Sunday, January 9
Psalms 146 & 147: These begin the “Alleluia” psalms that close the canonical Psalter.
A good interpretive key to Psalm 147 is provided by the line that says of God that “He counts the multitude of the stars, and calls them all by name.” The parallel text that jumps to mind is in Genesis 15, where God tells Abraham, “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.” And to what point? The Lord goes on, “Thus shall be your seed.”
The context of this promise is God’s covenant with Abraham, about which we will be reading toward the end of this week. Abraham had no offspring and was married to a woman past the time of bearing children. God’s promise had to do with a numerous progeny who would share in the covenant with Abraham. Indeed, it would be a universal covenant, embracing all those who, from every nation, would share in the faith of Abraham. He would become the “father of many nations” (Genesis 17:4f). Thus, St. Paul described Abraham as “the father of us all” (Romans 4:16-18).
Such is the burden of that line of our psalm that says, “The Lord builds up Jerusalem; He will gather the dispersed of Israel .” In the Book of Psalms, Israel is the Church, and of her building-up we are told that “the Lord added the Church daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).
These are “the children of God who were scattered abroad” (John 11:52). These are the very stones that God has raised as children to Abraham. These are the promised multitude of stars, each one of which He calls by name. As they approach to share His Bread, Jesus recognizes that “some of them have come from afar” (Mark 8:3). Indeed so, for they were “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, strangers from the covenants of promise” (Ephesians 2:12). But now in Christ they are brought near and made the children of Abraham, the very heirs of those covenants and that promise.
Monday, January 10
Genesis 10: This chapter provides the second genealogy in Genesis. These genealogies are important, for reasons that we considered yesterday in commenting on Psalm 147.
These lists of names throughout the Bible are theologically important. These are the People of God, not an amorphous mass of nondescript ciphers. No one remains nameless in some anonymous flock, because the Good Shepherd knows each of His sheep and calls them all by name. Such lists, therefore, of which Romans16 is a later example, are precious in the sight of the Lord and deserve to be held precious in our eyes as well. Ultimately the Book of Life itself is just a list of such names.
Already at the end of Genesis 9 we found that all was not well among the sons of Noah, and the tensions of that chapter will be developed extensively in the rest of the biblical story. More particularly, the discussion of the variety of nations in the present chapter prepares the way for the account of the diversity of tongues in the Chapter 11.
The present chapter describes the fortunes of Noah’s three sons, with a view to the later stories of the Exodus and the conquest of the Promised Land. The Egyptians and Canaanites, after all, are the descendents of Cham, while the Israelites are the descendents of Shem.
The present list of the nations, however, seems more preoccupied with geography than ethnicity. We note that the descendents of Shem (still called Semites) mainly inhabit the Fertile Crescent, while the offspring of Cham inhabit areas to the south and southwest of the Fertile Crescent, and the children of Japheth live to the northwest, in the area of the Turkish peninsula and the Aegean Sea. That is to say, this list covers roughly the three landmasses that contain the Mediterranean Basin: southern Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa.
About seventy nations are listed. We remember, in this respect, that Jesus sent out exactly that number of apostles (Luke 10:1), a number indicating the universality of their mission to “make disciples of all nations.”
Tuesday, January 11
Genesis 11: In spite of the national diversities outlined in the previous chapter, all of mankind, up to this point, speaks with a common tongue (verse 1).
The construction of Babel, the second city to be founded in the Bible, prompts us to recall the moral ambiguity of the first city, founded by the world’s first fratricide (4:17). Babel, like that first city, represents the development of technology (verse 3; 4:22). The tower of Babel symbolizes man’s arrogance and his rebellion against the authority of God. Not trusting God’s promise never again to destroy the world by flood (9:15), the men of Babel decide to build this tower as a sort of insurance policy against God’s punishment. Its construction, therefore, is of a piece with all the earlier rebellions against God that we have seen, starting in Chapter Three.
God’s response to this affront is twofold. It is both a punishment against the rebels and a preventative measure against their becoming even worse. That is to say, even God’s punishment is an act of mercy.
