Friday, April 28

John 5.1-15: Although our Lord evidently cured a number of people from various kinds of paralysis (cf. Mark 4:24; 8:6), the Gospels narrate only two
such instances in much detail: the paralytic lowered through the roof (Mark 2:1–12; Matthew 9:1–8; Luke 5:17–26), and the man lying at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1–15). It also happens that these are the only two occasions of physical healing in which Jesus refers to the sins of the person whom He heals. Thus, He says to the man lowered through the roof, “Your sins are forgiven you” (Mark 2:5), and after restoring the man at the pool of Bethesda the Lord exhorts him, “Sin no more” (John 5:14).

Now it is worthy of remark that we find no references to personal sins in Gospel stories about Jesus cleansing lepers, or restoring sight to the blind, or curing other sorts of ailments. He does not say to Peter’s feverish mother-in-law, for example, “Your sins are forgiven you,” nor does He exhort the man born blind, “Go, and sin no more.” Indeed, in this latter instance the Lord specifically denies that the blind man was blind because of his personal sins (9:3). In short, only in those two instances of paralysis does Jesus refer to the sins of the people He cures, even addressing one of them with the exact words that He spoke to the
woman caught in adultery: “Sin no more” (8:11).

One is disposed to wonder if there is some special reason why the restorations of the paralytics are alone distinguished in this way. Though the Gospels do not specifically address the question, one is prompted to inquire if there is not, in this kind of disability, some feature particularly symbolic of sin. Is there perhaps some aspect of paralysis itself that serves as an allegory of sin, something about the affliction that narrates the properties of sin?

This question of allegory is especially urged in the case of the paralytic at the pool, because of the recorded dialogue between this man and Jesus. The Lord’s question, when He asks the paralytic, “Do you want to be made well?” is apparently elicited by the fact that the fellow has been lying in that place for thirty-eight years. It is because Jesus knows that “he already had been in that condition a long time” that He makes the inquiry, “Do you want to be made well?” In other words, there is room for doubt about the man’s genuine desire for healing. Maybe his heart and soul have become as helpless and lethargic as
his body.

Moreover, his response to our Lord’s question is hardly reassuring. Instead of answering, like the blind men, “Yes, Lord” (Matthew 9:28), the paralytic immediately begins to make excuses: “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me” (John 5:7). There is his answer.

It is always somebody else’s fault, somebody else’s advantage over him, that he has not been cured. He is not to blame, poor victim; he has been lying there at the pool of Bethesda for nearly four decades, using the same excuse to explain why, in a place where healings took place frequently, he has never been healed. Year after year he just lies there. It gets easier all the time. It becomes a way of life.

This seems to be the point, then, of the question that Jesus puts to the man: “Do you want to be healed?” Perhaps, in his deeper heart, he does not want to be healed, not really, and perhaps that is the sin to which Jesus is referring when He tells him, “See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you” (5:14). In removing his paralysis, the Lord also gives the man a straight, unambiguous order: “Rise, take up your bed and walk” (5:8). If this paralytic wants to walk in the way of the Lord, he must begin now. No more excuses. He must not lie around one minute longer, theorizing about the mysterious relationship between divine grace and human effort.

This lethargic soul must not worry whether he may be slipping into semi-Pelagianism or whatever. He must get up on his feet, put his bed away, and get busy walking. Conversion is grace, but it is also command. Surely wisdom too is
God’s gift, but what is the first step we take to attain wisdom? Obedience to an emphatic command: “Get wisdom! Get understanding!” (Proverbs 4:5). No more lying around, making excuses (usually involving other people who are to blame), no more theorizing about the nature of wisdom. Just get up and get it!

Saturday, April 29

Exodus 21: The material in these next three chapters is often called “the book of the covenant,” a term suggested by Exodus 24:7. In substance this code is largely identical with the core section of the Book of Deuteronomy (and hence the name of the latter, which means “second law”).

