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.
Saturday, November 10
First Thessalonians 4:1-8: Paul prays that the Thessalonians will abound more and more (verses 1-2). This idea of growth is frequent in Paul, for whom the Christian condition of justification is less a “state” than the dynamic possibility of growth in the Holy Spirit. The word “more” (mallon) appears seven times in Romans, eight times in 1 Corinthians, twice in 2 Corinthians, five times in Philippians, once each in Galatians, Ephesians, 1 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and twice in the tiny letter to Philemon.
This frequency of a simple adverb suggests something of how Paul experienced the life in Christ. It had no limits, neither in knowledge nor in love. He does not, therefore, attempt to “define” a disciple of Christ, because to “define” means to “determine the limits of.” Belonging to Christ is limitless, because Christ Himself is limitless.
For this reason St. John Chrysostom comments on this verse, comparing the soul to fertile soil: “For as the earth ought to bear not only what is so upon it, so too the soul ought not to stop at those things that have been inculcated, but to go beyond them.”
The image of the seed sown on the earth is a famous one, of course. The Lord’s parable of the sower is only one of its uses.
Luke 19:41-48: These two scenes bring to the reader’s mind Jesus’ earlier journey to the Temple when he was twelve years old (Luke 2:41-50). Jesus loved the Temple, which was his Father’s house of prayer, and it was in the Temple that he first spoke about “the things of my Father.” Even as he weeps at the Temple’s coming destruction by the Romans, he cannot bear to see it abused by the Jews. His purging of the Temple, during the week before his death, represents Jesus’ determination to “be about the things of my Father.”
In addition to the Temple’s historical significance in the life of Jesus, we do well to reflect on the Temple’s literary significance in the structure of Luke’s Gospel. It suffices, in this respect, to mention that this story begins (1:5-10) and ends (24:53) in the Temple.
When Jesus drove the moneychangers from the Temple, an event recorded in all four canonical Gospels, it was the most eschatological of actions. Jesus thereby affirmed that the Temple really is a precinct separated from an “outside,” where are found “dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and whoever loves and practices a lie” (Revelation 22:15). Thus, the Bible’s final book does not portray an afterlife of universal reconciliation, but an everlasting separation of wheat and chaff.
Sunday, November 11
First Thessalonians 4:9-18: The early Christian parishes had a strong sense of identity based on a negative attitude towards the society in which they lived. They realized that what Jesus meant was radically opposed to what the world stood for, and that the call to holiness, an essential feature of the life in Christ, required from them a radical break with their pagan past. Often enough this also meant, in practice, a break with their pagan friends (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).
Thus, the local Christians congregations served as communities of support, because believers could find with one another a very real solidarity in those convictions that separated them from other people. We find in early Christian literature ample evidence these Christians felt a great gulf between “them” and “us.” The New Testament and other primitive Christian literature leave no doubt that the specifics of Christian existence were founded on a position of contrast with, and opposition to, the “world.”
Indeed, today’s reading uses a technical expression to designate non-Christians, hoi exso, “those outside” (verse 12). This was evidently a common term among the early believers (1 Corinthians 5:12-13; Colossians 4:5; Mark 4:11; cf. also Titus 2:7-8; 1 Timothy 3:7).
Christians at that period were enormously aware of their minority status among non-Christians, and they were careful how they impressed those non-Christians (1 Peter 2:12; 1 Corinthians 10:32-33; Matthew 5:16).
The picture that emerges of the Christian parishes during that early period is one of communities of sobriety, hard work, and a closely knit bond of fraternal love (philadelphia). In today’s reading Paul stresses minding one’s own business, and doing one’s own job becomingly and unobtrusively. There is no question of evangelizing one’s neighbor’s by aggressive approach or slick advertising. In the words of Tertullian, Non magna loquimur, sed vivimus—”We don’t talk big, but we live.”
Luke 20:1-8: The question put to Jesus is what is sometimes called “a lawyer’s question,” indicating a question asked for the purpose of making the respondent say too much, a question asked in order to discover something recriminating, something that can be brought up later in a courtroom.
Knowing this, of course, Jesus is not disposed to answer the question. He responds, rather, by posing a question of his own, along with a pledge to answer the first question if his opponents will answer the second. This recourse to the counter-question is common in rabbinic style, and Jesus seems often to have used it.
The priests and elders immediately perceive their dilemma. They are unwilling to express themselves honestly about the baptism of John, which is a symbol of John’s entire ministry. They are being asked, with respect to John, exactly the question they had posed with respect to Jesus. They had never been obliged to deal with that problem before, because Herod had taken care of it for them. Now they are put on the spot.
