Friday, May 2

Ezekiel 13: This chapter contains an oracle against false prophets (13:2-16) and an oracle against false prophetesses (verses 17-23). The major problem with all such folk is that they “prophesy out of their own minds” and “follow their own spirit” and “divined a lie.” Thus, grave spiritual harm befalls those who listen to their fantasies and follow their counsels.

Even though a wall is just about to fall, says Ezekiel, they daub it with whitewash to make it look new and secure. Well, the whole thing is about to come down, he warns, in spite of the false hopes raised by false prophets.

In his oracle against the false prophetesses, Ezekiel speaks of wristbands and headbands (if these things are, indeed, what these rare Hebrew words mean), evidently the paraphernalia of their rituals and incantations. We should probably think of these women as fortune-tellers, the sort of charlatans that are still among us. The prophet’s point here is that this sort of thing is not harmless; foolish individuals, who probably need sound counsel for important decisions, really do pay heed to such imposters, rather often to the harm of their souls. God will thwart the designs of these deceivers, says Ezekiel, by showing their predictions to be false.

1 Corinthians 10:1-13: Christians, in their baptism, enact a ritual replication of Israel’s passage through the Red Sea in the Exodus. After that “baptismal” passage, the Israelites experienced various temptations in the wilderness. The Apostle Paul, speaking of those ancient partakers of the Exodus, wrote that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized with Moses in the cloud and in the sea.

After that Exodus baptism, Paul went on, those primitive forefathers journeyed out to the wilderness, where they experienced temptation. The Apostle, reminding his readers that the Israelites did not fare well in those temptations (1 Corinthians 1:5-10), proceeded to draw a practical lesson for the Christian life:

Now these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come (1 Corinthians 10:11 emphasis added).

That is to say, after their baptisms, Christians—and particularly the Corinthians!—are also going to be tempted. They must expect it, but they must also be assured that

No temptation has overtaken you except what is human; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able (1 Corinthians 10:13 emphasis added).

Paul insists here that Christians must not imagine they will escape the experience of such temptation that is “human”—anthropinos. (The fact that temptation is demonic does not make it less human.)

Saturday, May 3

Ezekiel 14: In verses 1-11, the elders who came to consult Ezekiel got more than they anticipated, because the prophet was given insight into the deeper idolatry of their hearts. These men were apparently looking for some prediction about the future, only to be told that God’s prophetic word is not truly available for the unrepentant. That is to say, the prophet’s task is not to satisfy human curiosity about future events, but to call sinners to the due consideration of their souls. To borrow a concise expression from Saint Augustine, the prophet’s task is often that of prescribing, not predicting: praecipientis videlicet, non praedicentis modoThe City of God15.7).

Thus, instead of responding to their query about the future, Ezekiel summons these men to look inside themselves, at the idolatry in their hearts, before it is too late.

The second oracle in this chapter (verses 12-23) insists that the whole society, if it is unfaithful to God, will be punished as a whole. The Lord will not spare any society simply for the sake of a few just men in it, even if these latter include the likes of Noah, Daniel, and Job. While the just individuals themselves will be respected, this will have no affect on the lot of the whole, because God is fair and will render to each man according to his deserts.

Before God’s throne of judgment, therefore, it will not matter “who you know.” This thesis, which will be repeated throughout the Book of Ezekiel, is identical to that in the Book of Jeremiah (for instance, 15:1-4), and is a great deal tougher than we find, for instance, in Genesis 18, where it appears that the presence of five just men would have spared the destruction of Sodom.

John 6:1-14: As the rest of John 6 goes on to demonstrate, the early Christians interpreted the Multiplication of the Loaves in the light of their own experience of the Lord’s Supper, the central and defining rite of their worship. The companion reading for today, First Corinthians 10:14-22, continues that theme.

Sunday, May 4

Ezekiel 15: This parable of the vine wood is more reflective than ecstatic, more analytical and rational than poetic; it conveys the studious, logical aspect of Ezekiel’s thought.

