Friday, March 17

Ecclesiastes 1:1-11: The very sequences of times and seasons, which elsewhere in the Bible represent God’s covenanted care for man (Genesis 8:22; Psalm 103[104]:19–24), provoke in the mind of Ecclesiastes only the deepest sense of ennui (Ecclesiastes 1:3–8; 3:2–8). Even if wisdom can be attained—which prospect he deems unlikely (7:23–24)— wisdom and grief are inseparable (1:18).

For all that, Qoheleth is no Buddhist. “Vanity of vanities, and all is vanity,” for Ecclesiastes, represents only a vexing impression with which his believing mind struggles. In spite of this impression, he remains a man of faith, and ultimately his philosophical choice is inseparable from that faith.

Proverbs 26: A major problem of being a fool is that one does not normally know he is a fool. Indeed, among the conspicuous characteristics of the fool is his inability to reflect on his own intellectual and moral shortcomings, which, left unattended over the years, tend to become progressively shorter. The fool is usually a proud, sullen, independent man, recalcitrant to instruction and correction from the outside, so that he is hardly in a position to help himself very much from the inside (verses 1-12; 28:26).

We may note in passing that nowhere in Proverbs do we find compassion for a fool. This is not to say that the fool should not be pitied, and other parts of Holy Scripture, such as the Sermon on the Mount, would surely prompt us to pity him. Proverbs, however, is rather short on compassion, on the whole, restricting that blessing pretty much to those who are poor for reasons besides their own fault. If one wants to be instructed on the ways of compassion, Proverbs is probably not the book to start with.

Rather early in his career, the fool discouraged those who tried to help him, and such discouragement reinforced the negative aspects of his social relationships. Leaving aside the particulars of physical appearance, we may recognize the biblical fool in the character of Bentley Drummle in Great Expectations, of whom Charles Dickens tells us that he, “was so sulky a fellow that he even took up a book as if its writer had done him an injury, did not take up an acquaintance in a more agreeable spirit. Heavy in figure, movement, and comprehension—in the sluggish complexion of his face, and in the large awkward tongue that seemed to loll about in his mouth as he himself lolled about in a room—he was idle, proud, niggardly, reserved, and suspicious. He came of rich people down in Somersetshire, who had nursed this combination of qualities until they made the discovery that it was just of age and a blockhead. Thus, Bentley Drummle came to Mr. Pocket when he was a head taller than that gentleman, and half a dozen heads thicker than most gentlemen.”

Not far from being fools are the merely lazy (verses 13-16), the habitually contentious (verses 17-22; 28:25), and the flattering (verses 23-26; 28:23; 29:5; cf. Sirach 27:25-28).

Saturday, March 18

Matthew 17:24-27: This story, found only in Matthew, shows a special solidarity between Jesus and Peter, inasmuch as the taxes of both are paid by the same coin.

In spite of his being called “Satan” by the Lord, then, Peter did not really fall from the Lord’s favor; the Apostle was warned and reprimanded, not rejected. Indeed, even after those stern words in chapter 16, Peter was still chosen as one of the three disciples who witnessed the Lord’s transfiguration at the beginning of this chapter.

In the present text, as in every other New Testament text that speaks of his fishing, we may wonder about Peter’s skills as a fisherman. In every single gospel account, whenever Peter catches a fish, the event is regarded as a miracle.

This text also serves to instruct on the obligation of believers to pay taxes to the government.

Proverbs 27: Nothing is more burdensome than anger (verse 3). As the human soul (according to Aristotle) possesses no passion that is directly contrary to the passion of anger, we have nothing emotional in our constitution that directly counterbalances anger. We can only control it rationally, with no help from the other passions. Hence, anger is the passion most likely to get out of hand; it is also the passion that tends most to become unbalanced. Fortunately, unless deliberately cultivated, anger also tends to diminish over time; otherwise, it would crush our spirits.

But suppose a state of constant anger, an eternal wrath, an ire without end. Suppose an anger that will not dissipate with time, for the simple reason that time is no more. Such would seem to be the quality of eternal damnation, the state in which a man is perpetually and without end crushed by his anger. He teeth will forever continue to grind and gnash in the endless darkness (cf. Matthew 8:12; 13:42,50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30). The anger of the fool, described in verse 3, is a sort of calisthenics preparatory for his coming state.

