Sunday, October 27
Luke 14:25-35: This section of Luke, containing a series of dominical sayings relative to the cost of Christian discipleship, includes two parables not found outside of Luke (verses 28-33). Both parables, the tower-builder and the warring king, have to do with "counting the cost." Good beginnings are all very well, of course, but the real test of the Christian life lies further down the road. Fervent and devout feelings, especially during the early stages of the life in Christ, must not be confused with a personÕs true spiritual state. Feeling holy is not the same thing as being holy, and time will test all things. These two parables, then, convey much the same message as the parable of the ten maidens waiting for the bridegroom in Matthew 25; namely, the need to prepare for the "full distance" of the appointed task. The parable of the salt in verses 34-35 has parallels in Mark 9:49-50 and Matthew 5:13, but a comparison among these three texts shows in LukeÕs version a greater emphasis on the hearing of the Word (verse 35). Unlike MatthewÕs version, this text does not identify the salt as the Christians themselves, and unlike Mark, there is nothing about the salt as burned in sacrifice. In LukeÕs version the accent falls on salt as a preservative over a period of time; its sense, then, is related to the two parables that immediately precede it. All three parables are related to the Cross (verses 25-27), which is the dominant symbol of the cost of discipleship. The idiomatic meaning of "hate" in verse 26 is "to love less," as in Genesis 29:31-33 and Malachi 1:2-3.
Monday, October 28
Isaiah 2: This chapter of Isaiah contains three oracles, none of which can be assigned with certainty to a particular date; they do seem to come, however, from early in his ministry, within the first years after his calling. The first of these oracles (verses 1-5) speaks of the future glorification of GodÕs holy city, that more blessed Jerusalem to come, of which the ancient capital of David was a prefiguration and type (Galatians 4:26; Revelation 21:10). It will be, says the prophet, a city of peace (verse 4), something that the Jerusalem on earth has never been. The second oracle (verses 6-9) is critical of the idolatrous pursuit of wealth in the Jerusalem of IsaiahÕs time. We remember that his prophetic calling came in the last year of King Uzziah (6:1), whose reign (783-742) had restored a great deal of JudahÕs prosperity. This prosperity, Isaiah saw, led to the worship of human achievement as a particularly virulent form of idolatry. It was the sin of pride, and Isaiah threatened its punishment. This punishment is the theme of the third oracle (verses 10-22). Verse 11 marks IsaiahÕs first use (of very many during the first thirty-nine chapters) of the expression "on that day" to designate the day of judgment (verse 17), the catastrophic day when God will overthrow all pride, all human achievement, all idolatry. Although Isaiah was speaking within the particular historical context of the mid-eighth century before Christ, we observe that his language was universal Ñ all. Among the biblical prophets, Isaiah was the first to proclaim a universal divine judgement on human history as such. This made him a prophet for the whole world, a vocation that he still fulfills through the Christian Gospel.
Tuesday, October 29
Isaiah 3: The prosperity attendant on the reign of King Uzziah was accompanied by grave social inequities and other evils. The present chapter of Isaiah speaks of two such: the despoiling of the poor by the wealthy (verses 14-15) and the elaborate cultivation of female finery in clothing and adornment (verses 16-24). IsaiahÕs description of the latter is bound to remind a modern reader of a contemporary fashion show, in which a line of pretentious young ladies come strutting across a walkway, walking in ridiculous gyrating strides that have no purpose except to draw meretricious and lascivious attention to themselves: "the daughters of Zion are haughty and walk with outstretched necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, making a jingling with their feet" (verse 16). Isaiah goes on with an obvious relish for sarcasm, listing the various articles of clothing and jewelry, all the way to purses and hand mirrors. And how will God punish a shallow, unfaithful people like this? By giving them bad rulers, immature and effeminate individuals, who will bring the nation to ruin (verses 4,16). Such a society does not produce good rulers, the sorts of reliable men listed in verses 2-3. Indeed, Isaiah knew that he was already seeing an excellent example of such a bad ruler in the person of King Ahaz (735-716). Meanwhile, in JudahÕs sister kingdom to the north, IsraelÕs own puny monarchy was on its last legs, destined to fall to the Assyrians in 722.
Wednesday, October 30
1 Corinthians 16:13-24: We come now to the closing of First Corinthians, much of which, as usual toward the end of PaulÕs letters, consists of the sending of greetings. He speaks of the mission to Ephesus of Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (verse 17). He refers to the household of Stephanas as "the first fruits of Achaia" (verse 15), meaning the first household he had baptized in Greece. Evidently PaulÕs memory has improved a good deal since he began this epistle, because back in 1:14-16 he had momentarily forgotten that he had even baptized the household of Stephanas! Paul also sends greetings from Aquila and Prisca (verse 19), who are currently living at Ephesus (Acts 18:18). This couple is very well known at Corinth, of course (Acts 18:1-3). Paul has been dictating this epistle to Sosthenes (1 Corinthians 1:1), who is likewise well known back in Corinth (Acts 18:17), but he takes the pen himself in verse 21. Paul normally does this toward the end of each epistle (Galatians 6:11; Colossians 4:18; Philemon 9). He began this custom when writing Second Thessalonians, in order to authenticate each epistle as his own (2 Thessalonians 3:17), after he learned of a forgery being circulated in his name (2:2).