And the message of this parable could hardly be more straightforward or less complicated: Vines and their stocks are of no constructive use unless they are still in the process of growing grapes. Once they have stopped doing that, they are useless for any constructive purpose. Unlike other kinds of wood, vine wood cannot be used to fashion homes or furniture or even basic tools. Indeed, one cannot employ such wood to make an instrument so elementary as a wall peg on which to hang a pot in the kitchen. (The partial burn damage in verse 5 alludes to the partial exile of Jerusalem’s citizens in 597, some five years earlier.)

However, the parable proceeds to say, this wood can still be burned! No matter how otherwise useless, it still makes decent fuel. So, says the Lord, let Jerusalem take heed, because He has not seen any fruit on that vine for many a year.

The motif of this parable should put one in mind of Jesus’ cursing of the barren fig tree in the gospels of Matthew and Mark. Both Ezekiel’s parable and Jesus’ parabolic action had to do with impending destructions of Jerusalem.

Inasmuch as Jerusalem is also a mystic symbol of the soul, the moral sense of this parable is applicable to us all on a daily basis. It is the other side of the Gospel injunction that we are to live lives that bear fruit; otherwise we are useless to God for any constructive purpose.

John 6:15-21: The story of the Lord’s walking on the water is closely tied to the account of the multiplication of the loaves in Matthew, Mark, and John. In Mark and Matthew, the multiplication of the loaves is repeated, so the apostles are given one more opportunity to understand. In the John, on the other hand, the entire sequence is followed by the Bread of Life discourse.

In the Multiplication of the Loaves, the Lord demonstrates his authority over bread. In the walking on the water, he demonstrates his authority over his own flesh. In the Bread of Life discourse, he proclaims his ability to turn the first into the second; he identifies the bread as his very flesh, and men are summoned to consume it for their salvation. Not to eat it, he declares, is to forfeit eternal life.

Monday, May 5

Ezekiel 16: This parable is more elaborate than the one in the previous chapter, showing more evidence of allegorical detail. Both parables convey roughly the same message. Each parable is an illustration of failure. A beautiful but egregiously unfaithful wife is as useless as a cut and dried vine.

Several of the various details in this account of the harlot refer to specific periods and events in Israel’s history: the origins of the people, the time of the Covenant, the founding of the united kingdom, the prosperity of the Solomonic era, and the division into two kingdoms.

The oracle’s final part prepares the listeners for Jerusalem’s impending doom, which is to be like the earlier total destructions of Sodom and Samaria. Jerusalem, says the Lord, is more evil than either of these.

At the very end, however—after Jerusalem has fallen—appears a message of hope and renewal. Even the prophets most pessimistic about Jerusalem at this time, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, never cease to trust in God’s ultimate mercy. In particular, God will not hold children responsible for the sins of their parents, a theme to be elaborated in Chapter 18.

1 Corinthians 11:1-16: Paul discusses the decorum proper to Christian worship, even a detail respecting proper attire. Although his instructions in the passage are largely neglected nowadays, it seems worth inquiring whether this neglect is a symptom of the “contentiousness” the Apostle speaks of in verse 16. It does appear that Saint Paul’s injunctions in this passage are currently disobeyed for the sole and deliberate purpose of disobeying them.

In recent decades the freedom claimed by women to bare their heads in church has been followed by a disposition to bare their shoulders, etc. Does anyone really believe this is a good thing in the house of God? The question is worth asking, because Paul treats this matter in the context of the Holy Eucharist, about which he speaks in the verses to follow.

John 6:22-40: Like 1 Corinthians 10:1-22, this section of John 6 relates the Eucharistic experience to the trial of the Israelites who ate the Manna in the Wilderness. To eat the bread of God is a holy thing to do, and it imposes on the eater the call to a sinless life.

Tuesday, May 6

Ezekiel 17: This allegorical riddle is concerned with the geopolitical maneuvering dominant in the royal court at Jerusalem during the period between 597 and 586 B.C.

The first eagle in the riddle is the Emperor Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon (604-562); the second is Pharaoh Psammetichus II of Egypt (595-589). Sitting at either end of the Fertile Crescent, both Babylon and Egypt sought to make their military, economic, and political power felt throughout the region, and each of these two great centers had its friends and confederates within the Jerusalem court.

