Friday, March 20

Matthew 21:28-32: The first son in the story “talks a good game.” He assents to the father’s instruction, but he fails to comply. The second son resists and rebels, but he obeys after thinking the matter over more carefully. The answer about which is the obedient son is not lost on Jesus’ listeners (verse 31).

Jesus goes on to apply this lesson to His current situation. These Jewish leaders have already shown their hand by their unwillingness to commit themselves with respect to John the Baptist. Now Jesus brings John the Baptist back into the picture. Sinners—those who have declared that they will not obey—have repented at the preaching of John, whereas the Law-observing Jewish leaders, who proclaimed themselves obedient, have failed to repent (verse 32; Luke 7:29-30). Which group is truly obedient to the Father? This parable was a powerful accusation against the Lord’s enemies, the men currently plotting to murder Him.

The two classes represented in the second son—the tax collectors and the whores—were closely associated with the Romans, whose army occupied the Holy Land at that time. The taxes were collected for the Roman government, and the whores sold their services to the Roman soldiers. Both groups, because they repented at the preaching of John the Baptist, were preferable to the Lord’s enemies, who were plotting His murder.

1 Corinthians 3:1-15: “You are God’s building,” Paul says to the Church at Corinth. These are real people, who belong to a real congregation. Paul is talking about an historical institution, not some abstract, invisible reality. The Church that Paul is talking about 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. Paul would not countenance for one minute the idea that the real Church is something distinguishable from the visible Church..

Paul did not write his epistles for some invisible, trans-historical reality. He wrote for specific groups of people who were joined together is 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. We are not free to define what the Church is: the Church is identified in the Bible, where it is always identified and described as a specific social institution.

The visible, organized Church is the only 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.

Like any other visible, organized group of people, the Church has its problems, and it was to address these problems that Paul wrote this epistle. Paul specifically addresses problems associated with strife and bickering among the Corinthian Christians. This is significant, because there is no strife or bickering in an invisible, trans-historical reality. One must not attempt to escape from the concrete problems of the visible church by joining some imaginary invisible church. That is simply an exercise in religious fantasy. It is imperative that we believers stay in the communion of the visible, social, institutional Church founded by Jesus Christ.

Saturday, March 21

Psalms 53 (Greek & Latin 52): In Romans 3:10–12 the Apostle Paul quotes this text (probably by heart, because he spontaneously adds lines from several other psalms in the following verses), with special emphasis on the universal need for salvation. His point is that, strictly speaking, there are really no just men in this world—men who are just in the sense that they are able, by the righteousness of their own works, to attain to the presence of God and stand innocent before him. Thus understood, who is a just man in this world? St. Paul’s answer is emphatic—nobody, absolutely nobody, and he quotes our psalm text to prove the point: “There is none righteous, no, not one; / There is none who understands; / There is none who seeks after God. / They have all turned aside; / They have together become unprofitable; / There is none who does good, no, not one.”

The Apostle is using our psalm here to address the major theme of Romans—that only God can justify man, and that God does so only in Jesus the Lord. Men are helpless, if left to their own capacities and accomplishments, and they are foolish to imagine otherwise. We human beings are so thoroughly infected by the results of sin that, unless God intervenes in our misery and takes a hand in our destiny, our inevitable lot is despair. None of us can measure up, no, not one. Whether Jew or Gentile, “there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:22, 23).

We Christians are not Buddhists nor Jains. We do not rely on our own resources and efforts. Nor is there is anything in common between the God of the Bible and that pathetic little divinity played by George Burns some years ago in that unbelievably abysmal movie entitled Oh, God, the old gentleman whose “good news” consisted in a call to greater reliance on our own lights and efforts. Ours is not a self-help religion. The Christian faith does not even commence except on the firm foundation of utter despair in purely human endeavor.

We do not have it within us to find God. We do not have it within us even to begin looking for God. We do not have it within us even to want to look for God. Adam and Eve, with the taste of the forbidden fruit still in their mouths, were not searching for God; they were hiding from Him, and so do we all. Left to our own resources, none of us can do better than to conceal ourselves in the bushes, with our bare behinds hanging out, hoping that God will pass us by.

Indeed, in the strict sense, the true God cannot even be searched for; He can be sought only in the measure that He reveals Himself in holy grace. Whatever searching for God is undertaken by sinful human beings when left to their own devices will invariably involve idolatry—the setting up of false gods in human resemblance, whether it be the high likeness of Apollo, or the rather pitiful portrait of that George Burns divinity who so loved the world that he sent forth John Denver.

This truth that the Epistle to the Romans finds in the Book of Psalms is central to our life of prayer. Christian devotion begins on the basis of God’s own self-revelation in holy grace. Worship is our Spirit-given response to God’s saving intervention in our destiny.

Monday, March 23

Matthew 22:15-22: The evil intent of the Pharisees’ question is noted at the beginning of the story (verse 15). This question is part of a “plot” (symboulion). His enemies want to “trap” Jesus (padigevo, a verb that appears only here in the New Testament). Pharisees and Herodians had no use for one another, but their common hatred of Jesus unites their efforts to spring a trap on Him.

