Friday, January 22
Hebrews 10:32-39: In a sense this section of Hebrews is a synopsis of the whole, or at least a summary of its thesis. That is to say, it is an exhortation to patience.
An initial motive for patience, says our author, is the active recollection of those things endured immediately after conversion and baptism (verse 32). This is not simply a remembrance, but an intentional recollection: anamimneskesthe.
In those earlier days, he goes on, his readers experienced an áthlesis. This noun, obviously the root of the English “athletics,” is perhaps best translated as “struggle.” The present text is the only place where this word appears in the New Testament, though St. Paul uses similar metaphors drawn from sporting competition. Athlesis suggests that the Christian life carries within itself the character of contention, in the sense that either victory or defeat is still possible.
That struggle, says Hebrews, came in the aftermath of baptism: photisthentes—“you were enlightened.” We recall the same metaphor for baptism was used in 6:4.
It is important to recognize the relationship between baptism and struggle, such as we see here. Indeed, the three accounts of our Lord’s contention with the demon all come right after the story of His baptism.
In what was were these Christians tried after their baptism? They “were made a spectacle both by reproaches and tribulations,” and they joined themselves to those “who were so treated” (verse 33). They suffered both psychologically and financially (verse 34), and they endured each thing in view of the greater treasure awaiting them in heaven.
The remembrance of these things—the active recollection of the many sufferings they had already endured—would strengthen the readers to brace themselves for whatever lay ahead. The message is clear: “Don’t give up now! Don’t waste the great investment already made.”
This passage is concerned with what I have called an “aftermath,” a term that literally means, “what is learned (mathein) afterwards.” This word testifies that education is existential. In the present context it refers to the period after baptism. One does not learn to be a Christian until one has already become a Christian. The real study of the Christian life is post-baptismal. The life in Christ does not commence until a person is in Christ. Baptism is called “illumination,” because it is the introductory step. Only then can there be an “aftermath.
And this, says our author, is learned through patience, which is an exercise of faith. It is at this point that he quotes that famous line from Habakkuk, so dear to Paul: “The just shall live by faith” (verse 38; Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11). This prophetic citation about faith lays the basis for the long account of the heroes of faith in the following chapter.
Saturday, January 23
Hebrews 11:1-7: Prior to the calling of Abraham, God provided the human race with certain introductory instruction through the deep perceptions of three patriarchs: Abel, Enoch, and Noah. In what Holy Scripture says of these men, we discern the initial steps of human education.
First, Abel examined the structure of the world around him and reached the conclusion “that things which are seen were not made by things which do appear.” The “thing-ness” of the world, that is to say, was not self-explanatory. The world was not its own cause. On the contrary, it gave “evidence of things not seen.” Abel’s probing mind, gazing at this visible world, laid hold on certain invisible truths.
Chief among these, I suppose, were the simplest rational principles (such as causality and non-contradiction) and the basic axioms and elementary theorems of the mathematical order. These interests emerged from the intellect’s encounter with empirical data. Abel’s mind perceived in matter an explanatory reference, and this perception laid the foundation for logical discipline and, in due course, metaphysics.
It is not without interest to reflect that Abel was a shepherd; the pastoral life was eminently compatible with the leisured intellectual exertion required for mathematics and metaphysics. Standing guard over his flock, as it grazed on the grass of the fields, Abel sought deeper nourishment from a greener pasture. He sharpened the earliest human hunger for “the substance of things hoped for.”
In the first generation that followed man’s alienation from God, then, Abel took the first human step back in the direction of Eden. In the world of things seen, he perceived God’s most basic self-testimony. This spiritual perception was an act of faith, in which Abel understood that “the worlds were framed by the word of God.”
Abel’s thought was followed by that of Enoch, who discerned the moral structure of existence. It was clear to Enoch, not only that God is, but also that he is the rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” To the deductions of mathematics, therefore, and the insights of metaphysics, Enoch added the requirements of the moral order. He perceived that whatever separated true from false also separated good from evil.
