Sunday, March 14
1 Timothy 6:1-10: Besides those social relations created by the structure of the Church itself, there were specific social relations that were brought into the Church from outside. One of these was the relationship between slave and master, a relationship potentially problematic and sufficiently complex to be addressed several times in the New Testament (verses 1-2; 1 Corinthians 7:21-22; Ephesians 6:5-8; Colossians 3:22-25; Titus, 2:9-10; Philemon, passim; 1 Peter 2:18-21). In the present text, verse 1 deals with Christian slaves under pagan masters, and verse 2 treats of Christian slaves under Christian masters.
We cannot fail to note that Paul is not offended by the social inequalities inherent in slavery. Indeed, he takes these inequalities for granted, because the Gospel contains no mandate to dissolve all the political and social inequalities in the world. Paul endeavors, rather, to apply the principles of the Gospel to the world as he finds it, not as a social reformer might want it to be. Although Paul affirmed that "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female" (Galatians 3:28), he showed not the slightest democratic impulse. Although he insisted that "you are all one in Christ Jesus," this truth never posed itself to his mind as a basis for an egalitarian political or social system. In the present instance Paul was concerned that the Christian slave not bring the Church into disrepute by disrespecting his pagan master, and that the Christian slave not use his standing in the Church as an excuse for disrespecting his Christian master.
Monday, March 15
1 Timothy 6:11-21: The epistle closes with a rousing pastoral exhortation, of the sort useful for ordination services. The expression "man of God" places Timothy in an impressive line that included Moses (Deuteronomy 33:1) and other prophets (1 Samuel 2:27; 1 Kings 12:22; 13:1). He must remember the profession (homologia) that he made at his baptism (verse 12), a profession related to the homologia that Jesus made in the presence of Pontius Pilate (verse 13).
This profession (cf. Hebrews 3:1; 4:14; 10:23) is our first explicit reference to the recitation of a creedal formula at the time of baptism. From the closing verses of Matthew we know that the earliest baptismal creed (like all the later ones that followed it) was Trinitarian in structure and content. Verses 15-16 seem to be borrowed from an early Christian hymn (cf. also 1:7; 3:16; 2 Timothy 2:11-13).
TimothyŐs task as a pastor was essentially conservative. He was to hand on, intact and carefully guarded, the "deposit" (paratheke) that he had received. He was, therefore, to eschew, not only "profane and idle babblings," but also the subtleties of argumentative dialectics (antitheseis) that were only a pretence of knowledge (verse 20). Paul manifestly saw the truth of the Gospel in danger of being lost by pastors who replaced it with the working of their own minds (verse 21).
Tuesday, March 16
Matthew 21:1-11: TodayŐs reading of the Gospel gives us a preview of Palm Sunday, which comes up very soon. Matthew interprets the LordŐs entrance into Jerusalem through the eyes of the prophet Zechariah, whom he quotes in verse 5: "Tell the daughter of Zion, ÔBehold, your King is coming to you, lowly and seated on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkeyŐ" (Zechariah 9:9).
The background of this passage is the story in 2 Samuel 15Ń17, where King David is portrayed fleeing from the rebellion of Absalom. Crossing the Kidron valley eastwards and ascending the Mount of Olives, David is the king rejected of his people, while a usurper is in full revolt. The King leaves in disgrace, riding on a donkey, the poor animal of the humble peasant. David is the very image of meekness in the face of defeat. In his heart is no bitterness; he bears all with patience and plans no revenge.
As he goes, David suffers further humiliation and deception from those who take advantage of his plight. One of his most trusted counselors, Ahitophel, betrays him to his enemies; another citizen curses and scorns him in his flight.
Moreover, in the description of David fleeing from Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, there is a striking contrast with the victorious Absalom, the usurper, who is driving "a chariot and horses with fifty men to run before him" (2 Samuel 15:1). Absalom represents worldly power and worldly wisdom, contrasted with the humility and meekness of the King.
Incorporating this image of David as a mystic prefiguration of the Messiah yet to come, Zechariah prophesied the messianic entry of Jesus into Zion, which Matthew narrates in todayŐs reading. The Savior arrives by the very path that David used to flee from the Holy City. Riding the donkey, our Lord comes down westward from the Mount of Olives, crosses the Kidron Valley, and finally enters Jerusalem. He thus begins the week of His meekly borne sufferings, including betrayal by a friend and rejection by His people.
Wednesday, March 17
Matthew 21:12-22: Perhaps among the least appreciated, and seldom thought on, descriptions of Jesus our Lord is the one given by John the Baptist: "His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (Matthew 3:12).
