Friday, October 14

Luke 12:13-2: This brief parable of the rich man’s barns, which introduces the straightforward didactic section on trust in God (verses 22-34), is proper to the Gospel of Luke. It is consistent with Luke’s constant attention to the needs of the poor and his caution about the dangers of wealth. Luke is eloquent and dependable on both of these themes.

The parable is given in response to a request that Jesus intrude His influence in an inheritance dispute between two brothers (verse 13), and prior to presenting His parable the Lord disclaims authority to settle such a dispute: “Then one from the crowd said to Him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’ But He said to him, “Man, who made Me a judge or an arbitrator over you?”

Such is the context of the parable, and it properly introduces the first of three points that may be made with respect to it.

This point, aside from its function of introducing the parable, already conveys an important lesson respecting the Gospel and the world. Jesus refuses to take sides or arbitrate in a domestic and financial dispute in which, presumably, an arguable case could be made for either side. This sort of thing is simply not what He does. He refuses to be made an authority in matters of purely secular dispute.

If this restraint was exercised by the Son of God and the font of justice, how much more should it apply to the Church and her ministries. This story provides no encouragement to those who imagine that the Christian Church should intrude her influence in social, economic, civil, and political controversies on which plausible arguments can be made, whether in theory or in fact, for either side of a case. This is not the vocation of the Church, for the same reason that it was not the vocation of Jesus.

In the societal settings in which the life in Christ is lived, there are certainly circumstances where it is incumbent on the Church and her ministries to speak clearly and fearlessly and decisively. The Church’s intervention in social and political controversies, however, should be limited to those discernible cases. With respect to the other myriad concerns of society and the political order, prudential concerns about which it is legitimate for godly men to disagree, the proper response of the Church should be, as it was for Christ, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?”

This message will necessarily be disappointing to those who imagine the Church is some sort of social arbiter, with immediate, practical solutions to all the world’s problems.

Second, Jesus goes to the root of the problem. He attacks the root of the dilemma presented by His questioner. That root is greed, or covetousness: “And He said to them, “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses” (verse 15). Once again, the Lord does not go into particulars. His is, rather, a word of “caution” (“keep on guard,” phylassesthe) and the stating of a principle (“a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions”). The purpose of the parable is to reinforce that caution and to illustrate that principle.

How to apply that principle and how to implement that caution will vary a great deal according to the circumstances in which a person finds himself. What is essential is to be on guard and to bear in mind that a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.

Third, the message of the parable itself is self-evident, laying a sensitive finger on the shortness of life and the unreliable nature of all things temporal and material.

He dialogued with himself, says Luke: dielogizeto en heavto. He addressed his soul. “Soul,” he said, “you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.” This was the soul of which Jesus inquired, “what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (Mark 8:36) as in the case of the rich man and Lazarus, this is the story of how to lose your soul. It is precise outline for how to accomplish the task.

And what is that prescription? “Relax!” Don’t be vigilant. Don’t be cautious. Do not keep on guard. This is the reliable and true path to the fires of hell. Many have tried it, and it always works.

This lesson the “fool” of a rich man learned after it was too late. Jesus explains, “Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?” This is a business question, isn’t it, much like the question, “what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” Put it all down on a ledger, says Jesus, and count it up. What is the cost, the gain, the loss, the profit? Use your business head, and you will come up with the right answer every time: “Who gets all this stuff that you have accumulated, while you have nothing profitable to show God for all the years He gave you on this earth.”

There is an irony, then, in the Lord’s referring to this man as a “fool,” because in the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament the fool is someone who fails to take care of his financial resources. He is saying, in fact, that this was not really a man of business, because he did not understand the true worth of things. He imagined that his soul was worth less than his possessions. He suffered the confusion that leads to the loss of one’s soul.

Consequently, at the end of his selfish life this man had nothing to show for his efforts. He was “not rich with respect to God.” He had failed in elementary vigilance. He had not heard the warning of Christ: “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.”