In the transition from Abel to Enoch we trace the noetic step from the invisible things clearly seen to the law written in the heart—man’s conscience bearing witness to his responsibility. Just as Abel discerned the human mind as the locus where the universe learned the truth about itself, Enoch perceived in the human conscience the classroom where the universe was instructed about right and wrong.
The biographies of Abel and Enoch testify that neither man lived very long. The first was driven from this world by a violent human hand, and the second was summoned forth by a divine impatience, unwilling to wait longer for the delight of his company.
Since neither thinker remained long on the earth, it fell to a third patriarch to discover the moral structure of history; this discovery requires a bit more time. Living longer than Abel and Enoch, Noah carried their teachings to his consideration of culture and human affairs. If Abel was a metaphysician and Enoch a moralist, Noah was a prophet.
Tutored by the patriarchal tradition, which affirmed that God is the rewarder of them that diligently seek him, the observant and logical Noah became certain that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness of men who hold the truth in unrighteousness.” Metaphysics and the moral order drove his mind to the necessity of the retributive eschata. Evil was unnatural; it could not go on indefinitely. Driven by the fear such a perception engendered in his soul, Noah got busy and “prepared an ark to the saving of his house.”
Thus, in the three major patriarchs who followed the Fall, the human mind was enabled to grasp the true structure and significance of the world, to lay hold on the moral foundations of reality, and to act on a correct understanding of human events.
In this progression, humanity was duly prepared for the vocation of Abraham. Even as he dwelt in tents with Isaac and Jacob, Abraham was the heir of a thorough and intense tutelage. Though he left Ur not knowing whither he went, he was in no doubt about the universe—and university—he came from.
Sunday, January 24
Matthew 8:5-13: There is a parable in today’s Gospel reading, the most surprising feature of which is that the centurion—not Jesus—is the one who tells the parable. He says to Jesus, “I also am a man placed under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to one, “Go,” and he goes; and to another, “Come,” and he comes; and to my servant, “Do this,” and he does it.
Plainly put, what the centurion says is a real parable—a traditional biblical mashal, symbolic speech in which the meaning is conveyed through metaphor, simile, and/or allegory. In this case, the metaphor is military.
The centurion’s parable has to do with authority, exsousia: “I also am a man placed under authority.” That is to say, the centurion, in order to understand what Jesus is about, has recourse to what in military terms is called the “chain of command,” because he recognizes in Jesus a source of authority, the ability to make things happen by way of simple, even monosyllabic, command. This is something the centurion understands.
Indeed, it is possible that no one in the New Testament understood better than this centurion the proper function of Jesus’ parables. He tells this parable to explain to Jesus why it is not necessary for the Savior to come and visit the sick man in person. The proper word of authority is all that is needed. Jesus’ presence is no more necessary to the situation than the presence of a military officer in every place where his authority extends.
In his short declaration about authority, then, it is easy to discern that the centurion faithfully copies the style of Jesus’ own parables. Just as our Lord sent his listeners to their own labor and occupations to discern the inner mysteries of divine grace—just as he directed the farmer, for example, to inspect the spiritual aspects of both the sowing (Luke 8:4-15) and the harvest (10:2)—just as he encouraged the shepherd (15:4-15) and the fisherman (Matthew 4:19) to consider the religious dimensions of their labor—so this centurion proposes the circumstances of his military profession in order to illustrate the spiritual quality of a truth. He examines the conditions of his own calling in order to convey a specific quality of the ministry of Jesus.
And what does the centurion communicate in this parable? He expresses the unseen but effective power of authority. He knows himself “subject to authority”; he recognizes his subordination to the government of Rome and to Herod Antipas, from whom he received his commission, and he knows how to delegate that authority to others.
First, the centurion is a man who does what he is told, because he acknowledges the claims of that unseen spiritual reality called “authority.” In addition, he extends some measure of that authority; he speaks a command, and others obey him. His word is effective. To borrow the language of the Epistle to the Hebrews, this authority, to which the centurion refers, is “not seen,” but there is no doubt about the “evidence” of it.