The removed branch in the allegory is King Jehoiakin of Judah, deposed from his throne in 597 and transported to Babylon. The new seed in the allegory is King Zedekiah, who replaced Jehoiakin and served as a vassal of Babylon. Because of the many machinations in his court, Zedekiah’s foreign policy was marked by vacillation and instability. Unable to maintain his covenant with God, he was likewise unable to maintain his vassal covenant with Babylon. The one infidelity led to the other (verses 11-19).

Even though he was thriving under Babylonian suzerainty, the allegory goes on to say, Zedekiah endeavored to forsake his political obligations to the authority at the western end of the Fertile Crescent, and began to cultivate friendship with the eastern end, Egypt. Now he must pay for it. His sin consisted in seeking a purely political solution for a mainly spiritual and moral problem.

This oracle ends, nonetheless, on a note of future hope for the house of David, a hope that the Christian knows is fulfilled in great David’s greater Son.

1 Corinthians 11:17-22: Paul continues his exhortation to proper decorum in the context of Christian worship. The several social problems in the church at Corinth have obviously spilled over into that congregation’s worship. The strifes and rivalries prevalent in the congregation are not just moral failings; they have now become sacrilegious. The Holy Eucharist is insulted.

John 6:41-59: Those who, like Luther, insist on a non-Eucharistic understanding of the Bread of Life discourse, are faced with an insurmountable problem when Jesus moves from the imagery of eating his flesh to that of drinking his blood. There is nothing in the Multiplication of Loaves, simply as a historical event, that would warrant this dramatic introduction of another image. At this point in the discourse, the imagery of eating and drinking—of flesh and blood—is impossible to grasp apart from the Christian experience of the Eucharist. The attempt to do so is something on the order of a guided tour Cape Canaveral without mentioning the NASA space program.

Wednesday, May 7

Ezekiel 18: This is an oracle about personal responsibility, a matter on which the mind of Ezekiel may be contrasted with modern sensibilities. Modern ideas of individual moral responsibility often run along such lines as, “You must not do anything you can’t live with.” According to this perspective, moral norms are established by the limits of a person’s psychological comfort; what is evil or good is determined by whether or not a person can endure having done it.

Ezekiel knows nothing of such nonsense. For him personal moral responsibility means that a man must ultimately be responsible, not to the dubious dispositions of his own conscience, but to the all-righteous God who gave the law.

Each man must respond for himself, however, not for either his ancestors or his progeny. The people at Jerusalem needed to hear such a message, because some of them contended that they were being punished—with doubtful justice!—for the sins of their fathers. Ezekiel was charged to set them straight on this matter.

Although the social and even psychological effects of sin are handed down from one generation to the next, the moral burden of sin is not. Each man will answer for himself and his own moral decisions, not for those of his grandparents. The retributive principle is always: “The soul that sins shall die.”

Meanwhile, the possibility of moral change remains for each of us as long as we are alive. A bad man can become good, and a good man can become bad. Our moral fate depends on what we become, not on what we were before.

The closing part of this oracle stands as a strong witness against any religious theory claiming that God is glorified even by someone’s eternal loss. No, eternal loss is a pure waste of proffered salvation. God is not glorified by anyone’s going to hell.

1 Corinthians 11:23-34: Since this letter to the church at Corinth was written several years before any of the four Gospels, the present passage is our earliest written account of the Lord’s Supper.

Paul’s preoccupation in this text is moral; he is concerned with the proper mind and disposition of someone who approaches the Table of the Lord. We should related his concern to the dilemma posed by the traitor Judas, whose treachery comes to the fore at the end of the Bread of Life discourse.

Thursday, May 8

Ezekiel 19: This passage is a “lamentation” (verses 1,14), descriptive of Jerusalem’s recent history, in a tripartite allegory. The lioness, Judah, gave birth to two kings–the two lions–whose stories are told in the first two parts of this allegory.

The first king (verses 3-4) is Jehoahaz, who took the throne when the great Josiah was killed in 609 at the Battle of Megiddo. His very short reign (only two verses here) came to an end that same year, because he was deposed by Pharaoh Neco and taken in bondage to Egypt (2 Kings 23:31-34).