Whereas Chapter 20 enunciated universal legal principles, Chapter 21 commences a series of specific “judgments” (mishpotim—verse 1), or “case laws.” The latter are particular applications of the earlier legal principles. Thus, the judgments in the present chapter are concrete applications of the established principle, “You shall not steal” (20:15).

The prescriptions in these chapters come under the heading of “case law” or casuistry, because they deal with the practical applications of laws to certain hypothetical cases. We find this legal style in our most ancient legal codes, such as the formulations of Ur-Nammu, composed in Sumerian about 2050 B.C. and named for the ruler of Ur in southern Mesopotamia (cf. Genesis 11:31).

By reasonable recourse to comparison and analogy, the accumulation of such judgments serves to indicate certain directions in which future ethical cases—those not specifically covered by law—might be appropriately judged,. The study of case law is also intended to give a proper contour to moral sentiment, a certain “feeling” about moral situations that may arise. By the sustained examination of God’s judgments (mishpotim) in the various hypothetical situations described in these passages, the moral imagination is given a godly shape in order to make proper moral decisions in the future, particularly in cases not governed by specific laws.

The laws in these next few chapters are civil (21:1—22:14), liturgical (20:22-26; 22:28-30; 23:10-19), and moral (22:16-27; 23:1-9).

The present chapter begins with slavery (verses 1-11), the state from which the Israelites have just been delivered. The functioning principle here—through all the hypothetical cases being reviewed—is that no man may be enslaved against his own will beyond six years. The “Sabbath year” becomes the time of release.

In verses 22-36 we have what is the Bible’s first and perhaps clearest enunciation of the legal principle of equity, quid pro quo. Thus, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” and so on (cf. Leviticus 24:17-20; Deuteronomy 19:21). Eyes and teeth are understood, of course, as metaphors (that is to say, no one benefits from really depriving another person of an eye or a tooth).

All such laws are founded on the perception of proportions—“an eye for an eye,” not two eyes for one. Justice, that is to say, has something to do with the principles of mathematics (symbolized in the scales that often appear in artistic representations of Justice as a blindfolded figure holding a scales), a proper conformity to correct measure. Moral truth is perceived like mathematics or any other truth, by the correct application of a properly reasoning mind.

Sunday, April 30

Exodus 22: This chapter begins with some more applications of the commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.”

Whereas Chapter 21 presumed situations in which the harm inflicted was unintentional—and thus involved only commensurate restitution—the present chapter looks more closely at situations in which the harm inflicted is deliberate and intentional. That is to say, a malicious motive is introduced. In this chapter, then, we are dealing, not only with laws of compensation but also with punitive laws. Here we have not only restitution of damages but the punishment of malice. The penalties in these latter, one we notice, are quite a bit harsher. They are obviously designed to discourage certain sorts of behavior!

The Bible takes very seriously the concept of ownership, a fact that explains the serious penalties imposed for theft. These include a manifold restitution for stolen or damaged property, and the lack of a guaranteed protection for a thief who is taken in the act (verses 1-4).

Whereas modern philosophy tends to distinguish public from private property, the Bible is more interested in what we may call family property, property as a family’s substance of labor and inheritance. That is to say, in the Bible property is more closely associated with the experience of tradition, including respect for the labor of one’s ancestors. Property is regarded as an extension of family; it is that component that binds the generations of a family together.

For this reason there is a close alliance between “Honor thy father and thy mother” and “Thou shalt not steal.” It is hardly surprising, then, that those who disregard the claims of tradition are more likely to be thieves. Of this latter phenomenon we have a good illustration in the case of Ahab and Jezebel in the instance of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21).

Family property, moreover, is a community concern, over which the newly appointed judges (18:13-26) have jurisdiction and the right of determination (verse 9).

Community concern is also directed to another important dimension of social life: sexuality. In the present context, however, this concern pertains to the (consensual) defilement of a virgin (verses 16-17), a situation in which the offense directly affects the financial worth of the father of the girl. This is the reason for its inclusion in the present section of Exodus.

