Friday, December 30

Matthew 25:14-30: In the third story, about the three stewards who receive “talents” from their Master, once again the passage of time is integral to their testing. “After a long time,” says our Lord, “the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them” (25:19). There is no instant salvation in the Christian life.

The point of comparison with the rest of Matthew’s context is found in the Master’s return to settle accounts. This is a reference to the parousia of the Son of Man, the subject of all the parables in this series. Once again, and for the third time (24:48; 25:5), the parousia is delayed (verse 19; contrast Luke 19:15).

Everything has to do with the ability to persevere through the passage of time. After all, we do not remain the same through the passage of time. Time changes things, and we must cope. Events affect our thoughts and sentiments. This coping with the passing of time is an integral part of our testing before God.

A “talent” was a unit of money in Roman times. It was something to be invested, to make a profit. The metaphorical sense of “talent,” meaning a natural gift with which a human being has been endowed, comes entirely from this parable. Indeed, the metaphorical use of this word has become so common that we do not realize that this usage was originally a metaphor.

The Master makes an investment in His servants. They work for Him. The talents belong to the Master, not the servants. Their responsibility is what is known as stewardship, and proper stewardship is the subject matter of the judgment that follows the Master’s return.

This parable is in great part an allegory. The master who departs is Christ our Lord, who has gone into heaven but will return in due course. The talents are the resources that He leaves to the stewardship of His servants, so that they may increase the yield thereof. His return is the end of history, and His calling to account is the final judgment.

The differences among the five, two, and one talents, however, are probably not meant to be interpreted allegorically. It simply means that some of God’s servants are given more responsibilities than others. The essential moral concern is that each steward is to work with what he has been given. He is not responsible for what he has not been given.

Two of the servants are good stewards and justify the Master’s confidence in them (verses 16-17). They receive “the joy of your Lord” (verses 21,23), which is eternal life. It is the equivalent of the marriage celebration of the last parable (verse 10) and the “Kingdom” of the next (verse 34). It is encouraging to observe the terms in which these parables describe the reward of the righteous. The faithful man is called “blessed” (24:46; 25:34). He becomes a guest at the wedding (25:10) and enters into the Lord’s joy (25:21,23). He becomes a “ruler” (24:47; 25:21,23). He inherits a kingdom (25:34).

The third servant describes himself as “afraid.” Because he refused even to try, the Master calls him “lazy.” Obviously, they assess his character quite differently. Self-approval does not count for much with God.

The third servant “buried his talent,” an expression that is still common (verse 18). We observe that he blamed the Master for his own failure (verse 25). The Master’s response, in the second part of verse 26, should be read as a question: “You knew, did you . . . .?”

Rejected at the judgment (verses 27,30), this lazy, wicked servant is like the five improvident maidens in the preceding parable (verse 12) and the goats in the next parable (verse 41).

Saturday, December 31

Matthew 25:31-46: The story of the Last Judgment, which closes Matthew’s fifth great discourse and comes immediately before the account of the Lord’s Passion, was chosen by the Orthodox Church to be read immediately before the start of Lent each year. This custom places the Last Judgment as the context for repentance.

This parable makes it very clear, if we needed further clarity, that “a man is justified by works, not by faith alone” and that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:24,26).

It is imperative to observe that the last activity ascribed to Christ in the Nicene Creed is that “He will come again in glory to judge.” This is Matthew’s fourth straight parable about the parousia of the Son of Man for the purpose of judgment. He had introduced this theme of final judgment much earlier, among the parables of the Kingdom (13:41), and in the coming trial before the Sanhedrin in the next chapter the Lord will speak very solemnly on this subject by way of warning to Israel’s official leaders: “I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven” (26:64).

Let us also observe that the Son of Man does not return to earth alone; He is accompanied by the angels, who have a distinct function in the coming trial (verse 31; 13:41,49; 16:27; cf. Zechariah 14:5; 1 Thessalonians 3:13).

The Son of Man will sit in judgment over “all the nations”–panta ta ethne (verse 32; 24:14; 28:19). Israel is numbered among these nations. As in any trial, a verdict will be given, leading to a division, the latter symbolized by the sheep and the goats.

