January 8 – January 15, 2016

Friday, January 8

Matthew 4:12-17: This is the first of three pericopes about Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. The next two stories are the calling of the first apostles at the Sea of Galilee (4:18-22) and the gathering of the great multitude (4:23-25) that will hear the Sermon on the Mount in the next chapter.

In the present text Matthew sets the stage for this Galilean ministry by showing it as a fulfillment of prophecy, specifically Isaiah 9:1-2. This prophecy, having to do with Gentiles finding the light, takes up the same theme as the earlier story of the pagan Magi who followed the star.

This early emphasis on the Galilean ministry is important to the structure of Matthew. At the end of his Gospel (in stark contrast to Luke) the revelation of the risen Christ to the Church will take place in this same “Galilee of the Gentiles” (28:7,10,16). Matthew’s story of Jesus ministry thus begins and ends in Galilee, the place where Jews and Gentiles live together. Galilee is thus an image of the Church.

Hebrews 5:11-14: Hebrews 5:11-14: These verses of Hebrews recognize a distinction well known in moral philosophy—the distinction between the milk of the beginner and the solid food of the proficient.

The Christian begins with mild teaching: doctrines easy to digest, the simple doctrines of the catechism. At the beginning of the next chapter our author gives a list of these: “The foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.”

There are examples of this simple catechesis in the New Testament. For instance: “Now a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures, came to Ephesus. This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things of the Lord, though he knew only the baptism of John. So he began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Aquila and Priscilla heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately’ (Acts 18:24-26). In this text there is elementary teaching about Christian Baptism, in the course of which it is distinguished from John’s baptism of repentance. This teaching is what Hebrews 6 refers to. Another example is found in Acts 19:1-6, about baptism and the laying-on of hands, another theme to which Hebrews refers. Such things are called “milk”; they form the Christians’ introductory food.

Both Paul and Peter mention such “milk”. Thus, we read in First Corinthians, “I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able” (3:1-2). And Saint Peter wrote, “As newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby, unto salvation “ (1 Peter 2:2-3).

Saturday, 9

Hebrews 6:1-20: Today’s reading refers to those initiated into the Christian Church, when it speaks of “those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come.” From the earliest times, believers have joined the Christian Church through the rites of Baptism (still called Holy Illumination among Eastern Christians), the Gift of the Holy Spirit (called “Chrismation” in the East and “Confirmation” in the West), and the Holy Communion. All three of these rites take place in the context of the proclamation of the Holy Scriptures, in which we “tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come.”

What is striking in this description of Christian initiation is the emphasis on the enjoyment of the things of God and the pleasure derived from sharing them. The Sacred Text hints, moreover, that this enjoyment is but a first taste of something greater, described as “the age to come.” How do we explain the thinking of Christians who have never learned to love the things of God? They confess willingly they find no delight in prayer, no joy in the Sacraments, no relish in the singing of hymns, no consolation in the reading Holy Scripture. Because these matters demand discipline–they are what we call acquired tastes—it is understandable that some souls do not yet enjoy them.

What is not comprehensible, at least to me, is why these same souls still want to participate in “the age to come.” If they do not relish God’s Word, what makes them think that they will care much to meet the Author? If they find no joy on earth from eating the Bread of Angels, how do they imagine it will be more enjoyable in heaven? If they even now here with great reluctance the invitation, “Let us pray,” why would they want to hear the invitation, “Enter into the joy of Thy Lord”?

If worship and the things of God are not sweet to us now, what makes us think we will enjoy them in heaven? If we find nothing but a burden in the brief time we spend worshipping on earth, how shall we endure the everlasting worship of heaven? If we now find onerous the bare nibbling of pleasures of heaven, what shall we feel when the whole banquet is spread out before us?

An important task facing us in this life is the development of our spiritual taste buds. The call to repentance is God’s summons to us to take possession of our own hunger. Only gradually will this be done. Day by day, and only as we deliberately cultivate the process, will the Holy Spirit give us a deep relish for God, for worship, for contemplation, for the Sacraments and the inexhaustible wealth of Holy Scripture. Day by day we will learn to taste and see that the Lord is sweet.

We understand that “hope” is a word central to our Christian vocabulary, and, given the frequency of this word in the history of Christian literature, there is no way that understanding can be wrong.

In fact, however, Jesus Himself perhaps never used the Aramaic equivalent of the word “hope”. The noun itself is never found in the Gospels, and the verb is never heard from the lips of Jesus.

When, on the other hand, we turn to the sermons in the Acts of the Apostles or read the epistles of the first Christians, “hope” is found everywhere. It is found in Peter, Paul, John, and Hebrews..

