Sunday, September 21
Psalm 96: It is highly appropriate to pray this psalm on a Sunday. We know that it was among the psalms chosen to be sung when the Ark of the Covenant was placed in the new tabernacle that David had constructed for it in Jerusalem (cf. 1 Chronicles 16:23-33). This piece of information is valuable because it sets the psalm in at least one of its interpretive contexts in biblical history: GodŐs enthronement as King in the worship of His holy people. Inasmuch as the LordŐs symbolic enthronement "between the Cherubim" in the Holy of Holies was one of the more important Old Testament institutions preparatory of His definitive presence in the human race by reason of the Incarnation, the deeper meaning of this psalm is likewise to be sought in its relationship to GodŐs Word that "was made flesh and tabernacled among us" (John 1:14).
This psalm, then, and all other Old Testament references to God as King are prophecies fulfilled in the Kingship of Jesus the Lord, who declared to the local representative of the Roman Empire, "You say rightly that I am king" (John 18:37).
Thus, our psalm commands, "Announce among the nations that the Lord is King." Truly, this is the sum and essence of everything the Church was given to proclaim, not only to the Roman Empire, but to all the nations of the earth at all times: "Let the whole house of Israel know most assuredly, that God has made this Jesus . . . to be both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:36). The word "Christ" here, of course, is a translation of the Hebrew expression "anointed one," which referred to IsraelŐs anointed king. In the context of PeterŐs sermon, Jesus is made Lord and King by His resurrection from the dead (cf. 2:22-32).
It is in the mystery of His resurrection, then, that Jesus the Lord fulfills the prophetic dimension of that symbolic enthronement of God in IsraelŐs ancient Holy of Holies. Psalm 96, which was sung to celebrate that figurative enthronement, finds its intended completion in JesusŐ victory over death. This is the truth of that invitation of its first line: "Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth." It is a "new song" exactly as this term is used of the anthem sung to the victorious Lamb in Revelation 5:9; it is a "new song," because henceforth humanity is dealing with a wholly new reality. And it is "all the earth" that is summoned to sing this new song, for the resurrection of Christ establishes His kingship, not only over human hearts, but also over the nations. It is precisely the nations that are called to sing the new song.
Monday, September 22
Luke 4:38-44: Clement of Alexandria is our only source for the information that PeterŐs wife died as a martyr, and his endearing reference is well worth quoting: "They say that blessed Peter, seeing his wife being led away to death, rejoiced because of her calling and her homeward liberation, and shouted out with glad encouragement and reassurance, addressing her by name, ÔRemember the LordŐ (memneso, o haute, tou Kyriou). Such was the marriage of those blessed ones and their perfect attitude toward their dearest" (Stromateis 7.11.63).
In exhorting his wife to "remember the Lord," Peter perhaps summoned to her mind a goodly number of precious recollections, one of them being the LordŐs healing of her own mother very early in His ministry.
If the historians are right, Matthew and Luke (whose account we read today) depended on Mark as the source for their own versions of the story of PeterŐs mother-in-law. Moreover, one cannot fail to notice that these later accounts of the miracle are less vivid than MarkŐs. Luke, for instance, leaves out the detail about Jesus "taking her by the hand." An even greater simplification of the account is evident in Matthew, whose omission of all the other dramatis personae modifies the story into simply a person-to-person encounter between Jesus and the sick woman. Thus, Jesus Himself "sees" her lying feverish and acts on His own initiative. Then, at the end, Matthew says that the woman, when healed, "served Him" (8:15), rather than (as in Mark and Luke) "served them." PeterŐs mother-in-law is thus transformed into the model believer, raised up by the Lord to be His servant.
Tuesday, September 23
Psalm 78: This, one of the longer psalms, is largely devoted to the theme of the wandering of Israel in the desert, after the Exodus but prior to the entrance into the Promised Land As a sort of poetic summary of the books of Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and even some of Joshua, Judges and 1 Samuel, it concentrates on the chosen peopleŐs constant infidelity and rebellion, but especially during the desert pilgrimage.
