Sunday, June 20
The Second Book of Samuel: This book covers the 40 years reign of David, the permanence of whose dynasty is guaranteed by a divine covenant, the prophetic dimension of which is fulfilled in our Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed, "Son of David" is one of the important Christological titles in the New Testament. The promises made to David are of great concern to us Christian readers because of Christ. In faith we know that a "Son of David" still sits at the right hand of God (cf. Luke 1:32).
One of the more striking features of the dramatic narrative of David's family is the number of parallels it shows with the story of Adam's family in the Book of Genesis. In each case, Adam and David offend God after being tempted by a woman. Both men succumb to temptation; they overstep. Both are brought to awareness of their sins. Both men hear a judgment pronounced against themselves, each of which involves the death of the offspring. In each case another son is born, a sign of hope for the future.
In each case, there is a fratricide among the sons. (Indeed, compare the story of Cain's killing of Abel in Genesis 4:8 with the parabolic account of Absalom's slaying of Amnon in 2 Samuel 14:6.) In each case there is some concern for the life of the murderer, and in each case the life of the guilty party is spared. In each case, nonetheless, a curse of some sort hangs over the murderer, so that the matter is not immediately resolved; there is more evil to come, all of it the fruit of the "original sin" of the parent.
One can also see a parallel between the story of the Flood and Absalom's revolt, because the cursed man, whose life had been spared, continues to make trouble. Just as the first sin of Adam leads to all the later trouble, so the sin of David is passed down through his descendants. Again, in each case, the mercy of God triumphs over evil. Finally, the material prosperity and technical advances of the reign of Solomon, who follows David, may be compared to those same traits in that population which, after the Flood, attempted to build the Tower of Babel. Thus the sinful history of the human race is especially exemplified in the account of David and his family. (In the City of God St. Augustine of Hippo reflected that the story of Adam's family was exemplified in the founding of Rome, including the fratricide-parallel when Romulus kills Remus.)
The book's ending is morally ambiguous, and the coming arrogance of Solomon and Rehoboam is already prefigured in the census of the people that David attempts to take near the end of his life in 2 Samuel 24. We observe that the Bible "makes more" of this sin than of David's earlier sins; it merits a more serious punishment, as being more willful and deliberate. In fact, the census itself, like the Tower of Babel, was never finished.
Monday, June 21
Acts 9:1-19: Having described the initial overtures that Christian evangelism made to the Gentiles, Luke is ready to tell of the conversion of the man who would extend that evangelism in a dramatic way. Here we have the first of three accounts that the Acts of the Apostles gives of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. (Paul himself provides another account in Galatians 1:11-16.)
These three versions of the event are strategically placed in the Book of Acts in order to mark significant points in the narrative. This first account, framed between the conversions of the Ethiopian minister and the Roman centurion, relates PaulÕs conversion to the evangelism of the Gentiles. The second (22:3-21) is found in PaulÕs last public proclamation in the temple at Jerusalem, and the third (26:12-18) launches his trip to Rome. (Just as LukeÕs gospel begins and ends at Jerusalem, the Book of Acts begins at Jerusalem and ends at Rome.)
We note that there are already Christians living at Damascus, doubtless having fled there at the persecution following the death of Stephen. At the time of PaulÕs conversion Damascus was governed, under Rome, by a Nabatean king named Aretas IV (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:32). In JesusÕ words to the persecutor of Christians ("Why are you persecuting Me!"), we should see the seed that would grow into PaulÕs doctrine of the Church as "the body of Christ." His three-day fast in preparation for baptism, a sort of early Lent, became standard in the Church for centuries to come.
Verse 15 indicates the three groups that we will find Paul addressing throughout the rest of Acts: Jews (13:5,14; 14:1; 16:13; 17:1-4,10,17; 19:8), Gentiles (17:22; 18:6-11; 19:10), and kings (26:1-29).