The Son of Man is identified as the King (verses 34;40), an image that goes back to the beginning of Matthew’s narrative (1:1,20; 2:2,13-14) and will appear again at the Lord’s trial and crucifixion (27:11,29,37,42).

The elect are addressed as the “blessed of My Father” (verse 24). The inherited Kingdom has been planned and prepared since the beginning of Creation; it had been in the divine mind all along.

Then comes the criterion of the judgment, in which we recognize the components of Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan (10:29-37).

Especially to be noted in this parable is Jesus’ association with all mankind, especially the poor, the destitute, and the neglected. To serve the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the sick, and the imprisoned is to serve Jesus, who identifies Himself with them. This is the basis for all Christian service to suffering humanity. This is not a negligible aspect of the Gospel; it pertains to the very subject matter of the final judgment.

The dominant idea of this parable, in fact, is the divine judgment. God really does judge. He really does discriminate. He will not confuse a just man and an unjust man. He discerns the difference, and that difference means a great deal to Him. He does not take difference lightly. He assigns eternal destinies to men on the basis of that difference.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Genesis 1: Genesis does not say that God creates darkness; darkness was, so to speak, already there. Darkness is nothingness; it is non-existence. Therefore, night itself is symbolic of non-existence. This is why night will eventually disappear (Revelation 22:5).

Light, on the other hand, is the first creation of God; “Let there be light” are His first recorded words (verse 3). The light, then, and the darkness, which are called day and night, refer to something far deeper in Creation than the phenomena that our eyes behold. Light is not simply a by-product of solar energy. It is, rather, the principle of intelligibility in the structure of Creation. The light that God calls into being at the beginning of Genesis is that inner structure of intelligibility that the mind of man, in due course, will be created to discover and investigate. Man’s investigation of the light is called philosophy, just as his investigation of God’s Word is called theology.

Still, Creation is a revealedtruth. The word refers to a specific act that cannot be reached by the power of reason. Creation, as the Christian faith understands that term, means the passage from non-being to being. I do not know, nor can I know, by the ability of reason, that all things, visible and invisible, have passed from non-being to being.

My reason tells me, of course, that myself and the world around me have a rational source. The intelligent design that my reason beholds in the universe cannot possibly have come from a series of undirected accidents; my mind cries out that it is utterly irrational to imagine otherwise. Only a fool would affirm it. (In fact, the Bible uses the word “fool” when it mentions this possibility.)

Still, the intelligent design that I see in the world does not tell me that all things, visible and invisible, come from nothing. Science and philosophy have never breathed a word of it. Creation is a truth divinely revealed, which is why it is contained in the Creed. It is not the business of the Creed, after all, to affirm things that can be affirmed apart from the Creed.

Typical of the Christian conviction on this point, one may cite St. Hilary of Poitiers: “For all things, as the prophet says, were made out of nothing; it was no transformation of existing things, but the creation of non-being into a perfect form” (De Trinitate 4.16).

Monday, January 2

Genesis 2: In this second account of Creation everything takes place much faster. Although man is said to sleep, night is never mentioned. Here God is said to “form” (yasar), to give shape to; it is the word normally used for working in ceramics. Indeed, man is shaped from the moist soil, the mud, like the work of pottery to which Jeremiah will later compare him. In this chapter of Genesis the plants and animals are not created until after the creation of man. Man is created in order to take care of the plants (verse 7-15), while the animals are created to be man’s companions (verses 18-20). The very word for “man” is the Hebrew generic word for a human being, adam, related to the adamah, or the “soil” from which he comes.

Still, this first human being is a male. Therefore, the noun designating him is masculine in gender. In all languages, the noun designating human beings is masculine. Contrary to the contemporary conceit that pretends otherwise, there is no such thing as a non-gendered, gender-neutral noun for a human being. While the sex of an actual human being is either male or female, the gender of the designating noun is invariably masculine. This distinction, alas, tends to be lost on those who, having confused grammar with biology, go on to confuse gender with sex.)

As man is formed from the earth, woman is formed from man. It is from this first man, Adam, that the first woman is formed. More specifically, it is from the part of man closest to his heart, from the place where woman herself lives, at man’s side. But she comes from within him; when Adam sees her, he recognizes this “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” She is, as it were, part of him. The sexual attraction between men and women, in the eyes of the Bible, is metaphysical, having to do with an essential craving for inner wholeness (verse 24).