This brief consideration of a sexual matter, however, prompts the inclusion of another sexual offense: bestiality (verse 19). Even this inclusion is prompted by the consideration of property, inasmuch as the animal must be slain. In this chapter neither fornication nor bestiality is considered except under the aspect of property and value.

By an association difficult to follow, the subject of bestiality leads in turn to rules about sorcery and idolatry (verses 18,20). Apparently the common element in all these rules is the prescription of the death penalty.

There next follows a concern for sojourners and others deprived of a normal domestic life (verses 21-24), those with whom the Israelites, remembering their own sojourn, are to commiserate (cf. 23:9: Leviticus 19:33-34; Deuteronomy 1:16; 10:17-19; 14:28-29; 16:11-14; Jeremiah 7:6). Sins in violation of this concern are included in this section because of their social nature.

Laws concerning pledges and usufruct are characterized by a concern for the disadvantaged party (verses 25-27).

Monday, May 1

Exodus 23: Pursuant to the Decalogue’s prohibition against false witness (20:16), the present chapter opens with directions about judicial proceedings (1-3,7-8).

Because it appeared unlikely that a poor man (dal), in ancient times, would be favored in court, some textual historians suspect that verse 3 has been corrupted in the transmission. They suggest a slight emendation (the supply of one letter in Hebrew), causing this verse to read, “Thou shalt not favor a great man (gadol) in his cause.” This appears to be a responsible emendation that renders the text more understandable in the historical context.

Nonetheless, in more recent times we have seen the rise of political ideologies that have tended in exactly the opposite direction: favoring the poorer, disadvantaged classes as a matter of principle, sometimes at the expense of specific determinations of justice. It is not unknown, in modern times, that the courts are used in an activist way, in order to rectify inherited social inequities, instead of simply adjudicating individual cases on their just merits. This text reminds us that it is not the business of courts to rectify social ills, but to punish evildoers. This is the reason that Justice is portrayed as blindfolded—that is, does not consider the social class or financial standing of a litigant.

The Sacred Text moves on to treat of the effective charity that a believer owes even to his enemies, out of an elementary sense of humane compassion (verses 4-5; Leviticus 19:17-19). This motive also prompts concern for the stranger and sojourner (verse 9), the same motive given earlier (22:21-24).

Following the stated solicitude for the poor and disadvantaged, attention is given to the “Sabbath rest” of the cultivated fields, because this practice too serves a kind and humane purpose (verses 10-11, Leviticus 25:2-5; Deuteronomy 15:1-3; Nehemiah 10:31; 1 Maccabees 6:49,53).

From this metaphorical application of the Sabbath rest, the Text takes up the literal Sabbath rest, enunciated in the Decalogue (20:8-11). Once again the motive given here is humane more than theological (verse 12).

Continuing the theme of consecrated time, Exodus goes on to treat the three annual feasts (verses 14-17): Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. Each of these is here briefly explained, not in relation to their specific meaning in salvation history (deliverance, covenant, and desert journey), but with respect to the annual agrarian cycle. Both aspects of these feast days remain somewhat in tension throughout the Old Testament period.

Transferred to the Christian Church, these three feasts—Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles—became Easter, Pentecost, and the Autumn Rogation Days. One observes, nonetheless, that Christians too are reluctant to separate these feast days from an agrarian setting in the calendar. They became the occasion for the quarterly Ember Days, at which it was customary to bless the fields and harvests.

The recent mention of unleavened bread (verse 15), leads to more reflection on the same subject (verses 18-19). This prohibition of leaven in the sacrificial rites is analogous to the exclusion of polished stones in the construction of the altar (20:25). That is to say, in both cases there is a concern to preserve the elements of the worship in their more primitive and undeveloped state, in keeping with the sparse conditions of the exodus itself. It seems likely that this liturgical concern (for simplicity) may be inspired by a reaction against certain features of Canaanite religion.