Threshing is a violent activity, which consists in pounding the harvested grain repeatedly on a stone floor with a shovel or a flail, in order to separate it from the husks which enclose it. The discarded husks are called chaff. When this beating of the grain has been done, the thresher uses his shovel to throw it into the air, so that the wind will carry away the light and useless chaff, leaving the heavier kernels to fall once more to the threshing floor. This latter action is called winnowing.
Yes, threshing and winnowing are violent activities; they are likewise, if one may say so, very judgmental activities. Threshing and winnowing are emphatic, even ferocious ways of asserting "this, and not that." If wheat and chaff are ultimately the same thing, then human choice is a mirage, human history only a theatrical production, and the death and Resurrection of Christ ultimately meaningless. For this reason, Jesus as Savior must not be disconnected from Jesus as Thresher.
Just where in the Gospels, however, do we detect Jesus acting as Thresher? In answering that question, most readers of the Bible would probably refer to our LordŐs driving the money changers from the temple, the Gospel text that we read today, and they would surely be correct in that reference.
When Jesus drove the money changers from the temple, an event recorded in all four canonical Gospels, it was the most eschatological of actions. Jesus thereby affirmed that the temple really is a precinct separated from an "outside," where are found "dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and whoever loves and practices a lie" (Revelation 22:15). Thus, the BibleŐs final book does not portray an afterlife of universal reconciliation, but an everlasting separation of wheat and chaff.
Even that earthly temple purged by Jesus was constructed on a threshing floor (2 Chronicles 3:1), AraunaŐs ancient rock where DavidŐs soul, for his final sin, was flailed by the angel of judgment (2 Samuel 24:15ř25). Indeed, the place of worship, where man meets God and places himself under the divine gaze, is ever the hard surface of his purging. Prayer itself is a pounding of the soul, that the wheat may be beaten free of the chaff. Hence, in this world the true temple is necessarily constructed on a threshing floor. There, before the face of God, the heart is afflicted in repentance, the contrite and broken heart that God will not despise; indeed, this very breaking of the heart is the sacrifice that God requires (Psalm 51:17). Such is the authentic worship of God in the soulŐs true temple, the prayer of repentant sinners who never cease to beat their breasts and plead for the divine mercy (Luke 18:13; 23:48).
Thursday, March 18
Psalm 83: Throughout the Book of Psalms is the constant mention of enemies. Indeed, it may occasionally cross oneŐs mind that about half of the psalms are prayed against somebody or other, an impression that may be pretty close to accurate. There is a lot of strife in the Psalter.
Nonetheless, though the psalms make almost ubiquitous references to enemies, these are seldom identified very specifically. Psalm 83 (Greek and Latin 82) is an exception to the rule. Here, at least, the psalm points its finger and actually names the foes: "The tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites, Moab and the Hagrites, Gebal and Ammon and Amalek, and foreigners with the citizens of Tyre. For Assyria too has joined with them; they have come to the aid of the sons of Lot."
In most of these names we recognize IsraelŐs real military enemies. Such are Moab, Ammon, and Amalek (cf. Judges 3:12-30). The first two of these are likewise identical with "the sons of Lot." Gebal was a city of the Philistines (cf. 1 Kings 5:18), against whom Israel fought in many a battle. The Edomites are remembered in Holy Scripture for their participation in the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians (cf. Obadiah, passim), and we will meet them again in Psalm 137. Hagar being the mother of Ishmael, the Hagrites and the Ishmaelites are apparently the same folk (cf. 1 Chronicles 2:10,18-22). Assyria, finally, was one of the cruelest and most loathed of IsraelŐs ancient foes (cf. Nahum, passim).
A special feature of this list, nonetheless, indicates that the enmity involved is more than simply military. That element is the mention of the Phoenician capital of Tyre. Although IsraelŐs relationship with the Phoenicians may sometimes have been strained (cf. 1 Kings 9:11-14), we have no evidence of any military hostility between them.
Nevertheless, from another and more spiritual perspective, it may be the case that Phoenicia, with its capitals at Tyre and Sidon, was the worst enemy that Israel ever had, because it was through the various economic and political alliances with the Phoenicians that Israel learned ever anew the ways of infidelity to God.
SolomonŐs early pacts with this nation paved the avenue by which the likes of Jezebel and Athaliah traveled south to teach Israel to sin, and opposition to Phoenician influence was a sustained feature of the prophetic message, from ElijahŐs encounter with the servants of Baal (cf. 1 Kings 18), through AmosŐs condemnation of Phoenician slave trade (cf. Amos 1:9), to EzechielŐs lengthy tirade against their great economic empire (Ezechiel 26-28).
