Friday, March 17

Romans 16.17-27: Having finished his greetings to friends at Rome, Paul next sends the salutations of those who are with him at Gaius’s house in Corinth (verse 23; cf. 1 Corinthians 1:14; Acts 19:29).

Prior to sending these salutations, however, Paul warns the Romans against schism, heresy, and dissension (verses 17-18). He knows there are trouble-makers abroad. Indeed, among the Jewish Christians who were returning to Rome during those years, he may have recognized some of the very individuals who had been sowing dissent among his own congregations in the East.

The tone of Paul’s warnings here differs greatly in style from the rest of the Epistle to the Romans. One would think that Paul, as thought on the friends in Rome that he had just named, had somewhat forgotten that he was writing to a church that he had not founded. He reverts to his more usual style, so that these few verses more closely resemble the other epistles. For example, one may compare verses 17-20 with Galatians 6:12-17.

Once again Paul commends the good reputation of the Roman Christians (verse 19; 1:8).

The crushing of Satan underfoot (verse 20), of course, fulfills the prophecy in Genesis 3:15.

Greetings are first sent from Timothy, who had recently arrived at Corinth and will soon be leaving to accompany the collection to Jerusalem (Acts 20:4).

In verse 22 we learn that Paul’s scribe, who has written this epistle at his dicta-tion, is named Tertius, a Latin name signifying that he is the third son in his family. Tertius sends along greetings from his younger brother, Quartus (verse 23). Their older brother, Secundus, will be one of those carrying the collection to Jerusalem (Acts 20:4).

“Erastus, the treasurer of the city” (verse 23) has become a Christian. This municipal commissioner for public works is well known from archeology. Visitors to Corinth can still see his name on a Latin inscription on a marble pavement block.

Proverbs 23: The greatest conceit a man can cultivate is a trust in “his own” wisdom (verse 4), because true wisdom is the shared inheritance of human ex-perience. Therefore, it is no proper goal of education that a student should be taught “to think for himself.” Any idiot can learn that on his own. (The Greek word for “his own” is idios.) It is a proper goal of education, rather, that a student should learn to think the thoughts of Plato, of Aristotle, of Amen-em-Opet, of Ahikar, of Confucius, of the other great minds whose ideas have fed and sustained entire civilizations. A true education, an introduction to wisdom, comes from hearing the instruction of those who are truly wise (verse 12). Idio-syncratic isolation is arguably the greatest enemy to the acquisition of wisdom.

Verses 15 to 28 take up again some of the motifs of the first part of Proverbs, encouraging the fear of the Lord (verse 17), custody of the heart (verse 19), sobriety and self-restraint (verses 20-21), respect for tradition (verses 22,24-25), and chastity (verses 27-28). This chapter closes with a colorful and amus-ing description of drunkenness (verses 29-35).

Saturday, March 18

Matthew 22.15-22: The Lord’s enemies commence with manifest flattery, evi-dently to put Jesus off His guard before springing their loaded question (verse 16). All three of the Synoptics mention this detail.
The payment of the head tax to the Roman government was a source of re-sentment and occasional rebellion among the Jews, both because it was a sign of their subjection to Rome and because they disliked handling the graven im-age of the emperor on the coin. To this question, then, either a yes or a no an-swer could provide the basis for a political accusation against Jesus—or at least could gain Him new enemies. If Jesus forbade the paying of this tax, He would offend the Herodians. If He approved of it, He would further offend the Pharisees. Either way, He would give offense.

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

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

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

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

Proverbs 24: Material prosperity and the blessings of a stable life are founded on, and in some measure guaranteed by, the quest of wisdom (verses 3-4). Prudent choices and circumspect behavior, most especially in the time of youth when prudence and circumspection are not yet solid habits, will determine a man’s course for many years, perhaps even for his whole lifetime (verse 27). The failure at such application also brings about its own results (verses 30-34).