Jesus will later appeal to this truth as the basis for His prohibition of divorce (Mark 10:8-9; 1 Corinthians 6:16-17; Ephesians 5:31-32). It also serves as the biblical argument against sexual activity outside of the marriage between a man and a woman. Any sexual activity that does not involve a man and a woman, married to one another, stands outside of the proper moral structure of human sexuality itself. This is one of the major applications of man’s transcendence to the animals.

Tuesday, January 3

Genesis 3: It is misleading to think of fallen man as searching for God. Indeed, the very opposite is true. When the human race fell in Adam, a kind of spiritual inertia came into play, a force that kept him going in the same direction—away from God. Of himself man had no power of initiative to reverse the movement. This is what is meant by the Fall.

If man was to return to God, God had to take the initiative. If God had not sought man out, he would keep going in the same direction—away. This is very clear in the biblical story of Adam’s hiding from God immediately after his disobedience. He and all his descendants would still be lying low there in the bushes if God had not come after him, inquiring, “Where are you?”

It was not that God did not know where to find Adam. It was Adam who was lost, rather, not God. God knew where Adam was, but Adam didn’t. God’s query, “Where are you?” was intended to wake lost man up to his real situation. As such, it was the first proclamation of the Gospel, the merciful word that began to reverse the direction of man’s existence. Indeed, it was the first step toward the mystery of the Incarnation.

This divine inquiry was necessary, because man had no interest in finding God. It was of God, on the contrary, that Adam was most afraid, because God recognized him to be naked. God understood this and promptly provided a covering for man’s nakedness. It was the initial step toward man’s final clothing, indicated in St. Paul’s exhortation to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14).

But even when confronted by his sin, Adam did not accept the guilt and responsibility. He immediately blamed Eve: “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate.” Indeed, this response even seems to blame God for the Fall. Adam speaks of Eve as “the woman whom You gave me,” as though to say, “I did not ask for a wife; this whole arrangement was your idea. This woman, whom You designed, is the one who got me into this mess.”

Eve, for her part, follows Adam’s example of passing the blame: “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” This too was God’s fault, of course, because He created this “creeping thing” (Genesis 1:25). Eve could hardly hold herself responsible for what happened. Even found, fallen man was obviously still lost.

Wednesday, January 4

John1:35-42: Only in this Gospel do we learn that Jesus’ first disciples had been disciples of John the Baptist.

This Gospel reading presents us with the two quite different brothers, Simon Peter and Andrew. Even though Peter often served as a spokesman for the other Apostles, one has the impression that he sometimes went out of his way to distinguish himself, to set himself apart, from the rest of the apostles — “Even if all are made to stumble, yet I will not be” (Mark 1:29). A consummate alpha personality, Peter simply cannot be overlooked; like the very sun, a boisterous giant rejoicing to run his course, there is nothing hidden from his heat.

Andrew, on the contrary, appears not to draw attention to himself but serves entirely as a conduit for others to come to the Lord. Even in this scene that prompts the Church to remember him as the first-called, he immediately went to share his blessing with his sibling. It is no wonder that he was known among the first Christians simply as “Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.” There is more attention given to Andrew in this Gospel than in the other three.

In verse 35 we arrive at the “third day” of the week of the New Creation.

We observe that John translates the word “rabbi,” something he would not do if he had only Jewish readers in mind (verse 38). The same is true for the names “Messiah” (verse 41) and “Kephas” (verse 42).

These things happened “about the tenth hour,” which would be bout 4 o’clock in the afternoon. The events in this next chapter took place the next day.

Psalms 89 (Latin and Greek 88):1-29: This first part of the psalm emphasizes the structural constancy of the universe, but this cosmic theme is introduced in a setting best described as messianic. That is to say, already anticipating the psalm’s second part, the permanence of the Davidic throne is related to the unvarying dependability of the heavenly bodies, for both things are given shape by God’s holy word and sworn resolve: “For You declared: ‘Mercy shall be built up forever.’ Your truth is prepared in the heavens: ‘A covenant have I formed with my chosen ones; to David my servant I swore an oath: Forever will I provide for your seed; I shall establish your throne unto all generations.’ The heavens will confess Your wonders, O Lord, and Your truth in the church of Your saints.”

