a preference for the wealthy over the poor (2:1-4), and this fear is apparently what inspires the harshness with which James speaks here of the wealthy. From the very beginning of this epistle, in fact, James has emphasized the danger of riches (1:9-11). This danger is found everywhere, because a preference for wealth is widespread among men.
So much is this the case that Christians have long regarded the voluntary renunciation of property a kind of “perfection” of the Gospel life (Matthew 19:21), a regard that gave rise to monastic life. Such a renunciation has at least the effect of rendering less likely the fearful judgments to which James refers in these verses.
For James, as for most people, expensive clothing is the clearest sign of wealth and is worn for precisely that reason (verse 2; Isaiah 4:16-26; Acts 12:21; 20:33; Horace, Letters 1.6.40-44). Alas, this interest has not diminished on the earth. Even today James would lament among Christians the same distressing preoccupation with sartorial extravagance, fashion clothing, designer labels, and similar vanity. All these things pertain to worldliness, which is the enemy of God (4:4).
Resources spent on fashion clothing are better conferred on the poor, James indicates, because this conferral will clothe the believer himself against God’s final judgment on man’s social history (verses 4-6).
In the next section (verses 7-12), which follows his reference to the final judgment, James pursues two lines of thought simultaneously, alternating his attention between two themes that have to do with that judgment. On the one hand, there is an exhortation to patience while we await the final judgment, and on the other hand we ourselves are warned with respect to that judgment. James goes back and forth between these two ideas.
In exhorting believers to the exercise of patience, James appeals to two sources of instruction, nature and history. First, with respect to nature, he holds out the example of the farmer, who must steadfastly await the time of harvest. The farmer does not immediately reap the fruits of his labor but must persevere until the Lord provides the fruit, which will not come until the time is ready (verse 7). Similarly the believer must hold fast in the face of persecutions (verses 4-6), as well as the many other difficulties common to human life (verses 12-14,19).
Second, with respect to history, James appeals to the example of the lives of the biblical prophets, among whom he singles out Job, the classical just man who is tried in faith. “We count them blessed [makarizomen],” he says, “who endure [hypomeinantes].” James is resuming here a theme he introduced earlier, the blessedness of the man who is put to the trial: “Blessed [makarios] is the man who endures [hypomenei] temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him” (1:12). Job appears, then, as James’ example of the “blessed man” who endured.
The second aspect of the final judgment, for James, is that of a salutary warning to Christians themselves, and in this regard he cautions us in two matters.
First, we must be cautious how we treat one another: “Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door!”
Second, we must be cautious of how we speak of God. All forms of swearing, for example, must be excluded from the Christian’s vocabulary. God’s name must never be taken lightly and irreverently in our speech: “do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No,’ lest you fall into judgment.”
In both cases, we observe, James appeals to the coming judgment as a motive for circumspection.
Monday, November 5
James 5:13-20: James speaks of prayer in each of the next six verses (verses 13-18). The link word joining these verses to the preceding section is the verb “to suffer” (kakopathein— literally, “to experience evil”—verse 13), which corresponds to the noun kakopathia (verse 9).
A special form of prayer is that offered by the presbyters off the Church when they anoint the sick in the Lord’s name (verse 14; Mark 6:13). These “presbyters,” from whose name we derive the English word “priests,” were the pastors of the local congregations (Acts 14:23; 20:17; 1 Timothy 5:17,19). Prayer for the sick is a Christian practice inherited from Judaism (Sirach 38:9-10). The reference to the sacramental rite of anointing indicates that it is distinct from the charismatic gift of healing (1 Corinthians 12:9,28,30).
The sacramental rite of healing, inasmuch as it also heals from sins, introduces the subject of the confession of sins (verses 15-16). It is instructive to observe that this text, which is perhaps the New Testament’s clearest reference to auricular confession, is placed in the context of the ministry of local pastors. Like the Old Testament priests, who were obliged to hear confessions in order to offer the appropriate sacrifice for sins (Leviticus 5:5; Numbers 5:7), the pastors of the New Testament are also to be “father confessors,” who absolve from sins on behalf of the Church (John 20:22-23; Matthew 9:8).