Quite a number of hours are required to read the whole story of the peopleŐs infidelity in the desert as it is recorded through several books of the Bible. Psalm 78, however, has long served as a sort of meditative compendium of the whole account. The people had seen the plagues that He visited on the Egyptians, they had traversed the sea dry-shod, they had been led by the pillar of cloud and fire, they had slaked their thirst with the water from the rock, they had eaten their fill of the miraculous bread, they had trembled at the base of Mount Sinai, beholding the divine manifestation. In short, they had already been the beneficiaries of GodŐs revelation, salvation and countless blessings.
Still, "their heart was not steadfast with Him, nor were they faithful in His covenant." And just who is being described here? Following the lead of the New Testament, we know It is not only the Israelites of old, but also ourselves, "upon whom the ends of the ages have come." The story in this psalm is our own story. So we carefully ponder it and take warning.
Wednesday, September 24
Luke 5:12-16: Whereas Matthew (8:1-4) locates this miracle just after the Sermon on the Mount, Luke follows Mark in placing it much earlier in the ministry of Jesus.
This cleansing of the leper symbolizes an essential aspect of JesusŐ whole ministry to the human race, because there is a special significance in his "touching" of the leper. He could have healed this leper without touching him, but He deliberately chose to do so, in spite of the Mosaic prohibition against doing so. In the Law of Moses, the leper is literally an "untouchable," kept away from normal social life (Leviticus 13:45-46), separated from sharing in IsraelŐs common worship (13:3,8). No one was permitted to touch the leper.
But this is exactly what Jesus did, thereby assuming, at least symbolically, the leperŐs uncleanness and contagion. JesusŐ action here is an image of the Incarnation itself, in which GodŐs own Son, Himself without sin, assumed our fallen and mortal state, humbling Himself to the form of a servant and becoming obedient unto death. (Adam died because of his disobedience, Jesus because of His obedience.)
By thus "touching" our humanity in His very assumption of our flesh, He cleanses us from our uncleanness and puts into this very flesh the dynamisms of His own Resurrection. We know that we are going to rise from the grave, precisely because the Immortal One, victorious over sin and death, has thus "touched" us in our iniquity and upon Himself taken our sins, unto redemption and transformation.
Thursday, September 25
Luke 5:17-26: In all three Synoptic Gospels the healing of the paralytic (Matthew 9:1-8; Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:17-26) is followed immediately by the calling of the tax collector and the LordŐs eating with sinners (Matthew 9:9-13; Mark 2:13-17; Luke 5:27-32). This common sequence of the two narratives probably reflects an early preaching pattern, explained by the fact that both stories deal with the same theme: JesusŐ relationship to sin and sinners. The paralytic was healed, after all, "that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins," and the point of the second story is that "I did not come to call the righteous but sinners."
Thus, the most significant thing about the paralytic is not his paralysis, but his "sins," so this is what Jesus addresses first. Indeed, even when He heals the paralysis, Jesus does so in order to demonstrate His authority over the manŐs sins. In what He does in this scene, then, Jesus inserts Himself between God and the man, speaking to the man with GodŐs authority. It is not without significance that all three versions of the story also include the detail that Jesus could, like God, read His accusersŐ inner thoughts.
In each of the three Synoptic Gospels, moreover, the LordŐs claim to authority over sin here becomes the first occasion on which His enemies accuse Him of blasphemy. This is significant too, because at His judicial process before the Sanhedrin blasphemy will be the crime of which He is accused. In a sense, then, JesusŐ trial begins with His healing of the paralytic, because this scene is recognized by even His enemies as the occasion on which He forcefully claims divine authority.
This more dramatic aspect of the account is perhaps clearest in the versions of Mark and Luke, where it is the first of five conflict stories that cast a ominous cloud over JesusŐ activity through the rest of those gospels (Mark 2:1Ń3:5; Luke 5:17Ń6:11). In MarkŐs rendering, furthermore, the resolve to "destroy" Jesus is explicitly taken at the end of this sequence (3:5).