Now, as Christians, we know that God’s solemn promise to David, with respect to the everlasting stability of his throne, is fulfilled in the kingship of Christ, for the Son of David now sits forever enthroned at God’s right hand, executing both prophecy and promise. Only in Christ do we find the key to the mystery of this psalm: “Once I swore by My holiness, nor would I ever lie to David. His seed shall abide forever, and his throne as the sun in My sight, and like the moon forever established, a faithful witness in heaven.”

The theological bond, then, joining the creation to David, is Christ: “God . . . has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds. . . . But to the Son He says: ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever.’ . . . And: ‘You, Lord, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth, / And the heavens are the work of Your hands’” (Heb. 1:1, 2, 8, 10). The regal, messianic covenant of sonship is related to the fixed structure of the very world, because both realities are rooted in Christ. As font and inner form, He is their common warrant.

Thursday, January 5

John 1:43-51: We arrive at “the next day” in our progress through this new week of a new Creation.

At this point it may be useful to stop and reflect on the characters that the evangelist has introduced so far. We can divide these into New Testament and Old Testament characters.

The New Testament characters are, first, John the Baptist, then Andrew and Simon Peter. In this present reading he will introduce Philip and Nathanael.

The only Old Testament character introduced so far has been Moses. Moses will also appear in the present reading, but the character of Jacob will also be introduced.

It is reasonable to surmise that the mention of Peter and Andrew in this section indicates they were the ones who introduced Jesus to Philip. In the traditional lists of the Apostles, Philip is normally named right after Andrew (cf. Mark 3:18), and we shall find them together later (12:22). Although Philip is named in each of the Synoptic Gospels, these really say nothing specific about him. Not so in the Fourth Gospel. He appears significantly in both the multiplication of the loaves and the Last Supper, each time talking with Jesus:

In identifying Bethsaida as “the city of Andrew and Peter,” John evidently indicates the place of their birth. The Synoptic Gospels clearly testify that the brothers now lived in Capernaum.

The Nathanael introduced here is clearly Bartholomew. The name Nathanael, after all, never appears in the Synoptic Gospels, and the name Bartholomew never appears in John. His full name was “Nathanael, son of Tholmai,” Indeed, in the Syriac text he is known as Bar Tholmai. He is normally named after Philip in the list of the Apostles (Mark 3:18).

Philip testifies to Nathanael that Jesus is the fulfillment of what was written in the Law and the Prophets (verse 45). This is the first time John explicitly speaks of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures. This mention of Moses continues the attention given to him already in this chapter: “For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.”

Friday, January 6

Genesis 6: In the New Testament the Deluge, to which the next four chapters of Genesis are devoted, is understood as a type of baptism. Thus, St. Peter, writing of Christ’s descent into hell after His death, goes immediately to treat of Noah, the Deluge, our own baptisms, and the Lord’s resurrection. For the early Christians, these are all components of the same Mystery of regeneration: “For Christ suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, whole the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:18-21).

We must be baptized, because we are sinners, and our sins are washed away in baptism: “Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16). Or earlier, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of your sins” (2:38).

Like the Deluge, there is something destructive about baptism. Baptism has been given to the world, because the world is full of sin, and through this water we are delivered from the world of sin. Whether we speak of the baptismal type in the Deluge, therefore, or of the fulfillment of that type in baptism itself, we must begin with sin.

Thus, the Deluge account begins with a description of a world full of sin (verses 1-5,11-13), ending with God’s sorrow at having made man and His resolve to destroy man from the earth (verses 6-7). Noah alone pleased God verse 8), so God will spare Noah and his family. God commands Noah to build the ark, and He remains patient a while longer while the ark is being constructed (1 Peter 3:20).

hen Noah and his family wait quietly in the ark for seven days, until the rains come. The rains come “after seven days” (verse 10), which is to say, on the eight day. The number “seven,” reminiscent of the week of Creation, signifies the old world, whereas the number “eight” serves as a symbol of the New Creation. In the second century St. Justin Martyr remarked that “the mystery of saved men happened in the Deluge, because righteous Noah, along with other human beings at the Deluge—namely, his own wife, his three children, and the wives of his sons—who were eight persons in number, contained a symbol of the number of the eighth day, in which our Christ appeared, having risen from the dead” (Dialogue With Trypho 138.1).