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.”

Saturday, March 23

Matthew 19:23-30: Peter, in his response to Jesus’ teaching about wealth, may seem somewhat to exaggerate the size of his own abnegation. Just how successful was the fishing business that he gave up. After all, every time he catches a fish in the New Testament, the event is regarded as a miracle. “Giving up everything” in Peter’s case may not appear, at first, to involve all that much.

Looks are deceptive, however. Peter’s commitment to our Lord would eventually lead him to witness the martyrdom of his wife (cf. Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 7.11.63) and then be crucified upside down on Vatican Hill (cf. Tertullian, Scorpiace 15.3).

Moreover, the Lord Himself honored what Peter had to say, and He promised to reward Peter’s self-sacrifice (verse 28). He extends this promise to all the Twelve.

This is an important text in the ecclesiology of Matthew. The Apostles here—the institutional Twelve—become the new patriarchs, as it were, of the People of God. Their foundational role in the Church was so important that the Church took care to preserve even the exact number after the defection of Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:15-26).

The Lord’s promise of recompense is then extended to all those who, in imitation of the Twelve, would devote their lives to the closer following of Christ and the ministry of the Gospel along the road of self-abnegation (verse 29). These, too, will attain eternal life, the quest about which the rich man recently inquired (verse 16).

Proverbs 29: Here are more maxims about the blessings of wise government (verses 2,4,8,14) and the curse of its opposite (verse 12), along with warnings about unnecessary contentions (verses 9,22). As we know from the wrangling of partisan politics, these two concerns are not unrelated (verse 8). A wise society requires not only righteous citizens, but also prophetic visionaries (verse 18; cf. Hosea 12:11; Isaiah 29:7) and wise and righteous rulers. These latter, it is hoped, will come from the ranks of truly humble men (verse 23), self-controlled individuals who know exactly how long to hold their tongues (verses 11,20; James 1:19). Alas, we are forewarned, they will not be respected by the wicked (verse 27).

These latter are described as having stiff necks (verse 1), a metaphor for the stubbornness of the scofflaw (Exodus 32:9; 33:3,5; Deuteronomy 9:3). Stiff necks, however, may get themselves broken. There is no parity between the fear of God and the fear of man (verse 24). The latter leads to compromise and infidelity. The only way to avoid this fear of men is to cultivate the fear of God.

Sunday, March 24

Proverbs 30: This chapter contains the first of the book’s three final collections of wisdom maxims, a collection called “the words of Agur, the son of Jakeh.” The Hebrew text further identifies Agur and Jakeh as “of Massa,” the same place in northern Arabia (Genesis 25:14; 1 Chronicles 1:30) as King Lemuel in the next chapter. Agur, the son of Jakeh, is not called a king, however, nor is he otherwise identified. It is reasonable to suppose, therefore, that he must have been a figure of some renown among the readers for whom the Book of Proverbs was intended, requiring no further introduction.

What we have in this chapter is a philosophical discourse delivered by Agur and recorded by his two disciples, otherwise unknown, named Ithiel and Ucal (verse 1). Ancient history from places as diverse as China, India, Egypt, and Greece provides other examples of such discourses given by masters and transcribed by their disciples. One thinks, for instance, of the “Deer Park Sermon” of Siddhartha Gautama.

Unlike Siddhartha, however, whose recent enlightenment (Bodhi) enabled him to discern a relentless Chain of Causation in existence and to devise an ascetical system for dealing with it, Agur of Massa confessed himself completely bewildered by the whole thing: “Surely I am more stupid than any man, and do not have the understanding of a man. I neither learned wisdom, nor have knowledge of the Holy One” (verses 2-3).

Such a sentiment makes Agur resemble Socrates more than Siddhartha. Socrates, we recall, once identified by the Delphic oracle as the world’s wisest man, spent his life trying to prove the oracle wrong. Socrates finally concluded, however, that the oracle must be correct because he discovered all reputedly wise men to be just as ignorant as himself, except that they were not aware of being ignorant. Socrates concluded that it was as though the oracle had declared, “Among yourselves, oh men, that man is the wisest who recognizes, like Socrates, that he is truly nobody of worth (oudenos axsios) with respect to wisdom.” Socrates and Agur, then, both associate the quest of wisdom with a humble mind.

Whatever his resemblance to that wise Athenian, nonetheless, Agur more readily puts us in mind of the Psalmist, who confessed to God, “I was so foolish and ignorant, I was like a beast before You” (Psalms 72 [73]:22) and “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it” (138 [139]:6).

