Friday, August 14

Acts 21:37—22:29: To apprehend Paul and put a stop to the riot, the soldiers had descended a long flight of stairs that leads up to the entrance of the Fortress Antonia. Now practically carrying their prisoner, they ascend those stairs, which will effectively give Paul an elevation from which to address the crowd. Perhaps the commander of the fortress had received a bulletin to be on the lookout for a famous Jewish revolutionary from Egypt (described in considerable detail by Josephus, incidentally). In any case, he mistakes his new prisoner for that individual and is surprised when Paul speaks to him in Greek. Thus taken by surprise, he grants Paul’s request to address the mob.

Speaking to them in Aramaic, Paul is deferential in tone (“Men, brothers and fathers”) and patient in the development of his theme, which consists essentially in another narrative of his conversion. The story is told as a form of personal apologetics (apologia in verse 1). Paul insists, “I am a Jew” (verse 2). He tells of his education in Jerusalem under the tutelage of Rabbi Gamaliel, his adherence to the strictness (akribeia ) of the Torah, his zeal (literally “God’s zealot” — Theou zelotes), which zeal he compares with their own (verse 3; Galatians 1:14; Philippians 3:6). Paul too once opposed the new “way” (hodos), he tells them, as zealously as they are doing today. All this, however, changed dramatically, as he rode to Damascus.

Essentially identical with the story of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9, the account given here does provide some details not mentioned in that earlier version. We now learn, for instance, that Paul’s conversion took place at the noon hour (verse 6), which we know was a prescribed time of prayer for Jews. Thus, we ascertain that Paul’s conversion took place while was stopped along the road, turned facing Jerusalem (cf. 1 Kings 8:48; Daniel 6:10), and reciting the Tefillah, or Eighteen Benedictions. He was suddenly surrounded by an overwhelming light, flung to the ground, and dramatically addressed by name by the accusing Lord.

By noting the specific hour of Paul’s experience, this version of the story relates it to the ecstatic vision of the apostle Peter, who was also praying at noon, in Acts 10. In each case the praying apostle is called by name (10:13; 11:7; 22:7) and answers the “Lord” (Kyrie in 10:14; 11:8; 22:8) in a brief dialogue. Each man is given a command (10:13; 11:7; 22:10). In each case the context is related to the calling of the Gentiles. In the instance of Peter, the experience leads directly to the baptism of Cornelius and his companions (11:9-14). In the present instance, this point is made by describing a second experience of Paul, this one in the temple at Jerusalem after his return to that city three years later (cf. Galatians 1:18). This second experience is called an ecstasy (en ekstasei in 22:17), the same word earlier used to describe Peter’s experience (10:10; 11:5).

The ecstatic experience of Paul, which also occurs in the context of prayer (22:17), takes place in the temple. This latter detail seems most significant within the general framework of Luke’s symbolic topography. His Gospel narrative both begins and ends in the temple (Luke 1:9; 24:53), and now it is in the temple, the very center of the Jewish faith and hope, that God commissions the Apostle to the Gentiles (Romans 11:13) to take the Gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 22:21; 9:15). This mention of the Gentiles, the goyim, to the crowd of already angry Jews is what brings Paul’s brief speech to a swift conclusion.

Saturday, August 15

John 2:1-11: The miracle at Cana, narrated in a story unique to, apparently took place shortly after Jesus’ forty-day fast in the wilderness. About that time and—it would seem—subsequent to the arrest of John the Baptist, “Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom” (Mark 1:14; cf. Matthew 4:12; Luke 4:14). One of the villages in Galilee was Cana.

Although the sequence in John’s early chapters is notoriously difficult to accommodate to the chronology of the other gospels, he does indicate that Jesus visited Cana after the calling of the first disciples (John 1:35-51; 2:2; Mark 1:16-20) and prior to the larger ministry at Capernaum (John 2:12; cf. Mark 1:21; Luke 4:23).

John begins this story by observing, “the mother of Jesus was there.” Only then does he mention, “Now both Jesus and his disciples were invited to the wedding.” Likewise, the initiative in this account is taken—and then sustained—by Mary. In this first of his signs, wherein he “manifested his glory,” Jesus is said to act only at his mother’s initiative.

