Sunday, May 15
Pentecost: In the early Christian liturgical calendars the fifty days between Easter and Pentecost constituted a single lengthy feast, because the Resurrection of Jesus is inseparable from the giving of the Holy Spirit (thus, cf. John 20:19-22).
This day, the name of which signifies that it is the 50th day, was known in the Old Testament as the "feast of weeks." That is to say, it has as many weeks as a single week has days. For the Jews it commemorated the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai 50 days after the Passover. The two events, the Exodus and the revelation at Sinai, formed a single theological reality, containing both deliverance and covenant.
Likewise, according to Acts 2, it was on the day of Pentecost that God also gave the Church the New Law, the indwelling Holy Spirit by which the community of faith would be directed to the end of time. All of those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God, says Romans 8, and the Book of Acts, which we are reading during this season, repeatedly tells how the Apostles put their entire ministry under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Monday, May 16
The Acts of the Apostles: During this season immediately following Pentecost, we read the earliest account of Christian history, which begins in the context of the first Christian celebration of that feast.
The Book of Acts, a companion volume to Luke's gospel, it testifies to the work of the Holy Spirit in the life, worship and ministries of the earliest Christians, covering a period of about 3 decades from the Lord's Ascension to the two year house-arrest of the apostle Paul (probably spring to spring, 60-62).
Just as Luke's gospel begins with the Holy Spirit overshadowing the Virgin Mary to effect the enfleshing of God's eternal Son into human history, so the Book of Acts commences with that same Holy Spirit coming down to form the Church (where, at the center with the Apostles, once more stands the Virgin Mary — Acts 1:14) and launch its mission to the end of time.
While the Book of Acts can be studied from several perspectives, this year we suggest that particular attention be given to the stages by which the Church became distinguished from the religion of Judaism. Luke himself documents this development explicitly, drawing attention to the Church's mission to the Samaritans, the conversion of Paul, Peter's acceptance of the Gentiles at Caesarea, the joining of the Gentiles with the Jews at Antioch, the new missions on Cyprus and in Cilicia, and so forth. This development occasioned many tensions, which are also recorded in the Epistles of the Apostle Paul. A culminating point in the story is the apostolic and presbyteral council at Jerusalem in chapter 15, with the subsequent expansion of the mission to the west. Just as the Gospel according to Luke ends at Jerusalem, the center of Judaism, so the Book of Acts ends in Rome, the capital of the Empire.
Tuesday, May 17
The Book of Ruth: Following the Pentecostal theme of the "first fruits," this week we will be reading the Book of Ruth, the title character of which was a Gentile who came to worship Israel's God. Ruth was thus a kind of "first installment" of the Church's mission to the Gentiles.
In our English bibles, the Book of Ruth falls between Judges and Samuel, the order one also finds in the ancient Greek (Septuagint) and Latin (Vulgate) versions. This arrangement doubtless derives from a desire to read the whole biblical narrative in sequence, for the events in Ruth did occur during the period of the Judges and prior to the establishing of the monarchy.
In the traditional Hebrew text, however, the Book of Ruth is located in a completely different part of the Bible. Whereas the books of Judges and Samuel are found among the "earlier prophets," one finds Ruth, in the third and last part of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Ketubim or "writings," stuck between the Song of Solomon and the Book of Lamentations. Within this latter category, Ruth is also part of a little collection of the five meghilloth or "rolls" traditionally read in the synagogue for specific feast days. This usage assigns Ruth to the Jewish feast of Pentecost, a custom that explains why this Daily Devotional Guide appoints Ruth to be read during this week of the Christian Pentecost.
The Book of Ruth, narrating events that took place about 1100 B. C., may be divided into a series of scenes, the first three of which are contained in Chapter One. The first scene, described in verses 1-5, is marked by a very somber tone, conveyed in the sad events of famine, exile, death and bereavement. Three women are widowed within five verses. Even the names are somber; Mahlon means "sickly," and Chilion means "wasting away." While this scene covers about ten years, after which the pace of the narrative will slow down and become more detailed. There is an initial irony that the famine is found in the town of Bethlehem, which literally means "house of bread." (Much of this story will be taken up with the symbol of grain, thanksgiving for which is one of the themes of Pentecost itself, which occurs at the time of the barley harvest.)
