Friday, January 11

Matthew 5:1-12: The Sermon on the Mount begins with two very solemn verses, as though to allow everyone to sit down and get settled for a long discourse. The Sermon functions in more than one way to serve the structure of Matthew’s entire composition. For example, taking place on a mountain at the very beginning of the Lord’s ministry, it is the initial component of a parallel with the mountain at the end of the Gospel, the mountain from which Jesus sent the Apostles to teach what he had taught (28:20).

Again, the Sermon is the first of the five great discourses—a New Testament Chumash as it were—which are the didactic backbone of Matthew’s Gospel. Functioning thus, it stands in chiastic correspondence to the last of these five discourses, the lengthy sermon on the Last Things (chapters 23–25).

Close readers of Matthew have long observed that this Sermon itself forms a commentary on the Beatitudes with which it begins (verses 2–10). This commentary is also chiastic, meaning that it reverses the order of the Beatitudes. Thus, for example, verses 11–12 form a commentary on verse 10, verses 13–16 are a commentary on verse 9, and so forth.

Genesis 11: In spite of the national diversities outlined in the previous chapter, all of mankind, up to this point, speaks with a common tongue (verse 1).

The construction of Babel, the second city to be founded in the Bible, prompts us to recall the moral ambiguity of the first city, founded by the world’s first fratricide (4:17). Babel, like that first city, represents the development of technology (verse 3; 4:22). The tower of Babel symbolizes man’s arrogance and his rebellion against the authority of God. Not trusting God’s promise never again to destroy the world by flood (9:15), the men of Babel decide to build this tower as a sort of insurance policy against God’s punishment. Its construction, therefore, is of a piece with all the earlier rebellions against God that we have seen, starting in Chapter Three.

God’s response is twofold. It is both a punishment against the rebels and a preventative measure against their becoming even worse. That is to say, even God’s punishment is an act of mercy.

In the more general symbolism of Holy Scripture, Babel also represents Babylon, the city of power and godless rebellion, which is overthrown definitively in the Book of Revelation. There is a symbolic identity, therefore, uniting the present story to the destruction of Babylon described in Revelation 17 and 18. This city represents any political and economic establishment characterized by arrogance and the love of power.

Saturday, January 12

Hebrews 6:1-8: Today’s reading refers to those initiated into the Christian Church, when it speaks of “those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come.” From the earliest times, believers have joined the Christian Church through the rites of Baptism (still called Holy Illumination among Eastern Christians), the Gift of the Holy Spirit (called “Chrismation” in the East and “Confirmation” in the West), and the Holy Communion. All three of these rites take place in the context of the proclamation of the Holy Scriptures, in which we “tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come.”

What is striking in this description of Christian initiation is the emphasis on the enjoyment of the things of God and the pleasure derived from sharing them. The things we do in the Church—the experience of prayer, the participation in the Sacraments, the proclamation of God’s Word—are portrayed as events that bring joy to our hearts, matters that only a terribly perverse person would deprive himself of.

The Sacred Text hints, moreover, that this enjoyment is but a first taste of something greater, described as “the age to come.”

How do we explain the thinking of Christians who have never learned to love the things of God? They confess willingly they find no delight in prayer, no joy in the Sacraments, no relish in the singing of hymns, no consolation in the reading Holy Scripture.

Because these matters demand discipline—they are what we call acquired tastes—it is understandable that some souls do not yet enjoy them.

What is not comprehensible, at least to me, is why these same souls still want to participate in “the age to come.” If they do not relish God’s Word, what makes them think that they will care much to meet the Author? If they find no joy on earth from eating the Bread of Angels, how do they imagine it will be more enjoyable in heaven? If they even now here with great reluctance the invitation, “Let us pray,” why would they want to hear the invitation, “Enter into the joy of Thy Lord”?

If worship and the things of God are not sweet to us now, what makes us think we will enjoy them in heaven? If we find nothing but a burden in the brief time we spend worshipping on earth, how shall we endure the everlasting worship of heaven? If we now find onerous the bare nibbling of pleasures of heaven, what shall we feel when the whole banquet is spread out before us?

An important task facing us in this life is the development of our spiritual taste buds. The call to repentance is God’s summons to us to take possession of our own hunger. Only gradually will this be done. Day by day, and only as we deliberately cultivate the process, will the Holy Spirit give us a deep relish for God, for worship, for contemplation, for the Sacraments and the inexhaustible wealth of Holy Scripture. Day by day we will learn to taste and see that the Lord is sweet.