Thursday, October 31
The Epistle of Jude: This brief epistle was written to meet a certain peril to the Christian faith brought on by immoral and heretical teachers (verse 4). Their teaching and behavior fell under the heading "antinomiam," meaning "against the law." That is, they manifested a moral attitude that took to an illegitimate extreme the sound principle that Christians are justified by grace, not by the works of the law. Their extreme application of that principle led to a lack of adherence to any moral law. Thus, those extremists became progressively bolder in the libertine pursuit of their own appetites and passions, all the while proclaiming the liberty of Christian justification. It has proved impossible to identify exactly the congregation to whom Jude wrote this epistle, nor is it any easier to fix the date of the epistle with precision. The reference to the apostles in the past tense (verse 17) makes it difficult to fix the date earlier than the 60s, but it does not require us to fix it any later. Jude testifies, at so early a date, a determined doctrinal standard, "the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (verse 3). The word "delivered" indicates the authority of the Tradition (as in 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 1 Corinthians 11:23; 15:13). Jude goes to some lengths to describe the punishment awaiting those who pervert that Tradition. He likens them to those who apostatized during the desert wandering (verse 5; 1 Corinthians 10:1-11; Hebrews 3:7Ñ4:11), to the fallen angels (verse 5; Genesis 6:1-11), and to the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah (verse 7; 2 Peter 2:4-6). While all three examples indicate sexual sins, the last example indicates homosexual vice, for which these heretics are seeking the approval of other Christians. The participation of such people in the LordÕs Supper is, for Jude, particularly offensive (verse 12). He exhorts his readers to remember, nonetheless, that all these evils have been prophesied, both in ancient times (verses 14-16) and more recently by the apostles (verses 17-19). The faith to be preserved is Trinitarian (verses 20-21).
Friday, November 1
Revelation 4:1-11: This reading is chosen for the Feast of All Saints, because the scene portrayed is the throne room of heaven, where all GodÕs holy ones (for such is the meaning of "saints") are engaged in the eternal worship. In Chapters 2 and 3 John has warned the Christians of the seven churches of Asia that judgment is imminent. He has endeavored to strengthen them for an impending outbreak of chaos and disorder. In the present chapter, John turns their vision on high, to the throne of God, which is the source of all order. Like Amos, Isaiah, Micah, and other prophets, John slips into an ecstatic trance, a rapture in which he is seized by the Holy Spirit. He hears a voice, and a mysterious door opens (verse 1). He is introduced to the heavenly worship before GodÕs throne (verse 2), over which is the rainbow of the covenant (verse 3; Genesis 9:12-17). The dominant color is green, the symbol of spring and hope. As in the temple of Solomon (1 Kings 7:23), which was modeled, after all, on the heavenly throne room, there is "a sea of glass, like crystal" (verse 6), symbolizing the chaos over which the Holy Spirit brooded in Creation. Other details remind us of Isaiah 6 (which is also read today) and Ezechiel 1. This should not surprise us, because in all of Holy Scripture we are dealing with the same God and the same heaven. The hymn, with which the chapter closes, concentrates on Creation. Recall that this vision takes place on Sunday (1:10), the first day of Creation.
Saturday, November 2
1 Timothy 1:1-11: As this epistle begins, Paul lays great stress on his own authority as an apostle (verse 1), because TimothyÕs authority derives from his own. Here is one of our earliest illustrations of the principle of apostolic succession, in which those men appointed by the apostles (and who were very early called episkopoi, literally "overseers") received their pastoral authority by a direct historical link derived from the first apostles. Thus, TimothyÕs pastoral authority over the church at Ephesus was rooted, not in the choice of the Ephesians, but in his personal representation of Paul. Paul pastored the Ephesians in virtue of the transmission of that authority. (The same held true for Titus in Crete, and so on.) TimothyÕs ministry at Ephesus involved a sacred stewardship of doctrine (verses 3-4), identical to what Jude 3 called "the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints." Instead of "godly edification" in verse 4, read "GodÕs economy" (oikonomia Theou), meaning GodÕs plan of salvation, known by faith. This faith is not possible except in a "pure heart" and a "good conscience" (verse 5); Paul never separates faith from the moral life. This internal moral quality is what was lacking in certain instructors about whom Timothy is here warned (verses 6-7), their heresy resulting from certain defects of heart and conscience. The intellectual content of their heresy was a radical misunderstanding of the Holy Scriptures (verses 8-9). Those Scriptures, Paul insisted, can be correctly understood only in accord with "sound doctrine" (hygiainouse ["hygienic"!] didaskalia Ñ verse 10). Holy Scripture, if left to individual and personal interpretations, is the source of all heresy. Holy Scripture comes forth from Christian doctrine; only thus does it become a source of Christian doctrine. In the present text Paul is appealing to "sound doctrine" in order to condemn someone elseÕs interpretation of Scripture. Such expressions as "sound doctrine," "sound words," and "sound in faith" appear repeatedly in PaulÕs letters to Timothy and Titus (1 Timothy 6:3; 2 Timothy 1:13; 4:3; Titus 1:9,13; 2:1,2,8). The source of this soundness is the Gospel itself (verse 11). This is described here as a Gospel of glory, because its essence is the glory of God shining on the face of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:4-6); Colossians 1:27).