Friday, April 8

First Corinthians 10:1-13: The early Christians, when they called themselves the ekklesia, “church,” chose the word with deliberation. This was the word selected by the translators of the Hebrew Bible (3rd century before Christ) to render the Hebrew qahal, the word designating the ancient congregation of the Israelites in the desert. Indeed, they believed themselves to be the heirs of that ancient “church.” They perceived their own experience in Christ as closely resembling—and continuous with—Israel’s experience of God in the Exodus and the desert wandering. We perceive this perspective in the present reading from 1 Corinthians 10, which speaks of the Sacraments of Initiation, Baptism and the Eucharist, as signified in ancient Israel’s experience.

This perception prompted them to be spiritually cautious, remembering that almost none of those ancient Israelites made it to the Holy Land! Here in his exhortation to the Corinthians, Paul brings that sobering fact directly to their attention.

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.

Saturday, April 9

John 6:1-14: To accompany today’s reading about “the Lord’s table” in First Corinthians 10:14-22, we begin John’s account of the Multiplication of the Loaves. Both passages are clearly Eucharistic.

On occasion, questions from Jesus served the purpose of engaging the disciples in either a discussion or an activity, making them participants in an event. One recalls how he engaged Philip at the time of the multiplication of the loaves:

Jesus lifted up his eyes, and seeing a great multitude coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat?” But this he said to test him, for he himself knew what he would do (John 6:5-6).

What, then, was accomplished by this question to Philip, since Jesus already “knew what he would do”? His question here served the purpose of evoking the assistance of the apostles in what was about to take place.

Jesus did not ask that question for Philip’s sake, I believe, but for Andrew’s. They were a pair. He knew that wherever you saw Philip, Andrew must be nearby. The question was apparently meant to be overheard by Andrew, who promptly replied, “There is a lad here who has five barley buns and a couple of dried fish” (John 6:9). Now, they could get started!

Thus, by putting to Philip a question to which he already knew the answer, Jesus transformed these apostles from mere spectators to active participants in the experience of the multiplication of the loaves. It is they who will seat the people for the meal (John 6:10). It is they who will distribute the bread and fish (6:11). In this scene, then, Jesus’ question both commences the event and provides for its participatory structure.

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.

Sunday, April 10

ATTENTION: We draw our readers’ notice to the misprint in today’s prescribed reading. Our reading from the Gospel today is JOHN 6:15-21. We apologize for the mistake.

John 6:15-21: In John, as well as in Mark and Matthew, the story of the Lord’s walking on the water is closely tied to the account of the multiplication on the loaves. That miraculous feeding of the multitude was supremely theophanic: It was the clear manifestation of the identity of Jesus.

For this reason, considerable messianic expectation among the crowd followed on the miracle of the loaves. Jesus, knowing the spiritual weakness and worldly ambition of His disciples, immediately sent them away by boat, so that they would not succumb to this dangerous enthusiasm on the part of the crowd. Meanwhile Jesus himself went off to pray alone.

it was well into the night when Jesus finished praying. The apostles were out in the middle of the lake, rowing against the wind. While it was still quite dark, they suddenly beheld Jesus walking to them on the water. The disciples took Jesus for a ghost or mirage and reacted accordingly. It is Jesus, however, and in the flesh.

In the multiplication of the loaves Jesus demonstrated His authority over bread. In the walking on the water, He demonstrates His authority over His own flesh. As John 6 progresses he will come to identify this bread as His flesh.

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.

Monday, April 11

John 6:22-40: Here begins the Bread of Life Discourse, in which Jesus interprets the miracle of the Loaves as a prophetic sign for the Eucharistic Gift He will bestow on the Church on the night of His betrayal. In this part of the discourse, Jesus ascribes the believers’ hope in the coming resurrection to their reception of this Bread of Life.

Commenting on this text early in the third century, Clement of Alexandria wrote, “Here is observed the sacrament of the bread (to mystikon tou artou), for He says it is His flesh and as manifestly raised up; just as fire raises up the sowing from corruption (ek phthoras kai sporas), so like baked bread it has truly been raised up through fire for the enjoyment of the Church” (The Teacher 1.6).