Tuesday, June 22
Acts 9:20-30: PaulÕs early preaching in the Damascus synagogue is directed to the true identity of Jesus, "that He is the Son of God." This title of Jesus is used in only one other place in the Acts of the Apostles, again on the lips of Paul (13:23).
The verb used in verse 21 to speak of the "havoc" (porthein) caused by Paul in Jerusalem also appears in PaulÕs own description in Galatians 1:13,23.
It is between verses 22 and 23 that we should place PaulÕs trip to Arabia (Galatians 1:17), which Luke omits from his narrative. (Comparison with PaulÕs own letters demonstrates that Luke streamlines his story in several places, which I will endeavor to indicate.) Since the visit to Jerusalem in this chapter is clearly identical with that in Galatians 1:18, three years have elapsed since PaulÕs conversion. Inasmuch as Aretas IV (2 Corinthian 11:32) did not come to the throne until 37, a ready calculation would date PaulÕs conversion to 33 or 34 at the earliest.
Planning to kill Paul, the local Jews had arranged for him to be arrested by the civil authorities. Aretas IV was glad to be part of this plot, because he was attempting to curry favor with Herod Agrippa at this time. PaulÕs nocturnal ride down the side of the city wall in a basket was the first of his many close-calls for the sake of Christ.
Arriving at Jerusalem, he found that the Christians there did not trust him, remembering the angry young persecutor who had left for Damascus some three years earlier. It is at this point that Luke inserts the helpful Barnabas back into the story.
Paul must soon flee Jerusalem, however, threatened by the same people responsible for the murder of Stephen. Via the port at Caesarea, Paul returns to his hometown, Tarsus in Cilicia, where he will remain until Barnabas searches him out in 44 or 45 (cf. 11:25).
Meanwhile Luke turns our attention, once again, to the ministry of Peter.
Wednesday, June 23
Acts 9:31-43: Given the grievous animosity that had long estranged mutually the Jews and the Samaritans, it is no small grace to read in verse 31 that "the Church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace." This initial reconciliation now accomplished, Luke will direct our attention more emphatically to the conversion of the Gentiles, initiated by PhilipÕs baptism of the Ethiopian and to be extended by Peter over the next two chapters.
Prior to PeterÕs baptism of Cornelius, however, Luke describes the apostleÕs new travels outside of Jerusalem, to which he had returned in 8:25. Two more miracles of Peter are narrated in this section, the healing of Aeneas and the raising of Tabitha. The first occurred at Lydda, some 28 miles northwest of Jerusalem, and the cured paralytic was Aeneas, named for the fabled leader of those Trojans who laid the ancient foundations of the Roman Empire. Since VirgilÕs account of that adventure, the Aeneid, published in the previous century under Augustus, enjoyed a quasi-official status in Roman culture, it is unthinkable that the cultured and cosmopolitan Luke would have been ignorant of it or have missed the spiritual significance of PeterÕs healing a man bearing that name. Joppa, where Tabitha was raised from the dead, was another twelve miles further northwest, on the Mediterranean coast and thirty miles south of Caesarea Maritima ("Caesarea on the Sea," as distinct from Caesarea Philippi).
Thursday, June 24
The Birth of John the Baptist: The birth of John the Baptist has been celebrated by both Eastern and Western Christians on this day from great antiquity. It is most unusual for Christian liturgical calendars to celebrate anyone's earthly birthday (December 25 and September 8 being the only other two exceptions), because we believe that a Christian's "true" birth is not his being born in the flesh but in the Spirit. A Christian's "final" birth is his entrance into heaven itself. Consequently it has been customary among Christians, beginning with the second century martyrs, to celebrate the day of a Christian's death as his natalitia, his "birthday" into heaven.
