Friday, March 3

Matthew 14:22-33: We know from John (6:14-15) that 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 (verses 22-23). Meanwhile Jesus himself went off to pray alone.

It had already been late in the day when the miracle of the loaves took place (verse 15), and it was well into the night when Jesus finished praying. The apostles were out in the middle of the lake, rowing against the wind (verse 24). Some time between three and six o’clock in the morning (verse 25), while it was still quite dark, they suddenly beheld Jesus walking to them on the water. Indeed, he was “strolling” (peripaton)! The disciples took Jesus for a ghost or mirage (phantasma) and reacted accordingly (verse 26).

Only Matthew includes the detail of Simon Peter’s semi-successful efforts to imitate Jesus’ walking on the water. Reassured by Jesus, he stepped off the boat and placed his foot solidly on a wave. His attempt was brought abruptly to finish when, taking his eyes off Jesus, the apostle did what no Christian should ever do: he looked down!

Proverbs 12: The chapter continues the series of couplets containing contrasts: love/hate (verse 1), good/wicked (verse 2), wickedness/righteousness (verse 3), virtuous wife/shameful wife (verse 4), and so on.

Such sustained emphasis on contrasts and distinctions should put to rest the recent idea that biblical teaching is non-analytical and non-critical. For several generations, some of those who dislike classical philosophy have pretended that “Semitic thinking” is unlike “Greek thinking” in this respect. They have told us that the Greeks applied critical distinctions to dissect ideas and look at them in an objective, detached way that separated the knower from the known. On the other hand, the Semites (so the story goes) took a unitive approach to knowledge, in which the knower became identified with what was known.

This version of the matter, however, involves an oversimplification that does justice to neither the Semites nor the Greeks. While it is true that the common Semitic verb for knowing, yada‘, implies union rather than division (as in “Adam knew his wife”), another common Semitic verb for knowing, bin, means knowledge of a discursive, critical sort. Both aspects of knowledge, that is to say, are contained in Semitic epistemology. Similarly, with respect to the Greeks, the application of critical, objective distinctions, of the sort characteristic of dialectics, should not be taken as the goal of classical Greek philosophy. Dialectics is a means, rather, of arriving at metaphysical contemplation, gnosis (the Sanskrit jnana), in which the knower and the known are united.

In short, the differences between Greek and Semitic approaches to knowledge cannot be reduced to the elementary distinction between analytical and contemplative knowledge. Nor can either approach be reduced to a single, simple description.

Saturday, March 4

Matthew 14:34—15:11: The question about washing hands before eating bread (verse 2), we observe, follows closely on the story of the miraculous bread (14:13-21). In addition, it is soon followed by Jesus’ reference to the “children’s bread” (verse 26), a second account of miraculous loaves (verses 29-37), and another discussion about bread (16:5-12).

Whereas the scribes and Pharisees accuse the disciples of violating “the traditions of the elders,” Jesus’ counter-question goes much further, indicting the accusers of violating the Law of God. This indictment elevates the seriousness of the debate. Indeed, Jesus sets that “tradition” in opposition to God’s commandment, and by reason of this opposition He calls the accusers “hypocrites” (verse 7), citing Isaiah (29:13 LXX) to enforce the point.

In making this argument, Matthew has recourse to prophecy as a means to interpret the Torah. It seems likely that this approach characterized the early Church’s polemic against Pharisaic Judaism.

Proverbs 13: Wisdom is not something that a young man can discover on his own. He either has the good sense to receive it as an inheritance or he will simply never have it. He must, therefore, listen and pay attention. It will be difficult, however, to listen and pay attention if he is forever running his mouth (verse 3). Custody of one’s tongue, then, is absolutely required for the attaining of wisdom.

This habit of guarding one’s tongue, in order the better to hear and learn instruction, can become a life-long habit, a distinguishing characteristic of the wise man even when he grows older. We see this phenomenon in a special way in the traditions of ancient Egypt, where the “silent just man” became a moral ideal of Egyptian culture, exemplified in The Instructions of Ani in the second millennium before Christ all the way to the ascetical literature of the Christian monks of the Egyptian desert. The “silent just man” maintained strict control over his tongue, and in order to maintain control over his tongue he was obliged to keep guard also over his emotions. His speech, when he did speak, would bear wise counsel and insight. Such a man could be trusted. To him could be given responsibilities over serious matters, even the destiny of nations.