Saturday, October 15

Colossians 4.1-18: Within the home the only relationship that is neither “natural” nor “biological” is that between a master and the servants. It is purely economic and most related to the political order. To this extent, it is also somewhat artificial, unlike other domestic relationships, which are pre-political and rooted in nature itself. Paul’s own reflections here tend to mitigate the inequality inherent in this relationship (3:25; 4:1).

From within the Christian home, the believer relates to “those outside” (tous exso—4:5). These relationships chiefly require the Christian governance of the tongue (4:6).

Paul’s comments on prayer (4:2-3) should be compared with Ephesians 6:18-20 (cf. Romans 12:12).

As usual at the end of his epistles,Paul finishes with a series of greetings.

We now learn that this epistle is borne to Colossae by Tychicus, an Asian Christian who had accompanied Paul to Jerusalem to carry thither the offering taken up for the relief of the poor in that city (Acts 20:4). Tychicus has apparently been in Paul’s entourage ever since and is now dispatched back to Asia to bear this epistle (verses 7-8), a second to the congregation at Laodicea (Ephesians 6:21), and evidently a third to Philemon, a Colossian Christian.

This last epistle concerns the runaway Colossian slave, Onesimus, who will accompany Tychicus back to Asia (verse 9). These two will bring to Colossae the latest news concerning Paul.

Other companions, who will remain at Caesarea with Paul, also send greetings to the congregation at Colossae. These include Aristarchus (verse 10), a Macedonian Christian from Thessaloniki (Acts 19:29), who had also accompanied Paul in his final trip to Jerusalem (Acts 20:4), was with him still at Caesarea (Philemon 24), and would soon travel with him to Rome (Acts 27:2).

Mark sends greetings as well. Since he had been directly involved in a sharp altercation between Paul and Barnabas some twelve years earlier (Acts 13:13; 15:36-40), Paul mentions Mark especially, making sure that the Colossians are aware that there was no longer bad blood between them (verse 10). We know that Mark is with Paul at Caesarea (cf. Philemon 24), but we lose track of him briefly after this. Shortly before Paul’s death, however, the Apostle instructed Timothy to bring Mark to Rome (2 Timothy 4:11), where we find him as an associate of Simon Peter (1 Peter 5:13). It was in Rome that Mark wrote his Gospel (, Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Haereses 3.1.2; Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 2.15.1-2; 3.39.15), before going on to found the Christian church at Alexandria in Egypt (Eusebius, 2.16.1).

Greetings are also sent from Epaphras, himself an Asian (verse 12), to whose zeal for his countrymen Paul here bears witness (verse 13). One is disposed to think that it was Epaphras who brought to Paul’s attention the concerns that prompted the writing of this epistle.

Greetings are likewise sent from Luke (verse 14), who has been with Paul since the two joined company at Philippi for the final trip to Jerusalem (Acts 20:6) He will be with Paul till the end (Acts 27:2; 2 Timothy 4:11), though Demas, also mentioned here (cf. Philemon 24), will not (2 Timothy 4:10).

It is worth remarking that this presence of Mark and Luke at Caesarea at the same time seems to be the only recorded instance of two Gospel writers being together in one place simultaneously. It is not difficult to imagine what they may have talked about!

The Archippus in verse 17 is known to us from Philemon 2. The cryptic message in this verse was doubtless clearer to the Colossians than it is to us.

The Colossians are to exchange epistles with the congregation at Laodicea, which is also receiving an epistle in this mailing (verse 16). This latter work is most likely to be identified with the epistle handed down to us as Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians.

Sunday, October 16

Psalm 115: In contrast to God, what can men, on their own, do? They can make idols. In fact, left to themselves, making idols is exactly what they will do. These idols he calls “the work of men’s hands.” That is to say, idolatry is the only thing that the children of men, left to their own devices, can do.

The psalmist seems to enjoy meditating on the futility of these idols, “the work of men’s hands,” for he spends considerable effort in describing their impotence. Using the mystical number seven, a standard biblical symbol of perfection, he goes on to tell what these idols cannot do: (1) “They have mouths, but they do not speak;” (2) “Eyes they have, but they do not see;” (3) “They have ears, but they do not hear;” (4) “Noses they have, but they do not smell;” (5) “They have hands, but they do not handle;” (6) “Feet they have, but they do not walk;” and (7) “Nor do they mutter through their throat.” There you have it. These idols, “the work of men’s hands,” are perfectly imperfect. They are infinitely nothing; there is simply no limit to their imperfection and nothingness.

