November 24 – December 1

Friday, November 24

2 Chronicles 35: Although 2 Kings 23:21-23 tells of the Passover observed in Jerusalem in the year that the scroll was discovered, the account of that same celebration here in Chronicles is far more ample and detailed. Indeed, verses 2-18 of the present chapter are peculiar to the Chronicler.

Josiah entrusted the organization and preparation for this feast to the ever-reliable Levites, who were especially charged with the actual slaying of the paschal lambs (verses 3-5). At each part of the ritual the Levites performed their sundry duties as assistants, musicians, and doorkeepers (verses 10-15).

So great was Josiah’s celebration of Passover that the Chronicler’s mind was forced back to the time of Samuel to find its equal (verse 18). For two reasons this high estimate is unexpected. First, it makes Josiah’s celebration of Passover eclipse notable Passover celebrations of David, Solomon, and Hezekiah. Second, it suggests a liturgical standard in the pre-monarchical period, a time about which, as we have seen, the Chronicler had fairly little to say at the beginning of the book. These considerations render the Chronicler’s assessment very surprising.

The Chronicler is careful to note that this Passover celebration involved “all Judah and Israel” (verse 18). Josiah’s ability to bring together the entire Chosen People, all the descendents of those who celebrated that first Passover on the night before the Exodus, indicates the recent political changes in the Fertile Crescent. Obviously no one was any longer afraid of what the Assyrians might think.

It is very significant of Josiah’s thinking, moreover, that the remnants of the northern tribes were invited to the feast, as Hezekiah had done in the previous century. The Passover was not just any feast. It was the feast in which Israel was separated from all other peoples of the earth. It was the feast that rendered Israel God’s Chosen People. Therefore, it was preeminently the feast of the unity of the People of God.

Being restricted to Jerusalem, Josiah’s celebration of the feast, we observe, corresponded to the prescription of Deuteronomy, which we believe to have formed, at least in part, the scroll so recently discovered. In that text it was commanded, “You may not offer the Passover sacrifice within any of your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, but at the place that the Lord your God will choose, to make his name dwell in it, there you shall offer the Passover sacrifice” (Deuteronomy 16:5-6 ESV).

Perhaps more than any other feast in the liturgical calendar, Passover roots Israel’s worship in the concrete, documented facts of history. The annual feast itself is part of the historical continuity inaugurated by the events remembered on that holiest of nights. Israel represents, in this respect, a religious adherence profoundly different from that of the religions of India, which involve various efforts to escape from history into some kind of experience transcendent to history. Israel’s worship does not endeavor to escape the flow of history but to place the worshippers into the People’s historical identity established by historical events. Those who keep this feast become one with those who have always kept it, including those who stood to eat the Passover on that first night, protected by the sprinkled blood of the paschal lambs.