Thus ends “the book of the covenant,” which is now followed by a general exhortation that fills the rest of the chapter.

Tuesday, May 2

Exodus 24: As we have considered in our comments on Exodus 19, God does not impose the Sinai covenant on Israel. He does not force them to become His elect people; rather, He invites them. The covenant is to be ratified by Israel, and in the present chapter, which follows the Decalogue and the Book of the Covenant, we come to Israel’s ratification (verse 7).

This narrative seems to be derived from two accounts of the event, joined but not entirely reconciled with respect to some details. For instance, it is not entirely clear which actions take place on the mountain and which on the plain. The ratification itself is marked by both a sacrificial meal and by the sprinkling of sacrificial blood (verses 8,11). We find references to this ratification in Zechariah 9:11 and Hebrews 9:18-20.

Indeed, our earliest Christian reflection on verses 3-8 is found in the Epistle to the Hebrews 9:16-23, in a context emphasizing that the deep significance of the sacrificial blood in the Old Testament is its prophetic reference to the redeeming blood of Jesus, shed on the cross for the salvation of mankind. The blood of Jesus is called the “blood of the covenant” also in Hebrews 10:29 and Mark 14:24.

Moreover, in quoting Exodus 24:8, the Epistle to the Hebrews (9:20) slightly, but very significantly, alters the wording of it. Whereas Exodus reads “Behold (idou) the blood of the covenant,” the author of Hebrews wrote: “This (touto) is the blood of the covenant.” There is no doubt that his wording reflects the traditional words of Jesus with respect to the cup of His blood at the Last Supper (cf. Matthew 26:28).

Moses ascended the mountain with three men (verses 9-18), two of whom were brothers, and there was a six-day delay. Compare the remarkable parallel to both points in Mark 9:2. In the scene of the Lord’s Transfiguration, He is joined by the two figures most clearly associated with revelations given on Mount Sinai/Horeb: Moses and Elijah (cf. 1 Kings 19:8-18).

Moses is again summoned to ascend the mountain in order to receive the stone tablets and certain liturgical regulations (verse 12). The engraving of laws on stone was characteristic of many ancient legal codes, all the way from the Decree of Hammurabi to the inscriptions on the walls of the temple of Apollo at Delphi. Law, that is to say, represents inheritance, binding one generation to the next. Hence, it is appropriate to write laws on stone, a substance that does not quickly pass away.

The chapter ends with Moses on the mountain for forty days and nights.

Wednesday, May 3

John 7.25-39: Jesus chooses the final day of the wee-long feast of Tabernacles to promise the gift of the Holy Spirit to those who believe in him. This final and universal outpouring of the Holy Spirit—as distinct from the special charismatic gifts conferred on the prophets and others—is the direct product of Jesus’ own glorification. In the Last Supper discourse in John, Jesus several times refers to this Holy Spirit as the “counselor” who guide the Church into all truth.

Exodus 25: Here begins a lengthy and detailed instruction about the construction of the tabernacle, the instruments of worship, the ordination and vestments of the priests, and so forth (chapters 25-31). Meanwhile, as all of this important instruction is taking place, Aaron and the Israelites will do a bit of liturgical experimentation on their own (chapters 32-34)! The juxtaposition of these two scenes will constitute one of the great examples of narrative irony in the Bible. After the story of the golden calf, the narrative of Exodus will continue in chapters 35-40 with the enactment of the earlier prescriptions.

Chapters 21—31 are composed of seven prescriptive oracles (“the Lord spoke unto Moses, say . . .”), each with its own introduction (25:1; 30:11,17,22,34; 31:1,12).