Verse 19 uses the metaphor of a visual reflection to describe the sensation of the heart finding itself mirrored in another heart. This experience accompanies certain intense friendships, such as that in which “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18:1).

The chapter ends with maxims respecting the industrious and sustained stewardship of one’s resources (verses 23-27). The possession of family property, guaranteed by the provisions of the Mosaic Law, is regarded in Holy Scripture as a medium of tradition, binding each generation to those both before and after it. Property is supposed to be handed down in the family along with sound counsel for how to preserve and enhance it.

Sunday, March 19

Matthew 18:1-5: This story begins with the question of who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. In the parallel text in Mark 9:33-37, the disciples themselves argued which of themselves was the greatest. Matthew not only changes the question, then, he changes also the context of the question. It is no longer a debate among competing apostles; it is a question put to Jesus, as though a point of speculation. The question becomes spiritual and theological; it pertains to the Kingdom of Heaven. When the question is answered in verse 4, it is still about the Kingdom of Heaven.

The “child” held up as a model here is a paidion, roughly meaning someone under the age of twelve, someone who has not yet made the bar mitzvah. That is to say, it is a “kid,” someone not quite taken seriously. Hence, the lesson is one of humility. Elaborating on the point (verses 3-4, for which there are no parallels in the accounts of Mark and Luke), Jesus says that unless one becomes a paidion, he will not even enter the Kingdom, much less be contender for “greatest” cf. 20:26-27; 23:11-12).

In telling the Church how to “receive” children, Matthew is preparing for the next section, on scandal. Verse 5 sets the positive stage for the coming warning about scandal. Jesus affirms that those who receive children, receive Him. He identifies Himself with children.

And how are we to receive children? From the hand of God. Anytime there is an “unwanted child,” somebody can expect to render an answer at the throne of God. Receptivity is the Christian’s fundamental response to the appearance of children in this world (cf. 10:40; 25:31-46). This is all Jesus has to say on the subject of birth control.

Proverbs 28: Among the characteristics of the righteous man is one not often mentioned in Proverbs, perhaps because it is too obvious—bravery (verse 1). The bravery mentioned here is the fruit of a righteous life, not the mere exertions of a strong will. Such bravery will be manifest in a variety of actions, not the least of which is the refusal to approve of wickedness or those who practice it (verses 4,21). Indeed, even the ability to recognize the difference between good and evil comes from being good; this distinction is lost on those who are not (verse 5).

Although prosperity is the expected fruit of a good, wise, and industrious life (verse 19), this is not invariably the case. Ultimately, it is not prosperity that is essential, but the righteousness that would deserve prosperity if life in this world were perfect (verses 6,11). Indeed, Proverbs warns against the inordinate desire for prosperity (verse 22), and no man may seek prosperity to the neglect of the poor (verse 27; 29:7).

The worst fate that can befall a nation is to be ruled by a fool (verses 2,15-16; 29:2), and the biblical histories of Judah and Israel prove the point.

Monday, March 20

Matthew 18:6-9: This section follows immediately on follows immediately on the appearance of the child. It begins with a solemn warning not to scandalize the “little believers” (micros pistevon).

Here we have some of the toughest, harshest verses in the New Testament: violent image—drowning, cutting off a hand, gouging out an eye—all suggesting the difficulty of getting into the Kingdom of Heaven.

To give scandal, in the biblical sense, does not mean to shock. It means to cause spiritual harm (even though shock does sometimes accompany scandal). Scandal means to hurt someone spiritually, to cause to sin, to degrade someone’s conscience. In the present text the word is found six times, whether as a verb or a noun.

In the first instance it refers to the spiritual harm done to a child or young person. The Lord’s mind in this case is the reverse side of His love and preference for children. The punishment that He threatens to those who cause spiritual harm to children is an expression of His own love for children.

What, then, is a skandalon? The word means a “trap” or “snare,” a device to trip someone. Therefore it is of the nature of a skandalon that it takes someone by surprise; he is caught before he knows it.