Whereas the philosophical humility of Socrates was spawned of epistemology—that is, the accepted limitations of the human being’s ability to know—that of Agur was inspired, rather, by cosmology; he considered the sheer vastness of the varied things to be known: “Who has ascended in heaven, or descended? Who has gathered the wind in His fists? Who has bound the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth?” (verse 4) Agur’s are the sorts of reflections we associate with God’s final answer to Job (Job 38-39).

With scant confidence in his own intelligence, then, Agur began the quest of wisdom by trusting in “every word of God” (kol ’imrath ’Eloah), which word he described, exactly like the Psalmist, as “pure,” seruphah (verses 5-6; Psalms 17 [18]:31). He then turned to prayer—the only explicit prayer in the whole Book of Proverbs—in which he begged God for a modest life, free of falsehood. The life that Agur craved from on high would be neither wealthy nor poor, in order to avoid both arrogance and desperation, either of which might lead him into sin (verses 7-9).

Agur did not think very highly of his contemporaries, whom he described as disrespectful of authority and tradition, morally dissolute and socially irresponsible, insatiable in their appetites, and entertaining too high an opinion of themselves (verses 11-14). If one looks closely at the criticism, it is clear that Augur’s complaint had a fourfold structure. In fact, he was especially fond of maxims based on the number four: four things that are never satisfied (verses 15-16), four things too hard to understand (verses 18-19), four things the world cannot endure verses 21-23), four small but wise animals from whom men can learn useful traits (verses 24-28), and four things “which are stately in walk” (verses 29-31).

Agur’s was, in short, the simple, observant philosophy of a humble man, content to live in this world by the purity of God’s word and a prayerful reliance on God’s gifts, offending the Almighty by neither the food he put into his mouth nor the words he caused to come forth from it.

Monday, March 25

Luke 1:26-38: When Luke records Mary’s response to the Angel Gabriel, he uses the same word that records Jesus’ response to his Father in the Agony in the Garden: “Be it done!”—genetheto. The Holy Spirit is the active agent in the Incarnation, but this action is not forced on the young Galilean woman. Her assent and cooperation are required by the very nature of salvation.

The most significant fact about Mary was her consent to God’s invitation. Absolutely everything else recorded in the four gospels depended on that consent. Without human consent there was no salvation. Without Mary’s response to the angel, we would still be in our sins. Without Mary’s response to the angel, there would be no Sermon on the Mount, no walking on the water, no healing on the Sabbath.

Apart Mary’s response to the angel, the blind man of Jericho would still be blind, the widow’s son at Nain would still be dead, and Zacchaeus would never have climbed the sycamore tree. The sisters of Lazarus would still be weeping at his tomb. All of these things came from Mary’s consent to the angel.

It was she who taught her Son how to say yes to God. It was from her that he learned to respond in faith to the call of God, not counting the cost. Their destinies were inextricably entwined in the mystery of Redemption. Apart from Mary, there is no Jesus.

Even as Simeon prophesied that Jesus was “destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign of contradiction,” the old man took care to warn Mary, “yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Luke 2:34-35). This prophecy was mainly fulfilled on Mount Calvary where “there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother” (John 19:25), loyally adhering to him unto to the end. For this reason we find Mary—in the New Testament’s last mention of her—gathered with the other Christians in the upper room, awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:14).

When Mary said yes to the angel, she did not foresee the distant scene. She did not foresee that day in the Temple. She did not foresee the Cross, under which she would stand, with the other holy women, to keep watch as the Lamb of God took away the sins of the world.

Mary took one step at a time, God’s Word being a lamp unto her feet and a guide unto her path. Personal history is “gradual,” an expression from the Latin gradus, meaning “step.” Human existence takes place one step at a time, and those steps represent the advance of holiness if they are, one by one, guided by the Word of God. “Thy Word,” we pray, “is a lamp unto my feet.” It is just a lamp, not a searchlight; it sheds just enough light for the next step. It is not light at the end of the tunnel; it is lamp we hold in our hands. We light this lamp each day, when we open the Sacred Text, so that it may guide our steps, one at a time. It is important that we do this every day.

Tuesday, March 26

Matthew 20:1-16: The parable about the day-workers is probably found in this place because it tells a narrative about the last called being the first paid, thus illustrating, as it were, the final verse of Chapter 19: “But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” The parable ends with the repetition of the theme of reversal (verse 16).

It is obvious, nonetheless, that this parable, found only in Matthew, is easily separable from that verse, and it touches only one aspect of the parable—namely, the reversed order in which the payment to the workers is made. In fact, the parable itself is just as comprehensible without that theme.