A first step toward wisdom is to turn away from evil. It is a matter of elemen-tary experience that the evil-doer seems sometimes to prosper more than the just man. Whereas in the Book of Job the observation of this latter phenomenon spawns a philosophical discussion about its cause, here in Proverbs it represents only a distracting temptation. Instead of wondering how to interpret the pros-perity of the wicked, the young man in Proverbs is simply warned against be-coming deceived by it through envy (verses 1-2,8-9,19-20; 3:31; 23:17). Also to be eschewed, as a distraction at best, is the pursuit of revenge (verse 29). The wise man must avoid such temptations and get on with life.

True righteousness, however, is not a matter of looking good to men, nor is true prosperity attained simply by being regarded by other men as prosperous. God sees and judges the heart. In particular, God recognizes the difference between brave and cowardly hearts. He knows whether or not a man is inwardly acqui-escing in evil and oppression (verse 11-12). God is not impartial. He takes the side of the righteous man (verses 15-16). This is the thesis put to trial in the Book of Job.

God’s reading of the heart also discerns the smug gloating one feels at the fail-ure of an enemy (verse 17-18). God does not respect the self-righteousness contained in such sentiments. Justice on the earth has nothing to do with smug emotions.

Sunday, March 19

First Corinthians 1.10-17: Paul’s first eighteen months at Corinth were very hard on him as the founding pastor. During that whole time he took no salary for his labors, working instead as a tent maker to earn his living. Paul became so discouraged with the strife at Corinth that the Lord gave him a special reve-lation to keep him going. St. Luke tells us, “Now the Lord spoke to Paul in the night by a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, but speak, and do not keep silent; for I am with you, and no one will attack you to hurt you; for I have many people in this city’” (18:9).

If the Apostle Paul needed reminding on this score, perhaps all Christians do. The story of the founding of the Corinthians church stands in the Bible to teach us that the presence of conflict does not invalidate the experience and claims of a congregation. This account testifies that God does not abandon a Christian congregation just because it has a bit of conflict and an occasional locking of horns. Christ did not abandon the church at Corinth.

There are those who believe that the experience of a Christian congregation must be nothing but light and peace. Indeed, we all know of people who stay away from church because they believe churches to be inhabited by sinners. That is something on the order of staying away from grocery stores in order not to associate with the hungry, or refusing to enter a hospital for fear there may be sick people around.
If the Church of Jesus Christ is a refuge for sinners—if it is really true that He came to call sinners, not the just—then there is no logic to the expectation of finding only nice and upright people at church.

Proverbs 25: The eighth-century scribes of King Hezekiah, evidently as part of the general spiritual renewal associated with that godly monarch (cf. 2 Kings 18-20; 2 Chronicles 29-32), compiled the collection of maxims that begins here (Chapters 25-29). It has been observed that this collection contains 126 maxims, the very number indicated by the numerical value of the Hebrew let-ters in Hezekiah’s name. Given the courtly context of this collection, it is scarcely surprising that it begins with certain considerations of kingship (verse 1-7). We recognize that verse 7 is repeated in Luke 14:7-11.

Various maxims indicate the value of good and intelligent speech (verse 11-13,15,25), while others exhort to moderation even in good things (verses 16,27). The counsel for how to deal with one’s enemies (verses 21-22) is taken up by St. Paul in Romans 12:20-21 as an important component of practical Christian ethics.

A very weighty concern in the pursuit of wisdom is the acceptance of limita-tions. “The sky is the limit” is the philosophy of someone with no sense of per-sonal identity. Identity, after all, is a defining notion, and definition is always a matter of limitation (“this, and not that”). A larger ego is not necessarily more a blessing than a larger nose. To refuse to recognize limitations is a marker along the path to loss of identity. Consequently, this practical chapter ends with the absolute necessity of self-control, which is one of the most practical appli-cations of the acceptance of limitation (verse 28). King Hezekiah himself, who witnessed the downfall of the Northern Kingdom to the Assyrians 722 B.C., was well adjusted to this acceptance and was obliged, in his own pursuit of wisdom, to bear it in mind continually. Had he failed to do so, he would not likely have survived the very taxing geopolitical circumstances in which history placed him.