This conspiracy of God’s enemies made a deep impression on the early Christians. Indeed, they saw it as the fulfillment of a prophecy in Psalm 2 (cf. Acts 4:23-30).

The Lord’s enemies commence with manifest flattery, evidently to put Jesus off His guard before springing their loaded question (verse 16). All three of the Synoptics mention this detail.

The payment of the head tax to the Roman government was a source of resentment and occasional rebellion among the Jews, both because it was a sign of their subjection to Rome and because they disliked handling the graven image of the emperor on the coin. To this question, then, either a yes or a no answer could provide the basis for a political accusation against Jesus—or at least could gain Him new enemies. If Jesus forbade the paying of this tax, He would offend the Herodians. If He approved of it, He would further offend the Pharisees. Either way, He would give offense.

Reading their hearts (verse 18; 9:4) and reprimanding their hypocrisy, the Lord obliges them to produce the coin in question, thereby making it clear that they all do, in fact, have the coin and do pay the tax (verse 19).

That point established, He then obliges them to identify the head and name on the coin, namely, Tiberius Caesar (A.D. 14-37). Obviously the coin belongs to the emperor, so they can continue doing what they have always done—pay the tax. Caesar minted and distributed the coin. It is his.

Separated from its literary context, this story answers a practical question for Christians, and it has always served that purpose. Considered thus, it is consonant with the general teaching about taxation that we find elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. Romans 13:7; 1 Peter 2:13-19).

But then Jesus goes on. The concern of Jesus, however, is not identical with that of His enemies. He is not concerned about what is owed to Caesar, but what is owed to God. This, too, must be paid, and Jesus is about to pay it. Rendering unto God the things of God refers to our Lord’s approaching sufferings and death. Thus, what began as a mundane political question is transformed into a theological matter of great moment, leaving them all amazed (verse 22).

It is important, however, to keep this story in the context where the Gospels place it, the context of the Lord’s impending death. The question posed to Jesus is not a theoretical question. Indeed, it is not even a practical question. It is a loaded question—a question with an evil ulterior motive. It is a sword aimed at the Lord’s life.

Tuesday, March 24

Matthew 22:23-33: In this section Matthew adds the Sadducees to the growing list of conspirators, which includes the chief priests (21:2,45), the elders (21:33), the Herodians (verse 16), and the Pharisees (verse 15; 21:15).

As for the Sadducees, they did not believe in a doctrine of the resurrection. It was the Pharisees’ adherence to such a doctrine that rendered the latter party closer and more receptive to the Gospel (cf. Acts 23:6-9). The Sadducees’ disbelief in a resurrection, which is reflected in today’s reading from Matthew, came in part from their rejection of all the Hebrew scriptures except the Pentateuch. The explicit doctrine of the Resurrection, which commences in the prophetic writings, was thus lost on them.

We may remark that Matthew shows considerable animosity toward the Sadducees, mentioning them in contexts where they are not mentioned by the other gospel writers, and always unfavorably (cf. Matthew 3:7; 16:1,6,11,12; 22:34).

The policy of the Sadducees to side with the Roman overlords (which the Pharisees did not) had rendered them comparatively unpopular with the people. Alone among the gospel writers, Matthew tells of the crowd’s delight at their discomfiting by Jesus (verse 33).

After Jerusalem’s destruction at the hand of the Romans in A.D. 70, the prestige of the Sadducees disappeared completely. Because they were a priestly party, their services were no longer required after the loss of the temple.

We may also remark that the “case” posed by the Sadducees actually is recorded in the story of Sarah contained in Tobit 3:8; 6:14. She really did outlive seven husbands!

It is further instructive to observe that the theme of the Resurrection is introduced by the Lord’s own enemies, by way of denying it. It is the doctrine of the Resurrection that Jesus will prove within just a few days, to the consternation of these enemies.

Jesus’ reading of Exodus 3 is most striking (verse 32). He finds, buried and concealed in the story of the Burning Bush, plain evidence of the doctrine of the Resurrection. In doing this, He demonstrates that the true meaning of Holy Scripture is not always on the surface. Would we otherwise have guessed that the doctrine of the Resurrection was proclaimed from the Burning Bush? This style of reading of Holy Scripture, which uncovers deeper meaning concealed in the Sacred Text and in the event narrated there, is the “teaching” (didache–verse 33) of Jesus, and it has always flourished in the theology of the Christian Church.

Wednesday, March 25

Luke 1:26-38: This Gospel reading records the event through which God’s eternal Son entered the human race and human history. This is the day, nine months before Christmas, when the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. This is the inaugural day of the Sarkosis, the enfleshing of God’s Word. Since we speak English, we are more familiar with the Latin equivalent of Sarkosis: Incarnatio, in English, “Incarnation.”

With respect to this mystery, those who wrote with authority for the faith of the Church have always been fond of juxtaposing this word, in either language, with another term. Thus, the word sarkosis is habitually joined with theosis; incarnatio is paired with deificatio. The purpose of the Incarnation is man’s Deification. That is to say, God’s Son assumed human nature and existence, so that human beings could share in the life of God.

