May 22 – May 29

Friday, May 22

Psalms 102 (Greek & Latin 101): This, the fifth of the traditional “penitential psalms,” is structured on a contrast, pursued through two sequences. The first half of the first sequence is all “I”—I am miserable, I am sad, my heart withers away like the grass in the heat, I lie awake at night, I feel like a mournful bird, I mingle my drink with tears, my days flee like the shadows of an evening, and so forth. Life being rough, a goodly number of our days are passed with such sentiments, so it is usually not difficult to pray this part of the psalm.

The second half of the first sequence arrives with the expression, “but You, O Lord,” which is just as emphatic in the Hebrew (we’attah Adonai) and the Greek (sy de Kyrie). “You” is contrasted with “I.” God is not like me; God is almighty and does what He wants and does not die. God is enthroned forever, and His name endures from generation to generation. God will arise and deliver His people.

The second and shorter contrasting sequence repeats the first. Once again, as at the beginning, there is the sense of our human frailty, our shortened days, our strength broken at midcourse. To this is contrasted the eternity of God; His years endure unto all generations. Thus, both sequences in this psalm form contrasts between the permanence of God and the transience of everything created.

Exodus 40: Moses thus did “everything that the Lord commanded him” (verses 16,19,21,23,25,27,29,32).

The Israelites have now been at the base of Sinai for about nine months (verse 17) and have already received, as we saw earlier, their marching orders (33:1). They are nearly ready to depart.

Everything is to be anointed with consecratory oil (verses 9-15). The Christian will read these verses in the awareness that the tabernacle itself is a prefiguration of Christ, the Anointed One. The Son of God, anointed with the oil of gladness above his fellows, is the permanent presence of God to humanity.

The glory of the divine presence descends into the tabernacle (verses 34-38). This glorious cloud, associated with both the passage through the Red Sea and the giving of the Law on Sinai, is now a feature of God’s ongoing presence with His people. Both events become permanent and “institutionalized” in the Mosaic tabernacle. The divine overshadowing will in due course be transferred to the Solomonic temple at Jerusalem (1 Kings 8:10-11), as well as to the second temple (Haggai 2:6-9).

All of these manifestations of the divine presence, as well as the rabbinical speculations regarding the cloud (shekinah), are properly taken as prophetic of the Incarnation, in which God’s eternal and consubstantial Word definitively “pitched His tent (eskenosen) among us” (John 1:14). Thus, all of the earlier overshadowings are but prefigurations of that by which the Holy Spirit effects the mystery of the Incarnation in the Woman who served as the tabernacle of God’s presence in this world; cf. Luke 1:35.

Saturday, May 23

Ephesians 6:10-24: The Apostle Paul, sitting in his prison cell at Caesarea (cf. Acts 24:26-27), looks closely at one of the soldiers guarding him. The soldier, unlike Paul, is obliged to stand. One does not sit guard, or lie down on guard. He stands. Indeed, Paul especially emphasizes this point:

Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth . . . . .

Standing is more than a posture. It is essentially an attitude and a sustained disposition of soul. We chiefly stand in our hearts and minds. This is the proper expression of being “on guard.” Even when we sit or lie down, our minds and hearts must still stand guard.

The obvious context here is the threat of warfare and battle. We stand because there are enemies about, and Paul speaks of these enemies:

Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.

Ruth 1: When she came back, at last, from Moab to Bethlehem, Naomi was a broken soul; nor is it hard to see why. In just the first five verses she had swallowed a series of bitter cups in abrupt succession: famine, exile, and then the deaths of her husband and two sons.

Indeed, the names conferred on those two boys at their birth suggest
that the infants were weak, ailing, and not destined to enjoy the proverbial length of days; Mahlon means “sickly” and Chilion “wasting away,” so it likely surprised no one when each young man died shortly after his marriage. Naomi, then, bereaved and beaten, returned to Bethlehem lamenting, “Do not call me Naomi [“my joy”]; call me Mara [“bitter”], for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the Lord has brought me home again empty” (Ruth 1:20–21). On this sad note ends the first chapter of Ruth.

The first bright note in the story when the young widow Ruth says to her widowed Israelite mother-in-law, “Wherever you go, I will go; / And wherever you lodge, I will lodge; / Your people shall be my people, / And your God, my God. / Where you die, I will die, / And there will I be buried” (Ruth 1:16–17). Ruth was biting off a great deal by accompanying Naomi back to Bethlehem. Indeed, her faith is properly likened to that of Abraham, who also left his family and his father’s house in order to follow God’s summons to a strange land.