The circumstances of Jesus’ visit are not too difficult to imagine: Traveling north, he arrived first at his mother’s home at Nazareth, nine miles south of Cana. He was accompanied by his earliest followers, one of whom was Nathaniel, a man who actually hailed from Cana (John (21:2).

Although now and then a regional rivalry between Nazareth and Cana prompted the citizens of one village to disparage the merits of the other (John 1:46), we are probably right to think such banter benign. The two places were doubtless linked—along with neighboring Bethsaida (1:41-45)—by numerous friendships, and we know that Jesus visited Cana more than once (4:46).

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Mary was invited to a wedding in that village. Indeed, John begins his story by noting her presence there. Nor is it extravagant to imagine she may have gone to Cana early in order to assist with the preparations.

If Mary did assist in the wedding preparations, it is not surprising that she, it was, who noticed the wine shortage. Indeed, during the several days of feasting, this helpful wedding guest may occasionally have cast a wary eye at the beverage supply, growing a tad alarmed at its steady decline. At last it was gone, and Mary determined to speak with her son.

What prompted the mother of Jesus to take this step? What did she expect? John does not say, and Mary’s actual expectation remains one of the genuine mysteries of the story.

How did Mary understand all these things? It is not at all clear that she did understand. At least, it would be silly to suppose that she thought of Jesus in formal creedal terms.

Mary’s knowledge of Jesus was not of this dogmatic sort. It was, first of all, a mother’s knowledge of her child, especially a child who had lived with her well into adulthood. There was surely more, as well: It would be wrong to imagine that when the Holy Spirit, “the power of the Highest,” descended upon her to effect the conception of Jesus, the Spirit intended this decent as a transitory visit.

Mary was not just a temporary or purely physical conduit of the Incarnation. The relationship between Jesus and his mother was transpersonal and transcendent to biology. She was truly the mother, and not simply the “bearer,” of God’s Son. When, during her pregnancy, she declared, “He who is mighty has done great things for me” (Luke 1:49), she was aware of at least this much. Day by day she measured, and now continued to measure, what this meant. If, then, she knew Jesus at all—if being the mother of God’s Son meant anything—it certainly meant she was entitled to speak to him about a shortage of wine.

Sunday, August 16

Mark 14:43-52: Only in Mark do we find the brief but colorful account of the young man who was apparently “spying” on the Lord’s arrest in Gethsemane: “Now a certain young man followed Him, having a linen cloth thrown around his naked body. And the young men laid hold of him, and he left the linen cloth and fled from them naked.” There seems more than ordinary merit in the attractive view that that young man was the author of this Gospel, John Mark himself. Who else?

Not much older than a boy, John Mark was the son of a woman named Mary, in whose home the earliest Christians in Jerusalem met for their common worship (Acts 12:12). Also a relative of the Apostle Barnabas (Colossians 4:10), Mark was included in the missionary team of his kinsman and St. Paul (Acts 12:25; 13:5).

Acts 22:30—23:10: Luke does not tell us if Claudius Lysias interrogated Paul further, but it is reasonable to think that he did. He would not have learned from Paul, however, any solid information that would clarify the legal situation. The fortress commander thus finds himself in a dilemma. He has arrested a prisoner on the basis of no identifiable offense. This is all quite embarrassing. How would he ever explain this serious irregularity to the authorities at Caesarea when official inquiries were made? If, on the other hand, Claudius Lysias were simply to release Paul, he may be setting free a criminal, possibly a revolutionary and subversive. Caught in this conflict, Lysias determines to consult the Sanhedrin, Judaism’s highest governing spiritual authority.

Thus, Paul must now defend himself before the Sanhedrin, and he does this masterfully. Well aware of the major theological division of that body into Sadducees and Pharisees (verse 6), Paul goes to some lengths to identify himself with the latter party. Why, after all, is he being held as a prisoner? Is it not because of his affirmation of the resurrection from the dead? And is not the coming resurrection from the dead one of the major and characteristic features of Pharisaic belief?

By this insistence, therefore, Paul succeeds in dividing his opponents (verses 7-10), this time not among a rioting mob but within the highest and most dignified religious body in Judaism. Lysias, frustrated that he has no more reliable information than he had before, has Paul locked up again. That night, when the Lord speaks to strengthen His apostle, He sets in parallel Paul’s preaching in Jerusalem with his coming preaching in Rome. Paul’s journey to Rome has been decreed by God (dei, “it is necessary,” in verse 11), no matter what strange human circumstances may serve to bring it about.