As James invoked Abraham and Rahab as exemplars of good works (2:21-25), and Job as a model of patience (5:11), so now he appeals to Elijah as a person to be emulated with respect to prayer (verses 17-18; 1 Kings 17:1,7; 18:1,41-45; Sirach 48:2-3).
The author’s recent reference to the forgiveness of sins (verses 15-16) prompts him finally to speak of the conversion of sinners. No greater favor can we do for a man than to bring him back to the path of conversion (verses 19-20).
The epistle ends abruptly.
Tuesday, November 6
Isaiah 11: The original setting of this chapter was the same prolonged crisis that prompted Isaiah to speak earlier of the “stump” (6:13) and to describe the destruction of a mighty forest (10:33-34). The house of David had been reduced to a “stump” during the invasions of the Syro-Ephraemitic League and the Assyrians. If the Davidic throne seemed but a stump in the eighth century, this was even more the case two centuries later, when the Book of Isaiah received its final editing. By that time the house of David had been definitively removed from the throne of Judah, never again to be restored in recorded history. These later biblical editors (Ezra, perhaps) were keenly aware of the messianic tension in Isaiah, the tension between the prophesied downfall of the Davidic house (7:17) and the prophesied glory of its restoration (1:25-27). This tension produced chapter 9 and the two poems contained in the present chapter.
These two poems (verses 1-9 and 12-16) are joined by two verses of prose (verses 10-11) that summarize the first and serve as a preamble to the second. The two poems are complementary, both of them dealing with the eschatological characteristics of the divine, messianic reign. The theme of wisdom and knowledge in the first poem (verse 2) finds its parallel in the “knowledge of the Lord” in the second (verse 9).
The future tense of both poems is strengthened by the double “in that day” (bayyom hahu’–verses 10-11) of the prose section. This expression points to the future day of history, when God acts to define the destiny of the world. It will be the renewal of Israel’s ancient deliverance from Egypt (verses 11,16).
The short prose section (verse 10) also takes up “Jesse,” “root,” and “rest” from the first poem (verses 1-2), and introduces “remnant,” “hand,” “sea,” “Assyria,” and “Egypt” (verse 11), which will appear again in the second poem (verses 15-16).
Thus, the entire chapter anticipates a renewed world, in which all peoples will live at peace, both among themselves and with the rest of creation, under the Lord’s anointed King.
This latter, the Messiah, is identified as both the “shoot” (verse 1) and the “root” (verse 10) of Jesse. That is to say, He is both the descendent of David, Jesse’s son, and also the determining source, causa finalis, from which that royal line is derived. He is both David’s Son, in short, and his Lord (Psalm 109 :1; Mark 12:35-37; Luke 1:32; cf. Hosea 3:5; Jeremiah 30:9; Ezekiel 34:23-24). The Messiah is born of David’s line, but He is also the root of that line. This Old Testament truth comes to light solely in the New Testament.
The Messiah is endowed with the Holy Spirit (verse 2; cf. 42:1; 52:21; 61:1). The description of the Spirit in this verse resembles the Menorah, with a central core (“the Spirit of the Lord”) and three pairs of extended arms: wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, and the knowledge and fear of the Lord.
The idyllic setting of peace among the animals (verses 6-8) recalls not only Eden prior to the Fall (Genesis 1:29-30), but also the conditions on Noah’s Ark, another of the great images of salvation.
The little child that presides over this universal peace (verses 6,8) is, of course, the newborn Messiah, the same One recognized by the ass and the ox (1:3). There is no more enmity between the offspring of the woman and the offspring of snakes, for the curse is taken away (verse 8).
The last part of verse 9 should read, “the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the sea with water.”
