Friday, April 13

John 6:60-71: As this Eucharistic discourse closes, John introduces the treacherous resolve of Judas Iscariot. This corresponds to an emphasis found in each of the Synoptic Gospels, which place the institution of the Eucharist as the setting in which Jesus identifies His betrayer.

1 Corinthians 3:1-17: In his description of the Church as a building, Paul is talking about an historical institution, not some abstract, invisible reality. A purely spiritual or “invisible” Church has no problems; Paul is clearly talking about a Church with problems. The Church Paul hs in mind is a real body, a religious organization, in the sense of a living organism. This church is composed of actual people who live and worship together in a common faith. Specifically, it is the Church at Corinth. This church at Corinth is composed of real people. Paul would not countenance for one minute the idea that the real Church is something distinguishable from the Church at Corinth.

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.

The deepest foundation for this building is Christ Himself: “For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” The rest of us are living stones built on top of that foundation stone, as St. Peter tells us: “Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

That is to say, the only way to “come” to Christ is by incorporation into Him, becoming a living stone joined to the other living stones that make up the edifice of which He is the foundation stone. We do not “come to Christ” by invisibly receiving Him into our hearts. We come to Christ by visibly and audibly confessing His Lordship in the setting of the Sacraments by which we are incorporated into Him.

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 14

John 2:12-25: This is the first of three times John speaks of the Passover (verse 13; cf. 6:4; 11:55). John’s triple reference to the Pascha has always prompted Christians to picture Jesus’ public ministry as lasting three years. Since we know Jesus was about thirty years old when that ministry began (Luke 3:23), it is commonly calculated our Lord lived on earth to age thirty-three.

It is John, then, who provides the traditional chronology of the activity of Jesus. The Synoptics mention only one feast of the Passover.

John specifies that this was a “feast of the Jews.” Perhaps he does this to distinguish this day from the Christian feast of the same name (cf 1 Corinthians 5:7).

This is the first time John mentions a Jewish feast day. In fact, he will make several such references, whether to the Passover (2:13,23; 6:4; 11:55; 12:1,12,20; 13:139; 18:28,3919:14), Tabernacles (7:2, 8 10,11,1437), Hanukkah (10:22), or without specification (4:45; 5:1). Some historians have argued, in fact, that John’s Gospel is structured as kind of Christian commentary on the readings in a triennial cycle used in the synagogue.

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 15

John 2:1-21: In this conversation of Jesus with Nicodemus, it is nearly impossible to determine exactly which words pertained to that original conversation and which words represent the Evangelist’s extended meditation on that conversation. That is to say, John himself appears to be meditating on the words of Jesus. At a certain point in this dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus, the dialogue becomes a monologue of the Evangelist himself. We will meet the identical phenomenon when we come to the words of Jesus’ prayer in John 17.

The Pharisee Nicodemus, “a ruler of the Jews” and “a teacher of Israel,” appears only three times in the New Testament. Each time Nicodemus is found only in the Fourth Gospel, it is always in the context of the Lord’s redemptive death.

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 16

John 3:22-36: The position of this section of John mat have been determined by the earlier reference to Baptism in 3:5. The evangelist now returns to John the Baptist for the last time.

The reference to Jesus baptizing does not mean that He did so with His own hands. From 4:2 we will learn that Jesus’ apostles normally performed this rite. It is not easy to determine the exact nature of this baptism, and it is difficult to affirm that it was the Christian sacrament of Baptism of which John the Baptist had spoken earlier (1:33), because the Holy Spirit will not be conferred on the Church until much later in this Gospel.

The disciples of John the Baptist were understandably disturbed that the prestige of their leader was being eclipsed by the growing notoriety of Jesus. In answering them, John the Baptist again affirmed his own preparatory and subordinate role with respect to Jesus. He knew the ministry and task given him from heaven and dared not attempt to transcend the limits of his vocation (verse 27). Jesus, as the Messiah (verse 28), was the bride’s groom, whereas John was only His best man (verse 29).

We have here the first instance of what is a veritable mystique of the voice of Christ in the Gospel according to John.

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—there 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 17

1 Corinthians 4:14—5:6: The Apostle commends his young associate, Timothy to the respect of the Corinthians. Timothy had been raised in a devout, believing family (2 Timothy 1:5), where he was trained in the Holy Scriptures (3:15).

Timothy joined Paul’s company during the second missionary journey (Acts 16:1–3) and remained with him through the ensuing years, carefully following his “doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra” (2 Timothy 3:10–11).

Along the way, Paul found that he could entrust Timothy with important
responsibilities in the ministry. The young man had not been a missionary even a year before Paul sent him from Athens to Thessaloniki for a needed pastoral visit (1 Thessalonians 3:1–5). Later, from Ephesus, Paul sent Timothy to visit the Macedonians (Acts 19:22; Philippians 2:19–23) and, in the ;resent text, the quarrelsome congregation at Corinth (1 Corinthians 4:17; 16:10). It was to Timothy, finally, that Paul wrote the last letter of his life, asking him to “be diligent to come to me quickly” (2 Timothy 4:9).

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 18

Psalms 38 (Greek & Latin 37): Suffering and death enter the world with sin. To humanity’s first sinners the Lord said: “I will greatly multiply your sorrow,” and “Cursed is the ground for your sake” (Gen. 3:16, 17). So close is the Bible’s joining of suffering to sin that some biblical characters (such as Job’s friends and the questioning disciples in John 9:2) entertained the erroneous notion that each instance of suffering was brought about by certain specific sins.

Like Psalm 6, the present psalm commences with a prayer for deliverance from divine anger: “O Lord, do not rebuke me in Your wrath, nor chasten me in Your hot displeasure.” Already the poet feels overwhelming pain which he describes, whether literally or by way of metaphor, in the most physical terms: “Your arrows [thunder bolts?] pierce me deeply, and Your hand presses me down.” What he suffers comes from sin and the response of the divine wrath, from which he begs to be delivered: “There is no soundness in my flesh, because of Your anger, nor any health in my bones because of my sin.” The equation: sin = wrath of God.

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 19

Psalms 37 (Greek & Latin 36): Since God is hardly addressed in this psalm, how should we pray it? To begin with, by respecting its tone, which is one of admonition, warning, and promise. Surely prayer is talking to God, but it also involves listening to God, and this is a psalm in which one will do more listening than talking. It is a psalm in which the believer prays by placing his heart open and receptive to God’s word of admonition, warning, and promise.

One may likewise think of this psalm as the soul speaking to itself: “Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him . . . But the meek shall inherit the earth . . . The little that the righteous has is better than the riches of many wicked . . . The Lord knows the days of the upright . . . The Law of his God is in his heart,” and so on.

The human soul, after all, is not of simple construction. The great thinkers who have examined the soul over many centuries seem all to agree that it is composed of parts, and sometimes these parts are at odds one with another. This mixture of conflicting experiences in the soul leads one to utter such petitions as, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” It is one part of the soul praying for the other.

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 20

1 Corinthians 6:12-20: The Resurrection of Christ is the root and principle of bodily holiness. Paul writes

Now the body is not for porneia but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God both raised up the Lord and will also raise us up by His power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Certainly not!”

This is why we take bodily holiness with great seriousness. This is why we eschew the Gnostic pretense that what happens in the body is not important. Those who don’t take bodily things seriously are the people most likely to live sexually immoral lives. Such folk imagine that bodily sins are pretty much like other sins.

But what does St. Paul say? “Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits porneia sins against his own body.” Sexual sins are violations against the power of the Resurrection, which flows from the very flesh of Christ.

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).