Sunday, April 25
John 4:1-18: Among the loveliest lines ever penned for Christian prayer, I think, are those in the tenth strophe of Thomas of CelanoŐs Dies Irae: "Quaerens me sedisti lassus / Redemisti crucem passus / Tantus labor non sit cassus!" or "Seeking me, You sat down weary, / Redeeming me, You bore the cross, / Let not such labor be in vain!"
No Calvinist was Thomas of Celano. He believed, from the Scriptures, that the Lamb of God suffered and died for everyone, atoning for the sins of the whole world, not just the sins of the elect. "Copiosa apud Eum redemptio!" says Psalm 129 in the Vetus Latina, "With Him is copious redemption." Broadly flooding in libation, JesusŐ Blood was shed even for the sake of those sinners who, by their own choice (not GodŐs!), would be damned. And that LambŐs dear Blood would be, in the latter case, without avail, cassus. Thus Celano prayed that the wide labor of ChristŐs redemption be not wasted in his own regard.
But these second and third lines of CelanoŐs terza rima are so rich that one might easily miss the delicate allusion of its first line: "Seeking me You sat down weary." Once the line is noticed, nonetheless, its allusion is perfectly clear. These words refer to the scene in John 4:6Ń"Jesus therefore, being wearied from His journey, sat thus by the well." Just why did Jesus sit down weary by JacobŐs well? Celano answers that He was waiting for someone special whom He had in mind to meet that day. He was seeking me. The Samaritan woman at the well is each of us.
The Evangelist John surely knew that womanŐs name, just as he knew the names of the paralytic at the pool and the man born blind, because he narrates all of these one-on-one encounters with details that he could only have obtained from the individuals themselves. So John most certainly knew their names. His omission of those names in the stories, then, has literary significance, and Celano is probably right to suppose that we are dealing here with anonymity for the sake of reader identification. That is to say, each of us, as we ponder the text prayerfully, becomes that paralytic, that blind man, and that woman at the well, encountering the Lord in the power of His Scriptures.
As an "every Christian" account, the story of the Samaritan woman at JacobŐs well serves to illustrate certain distinct stages in the path of conversion.
We observe, for instance, what might be called a growth in Christology as the story progresses; there is a pronounced evolution in the terms by which the Lord is regarded. Thus, when the woman first meets Jesus, He is called simply "a Jew" (4:9). This is important to the story as a whole, of course, because the Lord Himself will presently declare that "salvation is of the Jews" (4:22). On the womanŐs lips, nonetheless, the designation "Jew" indicates two things: First, it says that Jesus is at first assessed only within a certain class of people. He is not yet a distinguishable person, important on His own account. And second, the word "Jew" indicates the womanŐs sense of separation from Jesus, because "Jews have no dealings with Samaritans."
Next, Jesus is addressed as "Sir" (4:11; presumably the Aramaic Mar). This term of respect is a great step for the woman to make, indicating her change of attitude toward Jesus. But then, within four verses "Sir" becomes "prophet" (4:19), when the Lord directs the womanŐs attention to her own sins. Then Jesus takes the initiative in His own identification, calling Himself the Messiah, the Christ (4:25f), and the woman immediately departs.
Nonetheless, she leaves the well with a question in her mind, a question about the identity of Jesus. It is the fundamental question that would in due time be addressed by the Ecumenical Councils: "Who do you say that I am?" Just exactly who is Jesus? "Come," she invites her friends, "see a Man who told me all things that I ever did. Could this be the Christ?" (4:29) Everyone in JohnŐs Gospel seems to be asking such questions: "ÔThis is the Prophet.Ő Others said, ÔThis is the ChristŐ" (7:40, 41).
At the end of the womanŐs story, the designation "Christ" is embraced by her Samaritan friends, who promptly complete it with another important Christological title: "We know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world" (4:42).
The lady from Samaria has now come all the way. Starting out that day, hardly suspecting what lay ahead, she laboriously carried her sins to the well, where she met a Jew, who asked her for a drink of water. The Jew presently became a Sir, and then a prophet who reminded her that she was a sinner. No matter, though, because this prophet was also the Christ, who, because He was the Savior of the world, knew exactly what to do with her sins. Seeking her He sat down weary, and to redeem her He would, in due course, endure the cross.