Proverbs 29: Here are more maxims about the blessings of wise government (verses 2,4,8,14) and the curse of its opposite (verse 12), along with warnings about unnecessary contentions (verses 9,22). As we know from the wrangling of partisan politics, these two concerns are not unrelated (verse 8). A wise society requires not only righteous citizens, but also prophetic visionaries (verse 18; cf. Hosea 12:11; Isaiah 29:7) and wise and righteous rulers. These latter, it is hoped, will come from the ranks of truly humble men (verse 23), self-controlled individuals who know exactly how long to hold their tongues (verses 11,20; James 1:19). Alas, we are forewarned, they will not be respected by the wicked (verse 27).

These latter are described as having stiff necks (verse 1), a metaphor for the stubbornness of the scofflaw (Exodus 32:9; 33:3,5; Deuteronomy 9:3). Stiff necks, however, may get themselves broken. There is no parity between the fear of God and the fear of man (verse 24). The latter leads to compromise and infidelity. The only way to avoid this fear of men is to cultivate the fear of God.

Tuesday, March 21

Proverbs 30: This chapter contains the first of the book’s three final collections of wisdom maxims, a collection called “the words of Agur, the son of Jakeh.” The Hebrew text further identifies Agur and Jakeh as “of Massa,” the same place in northern Arabia (Genesis 25:14; 1 Chronicles 1:30) as King Lemuel in the next chapter. Agur, the son of Jakeh, is not called a king, however, nor is he otherwise identified. It is reasonable to suppose, therefore, that he must have been a figure of some renown among the readers for whom the Book of Proverbs was intended, requiring no further introduction.

What we have in this chapter is a philosophical discourse delivered by Agur and recorded by his two disciples, otherwise unknown, named Ithiel and Ucal (verse 1). Ancient history from places as diverse as China, India, Egypt, and Greece provides other examples of such discourses given by masters and transcribed by their disciples. One thinks, for instance, of Socrates.

Socrates, we recall, once identified by the Delphic oracle as the world’s wisest man, spent his life trying to prove the oracle wrong. Socrates finally concluded, however, that the oracle must be correct because he discovered all reputedly wise men to be just as ignorant as himself, except that they were not aware of being ignorant. Both Socrates and Agur associate the quest of wisdom with a humble mind.

Whatever his resemblance to that wise Athenian, nonetheless, Agur more readily puts us in mind of the Psalmist, who confessed to God, “I was so foolish and ignorant, I was like a beast before You” (Psalms 72 [73]:22) and “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it” (138 [139]:6).

Whereas the philosophical humility of Socrates was spawned of epistemology—that is, the accepted limitations of the human being’s ability to know—that of Agur was inspired, rather, by cosmology; he considered the sheer vastness of the varied things to be known: “Who has ascended in heaven, or descended? Who has gathered the wind in His fists? Who has bound the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth?” (verse 4) Agur’s are the sorts of reflections we associate with God’s final answer to Job (Job 38-39).

With scant confidence in his own intelligence, then, Agur began the quest of wisdom by trusting in “every word of God” (kol ’imrath ’Eloah), which word he described, exactly like the Psalmist, as “pure,” seruphah (verses 5-6; Psalms 17 [18]:31). He then turned to prayer—the only explicit prayer in the whole Book of Proverbs—in which he begged God for a modest life, free of falsehood. The life that Agur craved from on high would be neither wealthy nor poor, in order to avoid both arrogance and desperation, either of which might lead him into sin (verses 7-9).

Agur did not think very highly of his contemporaries, whom he described as disrespectful of authority and tradition, morally dissolute and socially irresponsible, insatiable in their appetites, and entertaining too high an opinion of themselves (verses 11-14). If one looks closely at the criticism, it is clear that Augur’s complaint had a fourfold structure. In fact, he was especially fond of maxims based on the number four: four things that are never satisfied (verses 15-16), four things too hard to understand (verses 18-19), four things the world cannot endure verses 21-23), four small but wise animals from whom men can learn useful traits (verses 24-28), and four things “which are stately in walk” (verses 29-31).

Agur’s was, in short, the simple, observant philosophy of a humble man, content to live in this world by the purity of God’s word and a prayerful reliance on God’s gifts, offending the Almighty by neither the food he put into his mouth nor the words he caused to come forth from it.

