Friday, March 15

Romans 16:1-27: When the Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome in A. D. 49 (Acts 18:2), that expulsion also included many Christians. Many of these came east and settled in cities that Paul evangelized. This is how they came to be the friends of Paul and even his coworkers. However, with the death of Claudius in the year 54, about three and a half years before the composition of Romans (January to March of 58), some of these Christians naturally returned to Rome, where they owned homes and other property. Paul’s greetings here, then, are directed to those who had returned to Rome over the previous forty-two months. This suggestion, I believe, reasonably explains how Paul came to know twenty-eight Christians at Rome personally.

This suggestion is especially clear in the case of the first two whom Paul greets, Prisca and Aquila (verses 3-4), whom he had first met as exiles from Rome in Greece in the year 49 (Acts 18:2). It is significant that the next one named, Epenaetus, who is also from Greece (verse 5). Moreover, it is reasonable to think that Phoebe herself, who is described as a “patroness” (prostates, or Latin patrona) of Paul (verse 2), is another of these exiled Romans returning home.

Proverbs 21: A wise man will learn, not only when he submits to reprimand, but also when he sees others appropriately chastised (verses 11-12). This truth points us to one of the great advantages of studying history, because history is, among other things, the chronicling of God’s judgments against fools and scorners, and a wise man will take these lessons of history to heart.

We recently learned that a prudent woman is a gift from the Lord (19:14); a contentious wife, on the other hand, is a curse beyond human endurance (verses 9,19; cf. 25:24; 27:15).

God’s assessment of a man’s heart is not to be identified with a man’s assessment of his own heart (verse 2; cf. 16:2). “Feeling good about yourself” (Also known as “It works for me) is the most deceptive of feelings and keeps the soul forever immature and self-centered.

The “king” in verse 1 is any king. Since kings, holding sway over nations, are in an excellent position to influence the paths of history, God may be said to follow a certain economy of effort by using the decisions of kings to bring about His own purposes. God does not have to do this, obviously, but Holy Scripture indicates that He does.

On the other hand, while kings have their own projects and programs that affect the lives of many, the Bible (including Proverbs) is persuaded that God’s plans are not identical with those of the king, even when He employs the king’s decisions to bring them about. Ultimately, then, it is not the great men of the earth who determine the destinies of nations, but the Lord, who sees and knows all things, even those events that lie in the contingent future. God’s will prevails (verses 30-31).

Saturday, March 16

Matthew 18:1-5: Here begin the sayings that form the fourth great dominical discourse in Matthew; this one is devoted to what may be called “rules for the congregation.” It begins by the memorable scene in which Jesus holds up the faith of children as a model for adults. Far from refusing children access to Jesus until they arrive at the explicit and doctrinal faith of adults, Jesus admonishes adults to model their own faith on the more elementary faith of the child. Because children are the most in danger of being scandalized, this topic of children leads naturally into the subject of scandal, and in this connection come the Lord’s statements about millstones and self-mutilation. The latter are certainly to be understood by way of hyperbole.

Going through in more detail, we begin with the question of which of the disciples is the greatest (verses 1-5). 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.

Proverbs 22: The shared humanity of the rich and the poor (verse 2) is the basis of our moral obligation to care for the poor (verses 9,22; cf. 29:13), and the Lord is the avenger of their neglect (verse 16; 23:1-11). This chapter’s subsequent exhortation not to oppress the poor resonates with the voices of the prophets (cf. Isaiah 5:8-9; Jeremiah 22:13-19; Micah 2:1-5; Habakkuk 2:6-17).

At verse 17 a new collection of maxims begins, in which the independent and impersonal couplets are replaced by a return to personal address: “my son.” The section, which continues through 24:22, commences with an exhorting call to wisdom (verses 17-18). A man must begin the quest of wisdom by putting his trust in God (verse 19) and the remembrance that there is no wisdom apart from truth (verses 20-21).

A good reason for not associating with an angry man is that one may start to imitate him (verses 24-25), but one can think of other reasons as well.

The warning against imprudent economic entanglements (verses 26-27) is an echo of several passages in Proverbs (6:1; 11:15; 17:18; 20:16).

Verse 28 is the classic principle of conservative philosophy, which will be repeated in the next chapter (23:10).