In all three Synoptic Gospels the paralytic becomes the "type" of the sinner. He is helpless, carried by others because he cannot carry himself. He is utterly in need of mercy above all things. Indeed, even his forgiveness and his cure are not credited to his own faith. All three accounts mention that the Lord sees the faith, not of the paralytic, but of the men who support him.
Even functioning as a literary and theological type, however, this paralytic is certainly not reduced to an abstraction. Indeed, because of the detail of the removal of the roof (in Mark and Luke) in order to lower the paralytic down into JesusŐ presence, still dangling between earth and heaven, this is one of the more colorful and unforgettable scenes in the gospels.
Friday, September 26
Luke 5:27-39: It is significant that all three Synoptic Gospels treat the call of the tax collector (Levi/Matthew) as a center piece bracketed between two stories about sinners: the paralytic being forgiven his sins and Jesus having dinner with notorious sinners. Thus set between these two events, the call of the tax collector represents above all the evangelical summons to repentance and the forgiveness of sins.
The dialogue connected with the meal at his house illustrates this meaning of the tax collectorŐs call. Jesus, criticized for his association with sinners on this occasion, explains that "those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick" (Mark 2:17). In thus addressing sin through the metaphor of sickness, the Lord strikes again the note recently sounded by His healing the paralytic as proof of His authority to forgive the manŐs sins (2:5-12).
Furthermore, summoning sinners to repentance and salvation is not just one of the things Jesus happens to do. There is a sense in which this is the defining thing that Jesus does, the very reason He came into this world. This truth is affirmed at the meal at the tax collectorŐs house, where He proclaims, "I did not come to call the just but sinners" (Mathew 9:13; Mark 2:17. Luke 5:32 adds "to repentance."). Again, it is in the context of the call of yet another tax collector, Zacchaeus, that Jesus says, "the Son of Man has come to seek and save that which is lost" (Luke 19:9).
Christ can call sinners, only because He can really do something about their sins. And He can forgive their sins precisely because He has paid the price of those sins. Therefore, JesusŐ forgiveness of sins is theologically inseparable from His dying for sinners. Correct repentance, then, brings the sinner to the foot of the Cross.
In truth this soteriological dimension of the call to repentance is implied in the gospel stories under consideration. Both at the forgiveness of the paralytic and at the tax collectorŐs dinner, all three Synoptics speak of the hostile presence of JesusŐ enemies, the very men who will contrive to kill Him. They accuse Him of blasphemy on the first occasion ("This man blasphemes"Ń the very charge for which He will be condemned to death) and find fault with Him on the second ("Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?"). In both cases Jesus confronts them on this matter of His relationship to sin and to sinners.
Saturday, September 27
Luke 6:1-11: Both of the stories in this section are concerned with the Sabbath. In the first (verses 1-5), Jesus defends the action of His apostles by a probative reference to the example of David and the priests of Nob (1 Samuel 21:1-6). The LordŐs question to His enemies ("Have you not read . . .?") is deliberately sarcastic, because these men preened themselves on their scholarly knowledge of the Scriptures. Jesus goes further, however, than merely citing an Old Testament example. He claims identity with the Old Testament God, obliquely referring to His own authority as Son of Man, which makes Him also "the Lord of the Sabbath." This last term is simply the mirror-reverse of the traditional expression, "the Sabbath of the Lord."
JesusŐ claim implicit in the title "Lord of the Sabbath" is vindicated in the second part of this section (verses 6-11), in which, with not the slightest outward gesture or word, He causes the manŐs crippled hand to be made whole. The LordŐs action here is completely one of His will; it is totally effortless, involving no Sabbath-breaking labor of any kind. The consequent frustration of His enemies, unable to detect a single detail on which to accuse Him, fill them with fury.
Luke, alone among the evangelists in this respect, records three dominical healings on the Sabbath (cf. 13:10-17; 14:1-6). The present story he shares with Matthew (12:9-14) and Mark (3:1-6), the latter being very likely LukeŐs immediate source.