And what becomes of the men who devote their lives to the making of these idols? They too become nothing: “Those who make them are like them; so is everyone who trusts in them.” The makers of idols (which includes any one of us who insists on going his own way) will, in the end, have nothing to show for their efforts and their lives: “The dead do not praise the Lord, nor any who go down into silence.” The silence of the idols becomes the unending silence of eternal loss. Those who make them become like them.

The children of men, therefore, must not put their trust in the works of their own hands, which are destined to perish with them. Where, then, put our trust? “O Israel, trust in the Lord . . . O house of Aaron, trust in the Lord . . You who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord; He is their help and their shield.”

Nehemiah 3: This chapter describes the organized building of the wall, a task that could only be undertaken while the opposing party was caught off-guard, uncertain of its authorization.

From the beginning of the Book of Ezra, we have seen numerous examples of the resistance of the native population of the Holy Land, those who had not gone into exile. That opposition expressed their resentment at being excluded from the inheritance of Israel, and now, in the Book of Nehemiah, we observe that their resentment has not abated. It is grown stronger, rather, over the ensuing decades. It will greatly increase with Nehemiah’s construction of the city walls. More than any other project, those walls symbolized their exclusion from Israel.

Nehemiah had already arranged for the building material in 2:8; by late summer they were ready to start. For a man accustomed to dealing with the administration of an empire that stretched from the Khyber Pass to Macedonia, the modest organization required for this work was hardly much of a challenge.

Sections of the wall were apportioned to various families, villages, and professions. Nehemiah’s distribution of the work was not only an efficient use of the labor force, it also subtly encouraged rivalry among the builders, each team endeavoring to surpass the efforts of the others. (Some commentators have also observed the curious similarities of this description to the wall construction of Themistocles in Thucydides, History 1:89. There should be nothing surprising in this similarity. There are only so many ways to build a wall.)

Five of the building groups were composed of families listed in Ezra 2, while several others were based on various localities in the region. Merchant groups (verse 32) and certain guilds were also represented, such as apothecaries and goldsmiths (verse 8). The entire organization bore no slight resemblance to an urban softball league, in which various merchants or other organizations sponsored the different teams. The various teams of builders appear to be listed counterclockwise around the city wall. The priestly team, not unexpectedly, consecrated the parts of their sections as they were finished.

Monday, October 17

Luke 12.41-48: Jesus describes the righteous servant as “faiithful.” In the present context “faithful” (pistos) probably bears the meaning of “loyal” rather than “believing.” Several times St. Paul uses this very adjective to describe the ideal pastor, missionary, or Christian leader (1 Corinthians 4:1-12; Ephesians 6:21; Colossians 1:7; Titus 1:9).

The other servant assures himself that he still has opportunity to neglect his stewardship. He is coaxed into this disposition precisely because there appears to be a delay in the return of his master. “My master is delaying His coming,” he says to himself. That is to say, the sense of a postponement is an essential part of the story. The failure of the servant has to do with his inability to deal with the prolonged passage of time. What he lacks is perseverance.

Nehemiah 4: Meanwhile the frustrated opposition party was holding an impromptu powwow about what to do next (verses 1-2). Sanballat was aware that the emperor had forbidden the building of the walls, but here was the highest non-royal official in the realm, with full knowledge and cooperation of the governing satrap, doing that very thing. The situation left him angry and confused. He dared not complain to the capital, of course, because Persian monarchs tended to react in dangerous ways if stimulated by incautious questioning (cf. Ezra 6:11), to say nothing of deliberate provocation (cf. Esther 7:10). Nehemiah was completely familiar with the workings of the court, whereas Sanballat and the opposition folks were just a bunch of yokels. They found themselves now completely out of their political depth.

Their frustration could be expressed only in ridicule (verse 3), but their mirth rang hollow, because the wall in question was growing huge. Dr. Kathleen Kenyon’s excavations show it to have been 2.75 meters thick—roughly nine feet—and in Chapter 12 we will read of a lengthy dedicatory procession conducted on top of the wall!