The centurion is manifestly familiar, not only with the Lord’s parables, but also with his miracles. He may not have seen those wonders firsthand, but he knows about them from others. Word has reached him already that Jesus’ “word was with authority” (Luke 4:32).
Because it is a spiritual reality, authority is essentially invisible but is expressed in signs. Yet, no one reasonably doubts the real and very consequential existence of authority; there is overwhelming witness to it everywhere, and the centurion knows this from his own life and vocation. Consequently, he is able to recognize the evidence of authority in Jesus.
The centurion’s faith, then—declared greater than any in Israel—is based on hearing and then thinking through what he has heard; he weighs well the evidence to which there is witness. And that evidence testifies to something any sensible centurion can detect at a glance: the authority of lordship, the ability to hold complete sway by a direct command.
Monday, January 25
Matthew 8:14-17: This, the third of the Ten Miracles of this section of Matthew, is illustrated by its differences with the parallel text in Mark 1:29-31. Matthew’s account is distinguished by: (1) the removal of all the characters except Jesus and this woman, so that the encounter is entirely person-to-person (Indeed, in verse 15 the lady in question serves “Him,” not the “them” of Mark 1:31.); (2) Matthew’s insertion of the expression “by word” (logo) in verse 16, an addition that heightens the sense of the Lord’s power and ties this text back to 8:8; (3) the quotation from Isaiah in 8:17, which continues Matthew’s sustained emphasis on Jesus’ fulfillment of the Old Testament.
Psalm 44 (Greek & Lain 43): The Second Book of Chronicles 20:1–19 describes a special liturgical service at the Jerusalem temple, in which King Jehoshaphat (873–849) led the people in a prayer of lamentation and intercession during a time of great crisis. He also proclaimed a period of fasting, for the plight of the people seemed desperate; their enemies were upon them, and “Judah gathered together to ask help from the Lord” (20:4).
There were many such occasions in biblical times, and many more since then, for the enemies of God’s people are both numerous (“My name is Legion; for we are many,” Mark 5:9) and powerful (“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places,” Eph. 6:12). Indeed, we are continually at war, we children of God, and we sometimes feel simply overwhelmed, almost empty of hope.
The present psalm was written for such times: “You have given us as sheep to the slaughter and scattered us among the nations. You have bartered Your people for a pittance and made no profit on the sale.” A useful prayer, this psalm of despondency, because the life of faith is not a sustained, uninterrupted series of triumphs.
The prayer begins, however, with an appeal to Tradition: “We have heard with our ears, O God; our fathers have told us.” Such an appeal to the lessons of history is, of course, standard in the Bible, for the biblical God is, first and last, “the God of our fathers.” Thus, the message of Genesis has to do with God’s fidelity to Israel’s patriarchs, while Exodus tells of Israel’s redemption by that same patriarchal God. Other historical books of the Bible narrate the continued faithfulness of His promises to an unfaithful people. The prophetic literature, likewise, constantly looks back to God’s redemptive work throughout Israel’s history, as both paradigm and prophecy of what He will do for His people in the future.
Tuesday, January 26
Psalm 45 (Greek & Latin 44): “The kingdom of heaven,” we are told by a uniquely reliable source, “is like a certain king who arranged a marriage for his son” (Matt. 22:2), that marriage’s consummation being the definitive aim of our destiny, and all of history constituting the courtship that prepares and anticipates the yet undisclosed hour of its fulfillment. Thus, the end of time is announced by the solemn proclamation: “Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!” (Matt. 25:6).
This interpretation of history as the preparation for a royal wedding ceremony is so pervasive and obvious in Holy Scripture that we Christians, taking it so much for granted, may actually overlook it or give it little thought. Indeed, in this modern materialistic world there is a distinct danger that we too may forget that the present life is but the preparation for another, its many and manifold efforts only a provisioning for the greater future, its varied blessings but rehearsals for the greater joy.
The modern materialistic world seems to know nothing of all this, believing in no future outside of its immediate and perceived needs. Its gross but unduly modest aspirations are well summed up by Dr. Johnson’s bull: “Here is this cow, and here is this grass: what more could I ask?” Beyond these gratifications, the spokesman for the purely materialistic world nourishes no further hope.