Wednesday, March 22

Matthew 18:15-20: Here we perceive Matthew’s conviction that the Church is a house of redemption and reconciliation. To be redeemed, for Matthew, and to be reconciled, means to be at peace with the Church.

This message, once again, is obscured by copyist’s insertion of the words “against you” (eis se in verse 15, an insertion that makes the offense appear to be a private matter between two Christians. This insertion, unknown to Origen in the third century and missing in the two oldest codices of the Sacred Text, seems to have been made under the influence of Peter’s question in verse 21, “How often shall my brother sin against me?”

This insertion alters the sense of the passage rather dramatically. If the reading “against you” were original, the sense of the text would indicate a private offense involving only me and my brother. Without that insertion, however, the text refers to any sin that I see my brother committing, any sin that I hear he is committing. In all such cases, he remains my brother, for whom I am responsible, and his sin is my business. I have an obligation in charity to consult with my brother on thee matter.

The case proposed here concerns sins that are not general knowledge, sins not commonly known. If a sin is blatant, open, and public, there is no need for this graduated approach indicated in the Sacred Text. Public sins, by their nature, come directly to the attention of the whole Church (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:1-5; Philippians 4:2). The reprimand of public sins may be just as public as the sin itself.

Proverbs 31: Although Proverbs several times encourages a young man to pay attention to the teaching of his mother (1:8; 6:20; 15:20), verses1-9 of this chapter, wisdom from Lemuel’s mother, are the only example of maternal teaching explicitly contained in this book. And, on reading this material, one has the impression that it is not much different, on the whole, from the instruction that a young man received from his father. There are warnings against lust (verse 3) and drinking alcohol (verse 4), along with an exhortation to take care of the oppressed and the poor (verses 5-9).

The final twenty-two verses of Proverbs (verses 10-31) form an acrostic, the verses all beginning with the sequential letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The theme is the good wife, a blessing often remarked on throughout this book (5:15;11:16; 12:4; 18:22; 19:14; cf. Sirach 7:19; 26:1-4,13-18). Here, however, the ideal wife is elaborately described in terms of her industry, economics, stewardship, discipline, labor, charity, wisdom and piety.

Thursday, March 23

Matthew 18:21-35: The theme of forgiveness by the Church now introduces the subject of personal forgiveness by members within the Church (verses 21-35). This latter aspect is introduced by Peter’s use of the word “brother.” The question still has to do with family relationships in the Holy Spirit. The Church, then, is still the context.

This passage also has to do with real offenses, such as theft, cheating, or lying. Peter does not ask, “How many times must I permit my brother to annoy me or get on my nerves.” Some more serious offense is envisioned in this mandate to forgive.

The response of Jesus can be translated as either “seventy-seven” or seventy times seven.” The point of the mandate is not the precise number, whether 77 or 490. It means, rather, that there must be no limit to our forgiveness. Forgiveness cannot be allowed to become a quantitative commodity in limited supply.

After all, how does God forgive? He does not limit His mercy to our first seven offenses. He forgives us at our repentance, no matter how often we fall. We too, then, are called to forgive in the same measure. Such abundance of mercy will become the burden of the parable that follows (verses 23-35).

Jesus’ response to Peter alludes to Genesis 4:24—“ If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” This line from Lamech is a sort of culmination of the growing violence that followed man’s fall in the Garden. That fall led immediately to the murder of Abel (4:8), which led immediately to the prospect of vengeance (4:14) and then greater vengeance (4:15), leading in Lamech’s case to the equivalent of total warfare. Jesus’ response to Peter indicates that the Gospel must go in the opposite direction, placing no limits on forgiveness.

The parable that follows, which is proper to Matthew, does not exactly illustrate the mandate to forgive without limits. It indicates, rather, that we are to forgive in the measure that our heavenly Father forgives us. Thus, the parable advances the Lord’s argument with a new consideration—the massive disproportion between the debt that one man may owe to another and the incomparable debt that every man owes to God. This ridiculous disproportion is the basis of the parable’s irony.

The debt that the servant owes to the master is calculated at ten thousand talents, a figure that would amount to billions of dollars in today’s money. Consequently, the payment of the debt was beyond the servant’s ability to repay; the debtor would be in debtors’ prison forever. This is an image of eternal loss.