Although the original context for the present message of encouragement was apparently the dark season of the Assyrian invasions, the hope contained in this text extends into the future. It is a prophecy that has in view the coming history of the people of God. This messianic reign is not solely for the Jews, because the nations (goyim will also seek the root of Jesse (verse 10; cf. verse 12; 2:2-4; 9:1-7).
Wednesday, November 7
Luke 19:1-10: Today we still find ourselves on the main street of Jericho, walking with Jesus as he steadfastly sets his face to go to Jerusalem.
A very large and closely packed crowd has gathered on the streets, to get a glimpse of the wonder-worker and teacher who is the talk of the whole country.
Not everyone in the crowd has a good view. Even average sized citizens of Jericho are at a disadvantage, because adults hold children on their shoulders to get a glimpse of Jesus. Short people, in this massive crowd, really have no hope of seeing him. The crowd is also noisy; we recall that the blind man was obliged to shout loudly and continuously to bring himself to the attention of Jesus.
Up ahead, however, sitting some twenty feet in the air on the stout branch of a sycamore tree, is an enterprising gentleman who took care to provide for himself this extra advantage. It is not a dignified place for him to be. Indeed, the other branches on the tree are full of little boys, who were presumably more agile at tree climbing than this grown man.
From the looks of him, the man is well to do. He is not poor, like the little boys on the other branches of the tree. The man’s name is Zacchaeus, and his wealth comes from his profession: He collects taxes for the Roman government.
The story Luke tells here is the second of two times that Jesus was entertained in the home of a tax collector. The first was in the home of Levi/Matthew, a story found in all three of the Synoptic Gospels.
It is significant that Jesus did this, because tax collectors were in bad repute in the Holy Land. For one thing, they collected taxes from Jews on behalf of the Roman overlord. That is to say, they represented a foreign and occupying power. Consequently, his fellow Jews resented the tax collector.
If we want to perceive how the Christian Church traditionally understands this story, we should observe that today’s reading serves . . . . for the dedication of a church building. That is to say, the home of Zacchaeus represents the place where Christians gather to meet Jesus.
There is surely a great deal of irony in the fact that today’s reading about Zacchaeus . . . . for the liturgical consecration of a church building. This choice amounts to a tacit admission that church buildings are constructed through the accumulation of wealth.
Today’s Gospel story, then, encourages the view that the proper goal of the economic order is the worship of God. This truth is conveyed in the construction of church buildings, but it is hardly limited to that. It pertains, rather, to the entire economic order. Labor and economy, if separated from the service of God, invariably become enslaving and demonic—for both capitalists and laborers.
Thursday, November 8
First Thessalonians 2:13-20: Paul did not preach his own word (verse 13). He contended, in fact, that the Apostles themselves were relatively unimportant (1 Corinthians 3:5-9), and he insisted that the Gospel was not his to change (Galatians 1:6-9).
The Gospel means “good news,” but not “news” in the same way that the newspaper gives news. It does not simply give a “news flash” about God. On the contrary, the Gospel does something in those that receive it in faith (verse 13; Romans 1:16; Ephesians 6:17; 1 Peter 1:23-25; Hebrews 4:13; John 17:17).
In describing the Gospel as “God’s Word,” Paul and the other New Testament writers were adapting the expression “the Word of the Lord” from Israel’s prophets. Of the 241 times that this expression appears in the Hebrew Bible, it refers to prophetic oracles 221 times.
Like the prophetic oracles that were called “the Word of the Lord,” the Gospel is not preached in order to convey an idea but to get results (1 Kings 17:1; Deuteronomy 8:3; Isaiah 55:10-11), to affect history (Jeremiah 5:14; 23:29; Ezekiel 11:13). God’s Word proclaimed in the new dispensation of grace should not be weaker than God’s word spoken in the Old Testament. Hence, Paul thought it important to distinguish man’s word from God’s.