Since Sanballat’s people could do nothing in the open, their opposition took the form of surprise raids by small gangs. The list of opponents in verse 7 indicates that Jerusalem was literally surrounded by enemies. There follows (verses 13-23) an account of how the builders, like Minute Men, simultaneously prayed and defended themselves during the construction. Verse 10 seems to be a snatch of a song that they sang while working.

Much of this chapter is resonant with the themes and vocabulary of Israel’s ancient warfare stories from the Pentateuch, Joshua, and Judges: the threat of the enemies (verses 7-8), the strategic disadvantage of Israel (verses 10,13), the preliminary prayer before arming (verse 9), the arrangement of the forces by families (verse 13), the declaration of divine help (verse 20), the summons to bravery and fidelity (verse 14), the Lord’s frustration of the enemies (verse 15), and the bugle call to battle (verses 18-19).

Tuesday, October 18

Nehemiah 5: This chapter, which is out of historical sequence, serves partly an apologetic purpose: Prior to narrating the attacks that his enemies were to make on his moral character, he inserts this incident (from a later time) in order to demonstrate his integrity and sense of justice. In this incident, the problem faced by Nehemiah was an internal one, the exploitation of the builders during this time of crisis. Profiteers were taking extreme advantage of the situation (verses 1-5).

Contrary to the radically selfish principles of Utilitarian, Libertarian, and Objectivist philosophies, a healthy society cannot be founded solely on private enterprise and individual rights; government has appropriate functions, after all, beyond those of the common defense, domestic safety, and the safeguarding of private property. It is also a biblically warranted function of government to discourage greed, rapacity, and the taking of undue advantage. The evil we see in this chapter indicates that ancient Jerusalem had its own equivalents of Jeremy Bentham, Ludwig Von Mises, and Ayn Rand. Unbridled greed was producing once again the social order of Cain, as described in Genesis 4.

Nehemiah faced the crisis resultant from a completely selfish atmosphere, aggravated by the extra burden of the labor on the walls and a crop failure. Loan sharks, prohibited by the Mosaic Law from taking interest, were requiring exorbitant rights of usufruct and a disproportionate collateral, which, in the end, enslaved the children dispossessed by such abuses. All of this activity, unfortunately, was within the letter of the law, a form of “legal injustice.”

Nehemiah’s first reaction was visceral (verse 6), but he gave himself time to cool down and reflect (verse 7), pondering which path might be the most effective to take. Then, skipping steps one and two in the procedure listed in Matthew 18:15-17, he jumped immediately to step three in the procedure. Since the offense was public, the confrontation would have to be public (cf. Galatians 2:11-14). Nehemiah summoned a general assembly, in which to face the offenders with a larger group of people rallied on his own side. He easily reduced the offenders to silence (verses 7-8), not by appealing to the letter of the law (for the letter of the law in this instance was not on his side), still less by invoking something so nebulous as “the rights of the poor” (because the poor usually have more needs than they have rights), but by the experience of brotherhood (“your brethren”).

Having reduced the offenders to silence, he proceeded to shame them into doing the decent thing (verses 9-11). He used his office, that is to say, not to maintain the letter of the law, but to establish justice. Clearly he regarded government as responsible for setting right certain economic wrongs born of an excessive and oppressive system of private enterprise that was able to stay legal while remaining unjust. In this respect, Nehemiah was clearly acting on impulses spawned of the great social prophets three centuries earlier: Hosea, Isaiah, Micah. Those powerless men decried economic injustice, but Nehemiah, himself in a powerful position, was able to do something about it. His efforts were successful (verses 12-13).

Nehemiah stayed on at Jerusalem until 433 (verse 14), informing us that he was not a half-bad governor (verses 15-19). The next chapter will jump back to the sequence expected at the end of the incident with which the present chapter began. Having demonstrated his integrity in the present chapter, he is now ready to speak of the calumnies of his enemies.

Wednesday, October 19

Luke 13.1-9: Here we have no parable but a couple of contemporary tragedies that convey the necessity for repentance.