The proper celebration of the Passover, however, is more than a “then and now.” The “then and now” forms only the two extremes of the greater continuity. The full continuity is also important, because this feast is essentially an inherited feast, and the inheritance is received, not simply from the distant past, but from the more immediate past of the previous generation of worshippers.
What was true of Israel’s celebration of the paschal feast is, of course, likewise true of that new Pascha celebrated by Christians (in the identical historical continuity, for those Israelites were our own forefathers!). This is how we should understand the words of the Apostle Paul, who wrote to the Corinthians at Passover season, “Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast” (1 Corinthians 5:7-8).
The closing verses (20-27) of this chapter bring us to the year 609, when the final remnants of the Assyrian army were destroyed at the Battle of Carcemish. Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, had fallen to the allied forces of the Medes and Babylonians three years earlier in 612 (to the great joy of the prophet Nahum, who made this the theme of his book). In 610 the vestigial, refugee government of Assyria were driven out of Haran, at the top of the Fertile Crescent. The Assyrian situation had become desperate.
To the new pharaoh who took the throne of Egypt that very year, Neco II (610-594), this was not a good development. He felt certain that the Babylonians, after they finished off the Assyrians, would begin to cast its gaze down toward the southwestern border of the Fertile Crescent. Deciding to cast in his lot with the remaining forces of Assyria, Neco marched his army northwards along the coastal road through the Carmel range, heading toward a rendezvous with the Assyrians at Carchemish on Euphrates River, with the hope that with joined forces they might stop the march of the Babylonians and the Medes.
This road lay, of course, right through the territory of Judah, and Josiah was forced to make some determination about the matter. Perhaps recalling that his great-grandfather Hezekiah had been friendly toward Babylon (32:31), and certainly remembering all that the Holy Land had suffered at the hands of the Assyrians, Josiah determined to throw in his lot with Babylon and resolved to march counter to Pharaoh Neco and stop him from reaching Carchemish. When their two armies met at a crossroads on the plain beneath Armageddon, the “hill of Megiddo,” King Josiah perished in the battle.
Whereas in 2 Kings this story is told in two and a half verses (23:28-30a), the Chronicler provides a longer, more detailed, more colorful account. According to this account Pharaoh Neco tried to dissuade Josiah from fighting him, claiming even the will, protection, and providence of God for the side of the Egyptians (verse 21). What is important here is not the nature of Neco’s claim, but the fact that the Chronicler apparently agreed with it (verse 22). In the narrator’s eyes, this was one more occasion when a king of Judah refused to pay heed to a message from on high, with disastrous results for the kingdom. He will summarize this theme in the next chapter (36:15-16).
Saturday, November 25
2 Chronicles 36: Whereas 2 Kings (23:31—25:21) devotes 58 verses to narrating the history of Judah after the death of Josiah, the Chronicler needs only a dozen verses to describe the same period (609-587 B.C.). It was a miserable time, easily summarized, and the Chronicler was not disposed to dwell on it.

As we have suggested, Josiah’s own motives may have been mixed when he determined to attack the invading army of Pharaoh Neco. The decline of the Assyrian Empire, a process requiring two decades until its fall, had created something of a political vacuum in the western half of the Fertile Crescent. In Judah itself at least one political faction favored the rise of Babylon, and this faction apparently included Josiah himself. The books of 2 Kings and Jeremiah indicate the emergence of another party that preferred an alliance with Egypt. One side or the other would prevail, because it was becoming evident to everyone that Judah’s days of political independence were at an end.

The first part of the present chapter (verses 1-10) illustrate the political struggles in which these competing forces worked themselves out. Josiah at his death was not succeeded by his eldest son Jehoiakim. A popular uprising, apparently motivated by pro-Babylonian sympathies, gave the crown to another son, Jehoahaz/Eliakim (verse 1). Within three months, however, Pharaoh Neco intervened and took this son hostage into Egypt. To replace him on the throne of Judah he chose the older son, Jehoiakim, who was perhaps more favorable, and certainly more acceptable, to Egypt (verses 2,4,5). The annual tribute that Judah paid to Egypt made manifest the de facto subjugation of Judah (verse 3).

After eleven years, nonetheless, Babylon decided to make its move on the southwest end of the Fertile Crescent, deposing Jerhoiakim and replacing him with his son Jehoiakin (verses 6-9). (In verse 9 read “eighteen” instead of “eight,” following the Greek manuscripts and 2 Kings 24:8). Within three months the Babylonians found the latter also unacceptable, so he was deposed and replaced by his uncle, Zedekiah (verses 10-11), the youngest son of Josiah. (In verse 10 he is called Jehoiakin’s “brother,” but this noun is to be understood in the normal biblical sense of “kinsman.” Only rarely does the word “brother” carry in Semitic languages the strict and limited sense that it has in English.)

The Chronicler especially blames Zedekiah for ignoring the sound counsel of Jeremiah, the last of the pre-exilic prophets. Indeed, the entire leadership of the nation is charged with polluting the Temple (verse 14), apparently with various forms of both idolatry and neglect, an indictment found only in the Chronicler.

In addition, the Chronicler speaks of two pre-exilic spoliations of the vessels of the Temple by the Babylonians (only one of which is mentioned in 2 Kings 23:13). These sacred vessels of the worship thus suffer, as it were, an early captivity in Babylon. (The Book of Ezra will give much attention to their return.)

