Friday, April 5

Luke 24:13-35: For a few minutes the risen Jesus playfully concealed his identity from Mary Magdalene on Easter morning, but in the afternoon he carried this play much further, remaining unrecognized during a prolonged and detailed conversation with two other disciples:

Now behold, two of them were traveling that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was sixty stadia from Jerusalem. And they talked together of all these things which had happened. So it was, while they conversed and reasoned, that Jesus himself drew near and went with them.” But their eyes were restrained, so that they did not recognize him (Luke 24:13-16).

Jesus listens to their conversation for a while and then asks, “What kind of conversation is this that you have with one another as you walk and are sad?” This “ignorance” on his part persuades the pair that he must be “a stranger in Jerusalem,” who has managed to miss the things everybody else has been talking about.

Jesus asks a second question, again feigning ignorance: “What things?” He listens while they inform him about his own death, their shattered hopes, and the very dubious report from the women who had been at the tomb that morning.

The reader is, of course, amused by the irony of this discourse. What I want to suggest here is that Jesus is amused by it, as well. He strings these men along. He will reveal himself to them in due course, but he first leads them through a process of learning:

Then he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Messiah to have suffered these things and to enter into his glory?” And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, he expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

The meaning of these Scriptures has been a preoccupation of Luke’s Gospel from the start. It was the burden of Jesus’ first sermon at the synagogue in Nazareth. It was the subject of his conversation with Moses and Elijah on the mount of the Transfiguration. In the present scene, Jesus feigns ignorance precisely with a view to teaching these two disciples—and through them, all Christians to the end of time—his own understanding of the biblical text.

All of Christian doctrine is rooted, I believe, in Jesus’ paschal discourse to the two disciples on the way to Emmaus. The timing of that discourse is likewise significant, for it took place on the very day of His rising from the dead; on that day “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David,” demonstrated that He “was worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals.” He was worthy to do this because He was slain and had redeemed us to God by His blood (Revelation 5:5, 9). Jesus interprets Holy Scripture—indeed, he is the interpretation of Holy Scripture—because he “fulfills” Holy Scripture through the historical and theological events of his death and Resurrection. His blood-redemption of the world is the formal principle of Christian biblical interpretation.

As for the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, Jesus continues to act his play to the end: “Then they drew near to the village where they were going, and he indicated that he would have gone farther.” This is at least the third time, since the trip started, that Jesus teases these men in order to take the conversation in the direction he wants it to go. As though reluctantly—and only at their explicit invitation—“He went in to remain with them.”

At last, Jesus’ points of instruction having been made,

He took bread, said the blessing, and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they knew him; and he vanished from their sight.

The two disciples promptly turn around and head back to Jerusalem. As they returned, they reflected that their hearts had burned within them as the Stranger had spoken to them on the way and had interpreted the Scriptures.

Luke does not say so, but one hopes they also apologized to Mary Magdalene and the other women for their unbelief.

Saturday, April 6

First Corinthians 1:1-17: Toward the end of the year 49 Paul began his mission at the city of Corinth, where he ministered for the next 18 months (Acts 18:11). The beginnings of the Corinthian congregation were not promising. Indeed, there seems to have been confrontation and animosity associated with that parish from the very beginning. It was founded in strife.

Paul had started by teaching in the local synagogue each Sabbath, sharing the Gospel not only with the Jews, but also with the local Gentiles that were attracted to many features of Judaism (18:4). When the Jews at the synagogue opposed and cursed what Paul was saying, he finally broke off any further discussion with them. He left the synagogue in a huff, saying, “Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.”

From that point on, along with a few Jews, such as Crispus and Sosthenes, the Gentiles gathered separately under Paul’s tutelage (18:8-17). This was hardly the end of the strife, because the Christians met in a home that was right next door to the synagogue! (18:7)

We may take this theme of strife as the point in our reflections, because there is an atmosphere of conflict in everything we know about the origins of the Corinthian church. Paul’s two letters to that congregation are full of references to discord and dissension, and so is the letter that St. Clement, the third bishop of Rome, wrote to the Corinthians near the end of the first century.