Monday, August 17

Joshua 20: Though differing widely among themselves in their particular applications of it, many peoples of antiquity embraced some form of judicial and political “sanctuary,” establishing certain of their religious shrines as politically or judicially “off-limits,” exempt from the usual application of vindictive justice. They were places where the accused could flee for refuge. Among the Syrians, Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans, there were numerous consecrated precincts, to which could come all manner of folk being hunted down: the debtors, the indicted, the fugitive slave, and so on. Thus, early in Israel’s monarchy and before the construction of the Temple, some Israelites considered the Lord’s altar in Jerusalem as such a haven (cf. (1 Kings 1:50–53; 2:28–34).

Israel also knew another and older form of this institution, the established “cities of refuge,” six priestly or Levitical cities designated to serve as asylums for those guilty of unintentional homicide (cf. Exodus 21:12–14; Numbers 35:9–34; Deuteronomy 19:1–13; Joshua 20:1–9). These cities afforded safety for those individuals hotly pursued by someone that the Bible calls the go’el haddam, “the avenger of blood.”

These cities served two discrete purposes: first, to guarantee that no retributive action would be taken against an accused killer until a fair trial could determine whether or not his offense was intentional; and second, to provide a haven for such a one, after the trial, against those still disposed to take vengeance on him anyway. In both cases, the function of the “city of refuge” was to place rational and political restraints on the exercise of revenge.

While the more obvious category involved in the institution of sanctuary is spatial (that is, the setting apart of a measured precinct), it has another dimension that might be called “temporal” (that is, the setting apart of a measured time). The institution implies an “until.” Thus, the accused could not be harmed until he was properly tried (Numbers 35:12). Granted further asylum by that trial, he was safe until the death of the high priest (Joshua 20:6). In regard to the heat of avenging passion, the biblical text shows here a conspicuous respect for the therapeutic influence of time. It recognizes that time is not on the side of passion but of reason.

These “cities of refuge,” beyond the political and judicial significance conveyed in their literal and historical sense, are also possessed of a moral and ascetical meaning. As institutions of restraint, they represent a healthy distrust of impetuosity. They stand for the rational mind’s control over the passions, especially an avenging anger that feels itself to be righteous. This institution embodies the truth that “the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20).

Experience indicates that the passions, if not deliberately fueled and stoked, are marked by a native entropy. They resemble, in this respect, the flames often used to describe them. Left to themselves, the passions tend to diminish over time. Thus, wrath must act quickly, as it were, because it knows that its time is short (Revelation 12:12). Generally speaking, time is no friend to the passions.

Time is on the side, rather, of reason. Reason, therefore, unlike the passions, knows how to wait. Reason is the realm of thought, and thought, unlike passion, requires the discipline of time. Consequently, properly cultivated reason is “slow to anger” (Proverbs 16:32; James 1:19).

Furthermore, reason is a bulwark of assured self-possession. Indeed, reason is slow precisely because it is confident. Reason can “take its time,” because, unlike the passions, reason deliberately invests in time. Time is one of reason’s most interest-bearing endowments, its long-term investment. The true “city of refuge,” then, is the mind godly cultivated in the art of patience, cautious of the impromptu, wary of impulse, and suspicious of “quick returns.” Its manner is slow, deliberate. As a result, no blood is shed within its precincts; the avenger is restrained and sternly reprimanded at its gates.

Tuesday, August 18

Mark 14:66-72: It is most significant, surely, that Peter’s triple denial, so embarrassing to the chief of the Twelve Apostles, is narrated in detail in each of the four canonical Gospels, for it is thus made to stand fixed forever in the memory of Holy Church. From this story, all believers down through the ages are to learn a lesson they must never forget.

Namely, anyone may fall, at any time. If Simon Peter could deny Jesus, any one of us could do so. Simon, after all, had not believed himself capable of such a thing. “Even if all are made to stumble,” he boasted, “yet I will not be.” He was so utterly resolved on the matter that, when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus in the garden, Simon had attacked them with violence. Alas, he was neither the first man nor the last to confuse human excitement with divine strength, nor to mis- take the pumping of adrenaline for the infusion of grace.