In the more general symbolism of Holy Scripture, Babel also represents Babylon, the city of power and godless rebellion, which is overthrown definitively in the Book of Revelation. There is a symbolic identity, therefore, uniting the present story to the destruction of Babylon described in Revelation 17 and 18. This city represents any political and economic establishment characterized by arrogance and the love of power.
Babel’s punishment by the division of tongues was especially appropriate. Augustine of Hippo comments on this chapter: “As the tongue is the instrument of domination, in it pride was punished, so that man, who refused to understand God when He gave His commands, should also be misunderstood when he gave commands. Thus was dissolved their conspiracy, because each man withdrew from those who could not understand and banded with those whose speech he found intelligible. So the nations were divided according to their languages and scattered over the face of the earth, as seemed good to God, who accomplished this in hidden ways that we cannot understand” (The City of God 16.4).
Wednesday, January 12
Matthew 7:1-12: This chapter continues the theme of freedom from distraction, so that God receives our entire attention. Just as the preceding verses, in chapter six, told us not to worry about ourselves, these verses tell us not to worry about others. In neither case are we to take the place of God.
The command not to judge, lest we be judged, is a variation on the theme of divine and human forgiveness. Matthew will later illustrate this theme by the parable of the unmerciful servant in 18:23-35. The repeated references to the “brother” in these opening verses indicate that these commands directly affect the life of the Christian congregation. Self-righteous superiority provides not solid basis for fraternal correction. This teaching appears everywhere in early Christian literature (cf. John 8:1-11; 1 Corinthians 4:3-5; Clement of Rome, To the Corinthians 13.2; Polycarp of Smyrna, To the Philippians 2.3).
Directly after the exhortation not to pass judgment, we find an irony. Immediately after being told not to “size up” others (verses 1-5), we are exhorted to size them up! (verse 6). Dogs and pigs were unclean animals; they were not to be given what was holy. The saying in verse 6 was taken up by the early Church as providing a principle for the discipline of the sacraments. The sacraments were not to be squandered on those unable to appreciate their value (cf. Didache 9.5; Tertullian, On Baptism 18). In short, this dominical saying also pertains to the life of the Christian congregation.
Having given the Church a formula for prayer in the previous chapter, Jesus now comes to speak of petitionary prayer (verses 7-11). In the Greek text, the asking, seeking, and knocking of verse 7 are all in the present tense (as distinct from the aorist tense). Thus, the meaning is “keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking.”
With respect to the bread and fish in verses 9-10, two facts may be borne in mind. First, these two foods were staples in the Galilean diet; Jesus will multiply both kinds of food in chapters 14 & 15. Second, the juxtaposition with stones and snakes is justified by the fact that a loaf of bread is shaped like a stone (cf. 4:3), and many snakes have a skin resembling the scales of fish (and fish without scales, in the Old Testament, are unclean animals, not suitable for food).
Finally, in the Golden Rule of verse 12, we have a fundamental principle, not only of life in the Christian Church, but of life in human society as such. Once again, as in the ascetical triad in chapter six, there is a reliance on the Book of Tobit (4:15), the Old Testament work that most explicitly dictates the Golden Rule. Matthew’s version of the Golden Rule is both positive and radicalized by its context in the Sermon on the Mount. Specifically, we note his use of “all things whatsoever” (panta hosa), an expression that will appear again in the Great Commission (28:20).
Thursday, January 13
Genesis 13: When Abram left Egypt, he and his family were very wealthy, because of Pharaoh’s generosity to someone he was trying to gain as a brother-in-law! Now Abram and Lot find that the sheer size of their flocks requires them to live apart (verses 1-7).
The story of their separation (verses 8-13) demonstrates Abram’s humility in giving his younger relative the choice of the land (verse 9), while he himself takes what is left. This humble action of Abram illustrates the meaning of the dominical saying that the meek shall inherit the earth. Abraham’s descendents, not Lot’s, will inherit all this land. In this story we discern the non-assertive quality of Abram’s faith. He is not only meek; he is also a peacemaker. Meekness and peacemaking are qualities of the man of faith.