The introduction of Tyre into our psalmŐs list of foes, therefore, shows that the threatened enmity is more than physical and military. Whether with hostility on the battlefield, or along the subtler paths of syncretism, materialism, idolatry, and cultural compromise, there is more than one way for the people of God to be destroyed. And the danger of destruction is the very theme and meat of this psalm. The real threat to GodŐs people, then, is one of spirit.
Friday, March 19
Matthew 21:33-46: In Matthew, as well as in Mark and Luke, the parable of the Wicked Vinedressers comes as a climax to a series of controversy stories involving Jesus and his enemies just a few days before his arrest, and each account ends with the comment that this parable is what determined the purpose of the LordŐs enemies to kill him. It is obvious to them that in this parable Jesus is giving his own interpretation of the entire history of the Chosen People, culminating in their rejection of him and their resolve to put him to death.
Jesus here identifies himself as the Son, and, as Son, the Heir. The outline of this parable is followed very closely in the opening lines of the Epistle to the Hebrews: "God, who at sundry times and in divers manners, hath spoken in times past to the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by a Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things."
This parable is also one of the Gospel accounts where it is possible to discern the LordŐs original, spoken Aramaic clearly shining through the inspired Greek text. He calls himself "Son" rejected by the vinedressers and then goes on immediately to speak of himself as the "stone" rejected by the builders. Actually this was a play on words, the Aramaic word for "son" being ben, and the word for "stone" being eben. The drama of that moment is still preserved in this striking detail.
This parable bears another resemblance to the Epistle to the Hebrews. MatthewŐs version, for instance, includes the detail that the Son was murdered outside of the vineyard (verse 39). That is to say, outside of Jerusalem. The Epistle to the Hebrews makes the same point and then draws a moral lesson from it. Speaking of the Mosaic ordinance requiring that the bodies of the animals sacrificed as sin offerings be burned outside of the camp, the author of Hebrews comments: "Therefore, Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore, let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach" (Hebrews 13:12-13).
Saturday, March 20
Psalm 90: For many centuries Psalm 90 (Greek and Latin 89), the only one of the psalms to be ascribed to Moses, has been associated with the beginning of the day, especially with the beginning of the workday.
Although each day is new, we do not really start it from scratch, for each day begins with the memory of days gone by: "Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to the next. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever You had formed the earth and the world; You are, even from everlasting to everlasting."
One recalls Isaac WattsŐs paraphrase of this line in his famous hymn based on Psalm 90: "O God, our help in ages past,/ our hope for years to come,/ our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home./ . . . Before the hills in order stood,/ or earth received her frame;/ From everlasting Thou art God,/ to endless years the same."
God is eternal, but man is frail. Even as we go forth to our daily labor, we know that work is now onerous because we are fallen creatures. Even as we endeavor to labor in such a way as to manifest the glory of God, the difficulty of the work itself, along with the weariness that attends it, bears witness to the Fall of our first parents and the curse laid upon our race Ń that we labor until we die: "Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. . . . In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground from which you were taken."
Psalm 90 likewise gives voice to the sentiments of a folk thus cursed: "You turn man to destruction, and say: ÔReturn, O children of men. . . . You carry them away like a flood, like a dream. In the morning they are like grass that grows up; in the morning it thrives and flourishes, but in the evening it is cut down and withers."
The flow of the years, the passage of days into nights, conducts us all to death. Even as we go forth to our labor at the beginning of the day, it is without guarantee of returning home at its end: "For we have been consumed by Your anger, and by Your wrath we are terrified. You have set our iniquities before You, our secret sins in the light of Your countenance. For all our days are passed away in Your wrath; we finish our years like a sigh." Once again, Isaac Watts paraphrased our psalm: "Time, like an ever-rolling stream,/ bears all its sons away;/ they fly, forgotten, as a dream/ dies at the opening day."
The eternal God, however, is outside of time, abiding beyond the vicissitudes of this earth. To Him the passage of time seems no more than an instant: "For a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it is past, and like a watch in the night." Watts translated this line in the stanza that reads: "A thousand ages in Thy sight/ are like an evening gone,/ short as the watch that ends the night,/ before the rising sun."
Second Peter 3:8 quotes this same line of our psalm to remind Christians that God is not subject to our own sense of time: "But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day."
GodŐs treasure here below is borne in vessels of clay, for of the mire He made us to be the very bearers of His glory. Because we are also creatures of the Fall, our own tilling of the soil Ń that is to say, our labor to support our lives in this world Ń is infected with the forces of death. At the same time, by reason of our incorporation into Christ, our daily labor may also share in the first fruits of redemption, our glorification as GodŐs children. Our daily work, done for the sake of His glory, may become the medium by which that glory is rendered manifest.