Monday, April 26
Ezekiel 13: This chapter has an oracle against the false prophets (13:2-16) and an oracle against false prophetesses (13:17-23). The major problem with all such folk is that they "prophesy out of their own minds" and "follow their own spirit" and "divined a lie." Thus, grave spiritual harm befalls those who listen to their fantasies and follow their counsels. Even though a wall be just about to fall, says Ezekiel, they daub it with whitewash to make it look new and secure. Well, the whole thing is about to come down, he warns, in spite of the false hopes raised by false prophets. In his oracle against the false prophetesses, Ezekiel speaks of wrist-bands and head-bands (if these things are, indeed, what these rare Hebrew words mean), evidently the paraphernalia of their rituals and incantations. We should probably think of these women as fortune-tellers, the sort of charlatans that are still among us. The prophetŐs point here is this sort of thing is not harmless; foolish individuals, who probably need sound counsel for important decisions, really do pay them heed, rather often to the harm of their souls. God will thwart the designs of these deceivers, says Ezekiel, by showing their predictions to be false.
Tuesday, April 27
Ezekiel 14: In verses 1-11, the elders who came to consult Ezekiel got more than they anticipated, for the prophet was given insight into the deeper idolatry of their hearts. These men were apparently looking for some prediction about the future, only to be told that GodŐs prophetic word is not truly available for the unrepentant. That is to say, the prophetŐs task is not to satisfy human curiosity about future events, but to call sinners to the due consideration of their souls. Thus, instead of responding to their query about the future, Ezekiel summons them to look inside themselves, at the idolatry in their hearts, before it is too late. The second oracle in this chapter, verses 12-23, insists that the whole society, if it is unfaithful to God, will be punished as a whole. The Lord will not spare any society simply for the sake of a few just men in it, even if these latter include the likes of Noah, Daniel, and Job. While the just individuals themselves will be spared, this will have no affect on the lot of the whole, because God is fair and will give each man according to his deserts. Before GodŐs throne of judgment, it will not matter "who you know." This attitude, which will be repeated throughout the Book of Ezekiel, is identical to that in the Book of Jeremiah (for instance, 15:1-4), and is a great deal tougher than we find, for instance, in Genesis 18, where the presence of five just men would have spared the destruction of Sodom.
Wednesday, April 28
John 5:1-15: Although our Lord evidently cured a number of people from various kinds of paralysis (cf. Mark 4:24; 8:6), the Gospels narrate only two such instances in much detail: the paralytic lowered through the roof (Mark 2:1ř12; Matthew 9:1ř8; Luke 5:17ř26), and the man lying at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1ř15). It also happens that these are the only two occasions of physical healing in which Jesus refers to the sins of the person whom He heals. Thus, He says to the man lowered through the roof, "Your sins are forgiven you" (Mark 2:5), and after restoring the man at the pool of Bethesda the Lord exhorts him, "Sin no more" (John 5:14).
Now it is worthy of remark that we find no references to personal sins in Gospel stories about Jesus cleansing lepers, or restoring sight to the blind, or curing other sorts of ailments. He does not say to PeterŐs feverish mother-in-law, for example, "Your sins are forgiven you," nor does He exhort the man born blind, "Go, and sin no more." Indeed, in this latter instance the Lord specifically denies that the blind man was blind because of his personal sins (9:3). In short, only in those two instances of paralysis does Jesus refer to the sins of the people He cures, even addressing one of them with the exact words that He spoke to the woman caught in adultery: "Sin no more" (8:11).
One is disposed to wonder if there is some special reason why the restorations of the paralytics are alone distinguished in this way. Though the Gospels do not specifically address the question, one is prompted to inquire if there is not, in this kind of disability, some feature particularly symbolic of sin. Is there perhaps some aspect of paralysis itself that serves as an allegory of sin, something about the affliction that narrates the properties of sin?
This question of allegory is especially urged in the case of the paralytic at the pool, because of the recorded dialogue between this man and Jesus. The LordŐs question, when He asks the paralytic, "Do you want to be made well?" is apparently elicited by the fact that the fellow has been lying in that place for thirty-eight years. It is because Jesus knows that "he already had been in that condition a long time" that He makes the inquiry, "Do you want to be made well?" In other words, there is room for doubt about the manŐs genuine desire for healing. Maybe his heart and soul have become as helpless and lethargic as his body.
Moreover, his response to our LordŐs question is hardly reassuring. Instead of answering, like the blind men, "Yes, Lord" (Matthew 9:28), the paralytic immediately begins to make excuses: "Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me" (John 5:7). There is his answer. It is always somebody elseŐs fault, somebody elseŐs advantage over him, that he has not been cured. He is not to blame, poor victim; he has been lying there at the pool of Bethesda for nearly four decades, using the same excuse to explain why, in a place where healings took place frequently, he has never been healed. Year after year he just lies there. It gets easier all the time. It becomes a way of life.