Lot serves in this story as a kind of foil to Abram. The meek and peaceful Abram takes what is left, whereas Lot, obviously having failed to do a proper survey of the neighborhood, chooses to live in Sodom. This was to prove one of the worst real estate choices in history.
The present chapter closes with God’s solemn asseveration to Abram, promising him the land and the “seed” (verses 14-18). Unfortunately the rich ambivalence of this latter noun (zera‘ in Hebrew, sperma in Greek, semen in Latin) is lost in more recent translations that substitute the politically correct but entirely prosaic “descendents” for “seed” (verses 15-16).
Besides Sodom, two other important Canaanite cities are introduced in this chapter, Bethel (still called Luz at this period — cf. 28:19) and Hebron. Both of these cities will be extremely important in subsequent biblical history, and Abram is credited with making each of them a place of worship (verses 4,18).
Friday, January 14
Matthew 7:21-29: The Sermon on the Mount closes with two more references to the day of judgment (verses 22-23 and 25-27), the motif on which ends each of the five great discourses in Matthew (cf. 10:42; 13:50; 8:35; 25:40). Indeed, throughout Matthew we are never permitted to put from our minds the coming judgment of God.
One can hardly fail to observe a great irony here in verses 22-23. We would think that the ability to prophesy, cast out demons, and work many wonders would qualify among the sorts of “good fruit” by which to recognize a good tree (verses 17-18) . Yet, it is clearly not the case here. Nor does Matthew provide the slightest hint for the resolution of this apparent contradiction. He leaves both perspectives standing in place, side by side.
Just as the “I never knew you” of verse 23 will be repeated to the foolish virgins in chapter 25, the following contrast between prudent or wise person (phronimos) who survives the final judgment and the foolish person (moros)who does not (verses 24-27) will be paralleled by the five prudent or wise virgins (phronimai) and the five foolish virgins (morai) in that same later chapter.
The reference to the building by a wise man puts the reader in mind of Solomon, remembered in Holy Scripture as both a wise man and a builder. It is the Day of Judgment that will reveal whether or not a man has wisely built on a strong foundation (1 Timothy 6:17-19).
It is important, not only to hear the word of Jesus, but to “do” it (verses 24,26). This verb “to do” (poiein) appears twenty-two times in the Sermon on the Mount.
In contrast to the Jewish scribes, Jesus teaches with “authority.” None of those scribes would ever have pronounced, “but I say unto you.” This same authority (exsousia) of Jesus will be the basis for the teaching of the Church (28:18,20).
Saturday, January 15
Genesis 15: This, the first of two accounts of God’s covenant with Abram, is arguably the more dramatic and colorful. Here we also find two expressions appearing for the first time in Holy Scripture: (1) “the word of the Lord came to . . .” (verse 1), and (2) Abram “believed (’aman) in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness” (verse 6). That first expression will be especially prominent the Bible’s prophetic literature, and the second, which introduces the theme of righteousness by faith in God’s promise, will dominate much of the New Testament, particularly the Pauline corpus. Indeed, St. Paul wrote the first commentary on this verse in Romans 4:1-5.
At this point in the story, Abram is not called upon to do anything. He is summoned simply to live by trust in God’s promising word. Eventually, of course, he will be called upon to do certain things, but the important point that St. Paul sees in this passage is that already, before he has done anything, Abram is called righteous.
From this fact St. Paul argues that godly righteousness consists radically in that profound trust in God known in the Bible as faith. This faith is now explicitly spoken of for the first time in Holy Scripture. Here we discern the importance of Genesis 15 for Christian theology.
This is why Abraham is called “our father” in faith; his faith stands at the door of the history of salvation. For St. Paul Abraham’s righteousness, prior to the works of the Mosaic covenant, became the point of departure for examining the Christian’s relationship to the Law of Moses, which was one of the most difficult and practical questions raised in New Testament times. For example, it was important to St. Paul that Abraham, at this point in the story, has not yet received the command to be circumcised (Romans 4:9-12); that command will not come until Chapter 17. That is to say, Abraham was declared righteous before circumcision. Paul will appeal to this sequence to prove that believers need not be circumcised. The importance of this argument in Christian history cannot be exaggerated.