Paul’s first eighteen months at Corinth were very hard on him as the founding pastor. During that whole time he took no salary for his labors, working instead as a tent maker to earn his living. Paul became so discouraged with the strife at Corinth that the Lord gave him a special revelation to keep him going. St. Luke tells us, “Now the Lord spoke to Paul in the night by a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, but speak, and do not keep silent; for I am with you, and no one will attack you to hurt you; for I have many people in this city’” (18:9).

If the Apostle Paul needed reminding on this score, perhaps all Christians do. The story of the founding of the Corinthian church stands in the Bible to teach us that the presence of conflict does not invalidate the experience and claims of a congregation. This account testifies that God does not abandon a Christian congregation just because it has a bit of conflict and an occasional locking of horns. Christ did not abandon the church at Corinth.

There are those who believe that the experience of a Christian congregation must be nothing but light and peace. Indeed, we all know of people who stay away from church because they believe churches to be inhabited by sinners. That is something on the order of staying away from grocery stores in order not to associate with the hungry, or refusing to enter a hospital for fear there may be sick people present.

If the Church of Jesus Christ is a refuge for sinners—if it is really true that He came to call sinners, not the just—then there is no logic to the expectation of finding only nice and upright people at church.

Saint Thomas Sunday, April 7

John 20:24-31: Thomas was the first among the Apostles to embrace the imperative of the Cross. Unlike Peter (“Get behind Me, Satan!”), Thomas put up no resistance to the news. When Jesus declared his intention of going to south to “wake up” Lazarus, the other Apostles expressed their fear at the prospect. “Rabbi,” they answered, “lately the Jews sought to stone You, and are You going there again?” It was Thomas who accepted the tragedy of thing: “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:8, 16).

Thomas may also have been something of a loner, which would explain why, when the risen Lord paid his first visit to the assembled Apostles, Thomas “was not with them when Jesus came” (20:24). One speculates that he may have gone off to get a better grip on himself. It had been a very tough week, after all. Just as Thomas had suspected it would, Jesus’ life ended in tragedy. This, the Apostle was sure, was the biggest tragedy he had ever seen.

Yet he was coping with it, somehow. Years of an inner docility to inevitable fate had schooled him in the discipline of endurance. Yes, he would get through this too. He was a man who could deal with misfortune and sorrow. Just don’t disturb Thomas with hope.

He returned to the other Apostles in the “upper room” that evening, having wrestled his soul into a quiet acquiescence. It was the first day of a new week. Thomas had faced down the disaster, and his control over his nerves was starting to return.

What Thomas had not anticipated, however, was that the other Apostles, during his absence, would completely lose their minds. “Well, Thomas,” one of them announced, “fine time to be gone. We have seen the Lord, and you just missed him!”

A whole week the risen Lord would make him wait, sharing that room with the ten other men to whom he had hurled his challenge:

Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25).

As each day passed, the case for skepticism was strengthened.

But then it happened. The room was suddenly filled with a great light. New evidence had arrived and stood now undeniable on the scene. Thomas sensed that his long-established pessimism was about to be shaken. He rose and faced the entering light. He saw the familiar face and recognized the familiar voice: “Peace to you!”

We do not know if Thomas felt, at that moment, some urge to hide behind the other Apostles. He was not given the chance. Turning to Thomas, the risen Jesus fully appreciated the irony of the hour. Nor would we be wrong, I think, to imagine a smile coming over the glorious face of the one who said to his beloved pessimist: “Reach your finger here, and inspect my hands; and reach your hand here, and place it into my side.”

Monday, April 8

Exodus 1: The political situation has changed a great deal since the end of Genesis. Israel had gone down into Egypt during the 15th Dynasty (1663-1555), but now the biblical account has apparently reached the 19th Dynasty, the first Pharaoh of which was Ramses I (1293-1291).