And with due respect to the immortal John Keats (who needed a word to rhyme with “forlorn”), there is scant evidence that Ruth, after she arrived in Bethlehem, “stood in tears amid the alien corn.” There was no time for that sort of thing. Ruth was far too busy, bent over all day long in the fields of Boaz, gleaning one by one the fallen grains of barley and wheat.

Pentecost Sunday, May 24

Ruth 2: The townspeople at Bethlehem, much impressed that Ruth remained so deeply devoted to her mother-in-law, adopted a lenient view of the injunction about avoiding Moabites. “It is the young Moabite woman,” they said to one another, “who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab” (Ruth 2:6). Though she regarded herself as a foreigner at first (2:10), the rumor of her loyalty had gotten around town:

It has been fully reported to me, all that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband, and how you have left your father and your mother and the land of your birth, and have come to a people whom you did not know before. The Lord repay your work, and a full reward be given you by the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge.

Boaz lived in Bethlehem, “the house of bread,” and made his substantial living by growing barley and wheat. (Indeed, the story’s emphasis on Boaz’s abundant grain harvests stands in stark contrast to the famine or “hunger,” ra‘av, with which the Book of Ruth begins.) Maintaining a residence in the town, Boaz went out daily to oversee the workers in his fields. He also labored with them and was known sometimes to sleep out on the threshing floors during the winnowing days.

Boaz was a kind and godly man, and both traits were picked up by his field laborers. “The Lord be with you,” he greeted them each morning, to which they responded, “The Lord bless you!” (2:4). Blessing, indeed, rose easily to the lips of Boaz (2:12; 3:10). He likewise took good care of his workers, making certain that they had water to drink under the hot sun (2:9) and seasoned food when they broke for the midday meal (2:14).

Himself a kind and godly man, it is not surprising that Boaz appreciated kindness and godliness in others, and such were exactly the traits he admired in Ruth, the woman who had accompanied the unfortunate Naomi back from her recent, sad sojourn in Moab. Arriving at work one morning, Boaz found the young Moabite woman gleaning the fallen heads of grain dropped by his reapers, a privilege that the Mosaic Law reserved for the poor. Boaz treated Ruth with his accustomed kindness, further enhanced by knowing of her own kindness to Naomi. He encouraged Ruth to remain in his own fields, instead of wandering elsewhere (2:21–22), and instructed his reapers to leave extra grain lying in her path to be gleaned (2:16). In short, he “took notice” of her (2:19).

At this point we discern the first trace of Naomi’s coming transformation. When she instructs Ruth not to leave the fields of Boaz, the admonition need not, on its surface, indicate anything more than an appreciation of the better gleaning available in Boaz’s fields. Naomi has something more in mind, however, and her first remark—“This man is a relation of ours, one of our close relatives” (2:20)—betrays her deeper intention. She immediately realizes that Ruth, following the customs of the time, has a particular social claim on her dead husband’s next of kin.

Namely, a levirate marriage, by which Boaz would raise up children to Ruth’s deceased husband. This is the message quietly contained in
Naomi’s remark that the Lord “has not forsaken His kindness to the living and the dead” (2:20). The “dead” here refers to Ruth’s husband.

This is no more than hinted at, and perhaps Ruth herself does not yet grasp the significance of the words, but Naomi understands the situation very well, and her instruction to Ruth is a first step in her emerging plan. The deeply depressed woman of the story’s beginning is now recovering an energetic initiative and sense of life.

Monday, May 25

Acts 2:22-36: It is arguable that no other line of the Book of Psalms enjoys, in the New Testament, a prominence equal to these opening words of Psalm 110 (Greek/Latin 109), quoted by St. Peter in this reading from Acts: “Sit at My right hand.” These majestic words became the foundation of some of the most important Christological and soteriological statements of the New Testament (cf. Mark 16:19; Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2.).

In this one line of the psalm, then, we profess, in summary form, those profound doctrines at the foundation of our whole relationship to God—the eternal identity of Jesus Christ, his triumph over sin and death, and His glorification at God’s right hand: “God . . . has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, . . . who . . , when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:1–3).