Psalm 71 (Greek and Latin 70): Those who pray the psalms are aware that, in spite of their own infidelities to God over the years, God has nonetheless remained faithful. Were that not the case, they would not be praying the psalms at all.
This sense of God’s lifelong fidelity is at the heart of the Christian experience. In the middle of the second century, put on trial for his faith in Jesus and pressured either to renounce that faith or to die a violent death, the venerable Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, responded to his judge: “For eighty-six years have I served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme the King who saved me?”
Trial and trouble, nonetheless, shape the context of fidelity in this psalm, as they did in the long life of Polycarp: “My God, deliver me from the hand of the sinner, from the law-breaker and the wicked. . . . For mine enemies have spoken against me, and there is a conspiracy among those that stalk my soul. They say, ‘God has forsaken him. Hound him down and catch him, for there is none to deliver him.’” This is the persecution of which our Lord spoke so often in the Gospels, saying that it would be the constant lot of those who bear His name.
The many trials mentioned in the present psalm are well known to the servants of Christ, one of whom described himself as
in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness (2 Cor. 11:23–27).
Friday, November 9
1 Thessalonians 3:1-13: The two verbs “strengthen” and “encourage” (sterixsai, parakalesai) (verse 2) are used fairly often in the New Testament to describe what Christians are supposed to do for one another. Indeed, in the pastoral work of the early Christians, these are practically technical expressions for matters of duty. In addition to being used separately, they sometimes appear together in the writings of the two great missionaries who traveled together, Paul and Luke (Romans 1:11; 2 Thessalonians 2:17; Acts 14:22; 15:32).
Probably we should not try to find a distinction between the two verbs, as they are employed in such contexts. Their union is more likely a hendiadys, a way of saying something twice (as in “will and testament”). Strength and encouragement are the same thing, and it is very necessary to Christians (Luke 22:32; Revelation 3:2).
In the present text Paul relates this “strengthening” to faith (as also in Romans 1:11), because he is aware that our faith is always weak. To gain some idea of how little faith we have, it is useful to recall that faith the size of a mustard seed can move a mountain. In any case, it is imperative to strengthen the faith of others by our own faith. John Calvin remarked on this verse: “The fellowship that ought to exist among the saints and the members of Christ surely extends to this point, that the faith of the one proves the consolation of the other.”
According to Paul’s thought here, the Christian who encourages and strengthens other Christians is God’s “fellow laborer,” because he is doing God’s work This also implies, of course, that the Christian who discourages or weakens the faith of other Christians is really working against God.
We may list any number of ways by which we Christians encourage and strengthen one another: a kindly disposition, magnanimity, generosity, genuine and sympathetic interest in the lives of others, good example, a willingness to listen to others when they tell us their troubles. Likewise, there are all sorts of ways to discourage and weaken the faith of others: bad example, excessive criticism and pickiness, unwarranted challenging of the good will and intention of others, being mean minded and selfish.
Luke 19:28-40: In this passage Jesus cites this line from Psalm 8 to refute His enemies, exactly as the psalm indicated: “Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants You have perfected praise because of Your enemies, that You may silence the enemy and the avenger.”
In what sense is praise perfected on the lips of children? It means that the praise of God has been handed on to the next generation—the new generation—the young people still in their formative years. A major question facing the early Church was how to transmit the Gospel to a new generation, the children who had no direct exposure to the Apostles. Could that new generation—another step removed from the origins of the Church—share the vision of their parents? Could they be truly orthodox?
Take, for example, the grandchildren of that Philippian jailer. Would they be disposed to raise their voices in praise, as Paul and Silas had done? We now know the answer, of course, but it may not have been so clear ahead of time.
It is essential to the being of the Church that her praise is perfected in the mouths of children. It means that the children are growing into the faith of their parents and grandparents. They are taking their places, waving leafy palms in the air, with the children who surrounded Jesus riding on his donkey. These children are learning to experience the promise of the Kingdom.