Caught thus on the horns of a dilemma, they plead ignorance, and the Lord responds by declining to answer the question they had put to him. They are thus effectively foiled in the presence of those gathered to hear Jesus in the Temple.
Monday, November 12
First Thessalonians 5:1-11: In this passage Paul deals with, among other subjects, the theme of vigilance. This was not a theme peculiar to Paul, but part of the common catechetical inheritance of the Church, going back to Jesus Himself (Mark 13:33-37). Being common, it is found in other New Testament writers as well (1 Peter 5:8; Revelation 3:2-3). When Paul speaks on this subject, therefore, he is saying something Christians generally expected him to say (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:13; Colossians 3:2).
The life in Christ includes a vigilant, heightened consciousness, a stimulated awareness, a certain kind of mindfulness, clear and sharp thinking, intelligent questioning. This vigilance will have some trouble with the general sense of stupor common in contemporary culture, where piped-in music prevents a person from hearing his own thoughts, and great efforts are made in the advertising world to prevent us from seeing the complications of things. Every single project—from the offering of new deodorant on the market to the construction of a new bridge or road—involves an underlying philosophy and a set of metaphysical presuppositions. The alert mind will search out these things, for the simple reason that its adversary, the devil, goes about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.
Luke 20:20-26: Our Lord frequently responds to a question by posing a counter-question. In some cases the latter device is simply rhetorical. For instance, when asked if it is “lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason,” He appeals to Holy Scripture by employing an interrogative form: “Have you not read . . .?” (Matthew 19:3-4; cf. Luke 6:2-3). Likewise, when Nicodemus inquires, “How can these things be?” Jesus challenges him, “Are you a teacher in Israel and do not know these things?” (John 3:9-10) In these cases the counter-questions serve no purpose beyond their rhetorical force.
On other occasions, the Lord’s counter-question is a direct foil to block a questioner’s malicious intent (cf. Luke 11:53-54). Thus, when His enemies inquire by what authority He does “these things” (cleansing the Temple, withering a fig tree, and so forth), He declines to answer until the questioners should answer His counter-question about the authority of John the Baptist (Mark 11:28-30).
Sometimes, however, the Lord’s counter-question alters the direction and raises the level of the conversation. The most dramatic example of this phenomenon, I suppose, is the incident involving “spies who pretended to be righteous, that they might seize on His words, in order to deliver Him to the power and the authority of the governor.” In hopes of attaining this goal, they ask Jesus, “Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (Luke 20:20-26)
The questioners here feel they can hardly fail: If the answer is yes, then Jesus will be perceived as taking the side of the Roman overlord. If the answer is no, then He is subject to arrest as a revolutionary.
The Lord recognizes the intent of this question, which is about as subtle as Mount McKinley. He requests the questioners to show the proper coin of the tax. This request accomplishes two things: First, it suggests that Jesus Himself does not have such a coin (cf. Matthew 17:24-27). Second, it proves that the questioners do have such a coin, thus demonstrating their hypocrisy in initiating the interrogation. If Jesus were interested in simply putting these hypocrites to shame, the entire discussion could reasonably end right here.
It is at this point, however, that Jesus asks His counter-question: “Whose image and inscription does it have?” The image on the coin is, in fact, essential to the discussion, and this in two ways: First, the emperor’s image on the coin is what renders it objectionable; it violates the prohibition against images. Second, the image indicates the coin’s basic significance: It belongs to Caesar. That is to say, Jesus does not evade the question about paying taxes to Caesar; He answers it, and the answer is yes!
At the same time, however, the Lord elevates the discussion above the limits of the original question. He uses the latter to distinguish between the relative and legitimate claims of the State and the absolute claims of God. This dominical distinction, which was always at least implicit in the Prophets, thus provides a practical norm in the Christian life. While remaining radically faithful to God, Christians are to support and give their allegiance to the government Providence has placed over them. The debt they owe to the State is not optional. Sharing in the economic and political benefits the State provides, they are under a stern moral obligation to bolster, maintain, and provide for it.
Tuesday, November 13
Luke 20:41-47: As his enemies, frustrated by Jesus’ answers to them hitherto, are not disposed to confront Him any further, the Lord Himself takes the initiative (verse 41).
Jesus’ question with respect to the meaning of Psalm 110 (109) serves to introduce all Christian exegesis of that psalm. Because of Jesus’ question about this psalm, Christians learned from the words, “The Lord said to my Lord,” that Jesus is not only David’s descendent but also his pre-existing Lord.