Ruth 3: We do not know at what point Boaz’s admiration for Ruth assumed an amorous tone, but it did so before the summer was over. Aware of being a kinsman to her deceased husband, Boaz was alert to the possibility of marrying Ruth by levirate law. Indeed, he must have researched the question, because he learned that there was another male relative, whose claims in the matter were stronger than his own. Because Boaz was older than Ruth (3:10), perhaps he felt embarrassed to present himself as a possible husband.

Then, one night as he slept on the grain at the threshing floor, the suddenly-chilled Boaz was awakened to find the perfumed presence of a woman lying at his feet. It was Ruth, asking him to marry her (3:9). He needed no further coaxing. As the two of them lay there the rest of that night, we discover that Boaz’s own thoughts about Ruth have already been running along romantic lines (3:10–11). Indeed, he has even researched the situation, for he knows that he is not actually the next of kin (3:12) and that the matter will require further adjudication (3:13).

Boaz is well aware that Naomi’s is the guiding hand behind this whole business. When he sends Ruth home, therefore, he gives her as much barley as she could glean in six days, telling her: “Do not go empty-handed to your mother-in-law” (3:17). It is a line of great irony.

Naomi, for her part, is confident that Boaz will see the thing through. She assures Ruth that “the man will not rest until he has concluded the matter this day” (3:18).

Tuesday, May 26

Acts 2:37-47: The summary of the response to Peter’s first sermon includes the three constitutive components of the Church’s liturgical life: First, the authoritative proclamation of the Word of God (“the apostles’ doctrine”); second, the serving of the Sacraments (“the Communion, the breaking of the Bread”); third, the common worship (“prayers”). It is in these three things that the “baptized” (verse 41) are to “continue steadfastly.”

Their practice of “holding all things in common” should not be interpreted in a legal sense of ownership (cf. 5:4) but with respect to their operative attitude toward their possessions. It is significant that this attitude is mentioned in the immediate context of the Church’s liturgical life. It was from the beginning that the Church made “collections” of material resources at the common worship, particularly the Eucharist.

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.

Wednesday May 27

Leviticus 1: Because the English noun “sacrifice” is commonly employed to translate several quite different Hebrew words, readers of the Bible in English may not suspect how varied and complex is the Bible’s treatment of this subject.

For instance, the sacrifice treated here in the first chapter is quite distinct. One would not suspect just how distinct from its common English translation (King James, for example), “burnt sacrifice.” Since just about all sacrifices in the Bible, with the obvious exception of libations, were burnt, the expression does not tell us very much.

The Hebrew word employed for the sacrifices in this chapter is ‘olah, a participle meaning “ascending.” This term may originally have been connected with the ascending smoke released by the fire that consumed the victim. In the ancient Greek translation (the Septuagint), this term was rendered holokavtoma, which indicated that the whole victim, not just part of it, was consumed in the fire. This Greek word became the Latin holocaustum, whence is derived our English “holocaust.” Because it consumed the entire victim, the holocaust—the sacrifice envisaged in this opening chapter of Leviticus—was the most complete form of sacrifice.

The six steps involved in such a sacrifice are described in verses 3-9, which treat of a bovine sacrifice. Nearly identical steps were followed for the holocaust of sheep (verses 1-13) and birds (verses 14-17).

It is clear that a holocaust always involves the sacrifice of a living animal, not of grain or any other form. Those other sacrifices are treated in the next chapter.

Acts 3:1-10: Peter heals the lame man in the powerful name of Jesus (cf. 2:21,38-39; 3:16; 4:7-10), of which we will soon be told that “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (4:12). The healed man immediately enters the temple with the two apostles, making quite a scene by his enthusiastic worship. The fairly secular word “amazement” in verse 10 is actually “ecstasy” in Greek, which is a term descriptive of religious experience.

The “porch” of Solomon in verse 11 is stoa in Greek, from which was derived the name of philosophers called “Stoics” (cf. 17:18), so named because they studied under Zeno at the Poecile, a colonnaded porch in Athens. As the Fathers of the Church observed in this connection, Luke is thus contrasting the Solomonic wisdom of the Bible with the pagan wisdom of the Hellenic philosophers. Peter will now preach wisdom from that “porch of Solomon.”

Thursday, May 28

Leviticus 2: The sacrifice treated in this chapter is the minhah, or grain offering. In this sacrifice, only part of the grain was burned, the remainder being reserved for the household of the priest (verse 2). In addition, the grain could be baked into bread (verses 4-13).