Wednesday, May 18
Ruth 2: The next scene of the Book of Ruth is situated in the field of Boaz. We are told that Ruth "happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz" (2:3). That is to say, the event looked happenstance and accidental. The reader already suspects, however, that it is not. Indeed, God is already beginning to answer the prayer of Naomi in 1:9. Here in 2:4 we find yet another prayer, in the form of a blessing. This prayer will also be answered in the course of the story.
The brief conversation of Boaz and Ruth in this chapter will serve to outline the man's character, which the reader perceives to be gracious, concerned, generous, and kind. He is also subtle in his generosity. The tone and wording of the conversation also suggests that Boaz is significantly older than Ruth.
In this dialogue, Boaz uses the word "wing" in 2:12. The underlying Hebrew word here is kanaph, which can also mean "skirt," which is how the word will be translated in 3:9. In both cases it indicates protecting care, as though God is permitting Boaz to fulfill his own prayer on behalf of Ruth.
When Ruth returns home with so much grain at the end of her first day at work, Naomi immediately becomes suspicious about her good fortune. The reader observes that the conversation between the two women that night was about Boaz, not barley. In 2:20 it becomes clear that Naomi perceives forces at work beyond the human; a plan slowly begins to take shape in her mind. By the end of the chapter, the story has moved into the month of June, but nothing further has happened. Naomi begins to consider that perhaps some bolder move is required.
Thursday, May 19
Ruth 3: According to Israel's ancient levirate law, the brother-in-law of a widow was obliged to take her to wife in order to beget children in the name of his deceased brother. An extension of this law to "next of kin" is obviously operative in Naomi's thinking in the bold project narrated in this chapter. She contrives a plan for Ruth to make this matter unavoidable in the mind of Boaz, in circumstances that will heighten a romantic interest that Naomi suspects to reside in Boaz's heart. The execution of her plan is the stuff of one of the most sensitive stories in the Bible.
In the course of this account, we then learn that Naomi was correct in her suspicion. Indeed, he is already one step ahead of his future "mother-in-law"; he has researched the matter and learned that he is not, in fact, the next of kin. Thus, nothing happens that night. There is still one more step that Boaz must take.
In this second dialogue between Boaz and Ruth, we detect certain delicate features of both of the man: Boaz's sensitivity to the age difference between him and Ruth, his consequent reluctance to initiate any previous advance toward her, his gratitude for her interest in him, his continued solicitude for her well-being by not obliging her to walk home in the dark, his discreet concern for her reputation, the shrewdness of his ability to read the mind of Naomi. As he lies there on the granary floor that night, Boaz realizes that he has been "set up" by Naomi; this proceeding had not been Ruth's at all. So Boaz told her, "Do not go empty-handed to your mother in law."
Naomi's response, in turn, shows that she perfectly understands the thoughts of Boaz. It is a marvelous account of two very shrewd individuals who comprehend one another perfectly.
Friday, May 20
Ruth 4: Boaz now proves himself as shrewd as Naomi. Just as Boaz had been "set up" by Naomi and Ruth, he now proceeds to "set up" this unnamed kinsman. What we read in this chapter, then, is a classical "sting operation." One remembers Jacob "setting up" his father Isaac with the famous sheepskin ruse, and how Jacob and Laban were constantly endeavoring to out-maneuver one another.
This relative of Boaz thus "bites" before he knows what he is biting. He is presented with a field, he thinks, but then discovers a possible liability comes with the field — Ruth — and suddenly he realizes that his own inheritance might thereby be compromised. He quickly says "ouch" and pulls back before it is too late. This must rank among the more purely entertaining scenes in Holy Scripture.