He is the Son, moreover, not only of David, but also of God.??Having mysteriously addressed the identity of Christ, this same line of the psalm goes on to speak of his triumph and enthronement, with the solemn proclamation: “Sit at My right hand.”
These majestic words were quoted in the first sermon of the Christian Church, that of Pentecost morning at the third hour (cf. Acts 2:34), and became the foundation of some of the most important Christological and soteriological statements of the New Testament (cf. Mark 16:19; Romans 8:34; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:3, 8:1, 10:12, 12:2.).
In this one line of the psalm, then, Christians profess, in summary form, those profound doctrines at the foundation of our whole relationship to God: the eternal identity of Jesus Christ, his triumph over sin and death, and his glorification at God’s right hand, Thus, the Epistle to the Hebrews begins, “God . . . has in these last days spoken to us by His Son . . . who . . , when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high . . .”
Psalms 78 (Greek & Latin 77): This psalm, which is a kind of poetic summary of the Books of Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and even some of Joshua, Judges, and 1 Samuel, concentrates on the Chosen People’s constant infidelity and rebellion, especially during the desert pilgrimage:
But they sinned even more against Him by rebelling against the Most High in the wilderness. . . . How often they provoked Him in the wilderness, and grieved Him in the desert! Yes, again and again they tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel. They did not remember His power: The day when He redeemed them from the enemy.
Quite a number of hours are required to read the whole story of the people’s infidelity in the desert as it is recorded through several books of the Bible. Psalm 78, however, has long served as a sort of meditative compendium of the whole account. Its accent falls on exactly those same moral warnings spoken of in 1 Corinthians 10 and Hebrews 3-4; that is, the people’s failure to take heed to what they had already beheld of God’s deliverance and His sustained care for them. They had seen the plagues that He visited on the Egyptians, they had traversed the sea dryshod, they had been led by the pillar of cloud and fire, they had slaked their thirst with the water from the rock, they had eaten their fill of the miraculous bread, they had trembled at the base of Mount Sinai, beholding the divine manifestation. In short, they had already been the beneficiaries of God’s revelation, salvation, and countless blessings.
Still, “their heart was not steadfast with Him, nor were they faithful in His covenant.” And just who is being described here? Following the lead of the New Testament, we know it is not only the Israelites of old, but also ourselves, “upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” The story in this psalm is our own story, so we carefully ponder it and take warning.
Wednesday, November 14
Second Thessalonians 1:1-12: It has long been traditional among Christians to describe eternal loss in the imagery of fire. Such expressions are found in the Gospels, most liturgies, hymnography, and classical piety, from Book IV of the Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great to the sermons of Jonathan Edwards.
There is one important Christian thinker, however, who never does this—St. Paul. When Paul speaks of eternal loss, it is always in terms of the loss of God (verse 9).
Paul’s reasoning seems to run along these lines: Since the eternal life awaiting believers consists in being with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:17), eternal punishment must be the deprivation of that gift. Any other punishment must be secondary and of less importance.
The reason that Paul gives for the expulsion of the unjust from the Lord’s presence is that they do not know God (verse 8). Since such ignorance of God is proper to those who are lost, it cannot be just any kind of ignorance. After all, a great deal of human ignorance is faultless ignorance, ignorance for which no one is responsible or worthy of blame. Surely anyone that is eternally lost, however, is lost by his own fault. The person so lost has only himself to blame.
Consequently, the ignorance of God, concerning which Paul speaks here, must be, not only culpable ignorance, but seriously culpable ignorance. To be separated from God is an ultimate state; it can only be brought about by an ultimate decision. The damning ignorance of God, then must ignorance deliberately chosen, an ignorance in which the person deliberately prefers not to know. It is an ultimate decision not to know God, willful ignorance identical with hardness of heart.
Luke 21:1-6: One of the notable features of the Temple’s Court of Women was the glazophylakion or “treasury,” thirteen trumpet-shaped receptacles placed there to receive the offerings of the faithful for the maintenance of the temple and its ministry. One day the Lord called attention to a poor widow whom He saw casting her last two coins into the treasury. These coins (lepta) were so small that they had no strict equivalence in the imperial monetary system, and, because they would not be familiar to Mark’s readers at Rome, he explained that two of them were needed to equal a single quadrans, or “quarter” (Mark 12:42).
Our Lord’s reaction was typical of him, nor was this the only occasion on which he took compassion on a widow (cf. Luke 7:11–17). Indeed, he was obviously fond of an old story of a strikingly similar widow who likewise sacrificed her last resources to advance God’s cause (1 Kings 17:8–16; Luke 4:25–26).