Monday, March 30

Luke 21.1-6: One of the notable features of the Court of Women was the
glazophylakion or “treasury,” thirteen trumpet-shaped receptacles placed there to receive the offerings of the faithful for the maintenance of the
temple and its ministry. Because pagan coinage was often adorned with
engravings of political leaders and images from mythology, such “idolatrous”
money could not be placed in the temple treasury.

For this reason there were moneychangers in the temple to provide the ac-ceptable coinage for the offerings. Since they were not expected to work for free, the monetary exchange involved a measure of profit for the exchangers (much as we have today in international airports), and on at least one occasion our Lord seems to have manifested a rather dim view of such transactions.

One day the Lord called attention to a poor widow whom He saw casting her last two coins into the treasury. These coins (lepta) were so small that they had no strict equivalence in the imperial monetary system, and, because they would not be familiar to Mark’s readers at Rome, he explained that two of them were needed to equal a single quadrans a “quarter,” or “two bits”)

Jesus knew that these two small pieces of change were the sum of this poor widow’s assets (pace Rudolph Bultmann who doubted how Jesus could possibly have known this!). Therefore it is significant that she gave both of them, hold-ing back nothing for herself.

For Jesus this latter fact became a point of contrast between the widow and the wealthier benefactors of the temple (12:43f; Luke 21:4). Unlike the latter, this woman was giving “all her life” (holon ton bion in Mark 12:44). Je-sus knew that, if a woman is reduced even to ten coins, the loss of a single one of them is a matter of considerable concern and industry (cf. Luke 15:8–10). Moreover, given the grandeur of the temple and the magnitude of its economic base, this lady might have been tempted to feel that her tiny gift was insignifi-cant, even futile. Such is the context in which our Lord speaks of her bravery and generosity.

Our Lord’s reaction was typical of Him, nor was this the only occasion on which He took compassion on a widow (cf. Luke 7:11–17).

Indeed, He was obviously fond of an old story of a strikingly similar widow who likewise sacrificed her last resources to advance God’s cause (1 Kings 17:8–16; Luke 4:25–26).

It is further significant that the Gospel accounts of this poor widow in the tem-ple place her in the context of the Lord’s Passion. In Mark she VIII. gentle saints comes at the end of five stories of conflict between Jesus and His enemies (11:27—12:40) and immediately prior to His final great discourse
(which commences with a remark about the grandeur of the temple!—13:1), while in Luke she appears in the chapter before the Sanhedrin’s plot to kill Jesus (21:1–4; 22:1–6). Giving her all for God, this widow thus becomes a symbol or type of Christ Himself, who will lay down His life (bios) to advance God’s cause.

Tuesday, March 21

First Corinthians 2.1-16: St. Paul declares what I take to be the subject matter of Sacred Theology; that is to say, the knowledge of ta charisthenta—“the things freely given.” Paul writes, “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things freely given to us by God.” The expression, “things freely given,” is plural, ta charisthenta.

In the context of First Corinthians 2 these “things freely given” pertain to Paul’s reference just a few verses earlier: “we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery.” For Paul, “the wisdom of God”—Theou Sophia—is God’s redemptive de-sign, which is concealed in the logos tou stavrou, the “word of the Cross.”

The expression, “things given us freely by God,” indicates a cognitive plurality in the wisdom of God. That is to say, in the proclamation of “the word of the Cross,” it is necessary to employ various words and concepts to designate as-pects and dimensions of the “wisdom of God.” The proclamation is discursive. Paul goes on: “These things we also speak, not in words taught by human wis-dom, but taught by the Spirit—en didaktois PnevmatosI—comparing spiritual things with spiritual.” This exercise of reflection on the “things given us freely by God,” the charisthenta, I take to be the ministry of Sacred Theology.