From this observations it is safe to conclude that the idea and the word “hope” came to us, not from the Gospel proclaimed by Jesus, but from the Gospel proclaimed by the early Christians about Jesus.

The noun is found several times in Hebrews (3:6; 6:11,18; 7:19; 10:23), very notably in today’s reading about those “who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us.” This hope the author goes on to proclaim this hope as “an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast.”

Sunday, January 10

Hebrews 7:1-10: Today we are introduced to “Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God,” whose name means “king of righteousness,” but who was “also king of Salem, meaning ‘king of peace.’” I take it as significant that righteousness here precedes peace.

Indeed, it is the constant teaching of Holy Scripture that righteousness precedes peace – comes before peace – that there is no peace without righteousness.

It is no great problem getting men today interested in peace. On almost any day there are pictures of thousands of people taking part in peace demonstrations. Past counting are the various organizations that go to make up the “peace movement.” On all sides, high and low, may be heard the cries for peace. Nowadays there is no shortage of interest in peace.

What is perhaps less self-evident is a corresponding interest in righteousness. Yet, the one depends on the other.

Our generation may be likened to a farmer who wants to grow a large field of corn. His interest in corn is well known and readily documented. He is a corn expert. He has read everything ever written about corn. Indeed, he has written much of it himself. People come to him to confer about corn. If a corn rally is wanted, he’s our man. He conducts seminars about corn at the agricultural college. He is never late with his dues to the national corn federation. He buys TV advertising time to laud the glories of corn. Every evening his friends assemble in his living room to discuss corn. Large, colored posters of corn adorn the walls of his home. He has authored a pamphlet condemning those whom he considers nonchalant and indifferent to the merits of corn.

But when sowing time comes around, he sows his fields with green beans.

He somehow fails to understand that, in order to harvest corn, it is necessary also to plant corn. This is a basic truth of life: A man will reap what he sows (Galatians 6:7-8). The secret is the seed.

Now the seed of peace is righteousness. Peace is not the absence of war. (Indeed, there are times when the mere absence of war signifies the dominance of unrighteousness.) Peace is the fruit of righteousness: “Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:18).

Monday, January 11

Two features of John’s account explain why this author—unlike the Synoptics—places this story near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
First, only in John’s narrative does Jesus speak, at this time, of His Father: “Do not make My Father’s house a business place!” Indeed, in John’s gospel this sentence is the first of Jesus’ many references to His Father. In the course of John’s story, we learn that His relationship to the Father is the source of His identity. His authority and His mission are entirely determined by that relationship: “I have come in My Father’s name” (5:43); “I and the Father are one” (10:30); “No one comes to the Father except through Me” (14:6); “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (14:9); This theme, initiated at the purging of the temple, will reach its climax in the lengthy prayer Jesus offers to the Father in John 17.
A second feature unique to John’s account of the purging of the temple is the quotation from Psalm 69 (68):10: “Zeal for Your house will consume Me.” A close inspection of this verse uncovers a subtle but important nuance in John’s thought. Namely, this: In the Septuagint text of this passage the verb is given in the aorist tense, which denotes the past: “Zeal for Your house has consumed Me (katephagen Me).” As John quotes the verse, however, the verbal tense is shifted to the future: “Zeal for Your house will consume Me (kataphagetai Me).” That is to say, John deliberately directs our attention toward the end of Jesus’ life, when His zeal will devour His life in the Passion.
The “house” in this reference is no longer Jerusalem’s temple but that very abode in which the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (1:14). He Himself is the “house of God” upon whom and from whom the angels descend and ascend (1:51). Thus, when Jesus tells His enemies, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up”—John instructs us—“He was speaking of the temple of His body.“
In this imagery we discern why John places the event of the temple’s purging so early in his narrative. The story serves a programmatic purpose by introducing into Jesus’ ministry, from the beginning, the drama of His mission. As soon as He has worked “the beginning of His signs” (2:11), Jesus steps forward to vindicate His Father’s glory, thus eliciting the murderous animosity that will, in time, consume His life.
But Jesus also foretells His Resurrection “in three days.” None of this becomes clear, says John, until “He had risen from the dead,” and “His disciples remembered that He had said this.” When John says the disciples “remembered”—emnesthesa—the Scripture and what Jesus said, surely more is intended than a simple human recollection. This anamnesis, in which the Word of God takes possession of the memory, comes from the activity of the Holy Spirit, of whom Jesus promised, “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring into your memory (hypomnesei) all things I said to you” (14:26).
Finally, by way of tying this story to the one immediately before, John comments that these disciples, who “began to believe (epistevsan) in Him” (2:11) when He changed the water into wine, now “believed (epistevsan) the Scripture and the word Jesus spoke” (2:21).
Tuesday, January 12
Matthew 5:1–12: The Sermon on the Mount begins with two very solemn verses, as though to allow everyone to sit down and get settled for a long discourse. The Sermon functions in more than one way to serve the structure of Matthew’s entire composition. For example, taking place on a mountain at the very beginning of the Lord’s ministry, it is the initial component of a parallel with the mountain at the end of the Gospel, the mountain from which Jesus sent the Apostles to teach what he had taught (28:20).