Thursday, November 15
Second Thessalonians 2:1-12: In this reading Paul uses the striking expression “the love of the truth,” prompting a later remark of St. Gregory the Great, to the effect that veritas non cognoscitur nisi amatur—“the truth is not known unless it is loved.”
It is worth reviewing the persuasion of the ancients on this point, those who believed that the goal of education was love of the truth. Our modern attitude, by contrast, seems to be that of a true-or-false test, in which the question of a statement’s content pertains solely to the intellect.
This attitude is difficult to reconcile with Holy Scripture, where the opposite of truth is not falsehood but deception. Eve in the Garden was not taking a true-or-false test, which she happened to fail. Eve was deceived by a lie. Jesus later calls Satan a liar from the beginning. In the Bible, the opposite of truth is deception.
Knowledge of the truth always involves an act of judgment, and the act of judgment always depends on the orientation of the heart. The business of knowing the truth has to do with the quality of the heart—a fact that explains why Paul contrasts truth with wickedness (verses 10-12). A few years later he would tell the Corinthians, “Love does not rejoice in evil, but in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6). Similarly he would tell the Romans about those who “disobey the truth and obey wickedness” (Romans 2:8).
Luke 21:7-19: The final words of this selection announce an essential moral principle: “In your patience, you will possess your souls.” In Paul’s list of the species of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) patience is listed fourth, between peace and kindness. Patience is a great good in itself, because it makes us like Christ our Lord. In addition to this, patience is indispensable to the possession of one’s soul, and hardly anything in this life is more important than the possession of one’s soul.
If anything is obvious in this world, it is the evidence of how many men do not possess their souls. The possession of one’s soul comes at a price, and that price is self-control. And self-control is listed by the Apostle Paul as the ninth species of the fruit of the Spirit.
The fruitful life, as the Gospel understands it, involves the possession of one’s soul, and I suspect that hardly any message is more difficult for men of this world to hear. Outside of the Church, I cannot think of any institution in the modern world that insists that men control themselves. Apart from the proclamation of the Gospel, I am familiar with no modern educational forum in which self-control is held up for emulation. On the contrary, every possible device is now available for men to indulge every transient whim, to pamper their every passion, to dissipate their time in frivolities and pointless entertainment—to abandon, in short, the possession of their souls.
Friday, November 16
Second Thessalonians 2:13—3:5: The vocabulary of call and election came naturally to Paul as a Jew, because God’s choice of the Israelites as a special and consecrated people had long been formative elements in the self-consciousness of that people. Abraham had been “called” from Ur of the Chaldees; Israel had been “called” out of Egypt.
What may at first seem surprising is that in these two earliest of Paul’s epistles, those to the Thessalonians (as in verse 13 of today’s reading), both of them written to predominantly Gentile Christians, he expects them to understand what he means by this vocabulary of call and election. Apparently during the three weeks of his oral instruction to them, to which he refers in these two letters, Paul had stressed election and call as central elements in the self-consciousness of the Christian Church. He had established in the minds of these Thessalonians that they too stood in a direct line of continuity with God’s Chosen People of old, with Abraham and with Moses. The Thessalonians, too, were called and elect.
After all, they had received “the word of God” (verse 13), a biblical expression that normally refers to a prophetic oracle. Paul sees himself as commissioned to speak this word, like the prophets before him. Thus, when Paul speaks, it is God speaking, just as He spoke through Moses or Isaiah.
Paul feels the need to remind the Thessalonians of this. There is nothing here to suggest that the sense of being called and chosen involved an overwhelming experience not open to doubt. Otherwise it would not have been necessary for Paul to keep reminding the Thessalonians of the truth of their call and election.
It is important, furthermore, to observe that nowhere does Holy Scripture speak of call and election in a negative way, as though God deliberately chooses not to call some human beings to salvation—as though some human beings are somehow outside of God’s love and care. Call and election are always spoken of in positive terms in Holy Scripture, never negative terms.
Luke 21:20-28: It seems to be the case that Luke (unlike Mark) was written after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70. The end of the world, however, had not accompanied that event. Consequently, in Luke the Lord’s prophecy of this event is plainly spoken, and simply as a matter of fact. It is not loaded with eschatological significance, not regarded as an immediate harbinger of the final times.
As a point of history, before the siege was established, the Christians in Jerusalem fled eastward across the Jordan to Pella (Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History 3.5.3). Warned by Jesus’ prophecy of the city’s fall, they did not stay around to defend it. Indeed, they felt no special loyalty to the very city that had rejected the Messiah, and certainly not a level of loyalty that would prompt them to stay and defend the place against a doom they knew to be inevitable.