It was proverbial in antiquity, and not only in Egypt, that no man could safely govern anything outside of himself until he had learned to govern his own soul (16:32). And a man began to learn this discipline in his youth, by not opening his mouth except to ask questions and to seek instruction.

Sunday, March 5

Romans 13:1-7: Beginning with the believer’s relationship to other believers, and going on with respect to those outside the community of faith, Paul now addresses the Christian’s relationship to the political order.

One is impressed by Paul’s attitude of respect, deference, and obedience toward the civil authority, not simply because that authority carries the power to exact such an attitude, but also because such an attitude is required by conscience (verse 5). To respect and obey the State, in Paul’s view, is demanded by God’s own ordinance, because ultimately the State holds its authority from God. (Contrast this view with that of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson.) The State is “God’s minister” (verse 4).

Generally speaking, then—and proper exception being made for laws that violate the moral order—the dictates and decisions of government are binding in conscience. They are not simply penal laws. That is to say, in those instances where the State does not contravene God’s own law, the State speaks for God and is a valid channel for the discovery of God’s will.

Lest we be too quick to imagine that Paul is thinking of the State in very idealistic terms, we may bear in mind that the emperor at that time was Nero, and the State of Paul’s reference was the Roman Empire. This empire had earlier expelled the Jews, including Christians, from Rome only a decade before (Acts 18:2; Suetonius, “Claudius” 25), and about four years after writing this epistle Paul himself would be executed by this same authority. Three years after that, moreover, the full weight of the imperial government would come down hard on the Christians at Rome in a fearful persecution. In other words, Paul’s attitude toward Rome was not one of convenience, but of principle.

Paul’s affirmations here bear witness to an important feature of Christian anthropology. They testify that man’s relationship to God is not limited to the specifically religious and cultic sphere; Man is also related to God in the political, social, cultural, and economic spheres of his existence in this world. Man’s relationship to God, in other words, is inseparable from his relationship to everything else.

Proverbs 14: Wisdom is the foundation of homes and households (verse 1). This is the inherited wisdom of the ages, conservatively handed down in the tradition of “families and villages” (to borrow Aristotle’s coupling).

Since the experience of family necessarily involves the transmission of identity, the tradition or inherited wisdom is not peripheral to family life. Unassailable tradition, based on perceived absolutes, is not something with which a family can dispense. It is of the essence, and it is this sense of tradition’s essential character that injects a note of urgency into the rhetoric of the Book of Proverbs. The exhortations in Proverbs are matters of life or death. Hence, this sense of urgency goes far to account for the toughness of discipline inculcated throughout the book.

Consequently, moral indifference or relativism, based on skepticism and an overly critical spirit, spell the death of wisdom and therefore the death of family life (verse 11). Nowhere does the Bible tolerate the relativism and despair (including a sympathy for suicide) that characterized some primitive writings of Mesopotamia, such as the ancient Dialogue of Pessimism. The latter work, written over three thousand years ago, reads today like a work of recent Existentialism. If such attitudes were characteristic of the philosophy of Mesopotamia, it is no wonder that Proverbs 15Abraham insisted that Isaac should not go back there (Genesis 24:5-6).

The Book of Proverbs, in mighty contrast, represents the voice of moral and metaphysical absolutes, a wisdom based on the sense of the scrutiny and presence of God (verses 2,26-27; cf. 13:14; 15:39,11,29).

Monday, March 6

Psalms 41 (Greek & Latin 40): This psalm begins with the Lord’s compassion for the poor and sick: “Blessed is he who considers the poor; the Lord will deliver him in the time of trouble. The Lord will preserve him and keep him alive, and he will be blessed on the earth. You will not deliver him to the will of his enemies. The Lord will strengthen him on his bed of illness; You will sustain him on his sickbed.” This is not simply a moral theme, as it were, but a matter of the divine salvation, for right away the psalm goes on to describe Christ’s compassionate assumption of our sinful condition—the identification of the Sinless One with sinners: “I said: ‘Lord, be merciful to me; heal my soul, for I have sinned against You.’” Here we have the voice of the one of whom St Paul said: “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21).

Christ’s compassion for the poor and the infirm is not simply a moral quality of His character, so to speak. It is of a piece with that love that compelled Him to lay down His life for sinners, paying the price for their return to God. The voice of Psalm 40, then, is that of Christ our Lord, and its context is His saving Passion.