This rhetorical pairing is very standard in the history of the Church. One finds it everywhere. I propose this evening, however, to limit these reflections to the way Incarnation and Deification are paired in the theology of Saint Maximus the Confessor.

For Maximus, God’s plan of divine Providence (pronoia) was no afterthought. In Creation itself the Word’s Incarnation and man’s deification were already determined: “Looking toward this very goal, God brought forth the essences of the things that exist.”

For Maximus this relationship between Incarnation and deification lay at the root, not only of Creation, but also of the whole of Sacred Scripture. It is revealed, he said, to those initiated into the Cross and Resurrection of the Savior.

In a very dense reflection Maximus wrote, “The mystery of the Word’s embodying has the power of all enigmas and types in the Scriptures, and the understanding of creatures, whether visible or perceived with the mind. And he that knows the mystery of the Cross and grave also knows the defining reasons (logoi) of these things. But he that is initiated into the unspeakable power of the Resurrection knows the goal God established even as He brought forth all things.”

According to Maximus this understanding of Redemption is not based on a philosophical, pre-baptismal evaluation of sin, but on the fullness of the Christian revelation, “the mystery according to Christ.”

A theologically adequate answer to the question “Why Incarnation?” is given to the Church, not as a point determined by philosophy or apologetics, but by the sacramental initiation into the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. It is inseparable, therefore, from the Christian understanding of Creation and the Sacred Scriptures. A theological grasp of sin requires that we begin, not with how it allegedly affects God, but how it truly affects man. What, then, is man’s deprivation caused by sin? The sharing in the life of God, which is the true human destiny.

Man is a finite being, for whom God plans an infinite destiny. Consequently, man’s existence was incomplete—even in Creation—inasmuch as God intended for him a sharing in His own nature. In order, therefore, that human beings could participate in the divine nature, God’s Son assumed human nature and historical existence.

Thursday, March 26

Matthew 22:34-46: The rabbinic tradition counted up to 613 Commandments in the Torah, 248 of them positive (“you shall”) and 365 of them negative (“you shall not”)—one for each day of the year. The were not considered all to be of the same weight. The prohibition against idolatry, for instance, clearly carried more weight than laws about the maintenance of a man’s sideburns.

Jesus answers the questioner by reciting part of the Shema, which devout Jews recited several times each day (Deuteronomy 6:5). As Matthew cites the text, he slightly alters (“mind,” or dianoia, instead of “strength,” or dynamis) the LXX reading. We notice that Mark’s text includes the whole Shema.

Jesus cites only two positive commandments, not the prohibitions. Love is the fundamental commandment on which all the others rest.

Matthew’s version of the second commandment is more strongly expressed than it is in Mark. It is “like unto” the first.

We should also read the account of these two commandments as addressing a practical pastoral question posed in the church for which Matthew wrote. In that Jewish Christian congregation it was of great importance to know how the Lord wanted the Law to be observed. All the Law, says Jesus’ answer, hangs on (krematai) these two commandments. Since this was the Lord’s own perspective on the matter, it is not surprising that His answer is essentially what we find in the various writers of the New Testament (cf. Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8).

Since Matthew (unlike Mark and Luke) places these two verses of the Torah in the context of a dispute with the Pharisees, we suspect that on this point (“which is the greatest commandment”) such a dispute continued between the Pharisees and Matthew’s Christians.

The Apostle John reverses the order of these two commandments, not in an absolute sense, but in the sense that the second commandment is the easier to check on. He writes, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also” (1 John 4:20-21).

The inquirer had asked only about the Torah, but Jesus says that these two commandments dominate not only the Torah but also the prophets (verse 40).

Friday, March 27

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!”

Our bodies participate in the holiness of the risen and Spirit-filled body of Jesus the Lord. Our bodies share already in the mystery of immortality: they are to rise again by the same power that raised up Jesus from the dead. That power—dynamis—already abides in the cells and sinews of our flesh. For this reason, the root and principle of bodily holiness is the mystery of the Lord’s Resurrection.

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.

Our bodies do not belong to us. They have been purchased. Paul writes: “For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body, which belongs to God.” This truth of the Christian faith is derided in the modern world, where we actually hear people boast, “No one can tell me what to do with my body!” In the Church of God, however, the human body is not an entity alien to salvation. On the contrary, our very limbs and organs belong to Christ. Paul inquired of the Corinthians, then: “Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot?”

More particularly, by our incorporation (Latin corpus=”body) into Christ, our bodies become mystical extensions of His own body. This incorporation commences at Baptism and strengthened each time we partake of the Mystical Supper of the Altar. In this same epistle, Paul writes to the Corinthians: “For we many are one bread, one body, for we all partake of that one bread.” Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not mere symbols of grace; they are the channels of grace, the means by which the divine life flows into our flesh with the energies of transformation and immortality.

In the texts the Apostle to the Gentiles identifies the sacramental foundation of Christian bodily holiness. And very much to the same point, Jesus proclaims, “I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”