First, Jesus is told of the incident in which Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, had recourse to violence in order to repress a sedition of Galileans (verse 1; Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews 18.85-89; The Jewish War 2.169-177). Were those that perished in that incident worse than anyone else? asks Jesus. Certainly not!

The example is particularly telling, inasmuch as Pilate represented the authority of Rome in the Holy Land. This story implies to the Jews what sort of treatment they may receive at the hands of the imperial forces, which the Lord of history is about to employ as a scourge on an unrepentant people. In the case of Israel too, the divine judgment willfall swiftly and without remorse (verse 3).

The second incident (verse 4), which is unrecorded outside of the Gospel of Luke, conveys the same message. Those that perished in the collapse of the tower were not sinful beyond their compatriots. Yet, destruction had come upon them quickly and unawares. The message is the same: Repent now, and do no delay!

Nehemiah 6: The local opposition to Nehemiah’s building project next took a new and unbelievably clumsy tack, which he resisted with high disdain (verses 1-4). Failing this, his opponents then sent a letter with an implicit threat of denunciation (verses 5-7), but Nehemiah remained unimpressed (verse 8).

The story found here in verses 10-13 is not necessarily part of the chronological sequence but may have been put here because of its affinity to the two preceding stories.

Even before Shemaiah was in the employ of his opponents, Nehemiah smelled something wrong. He sensed that he was being invited to take a step he would regret. We observe him here, nonetheless, maintaining his composure under pressure, controlling his emotions, especially the emotion of fear, so as not to obscure his assessment of the situation (verse 14).

The wall, begun in the late summer, was finished fifty-two days later, in mid-October (verse 15). About six months had passed since Nehemiah’s arrival in Jerusalem, and less than a year since his friends had come with sad news to Babylon. Once again, Sanballat and his friends learned of the wall’s completion only by rumor (verse 16).

Thursday, October 20

Nehemiah 7: Here is the largest census in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah (verses 6-72). For its compilation Nehemiah used an earlier source (verse 5), probably to be identified with that in Ezra 2. The difference between that earlier list and the present list is one of purpose and context. The list in Ezra 2 established the continuity with Israel’s past, especially with a view to validating the claims of the returning exiles with respect to their possession of the Holy Land. In the present chapter, however, the list is set in the context of Jerusalem’s new enclosure. It is the census of a city, not a mere list of returning exiles. It is a municipal instrument, which will serve as a format for taxation and civic service. It is a document of the community’s restoration and renewal. Consequently, it is included between the completion of the walls (verses 1-3) and the ceremony of renewal (chapters 8—10).

The long census transcribed in this place, precisely because it says so little that engages the imagination, allows the reader leisure to reflect on these more interesting aspects of Nehemiah.

All through this memoir we find Nehemiah a most engaging man. His steady, cool demeanor sat atop the cauldron of his emotions which, on occasion, found brief expression (cf. 1:4; 5:12; 13:8,25). Surely, however, those emotions did much to drive his highly effective style of energy, skill, and organization. Nor was Nehemiah entirely free from tooting his own horn from time to time (2:10,18; 5:15; 6:11).

Trained as an executive and diplomat, Nehemiah’s rhetorical skills were economic, efficient, and to the point (2:17; 5:7; 13:25). Whatever his fears, they were under control; we never find him acting in panic. He was also a reflective man, much given to short, frequent, and fervent prayers that are interspersed in the narrative (2:8,10,20; 3:36-37; 4:9; 5:13,19; 6:14,16; 13:14,22,31,39).

Although the walls of Jerusalem were completed in record time, Nehemiah did not rush things. Before ever arriving at Jerusalem, he had made the proper arrangements for the materials to be used in the construction, and before even calling a meeting for the project, he inspected the site in detail and formulated a plan.

In the next chapter our attention will turn once again to the figure of Ezra, who had arrived in Jerusalem earlier than Nehemiah. Ezra was a priest and scholar, Nehemiah a practical man of affairs. Both together were responsible for the spiritual maintenance of Jerusalem in the fifth century before Christ. In this respect, their joint vocation mirrored that of Zerubbabel and Jeshua late in the previous period.