Sunday, January 13

Matthew 5:21-32: These contrasts has to do with the Lord’s understanding of the Torah’s prohibition, “Thou shalt do no murder” (verse 21). Here, as in the next examples, Jesus responds, “but I say to you,” a formula indicating that His own understanding of the Law is superior even to that of Moses.

There is an irreducible claim in these sustained assertions—namely, that Jesus, being the very Lawgiver of Mount Sinai, has the authority to speak for the Law’s intention. This claim is based on the standard legal principle: “the meaning of a law is determined by the intention of the lawgiver.” Moses, after all, was only the promulgator of the Torah, not its author. Jesus implicitly makes the latter claim for Himself, which is the reason He is speaking from the mountain (verse 1).

Thus, Jesus understands the prohibition against murder not simply as an injunction against taking someone’s life, but as an interdiction excluding all acts of anger and violence, including speech and even thought (verse 22). This teaching is given in detail and at some length, as Matthew portrays Jesus as the Teacher of the Church. He teaches with authority (7:29).

Genesis 13: When Abram left Egypt, he and his family were very wealthy because of Pharaoh’s generosity to someone he was trying to gain as a brother-in-law! Now Abram and Lot find that the sheer size of their flocks requires them to live apart (verses 1-7). The story of their separation (verses 8-13) demonstrates Abram’s humility in giving his younger relative the choice of the land (verse 9), while he himself takes what is left. This humble action of Abram illustrates the meaning of the dominical saying that the meek shall inherit the earth. Abraham’s descendants, not Lot’s, will inherit all this land. In this story we discern the non-assertive quality of Abram’s faith. He is not only meek; he is also a peacemaker. Meekness and peace-making are qualities of the man of faith.

Lot serves in this story as a kind of foil to Abram. The meek and peaceful Abram takes what is left, whereas Lot, obviously having failed to do a proper survey of the neighborhood, chooses to live in Sodom. This was to prove one of the worst real estate choices in history.

The present chapter closes with God’s solemn asseveration to Abram, promising him the land and the “seed” (verses 14-18). Unfortunately the rich ambivalence of this latter noun (zera‘ in Hebrew, sperma in Greek, semen in Latin) is lost in more recent translations that substitute the politically correct but entirely prosaic “descendants” for “seed” (verses 15-16).

Besides Sodom, two other important Canaanite cities are introduced in this chapter, Bethel (still called Luz at this period — cf. 28:19) and Hebron. Both of these cities will be extremely important in subsequent biblical history, and Abram is credited with making each of them a place of worship (verses 4,18).

Monday, January 14

Psalms 7: The humanism of the Psalter is a humanism rooted in the Incarnation. 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.

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. Day by day it chronicles the sentiments of Holy Week: the official plot against the Lord’s life, the growing tension as He daily parries the hostile interrogations, His early anointing in preparation for His burial, the bribe accepted by Judas to betray Him to His enemies, the heavy air enveloping that supper in which He washes the feet of His friends and identifies His betrayer, the prolonged prayer in the garden and its bloody sweat, the lengthy nocturnal trial during which He is thrice denied by yet another of the Twelve, the spittings and the mockery in the court of the high priest, the hailing before the cowardly Pilate, the humiliation at the cruel hands of Herod, the fickle crowd seeking the release of Barabbas and calling down His own blood on their heads and the heads of their children, the brutal scourging at the pillar and the crowning with thorns, the carrying of the Cross and the encounter with the women of Jerusalem, the stripping and distribution of His clothing, the fierce driving of the nails through His hands and feet, His raising on the Cross and the forgiveness of His persecutors, the excruciating distension of His joints and the racking of His entire body, the thirst, the agony, and the death.

Such is the proper setting for Psalm 7, as mankind’s single just Man suffers and dies to atone for the sins of the rest. To pray this psalm properly is to enter into the mind of the Lord in the context of His redemptive Passion. It is not to give expression to our own personal feelings, but to discover something of His. It is to taste, in some measure, the bitterness and the gall.