The proposed sale of the wife and children is a metaphor; this could not have happened in Jewish Law in Jesus’ time. Even if it could, the sale price would not pay the debt. Hence, the servant’s resolve to pay the whole debt (verse 26) was futile on its face.

In this parable, then, we discern two aspects of God. The first is His mercy, His compassion for man’s distress. God forgives the repentant. The debt is absolved because of the master’s compassion (splangchnistheis–verse 27).

The second aspect is God’s anger (orgistheis–verse 34), prompted by man’s refusal to copy the divine compassion. The servant is condemned for not imitating his master’s mercy. Instead he declines to forgive the piddling liability of a fellow servant.

In this parable Matthew returns to the message already contained in the Lord’s Prayer and the Sermon on the Mount (6:14-15).

It is important likewise to observe the intervention of the “fellow servants,” an act that continues this chapter’s theme of the Church. We remark that the master reacts to the situation at the behest of the Church, the two or three fellow servants who are gathered in his name. Indeed, the irony of the story is disclosed by the intervention of the Church. The master in the parable listens to the case made by the Church. What was retained on earth was retained in heaven.

The wicked servant’s condemnation to torture (basanisais–verse 34) is eternal, because his debt is beyond payment. No one can pay it. This is an image of eternal damnation (cf. 25:41,46).

In short, it should be easy for a Christian to forgive seventy times seven times, knowing that God has forgiven him so much more.

Friday, March 24

Matthew 19:1-12: The following section deals with matters that we may call “domestic,” in the sense of having to do with the home (domus in Latin). This subject will include sex, children, and money, and on these matters Jesus will “heal” the people of common but fallacious opinions. These subjects—sex, child-raising, and finances—are the ones on which the views of the world are likely to be sick and in want of healing.

Each of these three subjects is introduced by certain individuals or groups who approach Jesus: the Pharisees, the mothers bringing their children, and the wealthy inquirer. Matthew has apparently arranged this material in a sequence that was usual in the catechetical practice of the Christian Church. In fact, these three subjects are likewise treated together by St. Paul (cf. Ephesians 5:22—6:9; Colossians 3:18-25). The similarity of order between Matthew and Paul suggests these dominical sayings have been organized according to a standard and recognizable format.

The treatment of marriage and divorce comes in response to the question that the Pharisees put to Jesus, which question Matthew (alone) says was meant to “try” Him (peirazontes–verse 3). The context of the teaching, that is to say, was one of controversy. It is well known that the various rabbinical schools were distinguished from one another by what restrictions they placed on divorce—some stricter, some not so strict. Jesus was being invited to enter that controversy.

Instead, He went straight to the creation account in Genesis, using it to forbid all divorce (cf. also 5:32). Jesus mentions no exceptions. Even the expression “not including fornication” (me epi porneia), which is often taken as a reason for divorce, is no exception to the rule. It simply means, “I am not talking about fornication.” That is to say, the prohibition against divorce applies only to a true marriage, not cases where a man and woman are living together in sin.

What is most striking about Jesus’ prohibition is that our Lord thereby abrogates the application of Deuteronomy 24:1, which did provide for divorce. Jesus would have none of it. Divorce for the purpose of remarriage with someone else is adultery.

It is unfortunate that many readers find in this text only another species of legalism with respect to marriage. In fact, this biblical passage has as much to say of Christology as of marriage. However, when this page is “consulted,” some question about marriage is usually the reason for the consultation, so the important Christological weight of the text is simply overlooked. Inspected more carefully, however, the Christological significance of the passage could hardly be weightier. Jesus, boldly abrogating a concession given in the Mosaic Law, laid claim to immense authority—truly, “all authority”–pasa exsousia, as He will say at the end of Matthew (28:18). This authority is nothing less than divine, and it is in recognition of this total authority that we find so many people in Matthew’s stories falling prostrate before Jesus.

It is curious that those who objected to Jesus’ prohibition against divorce were not his enemies, but his disciples. They wondered, if divorce was not permitted, whether remaining celibate might not be a more attractive option (verse 10). (We wonder why the prospect of a happy marriage did not cross their minds!)