The second king (verses 5-9) is Jehoiakin, deposed by the Babylonians in 597 after an unsuccessful rebellion on his part, and carried away to exile in Babylon, along with the cream of Judah’s leadership, a group including Ezekiel himself (2 Kings 24:8-16).

At the time of this oracle, both of these deposed “lions” are still alive–one in Egypt, the other in Babylon—but they are impotent to help their mother, Judah. This mother is then portrayed as a vine in the third and final section of the oracle (verses 10-14), which describes the devastation attendant on the inept and irresponsible government of Judah’s last king, Zedekiah.

1 Samuel 1:1-28: We have just finished reading of Saint Paul’s distress at the behavior of the Corinthians, whose strife and disrespect spilled over into the very context of worship. In the present story of Hannah’s family we are presented with what appears to an “early Corinthian” in the person of Peninnah. This most unpleasant lady used the annual pilgrimage to Shiloh as an opportunity to render life miserable for barren Hannah. This latter she provoked severely, says the Sacred Text, “to make her miserable.”

The provocation was not unintentional, we are assured, nor did it happen only once: “So it was, year by year, when she went up to the house of the Lord, that she provoked her; therefore she wept and did not eat” (1 Samuel 1:6-7). It is easy to picture Peninnah looking forward to that annual pilgrimage with the family; it was perhaps her favorite time of the year, providing her the forum for feeling superior and spreading discouragement. Obviously there was a serious pastoral problem at Shiloh—of the sort Paul faced at Corinth—and I suspect more than one worshipper at the time wished the priest Eli, pointing to Peninnah, would suggest to Elkanah, “When your family comes next year, brother, why not leave Miss Picklepuss at home?”

Friday, May 9

Ezekiel 20: This oracle, delivered on August 14, 591 B.C., was occasioned by an inquiry made to Ezekiel by a group of exiled Jewish elders, apparently undeterred by their earlier failure in 14:1-11.

So Ezekiel answers them: Beginning with Israel’s ancient sojourn in Egypt, prior to the Exodus, idolatry has been an abiding sin of God’s Chosen People. That rebellion against the Lord in Egypt was simply continued during the people’s wandering in the desert of Sinai. During both of those periods God spared His people, so that their enemies (and His) might not take comfort from their destruction.

Indeed, because Israel constantly violated the Lord’s ordinances, these ordinances proved not to be good for them, inasmuch as the very disobedience rendered the people morally worse (verses 23-26). (This is a motif, of course, that St. Paul will later develop in his Epistles: the futility of the Law to bring about salvation.) Then, even after their settlement in the Promised Land, the people continued their ancient infidelities.

Now, after all this, do these elders dare to come and “inquire of the Lord”? They are told that this inquiry amounts to a mockery. They have always known God’s will, yet they have decided to disobey it. Why should the Lord have anything further to say to them? (We should particularly observe here that, among the sins of Israel specifically named, child sacrifice is very prominent. Since the murder of unborn children is one of the most serious offenses of our own society, this oracle seems especially relevant today.)

Even after conveying this oracle, however, Ezekiel goes on in verses 32 to 44 to deliver a prophecy of Israel’s eventual restoration. Although Israel’s kings have brought the nation low, God is still Israel’s true king (20:33).

1 Samuel 2:1-21: Hannah’s prayer serves a significant purpose in the literary structure of the (originally one) Book of Samuel . Both the opening and closing scenes of that book have to do with worship. Thus, chapter 1 of First Samuel describes the regular pilgrimages that Elkanah’s family made to the ancient shrine at Shiloh, while the last chapter of Second Samuel finishes with David’s purchase of the site of the future temple at Jerusalem. At the beginning of the book, the Ark of the Covenant is in Shiloh, but, as the book ends, the Ark has been moved to the new site. Sacrifices are offered in each place, whether by the priest Eli or by David. In both places, likewise, there is a description of prayer; First Samuel starts with two prayers of Hannah, and Second Samuel closes with two prayers of David (24:10, 25).