Tuesday, January 15

Genesis 15: This, the first of two accounts of God’s covenant with Abram, is arguably the more dramatic and colorful. Here we also find two expressions appearing for the first time in Holy Scripture: (1) “the word of the Lord came to . . .” (verse 1), and (2) Abram “believed (’aman) in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness” (verse 6). That first expression will be especially prominent the Bible’s prophetic literature, and the second, which introduces the theme of righteousness by faith in God’s promise, will dominate much of the New Testament, particularly the Pauline corpus. Indeed, St. Paul wrote the first commentary on this verse, Romans 4:1-5.

At this point in the story, Abram is not called upon to do anything. He is summoned simply to live by trust in God’s promising word. Eventually, of course, he will be called upon to do certain things, but the important point that St. Paul sees in this passage is that already, before he has done anything, Abram is called righteous. From this fact St. Paul argues that godly righteousness consists radically in that profound trust in God known in the Bible as faith. This faith is now explicitly spoken of for the first time in Holy Scripture. Hence, the importance of Genesis 15 for Christian theology. This is why Abraham is called “our father” in faith; his faith stands at the door of the history of salvation.

For St. Paul, Abraham’s righteousness, prior to the works of the Mosaic covenant, became the point of departure for examining the Christian’s relationship to the Law of Moses, which was one of the most difficult and practical questions raised in New Testament times. For example, it was important to St. Paul that Abraham, at this point in the story, has not yet received the command to be circumcised (Romans 4:9-12); that command will not come until Chapter 17. That is to say, Abraham was declared righteous before circumcision.

God’s promise to Abraham involved more than one person. It involved all the children of Abraham. It was the promise a large multitude. What does Genesis say? “Then He brought him outside and said, ‘Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.’ And He said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’”

That is to say, God’s promise to Abraham was not only Christological, but also ecclesiological. It involved not only a Messiah, but also a Church. It was the promise of a universal, international community. It was the promise of a truly catholic assembly of every tribe and tongue, a church that included all the families of the earth.

Wednesday, January 16

Romans 4:1-12: In the present chapter the apostle illustrates and demonstrates that the principle of justification through faith lies at the heart of the Old Testament. He goes to this Gospel principle as illustrated in the lives of Abraham and David.

In the case of David, who had violated at least two articles of the Decalogue, justification came from the forgiveness of his sins. David had not observed the Law, but God had forgiven his lawless deeds and not imputed his sins unto him (verses 7-8).

In this non-imputation of sin, the verb employed is logizesthai, which Paul uses with respect to both David and Abraham. Such imputation is not some sort of legal fiction. This verb, in its normal and literal meaning, comes from the practice of accounting, bookkeeping, and the maintenance of ledgers. In the Greek Bible it is used metaphorically in the sense of a recorded account of man’s moral conduct, as though God and the angels were “keeping tabs” on him (Deuteronomy 24:13; Psalms 106 [105]:31; Daniel 7:10; Revelation 20:12). This figurative use of the verb in a theological sense seems to be an extension of its figurative use in a legal and forensic sense, such as in court records and similar official archives (cf. Esther 6:1-3).

Thus, when David writes that a forgiven man’s sins are not “imputed” to him, the meaning is that those sins are no longer kept on the ledger, so to speak. They have been erased or “whited over.” Our sins are removed from the divine calculation, as it were. Our sins are “covered” (verse 7), not in the sense that they still remain in the soul, but in the sense that God has put them out of His mind. They are over and done with. He remembers them no more. The blood of the Lamb has washed them away, and a man never again needs to remember things that God has forgotten.

In addition to David, Paul writes of Abraham, “our forefather according to the flesh,” which means “our biological ancestor” (verse 1; Matthew 3:9; Luke 3:8). Abraham lived in a period long before the Sinai Covenant and the Mosaic Law. Yet, he was justified in God’s sight, not by his observance of the Law, but through his faith in God’s word, a faith manifest in his obedience to God’s call (verses 2-5).

When the Sacred Text asserts that Abraham’s faith was “accounted [elogisthe] to him for righteousness” (verse 3), it means that God was never in Abraham’s debt. God did not owe Abraham anything. The initiative of salvation in the story of Abraham was entirely God’s. God sought out Abraham, not the other way around. Abraham’s task was to believe, to trust, to obey. In faith he left his justification in God’s hands.

Thursday, January 17

Genesis 17: Genesis 17: This chapter narrates the circumstances in which Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah (verses 5,15).