As Exodus begins, we seem to be in the reign of the next Pharaoh, Seti I (1291-1278). If so, the Exodus itself occurred during the reign of Ramses II (1279-1212). If, as seems to be the case, the Pharaoh here was Set I, there was indeed a great deal of construction in process. Archeological evidence from this period testifies to a new hall for the temple of Amun at Karnak, two new temples at Abydos, a large tomb in the Valley of the Kings and yet another temple at Thebes.

The “shrewdness” of Pharaoh here ties this story to two other examples: First, to the account of the serpent, “more cunning than any beast of the field,” in Genesis 3:1. Each of these two books, Genesis and Exodus, commences with a wily enemy who endeavors to deceive God’s people.

Second, this theme is related to the later stories of Pharaoh’s attempts to outwit Moses. This early verse of Exodus, then, introduces a major motif of our book: the “matching of wits,” in which the sinful wisdom of the world encounters the baffling wisdom of God. As this first chapter progresses, Pharaoh’s shrewdness is quickly outwitted by the Hebrew midwives, who are thus to be contrasted with the gullible Eve at the beginning of Genesis. Ultimately, of course, Pharaoh will be defeated by his own shrewdness, a process the Bible calls hardness of heart.

For the first time in this book, the Israelites “pull a fast one” on Pharaoh, thus demonstrating a superior wisdom that ties this story back to the Joseph narrative at the end of Genesis. The midwives “feared the Lord,” and this was the source of their wisdom; cf. Psalm 110:10. Whereas the enemy outsmarted Eve at the beginning of Genesis, the women here in Exodus outwit the enemy.

The endeavor to kill the male children places this text in a parallel with Matthew 2:16. Beginning with the dreams of two Josephs in Genesis 37 and Matthew 1, there are many striking correspondences between the opening chapters of Matthew and the long account of the Chosen People in Egypt. This verse also introduces two major symbols of the Exodus story: water in general and the Nile River in particular.

Tuesday, April 9

Exodus 2: The Hebrew word tevah is found in only two passages of the Old Testament. It appears, first, in Genesis 6–9, where the term is usually translated as “ark.” It refers to the boat-like structure that Noah and his sons construct for the saving of a new humanity.

In Exodus 2, the only other place in the Old Testament where we find the same word, it is more normally translated as “basket,” referring to the receptacle that floated on the Nile River and held the baby Moses. In each case, likewise, the tevah, made watertight by the application of bitumen, is the means of salvation in the midst of the waters.

The Bible’s use of the word in these two instances suggests an intentional literary, as well as theological, relationship between the two stories. This account of Moses, therefore, serves to parallel the Exodus story with the narrative of the Flood, and Moses with Noah. Moses becomes the deliverer of the Hebrews, much as Noah was the deliverer of the human race.

Both the Flood and the Exodus, of course, are symbols of Baptism; cf. Hebrews 11:7; 1 Peter 3:18-22. Moses’ very name “drawn from the water” is a foreshadowing of the salvific event at the Red Sea. The people of God is the community “drawn from the water,” most particularly, of course, the water of Baptism.

Just as Pharaoh was outwitted by the midwives in the first chapter, so his policy is thwarted by the sister and mother of Moses in this chapter. There is the added comical dimension that Moses’ mother becomes probably the only woman in history to be paid for nursing her own child!

Moses is now introduced as the rescuer of the Hebrews; cf. Acts 7:20-29. Already we have a foretaste of his activity against the Egyptians; before Moses is finished, many more Egyptians will die.

One observes especially that he chooses solidarity with rather the Hebrews than the Egyptians; cf. Hebrews 11:24-26. On the other hand, the zest and spontaneity with which Moses throws himself into this action is to be contrasted with his great reluctance to respond, later on, when God gives him the difficult task of actually delivering His people. As was observed by Clement of Rome near the end of the first century (Epistle to the Corinthians 4), the animosity shown toward Moses in this passage is paralleled by the animosity shown toward Joseph by his brethren in Genesis.