The Chronicler perceived such defilements of the Temple and its worship, by both the Chosen People and their enemies, to attack the very being of Israel. Eviscerating the very reason for Israel’s existence, these defilements led inevitably to the downfall of Jerusalem.

The Chronicler indicts the leaders of Judah for their sustained refusal to take seriously the warnings of the messengers whom the Lord who “sent warnings to them . . . , rising up early and sending” (verse 15). This quaint latter expression the Chronicler took straight out of the Book of Jeremiah, where it is common (7:13,25; 25:3,4; 26:5; 29:10; 35:15; 44:4; cf. 11:7; 32:33), though it appears nowhere else in Holy Scripture.

The Chronicler, even as he invokes the prophetic literature against his countrymen, appeals to the Wisdom literature by accusing them of mockery (mal‘bim), contempt (bozim) and scoffing (mitta‘t‘im) (verse 16). That is to say, the leaders of Judah have proved themselves to be the consummate “fools,” who not only refuse to receive instruction but treat with malice those who would instruct them. Against such as these, says the Chronicler, there is no remedy.

As our reading of Chronicles would lead us to expect, Jerusalem’s fall is described chiefly in terms of the Temple (verses 17,19) and its sacred vessels (verse 18).

Judah’s exile in Babylon lasted until 517 B.C. (verse 20), exactly seventy years from Jerusalem’s fall in 587. The Chronicler notes that Jeremiah (25:12) prophesied this detail (verse 21). That number, seventy, serves in the Bible as a kind of ironic Sabbath, because during all this period it is a fact that the land lay fallow and no one worked on it.

Because there was no Temple, active priesthood, nor sacrifice during the seventy years of the Babylonian Captivity, that period held no interest for the Chronicler. He skipped it completely and went straight to the downfall of Babylon and the return of the exiles in the Book of Ezra.

In a later editing the Book of Chronicles were separated from Ezra and Nehemiah, which had originally served as a narrative sequence, and became the final works in the Hebrew Scriptures. Hence, this became the last page of the Hebrew Bible. When this editing was done, the opening verses of the Book of Ezra were borrowed and added to the end of Chronicles, an arrangement that permitted the Hebrew Bible to end on a positive and optimistic note.

Sunday, November 26

Esther 1: The account of Esther commences with an emperor and his empire. This emperor’s original—Persian—name was Xšay?rš?. The Babylonians called him Achshiyarshu, which gave rise to the Hebrew version in the Massoretic text, Akhashverosh. Jerome, in his Latin translation from Hebrew, transliterated this to Ahasuerus, the name maintained in most English translations of Holy Scripture. In the LXX this emperor is known as Artaxerxes. From the Book of Esther it is not clear whether this is Artaxerxes I (465-424) or Artaxerxes II (404-359). The question of his identity does not matter in the slightest to our understanding of the book. For what the author of the Book of Esther has to say, it could be either man . . . or neither.

Ahasuerus is, and remains, the utterly dominant figure throughout the Book of Esther. Because he is the most predictable, he is also the least interesting. From the opening verses we learn several things about him.

First, Ahasuerus assumes the place of God. While it has long been noted that God (or prayer or anything religious) is no so much as mentioned in this book, it has only more recently become clear that Ahasuerus, in this narrative, has become God’s “replacement.” He is a political god, providing the sort of idolatry, Tertullian observed, that is most dangerous. Ahasuerus is portrayed as all powerful; his personal will is the source of all law, and everyone in the story is dependent on his favor.

Ahasuerus rules over all the earth—at least over all the earth considered in this book; “this was the Ahasuerus,” we are told, “who reigned over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces, from India to Ethiopia.” These two regions lie directly outside the extreme southern points of the Fertile Crescent.

If it seems that the biblical author is making fun of this emperor, let me suggest that the impression is accurate. Artaxerxes is portrayed, throughout this book, as a consummate buffoon. When things go badly, the cause can normally be traced to some royal decision or decree. When things go well, the emperor is never the cause of it. Throughout the book, the all-powerful king fails to make a single wise decision. Later in this chapter, for instance, he will forbid Queen Vashti to come into count, as a punishment for her failure to come into court!