Again, the Sermon is the first of the five great discourses—a New Testament Chumash as it were—which are the didactic backbone of Matthew’s Gospel. Functioning thus, it stands in chiastic correspondence to the last of these five discourses, the lengthy sermon on the Last Things (chapters 23–25).

Close readers of Matthew have long observed that this Sermon itself forms a commentary on the Beatitudes with which it begins (verses 2–10). This commentary is also chiastic, meaning that it reverses the order of the Beatitudes. Thus, for example, verses 11–12 form a commentary on verse 10, verses 13–16 are a commentary on verse 9, and so forth.

Compared to the shorter Beatitudes in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain (6:20–22), we observe that, whereas Luke’s version contains only “situations” (poverty, hunger, etc.), Matthew’s version commends ethical norms (mercy, purity of heart, etc.). Luke’s version is entirely kerygma, or proclamation, whereas Matthew’s is also didache, or instruction. It includes a moral code, in addition to the proclamation of the Kingdom and the overthrow of the worldly order.

We observe Matthew’s use of an inclusio, beginning and ending with “the Kingdom of Heaven” (verses 3,10).

Hebrews 8:1-6: The picture of Jesus as both priest and mediator is major feature of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Although St. Paul, too. speaks of the “one Mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 2:5) and describes our Lord’s suffering and death in terms of priesthood (“Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma”—Eph. 5:2), it is a fact that nowhere else in the New Testament do we find greater specific attention devoted to the mediating priesthood of Jesus than in the Epistle to the Hebrews.

Not only does this book twice call Jesus “the Mediator of the new covenant” (9:15; 12:24), but also this identification forms the very crux and core of the book. In addition, Hebrews is the only source in the New Testament that uses the words “priest” and “priesthood” with reference to Jesus.

Wednesday, January 13

Matthew 5:13-20: We start with the metaphors of salt and light, both of them referring to Christians. In each case the beneficiary of these two blessings is the earth (ge) or World (kosmos), meaning those who are not Christians (verse 13). Salt and light describe the very people that the world persecutes and maligns (verses 11–12). No amount of persecution justifies the forfeiture of the Christian vocation to be salt and light to the rest of humanity. Neither salt nor light exist for themselves. Should Christians fail in this vocation, they are no longer of any use. They are to be “thrown out,” like the tares (13:40) and the inedible fish (13:48).

The metaphor of light on a lamp stand is transformed into a city seated on an acropolis, where it is visible to everyone (verse 14). Neither can Christians be concealed if they do the “good works” (ta kala erga) that their heavenly Father expects of them (verse 16). Those who see these good works belong to the same “earth” or “world” that persecutes the Christians. The world is to be enlightened by the very people it persecutes.

What Matthew has in mind here is the Christian vocation to holiness, by which the world is instructed in the ways of God. This holiness, according to the present passage, pertains to the missionary mandate of the Church. It is the way the Church shares the Gospel with “all nations” (28:19–20). This is the light that shines on those sitting in darkness (4:16).

Hebrews 8:7-13: Today’s reading includes a quotation from the prophecy of Jeremiah (31:31-34), the longest Old Testament passage ever quoted in the New Testament. With its reference to the “new covenant,” this text was clearly a favorite among the early Christians.

Indeed, Jesus used that very expression in the institution of the Last Supper, so that Christians heard the words at least once a week. Jeremiah’s text was impressed on their minds. In using this expression the Lord announced His own fulfillment of a prophecy uttered six centuries earlier.

Pursuing this theme, the Apostle Paul also wrote of the “new covenant” (2 Corinthians 3:6) and contrasted it with the old (Galatians 4:24).

In the prophecy of Jeremiah we observe that this new covenant consists in the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Torah given to Moses was chiseled in stone, but the new covenant is an inner testimony, the penmanship of the heart. A younger contemporary of Jeremiah said it no less forcefully: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them” (Ezekiel 36:26-27). A later editor of the Book of Isaiah took up the theme too: “As for Me, says the Lord, this is My covenant with them: My Spirit who is upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth” (Isaiah 59:21).

Thursday, January 14:

Matthew 5:21-30: The first of Matthew’s five contrasts has to do with the Lord’s understanding of the Torah’s prohibition, “Thou shalt do no murder” (verse 21). Here, as in the next examples, Jesus responds, “but I say to you,” a formula indicating that His own understanding of the Law is superior even to that of Moses.