The parable of the day workers was doubtless remembered among the early Christians because it did, in fact, address one of their early theological questions — How to regard the Gentiles who were “late-comers” to the Church. The earlier comers to the field are all given a work contract, which may be interpreted as God’s established covenant with His people. Those that come last, however, work without a contract; that is to say, they have been promised nothing specific. They are outside the ancient covenant (Ephesians 2:12).

But God’s generosity rewards them anyway, and this parable is more descriptive of the Owner of the vineyard than of the workers. The Owner, of course, is God, who is described as merciful and generous with those who work for Him, as well as firm with those who contemn His generosity. The vineyard is, of course, the People of God (cf. Isaiah 5:1-7; Jeremiah 12:10).

The grumblers, who are reprimanded at the end of the parable, are not rebuked for dissatisfaction with what they have received, but for their dissatisfaction with what the other people have received. These grumblers may also become the enemies who have already commenced plotting against the Son of the field’s Owner (21:33-46).

The workers themselves are day laborers, the sort especially needed at the harvest. This feature suggests the eschatological import of the story: These are the “last times,” and everything is settled “in the evening” (verse 8).

Galatians 3:25—4:7: Galatians 3:26–4:7: Not least among the striking features of this text is the apostle’s use of exactly the same verb to speak of the sending forth of both the Son and the Holy Spirit. In each case he says, “God sent forth His Son . . . God sent forth the Spirit of His Son.” This is a summary of how we know God: We know Him because He has revealed Himself by His sending forth of His Son and Holy Spirit. God’s double sending forth is thus related to two orders of knowledge, the categorical, empirical order — in the historical events of the salvific ministry of His Son — and the internal order of immediate perception — the gift of the Holy Spirit. These are the two dimensions of the knowledge of God, two inseparable aspects of the Gospel, the sending of the Son and the sending of the Holy Spirit. These are also two essential dimensions of the Lord’s Supper. The first appears horizontal through history by way of “remembrance” (anamnesis), and the second appears vertical by way of “invocation” (epiclesis). The Cross is formed by the intersection of these two lines.

Wednesday, March 27

Matthew 20:17-28: This section begins with the Lord’s third and final prediction of the His coming Passion (verses 17-19; Mark 10:32-34; Luke 18:31-34). This prophecy is much more detailed than the earlier two (16:21; 17:22-23), mentioning the Lord’s manumission to the chief priests (26:57), His condemnation by them (26:66), His handing over to Pilate (27:2), and the mockery and scourging (27:26-30). Unlike Mark (10:34), Matthew also specifies crucifixion (27:32-44), a form of execution practiced by the Romans.

Unlike Mark’s account of this text passage, Matthew introduces “the mother of Zebedee’s sons,” who makes her request to Jesus on behalf of her sons. In thus describing her, Matthew uses an expression that appears only twice in the entire New Testament, both times in Matthew: here in 20:20 and later, in 27:56, at the foot of the cross.

In the first of these instances Zebedee’s wife is portrayed as an enterprising and somewhat ambitious worldling who fails to grasp the message of the cross, while in the later scene we find her standing vigil as her Lord dies, now a model of the converted and enlightened Christian who follows Jesus to the very end. This marvelous correspondence between the two scenes—a before and after—is proper to Matthew and points to a delicate nuance of his thought.

The dominical questions put to the sons of Zebedee are in truth addressed to all Christians, pointing to a special dimension of their very participation in the sacramental life of the Church. Following the traditional exegesis of this story, we may say that properly to share in baptism and the Holy Eucharist means a deep commitment to the mystery of the Lord’s cross, even to the point of martyrdom.

But not only to martyrdom in its ultimate, defining sense. There is more than one way to be martyred, after all, nor will every Christian be called to shed his blood for Christ in that final and dramatic way. Still, the same question is put equally to all believers, whether or not they are to die as martyrs. James, the elder son of Zebedee, was actually put to death with a sword, according to Acts 12:2, which may be read as a partial fulfillment of the prophecy in Matthew 20:23 and Mark 10:39. But it was also well known that his brother John, though he suffered many things for the name of Christ, was not actually put to death by the enemies of the gospel. Did he any less drink of the cup of Christ’s sufferings? Was not he, too, a martyr?

Thursday, March 28

Matthew 20:29-34: To “follow” Christ means to live by the pattern of the Cross, to pursue the implications of Baptism and the Holy Eucharist, the one a mystic identification with His death and resurrection, the other a proclaiming of His death “until He comes.” These two men have accepted the challenge just made to James and John.