The words employed in this reflection are given by the Holy Spirit. Paul pro-ceeds to argue the point by citing the Prophecy of Isaiah: “For ‘who has known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct Him?’”

Paul answers, “But we have the mind of Christ.” Paul, who up to this point has been speaking of the Holy Spirit as the source of God’s wisdom, now suddenly speaks of Christ. He does this, I presume, under the influence of Isaian text he has just cited. This text asks, tis egno noun Kyriou—“Who has known the mind of the Lord”?

For Paul the Lord is Christ. The mind of the Lord is the nous Christou. Paul’s shift of emphasis here strikes me as very important. The whole task of reflec-tion on the wisdom of God in a mystery is dependent on the nous Christou. What does Paul mean, nous Christou?

To address this question let me start with St. Jerome’s Latin translation. Je-rome does not render nous here in its usual equivalents, mens or intellectus, but with the word sensus. Jerome, whose classical education in Greek was equal to that of the Greek Fathers themselves, was sen-sitive to the nuance of this expression in the context. His understanding of the verse is very significant. Whereas the terms mens and intellectus—“mind” and “intellect”—denote the faculty of thought, the word sensus indicates rather the experience of the thinker. It means “perception” or even “manner of thinking.”

That is to say, Jerome understands the word nous in this verse to refer to Christ’s own experience of knowing. This, says Paul, the gift of Holy Spirit. Those who have the nous Christou, the sensus Christi, perceive “the things freely given us by God” in the way Christ perceives them. Believers enter into—and share—Christ’s perception of the divine gifts.

Wednesday, March 22

Matthew 24.15-31: This section of Matthew, about the Abomination of Desola-tion and the Great Tribulation, is shared with Mark (13:14-20) and Luke (21:20-24). Jesus first alludes to a past event. In going to the remembered past in or-der to prophesy about the near future, Jesus follows a pattern of historical in-terpretation common to the Old Testament prophets.

In verse 15 the bdelygma tou eremoseos—literally “the Abomination of Desolation”—is a translation of a Hebrew expression found three times in the prophet Daniel (9:27; 11:31; 12:11; cf. 1 Maccabees 1:54), to refer to the idol erected to Zeus in the Second Temple by the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (1 Maccabees 1:54-64). The desecration, which had occurred in 167 B.C, only two centuries earlier, was still a vivid memory to the Jews, who un-derstandably regarded it as a low point in their history and a source of profound shock and outrage. At that time the Temple itself was stripped of its adorn-ments; other pagan altars were erected, and unclean animals were sacrificed upon them (Josephus, Antiquities 12.54). This had been a time of great persecution of the righteous Jews by the unrighteous, not only by pagans but also by fellow Jews.

We observe that Matthew, unlike Mark and Luke, explicitly sends the reader to Daniel in order to explain this reference to the Abomination of Desolation. In Daniel the Hebrew expression for Abomination of Desolation is hashuqqus meshomem, appears to be a parody of the name that refers to Zeus, ba‘al shamayim, “lord of heaven.”

Matthew repeats Mark’s parenthetical note, “let the reader understand.” This exhortation, which clearly comes from the evangelists and not from Jesus, per-haps calls attention to the plan of the Roman emperor Caligula to erect a statue of himself in the Temple in A.D. 40. This proposed desecration of the holy place would have repeated what had occurred two centuries earlier under Antiochus IV Epiphanes. This seems to be what both Mark and Matthew had in mind.

Proverbs 28: Among the characteristics of the righteous man is one not often mentioned in Proverbs, perhaps because it is too obvious—bravery (verse 1). The bravery mentioned here is the fruit of a righteous life, not the mere exer-tions of a strong will. Such bravery will be manifest in a variety of actions, not the least of which is the refusal to approve of wickedness or those who practice it (verses 4,21). Indeed, even the ability to recognize the difference between good and evil comes from being good; this distinction is lost on those who are not (verse 5).