Wednesday, April 10

Exodus 3: In Holy Scripture, this same mountain is called both Sinai and Horeb, the former name being more favored in the traditions of Judah, the latter name being more common among the northern tribes. The story of the Burning Bush here requires two chapters, being the longest “call story” in the Bible. The medieval Jewish commentator Rashi speculated that the event took an entire week! As the story begins, Moses is curious. As usual, he is taking the initiative. He will attempt to approach the divine presence on his own!

Moses covers his face but bares his feet, such being the proper response to the presence of holiness, particularly at a “holy place.” Holiness is not abstract; it is revealed in concrete physical experiences. The removal of the sandals in this context is found with regard to Joshua (Joshua 5:13-16) and the veiling of the face with regard to Elijah (1 Kings 19:13).

In 2 Corinthians 3:18—4:6, St. Paul explains the deeper significance of the veiling of the face: Paul’s reference to the glory of God shining on the face of Christ, which perfectly expresses what the evangelists describe in the Transfiguration, is even more striking by reason of its immediate context. Just a few verses earlier Paul had written, “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transfigured (metamorphoumetha) into the same image from glory to glory, as by the Spirit of the Lord” (3:18). That is to say, Paul’s reference to the glory of God on the face of Christ is set in the context of our own transfiguration in Christ. The verb he uses here, metamorphomai, appears in only three other places in the New Testament, two of them descriptive of the Lord’s Transfiguration on the mount (Matthew 17:2; Mark 9:2).

As in Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, Paul’s development lays special stress on the Christian understanding of the Old Testament. Indeed, he introduced this subject of transfiguration by treating of biblical interpretation. The Jew, Paul wrote, understands only the “letter” (gramma) of the Old Testament, whereas the Christian understanding penetrates more deeply to “the Spirit” (to Pnevma). The first kind of biblical understanding leads to death, he affirmed, the second to life (2 Corinthians 3:6-7). That is to say, Paul’s preoccupation here is the orthodox understanding of the Bible.

God identifies Himself here as the same God who spoke of old to the patriarchs, and this description of God’s meeting with Moses bears comparison to some similar patriarchal narratives (cf. Genesis 17:1-3; 28:16-19; 32:31.

The divine commission distinguishes Moses from all that went before. From time to time the patriarchs had been told to do certain things (cf. Genesis 12 and 22, for instance), but they were never, strictly speaking, given some task to which they were to devote their entire lives. Moses is the first and prototype of the man called to the exclusive service of God and ministry to God’s people. After him the Bible will describe many such calls.

Beginning at verse 11 we observe Moses’ reluctance to accept his arduous prophetic call. Indeed, this will become a normal response of several of the prophets and other leaders at the time of their call; cf. Judges 6:14-18; Jeremiah 1:4-8; Jonah 1:1-3; Luke 5:4-10.

Thursday, April 11

Exodus 4: All through this chapter Moses anticipates getting resistance from the chosen people, as had been the case back in 2:14. Popular resistance to the prophetic word was to remain a common biblical theme; cf. Amos 7:10-13; Hosea 9:7; Acts 26:24, etc. In the case of Moses this disposition to disbelieve him was to continue to the very end of his career. Indeed, in the New Testament there is the sustained complaint that the Israelites were still not taking Moses seriously; cf. John 5:45-47; 7:19; Acts 7:30-39.

These “signs” serve more than one function. Moses says that nobody will believe him, but it appears that the first unbelief to be overcome is that of Moses himself. Secondly, the Israelites must be convinced. Thirdly, the Egyptians must be convinced.