There is an irreducible claim in these sustained assertions—namely, that Jesus, being the very Lawgiver of Mount Sinai, has the authority to speak for the Law’s intention. This claim is based on the standard legal principle: “the meaning of a law is determined by the intention of the lawgiver.” Moses, after all, was only the promulgator of the Torah, not its author. Jesus implicitly makes the latter claim for Himself, which is the reason He is speaking from the mountain (verse 1).

Thus, Jesus understands the prohibition against murder not simply as an injunction against taking someone’s life, but as an interdiction excluding all acts of anger and violence, including speech and even thought (verse 22). This teaching is given in detail and at some length, as Matthew portrays Jesus as the Teacher of the Church. He teaches with authority (7:29).

In the present case—dealing with anger—the teaching of Jesus is consistent with standard Old Testament moral doctrine, especially in the Wisdom literature (Proverbs 6:14, 34; 14:17, 29; 15:1, 18; 16:14, 32; 19:19; 27:4; cf. James 1:19–20).

The context of this prohibition against anger and violence is the Christian Church, a point indicated by the references to the “brother” (verses 22, 23, 24). Indeed, these admonitions are set within the context of the Church’s Eucharistic worship (verse 24). This is clearer, perhaps, in the Didache, a Syrian work roughly contemporary with Matthew: “But every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one who is at odds with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned” (Didache 14). In short, love is superior to sacrifice (12:7; Mark 12:33–34).

Reconciliation must be made “quickly” (verse 25), so that the conflict does not grow out of hand. The “imprisonment” in this section refers to the divine judgment, as it does in the parable of the unforgiving servant (18:34–35).

The teaching of these verses implicitly contrasts contention with love. For Jesus and the New Testament, love is the true fulfillment of the Torah (22:40). For this reason, it is important to understand what is meant by love and not to be confused by its counterfeits. This consideration forms the sequence to the next contrast.

Friday, January 15

Matthew 5:31-42: In a third contrast between Gospel righteousness and that of the scribe and Pharisee, the subject is the taking of oaths. Whereas the Mosaic Law prohibits perjury—an imprecation in testimony to a lie (Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 5:11)—Gospel righteousness forbids oaths in testimony to the truth.

The examples given in these verses, particularly that related to one’s own head (verse 36), contain some measure of disguise or subterfuge, to avoid using God’s name explicitly (“heaven,” “earth,” “Jerusalem”—verse 34; cf. 23:16-22). This suggests an “unofficial” context for the prohibition. In solemn and more formal settings, after all, such as a courtroom, there would be no such disguising of the references to God’s holy name.

In fact, this is how the ethical tradition of the Church has interpreted the prohibition of oaths—that is, as pertaining to ordinary conversation, not a more solemn setting in which an oath is reasonable and expected. Thus, we observe the Apostle Paul’s complete lack of scruple in this matter (cf. Romans 1:9; 2 Corinthians 1:23; Philippians 1:8; 1 Thessalonians 2:5). The Church has followed suit, not understanding this prohibition in the same strict sense as the prohibition against divorce.

The point of the prohibition is to avoid frivolous, unnecessary, and irreverent appeals to God, no matter how such appeals may be disguised. Invocations of this sort encroach on the realm of the divine, and the biblical Lord would be treated with the same nonchalance that pagans felt toward the Homeric gods. Oaths of this kind are irreverent to the divine presence, much like the uncovered head of a woman in prayer. Such oaths—frivolous invocations to the divine truth as guarantor of human claims—demean the divine majesty by forcing God to participate in a merely human conversation. Gospel righteousness recognizes the insult implied in such behavior and such an attitude.

The Lord’s prohibition of oaths extends and perfects the Mosaic proscription against taking the Lord’s name “in vain” (that is, on behalf of a false assertion) and strengthens the Old Testament’s care to reverence the holiness of God’s name (Leviticus 19:12). In this sense Jesus’ prohibition goes to the root of the divine intention in the Torah, much as His prohibition of divorce and adulterous thoughts more profoundly asserts what the Old Testament says of the sanctity of marriage.

In addition, the Lord’s injunction here forces the believer to assume full responsibility for the “truth content” of what he says (verse 37; cf. James 5:12; 1 Corinthians 1:19). He cannot evade this moral responsibility by a casual invocation of the supernatural. Such invocations, says Jesus, are far from harmless; they come “from the Evil One” (ek tou Ponerou), from whom we pray to be delivered (apo tou Ponerou–6:13).

Finally, let us note that the Lord Himself declined the high priest’s adjuration to swear to His own divinity (26:63, in Matthew only).