These blind men, calling on Jesus with the Messianic title, “Son of David,” ask for the opening of their eyes, an expression which in prophetic literature is associated with the Messianic times (cf. Isaiah 29:18; 35:5).

In fact, one notes in Matthew a disposition to call Jesus the “Son of David” (a title introduced in the very first verse of this Gospel), when He miraculously heals. We observe this in both healings of the blind men (here and in 9:30), the blind and mute demoniac (12:22-24), and the Canaanite woman’s daughter (15:21-28). These healings are signs of the coming of the Messiah, foretold by the prophets (cf. 4:23; 9:35; 10:1).

Galatians 4:21-31: Galatians 4:21-31: It seems significant that the covenants of God with Abraham and David are each ushered into history by an account of a barren woman. Thus, Holy Scripture introduces the covenant with Abraham by telling of the barrenness of Sarah, and the narrative of the Davidic covenant is introduced by the story of barren Hannah. It is not surprising, then, that the account of barren Elizabeth should introduce the story of the Incarnation. Jesus Christ is, after all, “the Son of David, the Son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1).

St. Paul, moreover, explicitly appeals to the story of barren Sarah in order to illustrate the Christian covenant. He writes, “it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, which things are symbolic” (verses 22-24).

The Greek word translated by the NKJV as “symbolic” is allegoroumena, which literally means “things said in allegory.” This is our first instance of the work “allegory” in Christian thought, where it properly means the New Testament meaning of the Old Testament text. Indeed, this is why Paul brings up the subject of barren Sarah—her historical and symbolic relevance to the Christian covenant.

Paul’s insertion of this image into his exposition of the Christian covenant prompts us to reflect more in detail on what the story of ancient Sarah means to the Christian mind. If we had only the Old Testament by which to reflect on this point, we might doubt that Sarah had much faith. Fortunately, however, we have the testimony of the Epistle to the Hebrews: “By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised” (11:11).

Indeed, the faith of Sarah illustrates something truly essential to the very nature of faith—it accomplishes what is humanly impossible. Sarah did not regard the prospects of bearing a child at age 90. On the contrary, “she judged Him faithful who had promised.” That is to say, she trusted the fidelity of God to do what He has promised to do.

Friday, March 29

Matthew 21:28-32: This parable, which has no parallel in Mark and Luke, is a study in contrast between two brothers. Matthew inserts it here as a “link” story, and in fact it serves that literary function perfectly. First, its reference to John the Baptist (verse 32) links the parable to the foregoing discussion in 21:23-27. Second, its reference to the vineyard prepares for the parable that is to follow (verses 33-46). In addition, the parable of the two sons fits admirably into Matthew’s long series of controversial encounters between Jesus and those that are preparing to kill Him (21:23—22:46).

This contrasting story of two brothers is of a kind with which the Bible abounds. We think, for instance, of the contrast between Ishmael and Isaac, or between Esau and Jacob. Indeed, the special place of this motif in Holy Scripture is indicated by the contrast between Cain and Abel near the beginning of it.

Likewise, this was not the only occasion on which Jesus contrasted two brothers. A better-known instance is found in Luke 15:11-32.

Before examining the present parable in Matthew, we do well to reflect the more general significance of these biblical stories of fraternal contrast. Aside from the sense conveyed by any one of them, is there a more universally applicable message common to all of them?

There appears to be. In each such story the two brothers are raised in the same family. They grow up in more or less identical conditions, subject to the same influences, or, as modern behavioral scientists like to say, in the same environment. Neither has a “home court advantage” over the other. Yet, in each instance the two brothers turn out very differently from one another.

This repeated contrast tends to foster a general impression: namely, that the behavior of human beings is not determined—is not fixed—by either nature or nurture. It is determined, rather, by personal choices that each man makes. Men born of the same parents and raised in the same home can grow up very differently from one another, a fact illustrating the truth that men make their own decisions, for good or ill, and set the course for their own destiny.

That is to say, the Bible gives no support to the notion that the fate of human beings is determined by the circumstances of their birth or upbringing. The Bible does not countenance the thesis that human beings are no more than the sum total of the influences brought to bear upon them. A human being becomes, rather, what he makes himself to be, and this takes place through his choices.

Moreover, the truth of this assertion is compatible with the burden of the present parable, in which each son makes a personal choice of obedience or disobedience, repentance or hardness of heart.

Jesus begins by inviting reflection on what He is about to say: “How does it seem to you? — Ti de hymin dokei?” 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.