More specifically, this psalm’s context is Christ’s betrayal by Judas Iscariot. We know this because, on the very night of that betrayal, the Lord quoted this psalm with reference to it, saying that Judas’s act of treachery happened “that the Scripture may be fulfilled, ‘He who eats bread with Me has lifted up his heel against Me’” (John 13:18). (The Lord said this during the Last Supper, which thus seems to determine the ”bread” in this psalm to be the Holy Eucharist.)

Proverbs 15: This chapter contains several references to the acceptance of correction (verses 5,10,12,31,32). Among a young man’s worst enemies is his innate resistance to correction, a resistance spawned of rebellion and an independent spirit. Giving in to such a spirit generally produces three results, all of them bad: First, it strengthens a man’s spirit of rebellion. (A rebel’s spirit is useful in the face of oppression; otherwise, it is a counterproductive trait in a man. A sustained spirit of rebellion, a spiritual chip on the shoulder, renders a man useless for any purpose.) This leads to hardness of heart and self-absorption.

Second, refusal to accept correction deprives a man of instruction about some point on which at least one other person thinks he needs instruction. Third, it discourages that same person from making some attempt at correction and instruction in the future. Thus, many valuable lessons will be lost if the young man does not early recognize and deal with these inner impulses of rebellion. Following such impulses is not the path to wisdom.

A Christian reading of this theme in Proverbs should see more in the Sacred Text, not less, than a merely Jewish reading of it. Even the simplest, plainest reading of Proverbs, based on the most literal sense of the Text, shows the importance of being open to correction. The Christian reader, however, reading the Scriptures through the lens of Christ, will recognize God the Father as the True Parent who speaks in these lines.

Thus, the submission that all children owe to the discipline of their parents becomes the symbol of a greater docility that God’s children owe to their heavenly Father. That is to say, the Christian reader should see more in the meaning of Proverbs in this regard: “Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them reverence. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live?” (Hebrews 12:9)

Tuesday, March 7

Matthew 15:21-28: Jesus now turns from the Jewish unbelievers to a Gentile whose faith will bring about the healing of her daughter. It is significant that in both Mark and Matthew this story follows the discussion about ritual uncleanness, a preoccupation of the Jews.

Matthew began his gospel by drawing attention to Jesus as “the son of David” (1:1). It was the name by which he was invoked by the blind men (9:27). Now it is by this title that the Canaanite woman addresses him (verse 22). Later, this messianic designation will come more into evidence. It is the title by which He will be greeted in Jericho (20:29) and Jerusalem (21:9). The Lord’s acceptance of this title will rankle His enemies (21:15; 22:41-45). If it is striking to find “son of David” on the tongue of a Gentile, we should bear in mind Matthew’s earlier citation from Isaiah with respect to that Galilean border with Phoenicia (4:13-15; Isaiah 9:15).

In Matthew’s version of this story, the accent lies on faith: “Great is your faith” (verse 28; contrast Mark 7:9). The woman’s “great faith” is reminiscent of the earlier Gentiles in Matthew, such as the Magi and, more explicitly, the centurion in 8:10. This woman thus becomes a kind of first-fruits of Jesus’ final Great Commission to “all nations.”

Indeed, like the Magi at the beginning of this gospel and the disciples at the end of it (2:11; 28:17), this woman is said to adore Jesus (proskynein–15:25).

Proverbs 16: Proverbs deals with more than human effort. This book shares, rather, the conviction of the Bible’s historians and prophets (including the author of Job) that God reigns over human history and has plans of His own with respect to human destiny (verses 1-4,9,25,33). Man is not in charge of history. The “big picture” is not man’s responsibility. Consequently, God does not generally let him see the big picture. God’s governance of history is unfathomable. (Even those prophets to whom the Lord gives a panoramic view of history are often unable to see even one step ahead in matters of their own lives. Jeremiah is an example.)

This is not to say, of course, that human choices count for nothing in the course of events. It means only that man should restrict his concerns to those aspects of life that he can actually do something about, and these are determined largely by the circumstances in which Divine Providence places him. Each man must do his duty, as determined by those responsibilities, leaving to God the outcome of events. Man must be content to do right “as God gives us to see the right” (Abraham Lincoln).