Within a very short time after he swung his sword at the unsuspecting Malchus (cf. John 18:10), we find Peter backing down embarrassed before the pointing finger of a servant girl. The Holy Spirit took particular care that Christians throughout the ages would never forget that falling away remains a real possibility for any of them.

Acts 23:23-35: A letter about Paul was sent to Antonius Felix, the well known and often cruel procurator of Judea from A.D.52 to 59/60 (cf. Suetonius, Life of Claudius 28; Tacitus, Histories 5.9; Josephus, Antiquities 20.7.1 [137-138]; 20.8.9 [182]; Jewish War 2.12.8 [247]). Claudius Lysias, in his letter to Felix, painted himself in the most favorable light. The whole matter, he explained as an obscure Jewish problem, and the Jews were to blame. Lysias, for his part, had done no more than rescue a Roman citizen from Jewish violence! The stress of the message was on Paul’s innocence (23:29), a point that Luke will continue to make as the story progresses (cf. 25:18,25; 26:31; 28:18).

When the retinue and its prisoner reached Antipatris, in largely Gentile territory, the large bulk of the force, no longer needed, returned to Jerusalem. The exact location of Antipatris is disputed, but it may have been the site of the modern Kulat Ras el’Ain, about twenty-five miles from Caesarea.

Wednesday, August 19

Mark 15:1-15: Crucifixion was a Roman form of punishment, and Pilate represented Rome. The Jewish punishment for blasphemy, which was, after all, the charge brought against Jesus before the Sanhedrin, was stoning to death. We see this punishment exemplified in the death of Stephen, who also was condemned for blasphemy. It was the Romans, however, not the Jews, who crucified Jesus.

No matter, then, how much water touched Pilate’s hands, the decision to execute Jesus was his to make, and he made it. Consequently, his protestation of innocence was hypocritical; he could have saved the life of an innocent man unjustly accused, exercising the justice that the Roman government had sent him to Judea to exercise. In handing Jesus over to death, then, Pilate violated man’s law as well as God’s.

One fancies that Pilate may have spent the rest of his days remarking, “Yes, it was the most difficult and painful decision I ever had to make.” Such references to the difficulties of a moral choice are often invoked by way of excusing a bad moral decision. Such appeals are invariably self-serving, and in no case do they excuse the person from the moral evil of his choice. A sinful decision is still a sinful decision, no matter how difficult it was to make.

There is no narrative perspective, consequently, in which Pilate can be viewed as anything but a moral coward in condemning an innocent man to a terrible death in order to placate the demands of a mob. It was the whole boast of Rome that it imposed justice over mob rule.

Acts 24:1-9: Paul now makes his defense before an official representative of the Roman government. To be his prosecutor, the Sanhedrin put forward a trained orator, Tertullus, who begins his argument by attempting to ingratiate Felix. It is shameless. When he credits Felix’s administration with the blessings of peace (24:2), for instance, the statement is true only in the sense that Felix had rather ruthlessly suppressed rebel uprisings and acts of terrorism (cf. Josephus, Jewish War 2.13.2 [252]). Tertullus diplomatically passes over those activities of Felix which effectively fomented rebellion and terrorism, those displays of his administration’s rapacity and harshness that would in due course lead to the Jewish rebellion against Rome.

Tertullus, aware of the attitude of Felix toward anything smacking of sedition, endeavors to portray Paul as a sort of revolutionary. The allegedly seditious party represented by Paul and here called the Nazarenes, is described as a “heresy” (24:5; cf. 24:14; 26:5; 28:22). This is hardly the first occasion on which Paul is portrayed as a trouble-maker (cf. 16:20; 17:6).

Thursday, August 20

Mark 15:16-21: Although we know on the authority of Plutarch that every criminal condemned to crucifixion by a Roman court was obliged to carry his own cross to the place of execution, those soldiers charged with crucifying Jesus evidently believed that his weakened state would not permit him to do so. Consequently, they obliged a “certain man . . . passing by” to carry Jesus’ cross to the place of crucifixion.

A descendant of certain Jews who had settled on the north coast of Africa (in modern Libya) about 300 BC, Simon doubtless belonged to that synagogue in Jerusalem particularly frequented by Cyrenian Jews who had moved back to the Holy Land (Acts 6:9).