Sunday, March 17

Matthew 18:6-9: begins the section on scandal (verses 6-9), which 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.

In the case of children, a scandal is caused by those whom the child trusts, those whom the child is supposed to trust, those whom the child has been taught to trust. Understood thus, a scandal is the violation of a trust; it preys on the vulnerability of the child. Clearly, in the way that the New Testament speaks of this sin, it is especially heinous. The one who does it will be drowned, says the Sacred Text, en to pelagei tes thalasses. He will sink to the very bottom, because this is the worst of sins.

Proverbs 23: The greatest conceit a man can cultivate is a trust in “his own” wisdom (verse 4), because true wisdom is the shared inheritance of human experience. Therefore, it is no proper goal of education that a student should be taught “to think for himself.” Any idiot can learn that on his own. (The Greek word for “his own” is idios.) It is a proper goal of education, rather, that a student should learn to think the thoughts of Plato, of Aristotle, of Amen-em-Opet, of Ahikar, of Confucius, of the other great minds whose ideas have fed and sustained entire civilizations. A true education, an introduction to wisdom, comes from hearing the instruction of those who are truly wise (verse 12). Idiosyncratic isolation is arguably the greatest enemy to the acquisition of wisdom.

Verses 15 to 28 take up again some of the motifs of the first part of Proverbs, encouraging the fear of the Lord (verse 17), custody of the heart (verse 19), sobriety and self-restraint (verses 20-21), respect for tradition (verses 22,24-25), and chastity (verses 27-28). This chapter closes with a colorful and amusing description of drunkenness (verses 29-35).

Monday, March 18

Matthew 18L10-14: Matthew phrases the parable in such a way as to suggest that the stray sheep may not be found (verse 13). Such searches for the wandering are not invariably successful.

Still, the loss of such a sheep is never God’s will (verse 14). No sheep is predestined to be lost. The Bible knows nothing about predestination to hell; indeed, the very concept is contrary to the mind of the God who wills all men to be saved.

The “wandering” in Matthew, in short has to do with becoming separated from the flock, the Church. There are no insignificant sheep in this flock. There are no “nobodies” in the Church, no unimportant souls for whom Christ died.

In Matthew, then, this is a parable about life in the Church. Reconciliation in Matthew always means reconciliation with the Church. There is no such thing as reconciliation with God apart from the Church. Reconciliation always means restoration to the flock, and the Church is to go after the “stray.”

This parable will be followed by instructions on how to do this—how to bring back the erring brother.

Proverbs 24: Material prosperity and the blessings of a stable life are founded on, and in some measure guaranteed by, the quest of wisdom (verses 3-4). Prudent choices and circumspect behavior, most especially in the time of youth when prudence and circumspection are not yet solid habits, will determine a man’s course for many years, perhaps even for his whole lifetime (verse 27). The failure at such application also brings about its own results (verses 30-34).

A first step toward wisdom is to turn away from evil. It is a matter of elementary experience that the evil-doer seems sometimes to prosper more than the just man. Whereas in the Book of Job the observation of this latter phenomenon spawns a philosophical discussion about its cause, here in Proverbs it represents only a distracting temptation. Instead of wondering how to interpret the prosperity of the wicked, the young man in Proverbs is simply warned against becoming deceived by it through envy (verses 1-2,8-9,19-20; 3:31; 23:17). Also to be eschewed, as a distraction at best, is the pursuit of revenge (verse 29). The wise man must avoid such temptations and get on with life.

True righteousness, however, is not a matter of looking good to men, nor is true prosperity attained simply by being regarded by other men as prosperous. God sees and judges the heart. In particular, God recognizes the difference between brave and cowardly hearts. He knows whether or not a man is inwardly acquiescing in evil and oppression (verse 11-12). God is not impartial. He takes the side of the righteous man (verses 15-16). This is the thesis put to trial in the Book of Job.

God’s reading of the heart also discerns the smug gloating one feels at the failure of an enemy (verse 17-18). God does not respect the self-righteousness contained in such sentiments. Justice on the earth has nothing to do with smug emotions.

Tuesday, March 19

Matthew 18:15-20: These verses continue the theme of life in the Church, specifically how to bring back the stray sheep. That is to say, these verses illustrate how Christians are to fulfill the mandate implied in verse 14 — God’s will that no one of the little ones should perish. The burden of these verses is not that we should expose sinners, but that we endeavor to save them. The message, then, is identical to the parable of the lost sheep.