This book is both a comedy and a tragedy, both a farce and a melodrama. The author seems to have his tongue in his cheek most of the time. It is a book to be enjoyed. Only after the reader has appreciated the humor should he start to look at its themes more seriously.

In the Hebrew text the emperor begins the action by hosting two large banquets. Let us note here, in passing, that this format of two banquets will find its parallel, near the end of the book, in two suppers hosted by Esther herself.

The first banquet is for all the “officials and servants—the powers of Persia and Media, the nobles, and the princes of the provinces” of the large realm. The purpose of this feast was for the emperor to show off “the riches of his glorious kingdom and the splendor of his excellent majesty.” As it turned out, these riches were so extensive that it required 180 days for these political officials to see them all. Evidently the workings of the empire were sufficiently stable that all the regions were able to dispense with local government for six months! The reader begins to suspect that there is something farcical about this story. As we go along, we shall observe other evidence to support this suspicion.

The second banquet is, in its further details, even more impressive. We observe, for instance, that it is held for seven days and in a garden: “And when these days were completed, the king made a feast lasting seven days for all the people who were present in Shushan the citadel, from great to small, in the court of the garden of the king’s palace.”

Monday, November 27

Esther 2: When a man in power—especially in that absolute power which, as Lord Acton commented, “corrupts absolutely”—is also given to drunkenness and anger, the last thing he needs is to be surrounded by those who cater to his every whim. Alas for Ahasuerus, who has only “yes men” about him. In the previous chapter his royal cabinet, the lords of the realm, prompted him to promulgate a universal decree that probably put the entire empire into turmoil. Now, he takes counsel from the private chamberlains, those who take care of the business of his household. On the basis of their advice he issues yet another edict: “Round up all of the good-looking young women!” Thus, the quest for a new queen begins with an expansion of the king’s harem, an enterprise requiring the full apparatus of the empire.

This chapter introduces the story’s true servants of God, Mordecai and his younger cousin Esther. The order is significant, inasmuch as Mordecai is portrayed as the “thinker” in the story that follows.

He is said to be “a Jew . . . the son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, a Benjamite.” The expression “son of Jair” (ben Ya’ir) is simply Mordecai’s patronymic. The other names mentioned, however, appear not to refer to his immediate ancestry. They serve, rather, to tie Mordecai to the larger context of biblical history and literature.

First, the author seems to evoke the beginning of the Book of Job, which declared, “A man there was in the land of Uz”—’ish haya be’eretz Uts. The author of Esther writes, ’ish Yechudi haya beshushan, “a man there was in Shushan, a Jew.” This term, Yechudi, by the period represented in the present book, does not necessarily refer to someone from the tribe of Judah; “Jew” has become a standard reference to any Israelite, since the major remaining group of Israelites in the world was made up of the tribe of Judah.

Second, Mordecai’s ancestry goes back, in fact, through the tribe of Benjamin, the only other Israelite tribe to adhere politically to the tribe of Judah when Israel divided into two kingdoms in 922 BC. The descendents of Benjamin were rather proud of their distinctive ancestry among those called “Jews.” One of them, for instance, proclaimed himself to be “a Jew” (Galatians 2:14; cf. 2 Corinthians 1:15), “of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5).

Third, one of Mordecai’s forefathers was Kish, the father of King Saul (1 Samuel 9:1). His paternal line likewise included Shimei, another relative of Saul (cf. 2 Samuel 16:5). Our author, by introducing this more ancient ancestry, particularly Mordecai’s biological connection to King Saul, prepares the reader for the historical significance of his contest with Haman a little later in the story. We shall see how the story of Mordecai is related to the memory of Saul, the Benjaminite who served as Israel’s first king.

As for Esther, who is described as Mordecai’s cousin and ward, she is “fair in form and lovely to see.” One is reminded, not only of the other beautiful women described in the Bible, but also of the Beloved in the Song of Solomon, the beautiful woman whom the Rabbis identified as Israel. In this respect, Esther is likened to the heroine Judith, to whom she is often joined in the memory of the Church. Both women are vanquishers of the enemies of Israel. In fact, the orphaned Esther symbolizes the homeless Chosen People, foreign and forlorn in the land of Persia.