Clement speaks likewise of this sacramentally conferred immortality in connection with the Lord’s blood, which we receive from the Chalice. Recalling, with Leviticus 17:11, “the life of the flesh is in the blood,” he comments:

To drink of the blood of Jesus means nothing less than to participate in the Lord’s incorruption (tes kyriakes metalabein aphtharsias). For the Spirit is strength to the Word, just as the blood to the body (2.2).

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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.

Tuesday, April 12

John 6:41-59: Jesus continues to speak of the Gift of the His flesh and blood, conferred on the Church as His final blessing. It is through this Gift—not our works—that He confers on us His own righteousness. Human righteousness countrs for nothing. In the fourteenth century Nicholas of Cabasilas wrote,

But once men are united to Christ’s flesh and blood by partaking of them, immediately the greatest benefits ensue: the forgiveness of sins and the inheritance of the Kingdom, which are the fruits of Christ’s righteousness.

In the Holy Eucharist, he goes on, we receive the whole Christ, everything that was assumed in the Incarnation, “soul, mind, will—everything that is human.” These God’s Son took on

in order to be united to the whole of our nature in order to penetrate us and assimilate us into himself by totally uniting what is proper to him with what is proper to us.

“Thus, it is clear,” says Nicholas, that “God infuses himself into us and mingles himself with us, changing and transforming us into him,” as “when iron is united to fire and thereby takes on the properties of fire” (The Life in Christ 4.6).

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.

Wednesday, April 13

First Corinthians 11:23-34: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup,” the Apostle Paul tells the Corinthians, “you proclaim (katangellete) the Lord’s death till he comes.” Indeed, we believers are baptized in Christ in order to enter into the table fellowship of the Holy Eucharist. In fact, the ancient discipline of the Church maintains a close proximity between these two rites. Traditionally the new believer received Holy Communion at the same service as he received Baptism. The Holy Spirit, conferring on us the “creedal experience,” moves the new believer promptly to the mystery of the Lord’s Body and Blood. It is all the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

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.

Thursday, April 14

First Corinthians 3:1—4:5: The Church as a building. In fact, we are accustomed to thinking of the Church as a building. Perhaps we are too accustomed to thinking of the Church as a building. We are so accustomed to it that we forget that Paul is here using a metaphor. He is not saying the Church is a building. He is saying that it is like a building.

Paul did not write his epistles for some invisible, trans-historical reality. He wrote for specific groups of people who were joined together in organic, institutional ways. Later on in this epistle he refers to the joints and ligaments that hold the body together. These are the organizations of communion, without which there is no such thing as Church. The visible, organized Church is the only Christian Church recognized in the New Testament. Like any other historical institution, it has an invisible life and being, but that invisible life and being cannot be separated from the visible, social institution itself.

Like any other visible, organized group of people, the Church has its problems, and it was to address these problems that Paul wrote this epistle. Paul specifically addresses problems associated with strife and bickering among the Corinthian Christians. This is significant, because there is no strife or bickering in an invisible, trans-historical reality. One must not attempt to escape from the concrete problems of the visible church by joining some imaginary invisible church. That is simply an exercise in religious fantasy.

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.

Friday, April 15

Psalm 105 (Greek & Latin 104): Following the primitive schema preserved in Deuteronomy 26:1–9, the narrative of Psalm 105 breaks into three parts: the Patriarchs, the sojourn in Egypt, and the Exodus, all of them joined by the themes of God’s fidelity to His covenant promises and His active providence in fulfilling them.

While the whole psalm deals with God’s providence on behalf of all the people, the second section, dealing with the sojourn in Egypt, also includes what we may think of as “individual” providence. What the Bible portrays as God’s care for the history of the whole people of Israel is shown also to be at work in the life and destiny of a single man. It is the awesome story of Joseph and God’s care for him through many trials. Sold by his brothers into Egypt, falsely accused and unjustly imprisoned, forsaken for twenty years, the faith of Joseph was still able to say, at the end: “God sent me before you to preserve life. . . . God sent me before you. . . . But as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 45:5, 7; 50:20). Joseph’s faith in God’s providence, even as he was proved by steel and fire, is preserved also in this psalm: “[God] sent a man before them, Joseph, sold into slavery. They humbled his feet with fetters; his soul was shackled in iron. Until his word came to pass, the word of the Lord seared through him.”

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).