This specific shoe-custom had already been a thing of the past long before the biblical story was written, of which we seem to have some memory also in Deuteronomy 25:9 and Psalm 108:9. This older memory is an important feature of the story. It reminds us that the accounts narrated in the Bible often contain information that could only have come from more primitive traditions, many of them oral in nature.
Toward the end of the story (4:7), Ruth is blessed by invoking the memory of Tamar, the mother of twins. Clearly, these blessing elders, the city fathers of Bethlehem, entertained expansive ideas in this matter of progeny! Their blessing also evokes the famous story in Genesis 38, where Tamar herself had done a bit of "stinging" of her father-in-law.
Having begun in sorrow, this finely crafted little story ends in the joy of a grandmother bouncing a new grandchild on her lap. The final lines place the account in the genealogy of King David, and Christian readers are expected to relate that line to the final Heir of that salvific family line.
Saturday, May 21
Psalm 20 (Greek & Latin 19): The history of Christian piety interprets this psalm as a prayer of the Church addressed to Christ Himself, who on her behalf mounts the hill of Calvary “on the day of affliction.” The whole psalm thus becomes an “Amen” to the redemptive work of Christ.
Understood in this sense, our Lord’s voluntary immolation on the cross is the point of reference in the line that reads: “All Your sacrifice may He remember, and accept Your whole burnt offering.” Prayed in this way, our psalm is the “Amen” of the Church to the pouring out of the redemptive blood, when “Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many” (Hebrews 9:28).
Thus, too, when we say, “May He give you according to Your heart’s desire, and fulfil Your every counsel,” it is once again the “Amen” of the Church to the prayer Christ makes for her benefit: “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in Me through their word. . . . I desire also that those whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am” (John 17:20,24).
In like manner, when we say, “May the Lord fulfil all your requests,” it is especially the “Amen” of the Church to such petitions as “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34) and “Holy Father, keep in Your name those whom You have given Me” (John 17:11).
It is to the redemption wrought by Christ our Savior that we refer when we say to Him: “We shall exult in Your salvation, and in the name of our God shall we be exalted.” The Church exults in His salvation whenever she gathers to worship in His name. And thus does she exult: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing” (Revelation 5:12).
In the name of our God, moreover, is the Church herself exalted. And thus is she exalted: “You have redeemed us unto God by Your blood, out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and have made us kings and priests to our God; and we shall reign on the earth” (5:9f).
In contrast to the worship of the Church, who trusts thus in the blood of the Lamb, there are those who place their confidence elsewhere: “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses.” This horse-trusting appears likewise in the prophets (e. g., Isaiah 31:1; 36:9) as a metaphor for man’s placing his assurance in such human forces as military might.
These “horses,” in which men put their trust, represent the designs of the worldly and powerful, but they are profoundly vain. Holy Scripture will finally describe these horses as white and carrying a conqueror, as red and bearing a warrior, as black and transporting famine, as roan and ridden by death. These horses and their riders represent the forces of the world in its opposition to God, and “power was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with the sword, with hunger, with death, and by the beasts of the earth” (Revelation 6:1-8). That is to say, these horses, in which men put their trust, will return to exact their toll on human happiness and human history.
But has not the saving work of the Christ already been accomplished? Is it not a fact that already Jesus has “entered the Holy of Holies, having obtained eternal redemption”? (Hebrews 9:12) And is it not the case that even now “He always lives to make intercession”? (7:25) Truly, these things are already so, and our psalm confesses them: “Now I know that the Lord has saved His Christ; He will hear Him from His holy heaven. In deeds of might is the salvation at His right hand.”
Yet it still remains for Christ finally to triumph in our lives. Hitherto, after all, “it has not yet been revealed what we shall be” (1 John 3:2). There is still a future tense to the Christian life. “We shall be magnified in the name of the Lord, our God,” says our psalm. Until that magnification be finally done, each of us must confess, “Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected” (Philippians 3:12). We continue, then, to plead: “O Lord, save the King,” “and hear us on the day we call upon You.”