Tuesday, November 28

Esther 3: Although one might expect the next stage of the story to tell of the king’s promotion of Mordecai as an expression of the royal gratitude, it speaks, rather, of the favor bestowed an a completely different person—a stranger to the reader—someone named Haman. The irony is obvious.

Everything we need to know about Haman, at this point in the story, is conveyed in the brief identification of him as “the son of Hammedatha the Agagite.” The author expects us to remember that Agag was the king of the Amalekites, the monarch whose end is recorded in 1 Samuel 15. From that older account we know that Saul, Mordecai’s distant relative, had defeated Agag in battle. Consequently, we readers, knowing of the “bad blood” between these two families, should pay close attention to this sudden appearance of this “Agagite” in a story about a relative of Saul. It is an ominous sign. Even before he tells anything else about Haman, we sense that our author is setting the scene for a “grudge match.”

Mordecai, for his part, immediately perceives the appearance of Haman as a serious challenge to his integrity. When a royal decree is proclaimed that the king’s new appointee, when he passes through the city gate, must be universally greeted with a deep bow, Esther’s uncle demurs. No bow for Haman, he resolves. No Jew is going to bow before an Amalekite; the thing is unthinkable.

In refusing to bow to Haman, Mordecai is moved by a deep and disturbing memory. He recalls that God’s People, in olden times, had just managed to escape the clutches of Pharaoh when “Amalek came and fought with Israel in Rephidim.” At that time, after Israel’s army defeated the Amalekites while Moses prayed on top of the hill, the Lord Himself pronounced the curse that summed up what He thought of this enemy: “I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.” The Lord, indeed, went even further, dictating what Israel took to be the proper attitude, at all times, with respect to the Amalekites: “the Lord fights with Amalek from generation to generation” (Exodus 17:8-15). Mordecai is keenly aware of representing the current generation, and he determines to “do his bit.”
Mordecai also knows that his distant relative, King Saul, failed to implement that curse against Amalek. When Samuel invoked the relevant curse with respect to Agag, Saul spared the life of Agag, disobeying the prophetic injunction, and the Lord rejected Saul for this disobedience (1 Samuel 15:1-20). Mordecai, remembering the disobedience of his distant relaltive, is determined not to repeat it. No, Saul was rejected for treating Agag with mercy, Mordecai is certainly not about to demonstrate public obeisance to this son of Agag. Saul was rejected for not doing something. Mordecai is not about to be rejected for doing something. Bow down to Haman? Forget it; it won’t happen.
Haman, meanwhile, his head held high over the prostrate forms of those who did him homage on his entrance to the city, fails to notice the solitary figure of Mordecai, who remains seated at the gate. However, two of the king’s servants take note of it and become alarmed; this kind of behavior is not safe.
Indeed, it is rebellious. Everyone remembers the fate of Vashti when that unfortunate lady declined to obey the command of Ahasuerus. Now here is this Mordecai, sitting down, each day, in flagrant defiance of a royal decree. Vashti’s disregard for he husband’s authority, it was feared, would incite other women to a similar disrespect in their own homes. How much more will this defiance on the part of Mordecai provoke a spirit of rebellion in those who learn of it. This Jew, then, must be warned.
The two servants approach Mordecai several times for an explanation. ‘Sorry,’ he says, ‘I can’t do it. I am a Jew, and that’s that. You Persians would not understand, and it would take too long to explain it to you. But believe me, no homage for Haman.’ The servants, probably afraid they would be held liable for permitting Mordecai rebellious, bring the matter to Haman’s attention.

Wednesday, November 29

Revelation 8:1-13:

In the present text, the immediate response to the opening of the seventh seal is silence in heaven for thirty minutes (verse 1), while the angels with the seven trumpets prepare themselves (verses 2,6), and the throne room is ritually incensed (verse 3). The silence that accompanies the incensing provides a time for prayers to be offered, the ascending of which is symbolized in the rising incense smoke (cf. Luke 1:9-10; Exodus 30:1-9; Talmud, “Tamid” 3.1). In the temple ritual of Israel, it is likely that thirty minutes was required for the priest to make the rounds of the temple with his censer, though it sometimes took longer (cf. Luke 1:21).