This seems to be the point, then, of the question that Jesus puts to the man: "Do you want to be healed?" Perhaps, in his deeper heart, he does not want to be healed, not really, and perhaps that is the sin to which Jesus is referring when He tells him, "See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you" (5:14).
In removing his paralysis, the Lord also gives the man a straight, unambiguous order: "Rise, take up your bed and walk" (5:8). If this paralytic wants to walk in the way of the Lord, he must begin now. No more excuses. He must not lie around one minute longer, theorizing about the mysterious relationship between divine grace and human effort. This lethargic soul must not worry whether he may be slipping into semi-Pelagianism or whatever. He must get up on his feet, put his bed away, and get busy walking.
Conversion is grace, but it is also command. Surely wisdom too is GodŐs gift, but what is the first step we take to attain wisdom? Obedience to an emphatic command: "Get wisdom! Get understanding!" (Proverbs 4:5). No more lying around, making excuses (usually involving other people who are to blame), no more theorizing abut the nature of wisdom. Just get up and get it!
Thursday, April 29
Ezekiel 16: This parable is more elaborate than the one in the previous chapter, showing more evidence of allegorical detail. Each, however, is an illustration of failure. A beautiful but egregiously unfaithful wife is as useless as a cut and dried vine. Several of the various details in this account of the harlot refer to specific periods and events in IsraelŐs history: the origins of the people, the time of the Covenant, the founding of the united kingdom and the prosperity of the Solomonic era, the division into two kingdoms. The oracleŐs final part prepares the listeners for JerusalemŐs impending doom, which is to be like the earlier total destructions of Sodom and Samaria. Jerusalem, says the Lord, is more evil than either of these. At the very end, however, appears a message of hope and renewal, after Jerusalem has fallen. Even the prophets most pessimistic about Jerusalem at this time, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, never cease to trust in GodŐs ultimate mercy. In particular, God will not hold children responsible for the sins of their parents, a theme to be elaborated in Chapter 18.
Friday, April 30
Ezekiel 17: This allegorical riddle is concerned the geopolitical machinations dominant in the royal court at Jerusalem during the period between 597 and 586 B.C. The first eagle in the riddle is the Emperor Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon, the second is Pharaoh Psammetichus II of Egypt. Sitting at either end of the Fertile Crescent, both Babylon and Egypt sought to make their military, economic, and political might felt throughout the region, and each of these two great powers had its friends and confederates within the Jerusalem court. The removed branch in the allegory is King Jehoiachin of Juda, deposed from his throne in 597 and transported to Babylon. The new seed in the allegory is King Zedechiah, who replaced Jehoiachin and served as a vassal of Babylon. Because of the many machinations in his court, ZedechiahŐs foreign policy was marked by vacillation and instability. Unable to maintain his covenant with God, he was likewise unable to maintain his vassal covenant with Babylon. The one infidelity led to the other (17:11-19). Even though he was thriving under Babylonian suzerainty, the allegory goes on to say, he endeavored to forsake his political obligations to the political authority at the western end of the Fertile Crescent, and began to cultivate friendship with the eastern end, Egypt. And now he must pay for it. His sin consisted in seeking a purely political solution for a mainly spiritual and moral problem. This oracle ends, nonetheless, on a note of future hope for the house of David, a hope that the Christian knows is fulfilled in great DavidŐs greater Son.
Saturday, May 1
Ezekiel 18: This is an oracle about individual responsibility. Modern ideas of individual moral responsibility often run along such lines as "You must not do anything you canŐt live with." That is to say, moral norms are established by the limits of psychological comfort. Thus, what is evil or good is determined by whether or not a person can endure having done it. Ezekiel knows nothing of such nonsense. For him individual moral responsibility means that a man must ultimately be responsible, not to his own conscience, but to the all righteous God who gave the law. Each man must respond for himself, however, not for either his progenitors or his progeny. The people at Jerusalem needed to hear such a message, because some of them contended that they were being punished for the sins of their fathers. Ezekiel is charged to set them straight on the matter. Although the social and even psychological effects of sin are handed down from one generation to the next, the moral burden is not. Each man will answer for himself and his own moral decisions. The retributive principle is always: "The soul that sins shall die." Meanwhile, the possibility of moral change remains for each of us as long as we are alive. A bad man can become good, and a good man can become bad. Our moral fate depends on what we become, not on what we were before. The closing part of this oracle stands as a strong witness against any religious theory claiming that God is glorified even by someoneŐs eternal loss. No, eternal loss is a pure waste of proffered salvation. God is not glorified by anyoneŐs going to hell.