At the same time, God’s loyal and obedient servant takes strength from the remembrance that God holds governance over the whole historical process. Even as men struggle to remain faithful, while not seeing the larger picture of which their own efforts are but a part, faith in a ruling God offers the proper basis for a sane, holy, and rational hope. This truth has special pertinence for those charged with the rule of nations (verses 10,12-15).

Wednesday, March 8

Psalms 49 (Greek & Latin 48): This psalm is not a prayer in our usual sense, of words directed to God. It is, rather, a meditation on a theme having to do with the pursuit of wisdom. Its tone and direction are universal, characterized by a broad and general perspective. It is a philosophical psalm, making its appeal to the human mind as such, any human mind, in any time or place: “Hear these things, all you nations. Give ear, all you who dwell upon the earth.”

Directed to all peoples at all times, it does not mention the specific events of the salvation history narrated in the Bible. It says nothing about the Exodus or the giving of the Law, nothing about the Covenant or Jerusalem, nothing about the Chosen People or the Messiah or salvation.

Rather, it calls upon the human mind, any human mind, to think deeply about certain universal facts and phenomena of human life. The poet invites all mankind to meditate with him on a specific but universal problem. He is also going to take his time with the matter, for this is a deep and enigmatic concern, not a subject to be hurried. No fewer than four times the psalmist declares what he is about to do: (1) “My mouth shall speak wisdom; [2] and the concern of my heart, understanding. [3] I will bend my ear to a puzzle; [4] I shall broach my riddle in a ballad.”

Now the thing that most strikes the psalmist about human existence is that it ends in death, and he is a fool who forgets or neglects this truth. Human beings tend to take too seriously the wealth and other sorts of honor that this world gives, for death will make it all come to nothing. This ill-placed confidence is no basis for a wise life. Halfway through and again at the end, our psalm comes back to a refrain on this theme: “Abiding in honor, man has failed to understand. He has come to resemble the witless beasts, and to be compared with them.”
Graves tending to be dug to roughly the same depth, death has been called the great leveler. Rich and poor, great and small, suffer an identical fate. Cemeteries are very democratic places, so this psalm is addressed to “wealthy and poor alike.”

Proverbs 17: Wisdom is learned and practiced in the home and the community. It has to do with simple, quotidian experiences, both domestic and immediately social. Consequently, a number of these maxims are concerned with man’s life in his home and in society: the blessings of a quiet household (verse 1), the raising of children (verses 21,25), dependable servants (verse 2), reverence for the younger and older generations (verse 6), the maintenance of friendships, even the friendships of others (verses 9,17), the resolution of conflicts (verse 14), and respect for the poor (verse 5).

The perfect man, we are told, is the one who “does not stumble in word” (James 3:2). Because a man’s speech is his chief means of associating with his family and his community, his ability to govern his tongue will chiefly determine the quality of his social relationships. It is a man’s speech that will make or break him in the moral and social orders. Without proper control of his tongue, a man is of no decent use to either God or his fellow-men. It is not surprising, therefore, that this chapter on man’s domestic and social life should contain several references to the power of speech, not only good speech (verse 7) and controlled speech (verses 27-28), but also perverse speech (verse 20) in a number of forms, such as mendacity (verses 4,7), ridicule (verse 5), and gossip (verse 9).

Thursday, March 9

Proverbs 18: Many commentators have spoken of the “pragmatic” motive in much of the Book of Proverbs. That is to say, very often what are recommended in this book are things that have been proven to work; these things get good results. Or, to borrow the expression of William James, they have “cash value.” Such things have been tried for generations, and only a fool would abandon them.

We should be cautious about this approach to Proverbs, however, because the pragmatic motive in this book is not identical to that of William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, John Dewey, and their kindred spirits. The pragmatism of these men rested on a fundamental agnosticism with respect to ultimacy. Persuaded that the correct answers to ultimate questions (“Does God exist?” “Is man’s willed activity free?”) must remain unknown to the human mind, these pragmatists recommended that human endeavor, including human thought, should follow only such lines of action as would prove to be useful and productive, such lines of action as would “get good results.” That is to say, human beings should do and think only such things as really work. If a thing or a thought does not work — if experience shows a thing or a thought to be unproductive — prudence dictates that it should not be pursued. (Thus, for instance, William James rejected the theory of atheism because it does not lead anywhere. Atheism promises nothing and delivers nothing. It is not a useful idea. The idea of God’s existence, on the other hand, has proved itself a very useful and productive idea.)