Although prosperity is the expected fruit of a good, wise, and industrious life (verse 19), this is not invariably the case. Ultimately, it is not prosperity that is essential, but the righteousness that would deserve prosperity if life in this world were perfect (verses 6,11). Indeed, Proverbs warns against the inordinate desire for prosperity (verse 22), and no man may seek prosperity to the ne-glect of the poor (verse 27; 29:7).

The worst fate that can befall a nation is to be ruled by a fool (verses 2,15-16; 29:2), and the biblical histories of Judah and Israel prove the point.

Thursday, March 23

Matthew 24.32-44: Here begins an extended exhortation to vigilance (24:32—25:30). This exhortation begins with three illustrations, the first drawn from na-ture (verses 32-36), the second from biblical history (verses 37-44), and the third from common social expectations (verses 45-51).
The first is the example of a fig tree, from which, Jesus says, we should “learn the parable” (mathete ten parabolen–verse 32). This lesson is of whole cloth with the constant pattern of Jesus to invoke the plants, animals, and oth-er “natural” things in order to appreciate the mysteries of the Kingdom (cf. 6:26-30). In the present case Jesus goes to something in nature in order to un-derstand something in history; as the nearness of summer can be perceived in the qualities of the fig tree, so the nearness of the Messiah’s coming can be perceived through certain historical indicators (verse 33). The Lord has already told us ahead of time what these indicators are (verse 25).
These signs were already visible in the geopolitics, but especially the Jewish politics, of His own day. Consequently, He says, the generation that would wit-ness its consummation was already alive: “Amen, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place” (verse 34). The gen-eration that would see “all these things”–panta tavta–was already walking the earth.
What were “all these things”? Surely they included the details of the Lord’s im-mediate prophecy: the abomination of desolation, the great tribulation, the rise of false messiahs and false prophets, the planetary disruptions, all preceding the coming of the Son of Man to judge the world.
In what sense, then, did “this generation” see “all these things”? After all, “this generation” had largely died off by the time that Matthew wrote. Yet Matthew includes this saying of Jesus.
When Christ did not return within the limits of “this generation,” as the earliest Christians seemed to have understood this expression, they were obliged to re-think the question of the imminence of that return. Such a rethinking continues to the present day, it may be said; the Church continues to ponder the signs of history under the guidance of the Lord’s prophetic word.
The great temptation, when a prophecy has not been completely understood, is to become skeptical of the prophecy itself. This also happened during New Tes-tament times, and the phenomenon became yet another sign of the final times. Thus, St. Peter exhorted believers to “be mindful of the words which were spo-ken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us, the apostles of the Lord and Savior, knowing this first: that scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts, and saying, ‘Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as from the beginning of creation’” (2 Peter 3:2-4).
In fact, the indications of imminence that we find in verses 32-34 of this chap-ter of Matthew are but one side of a balance. The other side is verse 36: “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but the Fa-ther only.” These are the two sides of the balance: imminent signs and utter secrecy. What Christ gives us by way of prophecy must not deteriorate into some sort of historical tabulation. Eschatological prophecy must not become a divine bus schedule, as it were, by which we can see if things are going as planned.

Friday, 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 Prov-erbs 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 Sid-dhartha Gautama.

Unlike Siddhartha, however, whose recent enlightenment (Bodhi) ena-bled 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 complete-ly 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. Socra-tes, 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, how-ever, 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 Socra-tes, 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 readi-ly 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 gar-ment? 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 (vers-es 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 dis-respectful of authority and tradition, morally dissolute and socially irresponsi-ble, insatiable in their appetites, and entertaining too high an opinion of them-selves (verses 11-14). If one looks closely at the criticism, it is clear that Au-gur’s complaint had a fourfold structure. In fact, he was especially fond of max-ims 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, con-tent 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.