We are surely right in thinking that this event proved to be a moment of providential grace for Simon, because he certainly became a Christian. Indeed, about forty years after the event, the Evangelist Mark mentioned him as the father of two Christians well known to the Roman church for whom he was writing: “Then they compelled a certain man, Simon a Cyrenian, the father of Alexander and Rufus, as he was coming out of the country and passing by, to bear His cross.”

Simon’s family was cherished by the Apostle Paul, who evidently had known them a generation earlier at Jerusalem. Some of them were living in Rome when Mark and Paul wrote. Very early in 58, about seven years before Mark’s Gospel was written, Paul sent Rufus and his mother greetings in Rome: “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother and mine” (Romans 16:13).

Acts 24:10-27: The opening sentence of Paul’s rebuttal is an exercise in irony that may, without exaggeration, be paraphrased as follows: “Well, there you have it, your Honor, you already know what these Jews are like, so you surely are not impressed by these trumped up accusations.”

In the course of Paul’s argument we learn that only twelve days have elapsed since his arrival in Jerusalem, a sum attained simply by the compound of seven (21:27) and five (24:1).

Explaining that he has come to Jerusalem solely as a pilgrim (“to worship” in 21:11) and to bring aid for the poor (21:17), Paul makes three points by way of “defense” (apologoumai in 21:10): First, no witnesses have testified to the charges brought against him (24:12-13,19). Second, he is, and has always lived as, a loyal, religious Jew. This is a scoring point, which Paul emphasizes by mentioning the Law and prophets (24:14). Because the Sadducees do not accept the prophetic books of the Bible as canonical, Paul is appealing once again to the judgment of the Pharisees. Third, Paul shares in the hope of the resurrection of the dead, a standard doctrine taught by the Pharisees (24:15,21) and which he himself had proclaimed before the Sanhedrin. As in his earlier appearance before that body, Paul is endeavoring to draw attention to an internal doctrinal split among his accusers.

Friday, August 21

Mark 15:22-32: There is a measure of irony in the fact that today’s readings present us with two scenes associated with Rome’s soi disant justice: the official execution of Jesus and the criminal case against the Apostle Paul.

As he hangs on the Cross, Jesus is mocked by the cruelty of those who witness his execution. Mark describes this mockery as “blasphemy,” the identical charge brought against Jesus by his enemies (cf. Mark 2:7; 14:64). The blasphemers repeat the charge, originally made in the house of the high priest, that Jesus would destroy the temple.

It is most significant that at the moment of Jesus’ death, the presiding centurion confesses Jesus as God’s Son (15:39), in contrast to this “blasphemy.”

Acts 25:1-12: At the end of the two years, Felix is succeeded by Portius Festus, who inherits Paul as a bit of unfinished business. This new procurator, a conscientious man chiefly remembered for his efforts to stamp out the terrorism prevalent in the Middle East during that time (cf. Josephus, Jewish War 2.14.1 [271-272]; Antiquities>/i> 2.8.9-10 [182,185]), must deal with Paul as the first chore of his two years in office (59-61/62). He does so in less than a fortnight. The authorities in Jerusalem, of course, want Paul to be tried there, all along planning that Paul would never reach the city for his trial. The times are treacherous.

The substance of Paul’s defense (apologoumenou) in this section is that he has violated no law, whether of the Jewish religion or of the Roman Empire (25:8). His accusers, moreover, have not met their burden of proof (25:7). Festus, however, unwilling to offend the Jewish leadership so early in his administration, proposes a compromise: a trial at Jerusalem, over which the governor himself would preside (25:9).

Paul will have none of this compromise. He already stands before an imperial court as a Roman citizen; why should he forego that privilege in order to expose himself to a Jewish lynch mob? Therefore, he appeals his case to Rome. It is worth noting, in verse 11, Paul’s explicit recognition of the state’s proper authority to use the death penalty, the “right of the sword” (jus gladii), on certain classes of criminals. This position is identical to the one earlier espoused by Paul in Romans 13:1-4. Accordingly, the Christian Church, even when discouraging recourse to capital punishment in practice (in the Byzantine Empire, for instance), has always recognized, as a matter of clear principle, the state’s God-given, biblically affirmed authority to put certain criminals to death.