The problem with this brand of pragmatism is that it separates human activity from human knowledge. It is based on agnosticism with respect to the most important philosophical questions ever posed to the human mind, and it attempts to formulate a manner of life and thought divorced from real answers to those very real questions. How, after all, can I know whether something really “works,” if I have no idea what it is supposed to do? How can I know whether or not I am making “progress” (John Dewey’s favorite word), if I do not know where I am going? How can I seek the human good, if I have no idea what “good” means or the purpose of human existence?

Quite different is the pragmatism of the Book of Proverbs. It does not rest on an agnosticism about the fundamental questions in life, but on discerned and solid answers to those questions. For Proverbs it is not the case that (to use William James’s expression) “truth happens to an idea.” Truth abides, rather, in the structure of reality, and a truthful idea is not the creation of the human mind at all. It is an idea created in the mind by the very truth that inheres in reality. Men are said to live wisely if their minds and activities are shaped by the truth that God placed in the structure of reality.

At the same time, this discernment of truth in the structure of reality does not come solely from theorizing about reality. Sometimes, and perhaps frequently, it comes from the godly effort to deal with the concrete exigencies of human life. For this reason, perhaps, the deepest insights into the reality of life in this world often come to very practical men as they grapple with the shape of history by making godly decisions in difficult and trying circumstances. It may be the case that sometimes a philosopher/king must first be a king in order to become a philosopher.

Friday, March 10

Psalms 40 (Greek & Latin 39): The correct “voice” for this psalm is not in doubt. We know from Hebrews 10 that these are words springing from the heart of Christ our Lord and have reference to the sacrificial obedience of His Passion and death.

We may begin, then, by examining that interpretive context in Hebrews, which comes in the section where the author is contrasting the Sacrifice of the Cross with the many cultic oblations prescribed in the Old Testament. These prescriptions of the Mosaic Law, says Hebrews, possessed only “a shadow of the good things to come.” Offered “continually year by year,” they were not able to “make those who approach perfect” (10:1). That is to say, those sacrifices did not really take away sins, and their effectiveness depended entirely on the Sacrifice of the Cross, of which they were only a foreshadowing. Indeed, “it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (v. 4).

In support of this thesis, the author of Hebrews quotes our psalm: “Sacrifice and offering You did not desire / . . . In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin / You had no pleasure” (vv. 5, 6). In fact, this theme appears rather often in the Old Testament itself. Isaiah, for example, and other prophets frequently attempted to disillusion those of their countrymen who imagined that the mere offering of cultic worship, with no faith, no obedience, no change of heart, could be acceptable to God.

The author of Hebrews, therefore, is simply drawing the proper theological conclusion when he writes: “And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins” (v. 11). What God seeks, rather, is the perfect obedience of faith, and such an obedience means the total gift of self, not the mere sacrificial slaughter of some beast.

This obedience of Christ our Lord is a matter of considerable importance in the New Testament. He Himself declared that He came, not to seek His own will, but the will of the Father who sent Him (John 5:30). This doing of the Father’s will had particular reference to His Passion, in which “He . . . became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8). This was the obedience manifested in our Lord’s prayer at the very beginning of the Passion: “Take this cup away from Me; nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will” (Mark 14:36).

Proverbs 19: Circumspection, not haste, is the way of correct action (verse 2); this is a warning against precipitous and impassioned reactions (cf. 18:13; 21:5; Romans 10:2). When swift action is called for in circumstances that do not permit the taking of adequate counsel, such action will be more safely and prudently taken by the man who normally does not act precipitously. That is to say, a person who normally takes adequate counsel before acting on his decisions is the one most likely to react wisely when he does not have opportunity to take counsel. He is the one who will not lose his head under pressure. He will keep his emotions at bay and not act on the basis of them (verse 11), knowing that acting on passion tends to become a habit (verse 19).

Verse 7 should not be understood in a sense that would treat all friendships with skepticism. It is simply a realistic warning that not all friends, after all, can be relied upon all the time. The person who believes otherwise will soon be embarrassed (cf. 25:19).

A gift given to the poor is a loan to God (verse 17; cf. 14:31; 17:5; 22:9; Matthew 10:42). We do well to bear in mind that God pays a generous interest on such loans.

Perhaps the Book of Proverbs contains no more important a sentiment, a conviction strongly to be maintained in the heart, than “a prudent wife is from the Lord” (verse 14; cf. 18:22).