This second account of God’s covenant with Abram is the first instance, of three, intimating the source of the name of his son and heir, Isaac. Isaac was named for laughter, because that name, formed from the verbal root shq, literally means “he will laugh.” When Abram learns that he, at age 100, and his wife, at age 90, will be the parents of this little boy, what else can he do but laugh? (verse 17)

No one felt the irony of their situation better than Sarah herself, however, who will learn of this divine plan in the next chapter, where she will discover the news while eavesdropping, from within the tent, on a conversation between her husband and the Lord whom he hosted outside. “Sarah your wife shall have a son,” she will hear the Latter say. Her response? “Sarah laughed within herself,” asserts the Sacred Text, a reaction that she will be a tad too quick to disavow when questioned on the matter. “I did not laugh,” she will insist. “No,” the Lord will press the point, “but you did laugh!” (18:9-15).

Later, right after delivering her son, Sarah will deliver the happy laconism that is the third reference to Isaac’s name: “God has made me laugh, and all who hear will laugh with me” (21:6). Hers and Abraham’s laughter was prompted, of course, by the sheer incongruity of the proposition, because “Abraham and Sarah were old, well advanced in age; and Sarah had passed the age of childbearing” (18:11).

According to the full Christian understanding of the Holy Scriptures, the joy of Abraham and Sarah at the promised birth of Isaac was burdened with prophecy, for his miraculous begetting foretold a later conception more miraculous still. Isaac was, in truth, a type and pledge of “Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). And Mary, mother of this Newer Isaac, having conceived Him in virginity just days before, made perfect her responding song of praise by remembering the mercy that God “spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed forever” (Luke 1:55).

Did not Abraham himself anticipate with joy the later coming of that more distant Seed? Surely so, for even our Newer Isaac proclaimed, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). Like Moses (5:46), Isaiah (12:41), and David (Matthew 22:43), Abraham was gifted to behold, in mystic vision, the final fulfillment of that primeval word, “But My covenant will I establish with Isaac” (Genesis 17:21).

Friday, January 18

Matthew 5:33-48: Whereas the Mosaic Law prohibits perjury—an imprecation in testimony to a lie (Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 5:11)—Gospel righteousness forbids oaths in testimony to the truth.

The examples given in these verses, particularly that related to one’s own head (verse 36), contain some measure of disguise or subterfuge, to avoid using God’s name explicitly (“heaven,” “earth,” “Jerusalem”—verse 34; cf. 23:16-22). This suggests an “unofficial” context for the prohibition. In solemn and more formal settings, after all, such as a courtroom, there would be no such disguising of the references to God’s holy name.

In fact, this is how the ethical tradition of the Church has interpreted the prohibition of oaths—that is, as pertaining to ordinary conversation, not a more solemn setting in which an oath is reasonable and expected. Thus, we observe the Apostle Paul’s complete lack of scruple in this matter (cf. Romans 1:9; 2 Corinthians 1:23; Philippians 1:8; 1 Thessalonians 2:5). The Church has followed suit, not understanding this prohibition in the same strict sense as the prohibition against divorce.

The point of the prohibition is to avoid frivolous, unnecessary, and irreverent appeals to God, no matter how such appeals may be disguised. Invocations of this sort encroach on the realm of the divine, and the biblical Lord would be treated with the same nonchalance that pagans felt toward the Homeric gods. Oaths of this kind are irreverent to the divine presence, much like the uncovered head of a woman in prayer. Such oaths—frivolous invocations to the divine truth as guarantor of human claims—demean the divine majesty by forcing God to participate in a merely human conversation. Gospel righteousness recognizes the insult implied in such behavior and such an attitude.

The Lord’s prohibition of oaths extends and perfects the Mosaic proscription against taking the Lord’s name “in vain” (that is, on behalf of a false assertion) and strengthens the Old Testament’s care to reverence the holiness of God’s name (Leviticus 19:12). In this sense Jesus’ prohibition goes to the root of the divine intention in the Torah, much as His prohibition of divorce and adulterous thoughts more profoundly asserts what the Old Testament says of the sanctity of marriage.

In addition, the Lord’s injunction here forces the believer to assume full responsibility for the “truth content” of what he says (verse 37; cf. James 5:12; 1 Corinthians 1:19). He cannot evade this moral responsibility by a casual invocation of the supernatural. Such invocations, says Jesus, are far from harmless; they come “from the Evil One” (ek tou Ponerou), from whom we pray to be delivered (apo tou Ponerou–6:13).