Moses objects that he has never had “a way with words.” Truly so; although at this point in the story he is 80 years old, the Bible records only one sentence from him prior to this time, and that one sentence had been totally ineffective (Exodus 2:13). God reminds him that he won’t be speaking for himself; cf. Mark 13:11. Jeremiah will also use an alleged speech deficiency in attempting to escape the prophetic call; cf. Jeremiah 1:4-8.

Time has run out for Moses, but in response to his pleading, God makes the concession that the new prophet is to receive some help, and for the first time we learn that Moses has an older brother. Aaron will do the talking, but Moses is not relieved of his own responsibility. Aaron will be his spokesman, but Moses himself will continue to be God’s spokesman. This extended dialogue between Moses and God reveals the prophet’s ability at haggling, which is a normal part of business transactions in that part of the world. In fact, one is reminded of Abraham as someone who “drove a hard bargain” with God; cf. Genesis 18:24-32. Later on in the Exodus account, much will be said about Moses’ ability as an intercessor with God; on one occasion the people will be saved from swift destruction solely by reason of Moses’ ability to “haggle” with the Almighty.

Verses 24-26 are one of the most obscure passages in all of Holy Scripture, and it is possible that even the inspired author was not entirely certain what it meant. Indeed, we can say that the story was recorded here quite simply because it happened, and various interpretations of it can be traced back to pre-Christian times. What is clear about the passage, however, is this: that Moses’ son had to be circumcised before his prophetic commission could be undertaken. This detail places Moses once again in the tradition of the patriarchs. The insertion of this story, which has to do with a specific ritual act, at the beginning of the Exodus drama tends to place the whole narrative of the Exodus in a liturgical and initiatory context, indicating an important relationship between circumcision and the Exodus.

Friday, April 12

Exodus 5: “Thus says the Lord” (cf. also Exodus 32:27) places Moses squarely in the prophetic tradition. This is, in fact, the Bible’s first great encounter of a prophet with a king, an encounter that will be repeated with the likes of Nathan and David, Elijah and Ahab, Isaiah and Ahaz, Amos and Jeroboam II, Jeremiah and Zedekiah, Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar, John the Baptist and Antipas, Paul and Agrippa. It is instructive to remember that, on the sole occasion when Abraham was called a prophet, it was in connection with a local ruler in the Negev; cf. Genesis 20:7.

The source of Pharaoh’s problem is that he does not “know the Lord” (verse 2). Before much longer, nonetheless, he will have ample opportunity to make the Lord’s acquaintance; cf. Exodus 8:22; 9:29. Moses’ encounter with such a man may be compared to David’s confrontation with Goliath, who also did not “know the Lord”; cf. 1 Samuel 17:45-47.

Pharaoh reacts “that same day,” taking the initiative away from Moses and Aaron, thereby making them look inept in the eyes of the Israelites (verses 4-9). “Thus says the Lord” now becomes “thus says Pharaoh” (verses 10-14). Here there is a series of complaints: the overseers to the foremen, the foremen to Pharaoh, Pharaoh to the foremen, the foremen to Moses, Moses to God. Pharaoh’s tactic is to divide the people that he wants to oppress. He does not discredit Moses directly; he acts, rather, in such a way that the people themselves will turn on Moses.

The scene in verses 15-21 will be repeated many times in the next 40 years. On each occasion when things do not go well, the people will blame Moses. And when the people blame Moses, Moses will often enough blame God, as he proceeds to do now.

Pharaoh is already beginning to harden his heart, as the Lord permitted him to do. Even though Exodus several times ascribes Pharaoh’s hardening of the heart to the Lord Himself (cf. 7:3; 9:12; 10:1,20,27; 11:10; 14:4,8), this ascription is only an ironic way of declaring that the entire development, the growing suspense of the conflict, is under divine direction. As the Lord, through the course of the plagues, provides less and less excuse for Pharaoh’s mounting stubbornness, He is pictured as making Pharaoh’s heart ever harder by giving him further occasions for repentance. In order to resist God, that is to say, Pharaoh’s heart must become progressively hardened.