To counter such forgetfulness of our future, therefore, God’s Holy Writ repeatedly reminds us of that coming wedding day of the King’s Son: “Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready. . . . ‘Blessed are those who are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb!’” (Rev. 19:7, 9).
Thus too we are warned against the grave danger courted by those who refuse their wedding invitations (Matt. 22:3–10; Luke 14:17–24), as well as the exclusion awaiting those improvident souls presumptuous of entrance without preparation (Matt. 22:11–14; 25:7–12).
The present psalm anticipates and most descriptively foretells that future royal wedding. Its lines describe the “bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2): “The royal daughter is all glorious within the palace; her clothing is woven with gold. She shall be brought to the King in robes of many colors; the virgins, her companions who follow her, shall be brought to You. With gladness and rejoicing they shall be brought; they shall enter the King’s palace.”
There is even more description of the King’s Son, however, that Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world: “You are fairer than the sons of men. Grace is poured out upon Your lips. Therefore God has blessed You forever. Gird Your sword upon Your thigh, O Mighty One, with Your glory and Your majesty. And in Your majesty ride victorious because of truth, humility and righteousness.” This Son’s riding forth in victory is similarly described in the Bible’s final book: “Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns. . . . And He has on His robe and on His thigh a name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS” (Revelation 19:11, 12, 16).
We need not guess at the identity of this Bridegroom nor be in doubt of His divine dignity, for the New Testament quotes our psalm when it speaks of the Son’s anointing by His Father: “But to the Son He says: / ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever; / A scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your kingdom. / You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness; / Therefore God, Your God, has anointed You / With the oil of gladness more than Your companions’” (Heb. 1:8, 9). This ‘anointed one’ (for such is the meaning of the name Messiah, or Christ) is Jesus, of whom the Apostles preached: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” (Acts 10:38).
Wednesday, January 27
Matthew 8:23-27: In this account of the stilling of the storm, the Lord again speaks of faith, which was also the point of the second miracle account, the story of the centurion. There is a striking contrast between the utter serenity of the sleeping Lord and the agitation of the disciples. The Lord imposes his own tranquility on the sea itself . Dominant in this narrative is a Christology of majesty, ending with the major query of the gospel itself: “Who is this?” (8:27) This is the very question that Peter, in the name of the Church, will answer in 16:16. The correct answering of this question is the affirmation of faith on which, as a foundation stone, is constructed (16:18).
The Church loves to express mediation of Christ in a rhetorical form known as the “communication of idioms,” which means that, because the person of the God-Man is one, it is theologically proper to speak of what He does in terms of ironic exchange. Thus, we say that God slept in the back of Peter’s boat, and that a man rose in that boat to command the wind and waves. God walked into Capernaum, and man forgave the sins of the paralytic who lived there. All that we see Jesus doing in the Gospels, He does as both fully God and fully man, because in Him divinity and humanity are forever joined. He mediates them (in Greek, mesitevo).
When we speak of the mediation of Christ, we do not mean He is half-God and half-man. He is “all both.” Moreover, the mediation of Jesus is not primarily an activity but a condition of His existence. That is to say, Jesus is not our Mediator because He intercedes for us; He intercedes for us, rather, because He is our Mediator. The very condition of the Incarnation is that of mediation.
This is the reason Christians insist on the wholeness of the two natures in Christ; sacred theology must diminish neither, as though Jesus would be seen as more divine by being portrayed as less human, or vice versa. The orthodox view of Christ can be neither “too human” nor “too divine,” because he is wholly both. There is no logical or rhetorical way around this union.
The transfigured Lord of Tabor is identical with the one Isaiah saw, high and lifted up (see John 12:37–41). That weary person who sits at the well and sleeps on the stern sheets of the fishing boat is the Creator of the universe.
Thursday, January 28
Matthew 28:28-34: The question asked in the previous story (“Who is this?”) is now answered by the demons themselves: “Jesus, the Son of God” (8:29). In all three of the Synoptic Gospels, the account of expelling of these demons follows the storm on the lake, that that the external turbulence of the elements prepares for the internal turbulence of the soul.