In some of these oracles we recognize points of correspondence with the different days of creation. Thus, the first oracle, which speaks of the candelabrum and of Aaron’s custody of the sacred fire, corresponds to the creation of light on the first day. The third oracle (30:17-21), which describes the brazen sea in the tabernacle, corresponds to the third day’s creation of the seas. The fourth, which prescribes the oil for the lamps (30:22-33), is parallel to the fourth day of creation, when the various lights were placed in the heavens. Thus, finally, this “sabbath” of oracles end with the Sabbath itself and appeals to God’s own rest after the works of creation (31:12-17; cf. Psalms 89 [88]:21).

Prior to describing all these matters in detail, the author outlines the subjects that will be treated in the ensuing chapters (verses 3-8). Then Moses is given a vision of the archetypal tabernacle (verse 9,40)—that tabernacle not made with hands—the everlasting holy place into which, in due course, the eternal high priest and one mediator between God and men will enter, having obtained eternal redemption for us (cf. Hebrews 8:1-5).

Twelve loves of fresh bread, representing the full assembly of Israel, are to be kept on the table in God’s presence in the tabernacle (verses 23-30). This “holy bread” (1 Samuel 21:4)—“bread of the presence” (21:6)—and “continual bread” (Numbers 4:7) was a type of the Holy Eucharist, the mystical bread of God’s presence, contained in all the tabernacles of the Church throughout the world until the end of time.

Thursday, May 4

Psalms 7: The Psalter is not human merely because it speaks for man in general, but because it speaks for Christ. The underlying voice of the Psalms is not simply “man,” but the Man. To enter into the prayer of this book is not merely to share the sentiments of King David, or Asaph, or one of the other inspired poets. Indeed, in a theological sense the voices of these men are secondary, hardly more important than our own. The foundational voice of the Psalms, the underlying bass line of its harmony is, rather, the voice of Jesus Christ, the only Mediator between God and man. The correct theological principle for praying the psalms is the Hypostatic Union, the ontological and irreversible coalescence of the human and the divine, “the synthesis achieved by God, which carries the name of Jesus Christ” (Hans Urs von Balthasar).

It is not surprising, then, that we will on occasion come across certain sentiments in the Psalms that are difficult to appropriate as our own. It does not take me long to discover that some of the lines of the Psalter are impossible to pray in my own person. There are cases in which my own “voice” is inadequate to express the sense of the psalm itself.

Psalm 7 provides an early example of this phenomenon. How many of us would feel comfortable claiming for ourselves the moral innocence expressed in this psalm? This is the prayer of someone whose hands are clean and mind undefiled, a man whose conscience finds nothing for which to reproach him. The voice of this psalm is His of whom St. Peter wrote that He “committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth” (2 Pet. 1:22). This is supremely a psalm of the Lord’s redemptive sufferings at the hands of injustice. Line by line it inscribes the mounting drama of the Passion.

Exodus 26: The construction of the Tabernacle is described in the first part (verses 1-14) of this chapter. This structure had four coverings, divided into workable sections. The first covering was made of linen, over which were coverings of goats’ hair, rams’ skins dyed red, and dugongs’ skins.

Two things are noteworthy about this last item: First, the dugong, or sea cow, is a native of the Indian Ocean. The availability of this product indicates the extensive trade carried on through the Red Sea. One speculates that the sea-going power of Sheba was the medium by which this product reached Egypt. Second, the skin of the dugong, which sat uppermost over the Tabernacle, rendered it rainproof.

Next are described the wooden side-frames of the Tabernacle (verses 15-30), indicating that this shrine stood about 14 feet high, was 62 feet long, and measured over 42 feet wide.

Finally comes the internal division of the Tabernacle between the holy place and the Holy of Holies (31-37), the latter measuring about 14 feet square. It contained the Ark of the Covenant and the tablets of the Decalogue (cf. Hebrews 9:3-4).

The division within the tabernacle was later duplicated and further developed within the Jerusalem temple. Indeed, the sense of separated space is intrinsic to the very notion of a “temple,” a word derived from the Greek temno, meaning “to divide.” A shrine of any kind is already a section of space devoted to the things of God, and divisions within a shrine are related to the ordered structure of the community that worships there. The building reflects the congregation’s conception of itself. In the case of Israel and the Christian Church, the ordered structure of the worshipping community is “hierarchical,” meaning that its organizational structure is holy and reflects a divinely appointed order.