In these latter cases it was important not to use yeast in the baking process, probably because yeast produces fermentation, which was considered a form of corruption. There was the perceived need to remove all suggestion of corruption from the sacrifice offered to God. Salt, on the other hand, because it is a preservative, was a normal part of this form of sacrifice. Indeed, this aspect of salt rendered it an excellent symbol of the permanence and incorruptibility of God’s covenant with Israel. It was, in truth, a “covenant of salt” (Numbers 18:19). Holy Scripture contains a number of references to this symbolic value of salt (cf. Ezekiel 16:4; 2 Kings 2:20-22; Matthew 5:13; Mark 9:49; Colossians 4:6).

Acts 3:11-26: The philosophy imagery continues. The “walk” in verse 12 is literally “walk around,” in Greek peripatein, the root of “Peripatetic,” meaning the philosophy of Aristotle, who “walked around” the Lyceum at Athens discussing thorny questions with his students. Thus, Luke presents us with a Peripatetic on the Stoa!

Now Peter, like a good philosopher, sets himself to clear up a misunderstanding (verse 12). Relating his remarks immediately to the theme of his Pentecost sermon, the glorification of Jesus, Peter summarizes the Lord’s trial (verses 13-15) in a way that reflects Luke’s narrative of that trial (cf. Luke 23:4,14,16,20,22).

In verse 22, where Peter quotes Deuteronomy, the context provides a subtle word-play in “the Lord God will raise up (anastesei) for you a Prophet.” This “raising up” of Jesus (cf. verse 26 too) is, of course, the unifying theme of these first two sermons of Peter.

After his citation from Moses, he goes on to announce that “all the prophets, from Samuel and those who follow,” had borne witness to the very message that he was preaching. This note again fits Luke’s motif of biblical fulfillment in the death and resurrection of Jesus (cf. Luke 24:27,45), a motif that had so dominated Peter’s sermon on Pentecost.

He finishes by quoting Genesis 22:18, clearly understanding the “seed” (sperma) of Abraham as referring to Jesus (as does Paul in Galatians 3:16).

Friday, May 29

Leviticus 3: What most English translations of the Bible call the “peace offering” is, in the Hebrew text, known as the zebah shelamim, a term indicating an oblation which harmonizes or makes perfect. It is an offering in which there is some sort of communion through the shared eating of part of the victim. Hence, unlike the holocaust, the entire victim in this kind of sacrifice is not destroyed by fire; parts of it are eaten by the priests who offer it and by those individuals for whom it is offered.

The sacrificial victims offered in this sort of oblation were the ox, the sheep, and the goat; animals of both sexes were acceptable. The sacrifice of the ox is described in verses 1-5, in which special attention is given to the animal’s blood. Because blood especially symbolizes life, it could not be ingested. It had to be sprinkled on the altar, as a sign that all life belongs to God. Similarly, those internal organs more especially associated with the processes of life, such as the intestines, the liver, and the kidneys, were burned in the sacrificial fire. Much the same procedure was followed for the offering of the sheep (verses 6-11) and the goat (verses 12-17).

For reasons that are not clear, the fat of these sacrifices could not be eaten, though there are no proscriptions against eating fat outside of the sacrificial context.

Acts 4:1-12: We now come to the first arrest of Christians and their first trial before the Sanhedrin. There was surely reason for concern on the part of the Sanhedrin, because the number of Christian converts, as a result of Peter’s brief sermon, had grown dramatically (verse 4). There will ensue a mounting local persecution, leading to the dispersal of the believers at the beginning of Chapter 8.

The Sadducees, direct successors of those “sons of Zadok” that we read about in Ezekiel, are the first to be offended (verses 2,3,5,6; cf. also 5:17). Unlike the Pharisees, they did not believe in a doctrine of resurrection, so when the apostles are brought to trial, the Sadducees were careful not to mention why they had been arrested! The whole affair having begun, as we saw, in late afternoon, it is now too late for court business, so the apostles are thrown in jail for the night (verse3).

The chief leaders of the Sadducees, the priests Annas and Caiphas, had been the instigators of the trial of Jesus, and now two of His apostles will appear before the same group. As on Pentecost day, Peter is “full of the Holy Spirit” (verse 8), and his brief testimony, which includes the exegesis of a Psalm verse (cf. Luke 20:17 as well), summarizes his Pentecost sermon. It was also a Psalm verse, by the way, to which Peter would return several years later (cf. 1 Peter 2:7).