Friday, October 21

Nehemiah 8: We come now to the renewal of the covenant (chapters 8—10). The story begins with the public reading of the Law.

In modern church parlance this chapter describes a “revival,” or a “parish renewal,” or even a “Life Alive Weekend.” We are apparently still in October of 445 (7:73), the season associated with the Feast of Tabernacles. While Nehemiah has only recently arrived, Ezra has been in Jerusalem for thirteen years, and maybe he figured that the place could use a good dose of “old time religion.”

Ezra, as we reflected earlier, had been engaged in editing the Torah, and the people wanted to hear it (verses 2-3). They gathered to the east of the city (verse 1), not a normal place for gathering. Given the mystic symbolism of this site (the panorama of the Kidron Valley and the Mount of Olives) in two of Israel’s most recent prophets (Ezekiel and Zechariah), their choice of this place to gather was surely significant. It was morning, and the sun was rising over the Mount of Olives when they began.

There was a lengthy proclamation of the Word (verses 4-5), along with prayer and devotion (verse 6). As Ezra read the text in Hebrew, which by now was only a scholar’s language, running translations were provided in the common spoken language, Aramaic (verses 7-8). Such Aramaic (and later Greek) translations and paraphrases of the Old Testament are known as Targumim or Targums, which in modern biblical research constitute a special area of study.

It was a scene of great emotion, with the experiences of conversion, remorse, and rejoicing mixed together (verses 9-12). All of this took place in the context of the Feast of Tabernacles (verses 14-18; cf. John 7:2). The observance of this feast was an initial act in the maintenance of the Law.

Psalms 127: This is the only psalm ascribed to Solomon. The latter being the Bible’s preeminent wise man, this detail may serve to direct our attention to certain “wisdom themes” in the psalm, and, in truth, these are readily discerned. Most particularly there is the theme of the wise householder.

A man did not normally make this pilgrimage to Jerusalem alone, but in the company of his family (cf. Luke 2:41). Indeed, this customary pilgrimage was a significant way of giving a godly identity to a man’s family. It was itself an exercise of “edification,” this word taken in its etymological sense of building or constructing an “edifice.” An important purpose of the pilgrimage was that of “building the house,” the latter term understood as “home” or “household.” Like everything else a family does together, the regular pilgrimage was an exercise in house-building. In fact, this is a psalm about the proper maintenance of the household and, by extension, the city. Any simple reading of, say, Proverbs will show that these preoccupations very much constitute a wisdom theme.

Now the message of Psalm 127 is that all human effort directed toward such wise pursuits must be founded on a firm trust in God’s grace and assistance. Thus, our psalm begins: “Unless the Lord should build the house (Hebrew bayit, Greek oikos), in vain have the builders toiled. Unless the Lord should guard the city, in vain did the guardian keep watch.”

In our present state these tasks, construction and vigilance, are matters of great toil, of course, and frequently of frustration and sadness, because we are children of fallen Adam, who discovered his daily labor impeded by thistle and thorn. Thus, our psalm addresses those “who eat the bread of grief”—that is to say, ourselves, descendants of that man to whom the Lord said, “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” (Gen. 3:19). We are heirs of that Eve to whom it was declared, “I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; / In pain you shall bring forth children” (3:16).

No matter with how much discipline and industry we labor for our family’s bread, the bread itself is always God’s gift, a truth we acknowledge each day when we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Likewise, the wearisome toil of the Apostles, fishing all night to no avail, is followed by the sudden and unexpected catch at the Lord’s bidding (cf. Luke 5:5, 6; John 21:3–6). No human effort can hope for much apart from the graciousness of God.

It was important for the fishermen Apostles to learn this truth deeply, for it would have special application to the ministry of the Church. The labor of evangelism, for instance, depends entirely on the grace of God, for it is the Lord who day by day adds to our number such as are being saved (cf. Acts 2:47). The Apostle Paul thus described the ministry at Corinth: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.” Then, shifting his metaphor to the one used in our psalm, he went on to assert, “For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building (oikodome)” (1 Cor. 3:6, 9).