This hierarchical aspect of biblical worship, that is to say, is enacted even in architecture. (Indeed, if one looks closely, both “hierarchy” and “architecture” are formed of a common root, a Greek word meaning, roughly, “a principle that gives structure and explanation to reality.”)

Friday, May 5

Psalms 9 & 10: In the original text (and as preserved in the ancient Greek version) these two psalms formed only one psalm; indeed, it was an “alphabetical psalm,” in which each verse began with the next letter of the alphabet.

The opening lines of this psalm introduce two ideas crucial to the praying of all the psalms: the heart and storytelling—“I will praise You, O Lord, with my whole heart, I will narrate all Your wonders.”

First, the heart: “I will praise You, O Lord, with my whole heart.” The key to the proper praying of the psalms is purity of heartTo pray with understanding in the deeper spirit of the psalms requires walking “the blameless path,” living with an undivided heart. To give oneself over to psalmody as the skeletal frame of the life of prayer, therefore, is inseparable from the life of sustained spiritual effort to purify one’s heart. All prayer is a struggle to see God, after all, and we have it on very strong authority that only the pure of heart will see God.

Second, storytelling: “I will narrate all Your wonders.” A major motif of the Psalter is formed of the magnalia Dei, the great wonders that God has wrought. These wonders are forever set in review throughout the psalms: our creation from nothingness, the Lord’s constant provision for our lives, His promises with respect to our final destiny, His covenant with our forefathers and its fulfillment in Christ the Savior, our liberation from bondage to the satanic pharaoh through the shedding of the paschal blood of Jesus, our passage through the Red Sea of baptism, our journey through the wilderness where we are nourished with living water and the bread of angels. The “all Your wonders,” then, has reference to the great mysteries of our redemption: the Incarnation, the atoning Passion and Death, the glorious Resurrection and Ascension, the sending forth of the Holy Spirit, and the founding of the Church. These manifestations of God’s grace are the substance of the narrative inherent in the psalms.

Exodus 27: We come now to the sacrificial altar, the court in which the Tabernacle stood, and the perpetual flame that was to burn before the Holy of Holies.

The frame of this hollow altar, which was, of course, portable, was to be made of light wood overlaid with bronze (verses 1-2). Its construction was to be large, its top about 7 feet square, and its height about 4 feet. The corners of the altar were to be extended into horns. Although we can say that these adornments, like all horns, signified strength, their more precise significance is now lost to us. We do know, however, that similar fixtures adorned many altars in antiquity, from Assyria to Greece. In Israel they took on a social and even political meaning (cf. 1 Kings 1:50; 2:28). In the ritual itself, these horns were smeared with the blood of the sacrificial animal.

It is possible that stones were placed on this altar, to provide a surface on which to burn the sacrificial victim. Otherwise it is uncertain how the bronze could withstand the fire of the sacrifices.

Under and around the altar was a bronze grating for the purpose of receiving the ashes from the fire (verses 4-5). Inasmuch as the altar was portable, staves were provided, with which to carry it.

The Tabernacle stood in a court area that measured roughly 142 by 71 feet (verse 18). This area too was set apart by a system of linen partitions (verses 9-17). This was a consecrated area, separated from profane use.

A perpetual flame, fed of olive oil and cared for by the sons of Aaron, was to burn before the Holy of Holies (verses 20-21). The idea behind a perpetual flame is very old and has symbolic value immediately understood by almost all men.

As a symbol of the human spirit standing in vigilance over the forces of darkness, it is found in world literature from Homer to William Golding. As a religious symbol of man’s standing in prayer before God, it is nearly universal. A sustained flame has burned near the altar in Christian churches virtually from the first day they were built.