Once again 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?”

Proverbs 25: The eighth-century scribes of King Hezekiah, evidently as part of the general spiritual renewal associated with that godly monarch (cf. 2 Kings 18-20; 2 Chronicles 29-32), compiled the collection of maxims that begins here (Chapters 25-29). It has been observed that this collection contains 126 maxims, the very number indicated by the numerical value of the Hebrew letters in Hezekiah’s name. Given the courtly context of this collection, it is scarcely surprising that it begins with certain considerations of kingship (verse 1-7). We recognize that verse 7 is repeated in Luke 14:7-11.

Various maxims indicate the value of good and intelligent speech (verse 11-13,15,25), while others exhort to moderation even in good things (verses 16,27). The counsel for how to deal with one’s enemies (verses 21-22) is taken up by St. Paul in Romans 12:20-21 as an important component of practical Christian ethics.

A very weighty concern in the pursuit of wisdom is the acceptance of limitations. “The sky is the limit” is the philosophy of someone with no sense of personal identity. Identity, after all, is a defining notion, and definition is always a matter of limitation (“this, and not that”). A larger ego is not necessarily more a blessing than a larger nose. To refuse to recognize limitations is a marker along the path to loss of identity. Consequently, this practical chapter ends with the absolute necessity of self-control, which is one of the most practical applications of the acceptance of limitation (verse 28). King Hezekiah himself, who witnessed the downfall of the Northern Kingdom to the Assyrians 722 B.C., was well adjusted to this acceptance and was obliged, in his own pursuit of wisdom, to bear it in mind continually. Had he failed to do so, he would not likely have survived the very taxing geopolitical circumstances in which history placed him.

Wednesday, March 20

Matthew 18:21-35: The foregoing 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.

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).

Thursday, March 21

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. It would seem that Matthew has 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.

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.

Friday, March 22

Galatians 2:11-21: A notable feature of this text is its description of redemption in personal terms. In the NT most statements about redemption tend to lay emphasis on the universality of what God has done in Jesus; the terms tend to be plural and collective: “God so loved the world,” says John 3:16. Similarly Paul wrote that God “spared not His own Son but delivered Him up for us all” (Romans 8:32). Paul also so wrote, “There is one God, and there is one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:6).

The words of Jesus over the covenant-cup also stress a universal perspective: “This is My blood of the new covenant which will be shed for you and ” Earlier the Lord had said that “the Son of man came not to served but to serve and to give His life for the many” (Mark 10:45). Texts of this sort abound in early Christian literature, all insisting that the blood of Jesus was shed for all of mankind. That is to say, the New Testament teaches universal, not limited atonement.

More rarely does the NT speak of Jesus’ love for each person. For example, the parable of the Good Shepherd tells how He goes out in search of the one lost sheep. In the Gospel of John, the Good Shepherd says that He calls each of His sheep by name. When the Gospel of John speaks of the Holy Eucharist, the emphasis once again is on the singular: “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides and I in him.”

This same accent is found in the Book of Revelation: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone opens, I will come unto him and eat with him.”

Such expressions of personal intimacy with the Lord are not as common in St. Paul, but today’s text from Galatians is an exception: “The life I live now in the flesh, I live in the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” This text is evidence that Paul, like John, knew the love of Christ to be directed as him personally. He too is “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”

St. John Chrysostom comments on this passage: “Each person justly owes as great a debt of gratitude to Christ, as if [Jesus] had come for his sake alone, because He would not have grudged this His condescension though but for one, so that the measure of His love to each is as great as to the whole world.”

Chrysostom’s comment is remarkable. It says that Christ loves each of us as much as He loves all of us. Perhaps this is less surprising if we reflect that we ourselves tend to love our families in the same way. Within our families, we love each as much as we love all. This is how Christ loves each of us, and this is why He died, not only for all of us, but also for each of us.

Another feature of this passage is the sense of our identification with Christ: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” The acceptance of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ into our hearts places there a new source of life and identity. I must die, in order for Christ to live in me. That is the hardest of messages—I must die. Not “I must be fulfilled.” Not “I must be satisfied.” Not “I must reach my full potential.” No, very simply “I must die.”