These two stories are both concerned with the mysterious identity of Jesus in a context symbolic of baptism. First, the marveling Apostles raise the question of Jesus’ identity in reaction to His manifest authority over the storm (Matthew 8:27; Mark 4:41; Luke 8:25), and then the demons address Him as “Son of God” (Matthew 8:29; Mark 5:7; Luke
8:28): “Who is this? The Son of God.”
This combination of query and response, found in all three Synoptics, suggests that the demons themselves are answering the question that the Apostles have just asked: “Who?” The joining of this specific doctrinal question and this specific dogmatic answer, given at the waterside, follows the ancient interrogation of the Sacrament of Baptism (cf. Acts 8:36–37, for example), which in the Church has always been prefaced by an exorcism. To this very day, when someone is presented for baptism, that person is first exorcised of demons, who are explicitly rejected, and is then asked to confess Jesus as Son of God, Savior, and Lord.
The juxtaposition of these two stories suggests an imaginative analogy between the outer, physical storm on the lake and the inner, spiritual storm afflicting a tortured soul. (This suggestion is not at all affected by Matthew’s having two demoniacs here, apparently moving the second one to this scene from Mark 1:23–26. Such doublings are typical of Matthew.)
Both of these storms, the outer and the inner, have a “before and after.” Thus, of the first one we read, “a great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat,” and then, “the wind ceased and there was a great calm.” Of the second storm we are told, “he was in the mountains and in the tombs, crying out and cutting himself with stones,” and then, they “saw the one who had been demon-possessed and had the legion, sitting and clothed and in his right mind.” In both cases, it is the encounter with Jesus that produces the calm. In each instance, Jesus’ command is inexorable: “Even the wind and the sea obey Him” and “Send us to the swine.”
It is a point of great irony in this story that the local citizens, who had managed to overcome somewhat their fear of the demoniacs, are so completely terror-struck by the Lord’s action that they request that he leave them be.
Friday, January 29
Matthew 9:1-8: Once again Matthew, omitting the colorful detail about the removal of the roof, has simplified a story for purposes of concentrating the attention on the person-to-person encounter between Jesus and the paralytic. The most significant thing about the paralytic is not his paralysis, but his “sins,” so this is what Jesus addresses first. Indeed, even when He heals the paralysis, Jesus does so in order to demonstrate His authority over the man’s sins. In what He does in this scene, then, Jesus inserts Himself between God and the man, speaking to the man with God’s authority. It is not without significance that all three versions of the story also include the detail that Jesus could, like God, read His accusers’ inner thoughts.
In each of the three Synoptic Gospels, moreover, the Lord’s claim to authority over sin here becomes the first occasion on which His enemies accuse Him of blasphemy. This is significant too, because at His judicial process before the Sanhedrin, blasphemy will be the crime of which He is accused. In a sense, then, Jesus’ trial begins with His healing of the paralytic, because this scene is recognized by even His enemies as the occasion on which He forcefully claims divine authority.
In all three Synoptic Gospels, the paralytic becomes the “type” of the sinner. He is helpless, carried by others because he cannot carry himself. He is utterly in need of mercy above all things. Indeed, even his forgiveness and his cure are not credited to his own faith. All three ac- counts mention that the Lord sees the faith, not of the paralytic, but of the men who support him. This point of “corporate faith” in the forgiveness of sins is accentuated in Matthew’s version, where the authority of Jesus to forgive sins is shared with “men” (9:8). The plural here is significant and touches on an important theme in Matthew, the Church’s authority to bind and loose in God’s name (16:19; 18:18). This theme is related to the Great Commission at the end of that Gospel, where the entire mission of the Church is rooted in the total “authority” of Christ (28:18).
Matthew is alone in placing this story immediately after the stilling of the storm and the driving out of the Gergesene demons. When the healing of the paralytic is effected to demonstrate that Jesus is possessed of the “authority to forgive sins,” it is done with that same ready dispatch with which He stilled the storm and drove the devils into the swine.