If John the Baptist has always been treated as an exception to this rule, it is because Holy Scripture makes so much, not only of his birth, but also the circumstances of his conception and gestation
In the first chapter of Luke there is a clear literary parallel between John and Jesus, involving individual annunciations by the same angel, specific appeals to prophecy, miraculous conceptions, twin canticles sung by the parents, special circumstances surrounding the births, and so forth. This extra attention accorded to the birth of John the Baptist in Luke's Gospel serves to heighten the Evangelist's stress on the mystery of the Incarnation of God's Son. Just try to imagine a Christmas celebration without the Gospel according to Luke!
Friday, June 25
Acts 10:1-16: Beginning with this chapter we will observe that LukeÕs story is dominated by two considerations: (1) the growing apostolic awareness that the Gospel is to be directed to all peoples and cultures; and (2) the mounting tensions, resultant from this expansion of ministry, with respect to the ChurchÕs already strained relationship to Judaism. We will see the first of these considerations addressed in Chapter 10, and the second in Chapter 11.
In Chapter 10 the overt directing of the Gospel to non-Jews results from two divine revelations and the manifest outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Cornelius and his friends. Each vision is narrated twice, PeterÕs in 10:9-16 and 11:7-9, and CorneliusÕs in 10:3-8 and 10:30-33. The present reading contains one account of each of these visions.
The "Italian Regiment," to which Cornelius was attached, was well known to antiquity. It consisted of auxiliary archers who were assigned to the Province of Syria at this time. Quartered at Caesarea, they were equally distant from Jerusalem and Antioch.
Cornelius, as a "fearer of God" (phoboumenos ton Theon), worshipped IsraelÕs God according to patterns of piety (synagogue attendance, prayer, fasting, almsgiving) that did not oblige him, by circumcision, to become a Jew. The earliest Gentiles converts to the Christian Church will come largely from these "fearers of God" (10:22,35; 13:16,26,43,50; 16:14; 17:4,17; 18:7).
The actual days of the visions of Cornelius and Peter are not difficult to determine. Since Mondays and Thursdays were weekly Jewish fast days, the vision of Cornelius must have occurred on a Monday (10:3,30); otherwise Peter would have been violating the Sabbath by the journey he made in verses 23-24. This means that PeterÕs vision took place on a Tuesday (verse 9). We observe also that Peter and Cornelius are both praying at prescribed times, noon (verse 6; cf. also the conversion of St. Paul in 22:6) and the hour of the evening sacrifice (verses 3 and 30; cf. 3:1).
The Greek word for PeterÕs "trance" in verse 10 is ekstasis.
Saturday, June 26
Acts 10:17-33: PeterÕs vision, the burden of which asserted that Jewish dietary laws are no longer binding, prepares him to meet the delegation sent by Cornelius. All of this activity is guided by the Holy Spirit (verse 19).
It being already early afternoon, the trip to Caesarea is postponed until the next morning, Wednesday (verse 23). Peter takes six companions (cf. 11:12), perhaps suspecting that he may need witnesses later on for what might transpire at Caesarea. Apparently going slowly, the group does not arrive until the next day, Thursday (verses 24 and 30), which is also a Jewish fast day.
The centurion welcomes Peter as a heavenly messenger (verse 25; cf. 14:15). PeterÕs message to the assembled friends shows that he has understood the vision as pertinent to the emerging question about relationship of Christians to the Jewish Law (verse 28), an interpretation on which he will later insist in 11:9 and 15:9. These converted Gentiles, that is to say, will come to justification in Christ without the works of the Mosaic Law; this truth will be a foundational principle of the entire evangelism of the Church and a major message of the entire New Testament corpus, especially the epistles of St. Paul.
Then, this time from the lips of Cornelius, Luke tells us the story of the vision once again. This literary device, whereby a story is repeated by a character within the story, permits the reader to savor and enjoy the event a second time, as though a single telling of it would not do it justice. Some of the more delicious stories of Holy Scripture are treated with this early form of "instant replay," an excellent example being Genesis 24. In that history of AbrahamÕs servant encountering Rebecca, there is a first account given by the narrator and second by the servant himself. As here in Acts 10, that story deals with the theme of personal divine guidance.