We should also observe here that the altar of incense is the only altar in heaven (6:9; 9:13; 14:18; 16:7); there is no altar of holocausts in heaven because the purpose of that altar in Israel’s ancient temple was fulfilled by the Cross, where the definitive Sacrifice was offered for the sins of the world.

The trumpets, moreover, will be sounded by the seven “angels of the Presence” (cf. Tobit 12:15; Luke 1:19). The trumpets themselves are best understood in two points of reference: First, there were seven trumpets sounded in the procession around the walls of Jericho in Joshua 6. It is useful to bear in mind that the Ark of the Covenant was borne at the end of that procession, after the seven trumpets. Similarly, at the end of the sounding of the seventh trumpet in the Book of Revelation, the Ark of the Covenant will once again appear (cf. 11:15,19).

In addition, that event of the fall of Jericho was given a constant liturgical expression in the ritual of the Jerusalem temple by the sounding of the trumpets (1 Chronicles 15:24; Nehemiah 12:4-42). Almost any time anything of significance happened in the worship at the temple, such as prayers, sacrifices, and so forth, the trumpets were sounded. Thus, the blare of the trumpet symbolized Israel’s constant and sustained worship of God. This is also the function of the trumpets here in Revelation 8.

The blowing of the seven trumpets parallels the opening of the seven seals in several close particulars. Thus, the first four trumpets form a unified whole (verses 7-12), as did the first four seals (6:1-8). As in the case of the fifth and sixth seals (6:9-17), the fifth and sixth trumpets will be expressed in a longer and separate narrative (9:1-21). Finally, a pair of visions will precede the sounding of the seventh trumpet (10:1—11:14), as another pair preceded the opening of the seventh seal (7:1-17).

In addition, by introducing various plagues upon the earth, the seven trumpets find another extensive parallel in the seven bowls of plague that will follow them. Finally, let us note that the plagues visited on the earth at the sounding of the trumpets, like the plagues visited on Egypt, do not touch those who, having been sealed, belong to God.

Thursday, November 30

Feast of Saint Andrew: If a Bible-reader takes the care to notice him, the Apostle Andrew is among the most attractive individuals in all of Holy Scripture. A certain measure of careful attention is necessary to lay hold of this fact,
nonetheless, for Andrew does not really “put himself forward.” He does
not come bounding forth impetuously from the biblical page, so to speak, like a David, a Moses, or a Paul. Indeed, this disinclination to draw explicit attention to himself is one of the very features that render Andrew so attractive.

To appreciate this quiet, self-effacing aspect of Andrew it may be useful to contrast him, in this respect, to his bolder, more emphatic brother, the Apostle Peter. Peter most certainly does draw attention to himself, which may be one of the reasons that he is invariably named first when the original Apostles are listed (cf. Mark 3:17–19; Acts 1:13; etc.). In the memory of the early Church, Peter would have been extremely difficult to overlook. He appears in Holy Scripture very much as an in-your-face apostle, if the term be allowed. It was he, after all, who flung himself into the lake and swam toward the risen Jesus, while the others came rowing to shore in their boats (John 21:7–8). On that
occasion Peter was at least swimming toward the Lord and not attempting,
as he had earlier done, to walk to Him on the surface of the water (Matthew 14:28–31).

Although Peter often served as a spokesman for the others (cf. Matthew 19:27; Mark 1:36), one has the impression that he sometimes went out of his way to distinguish himself, to set himself apart, from the rest of the Apostles—“Even if all are made to stumble, yet I will not be” (Mark 14:29). A consummate alpha personality, Peter simply cannot be overlooked; like the very sun, a boisterous giant rejoicing to run his course, there is nothing hidden from his heat.

In his brother Andrew we find none of this. Andrew, on the contrary, appears not to draw attention to himself, but serves entirely as a conduit for others to come to the Lord. Even in that scene that prompts the Church to remember him as the first-called, he immediately went to share his blessing with his sibling. It is no wonder that he was known among the first Christians simply as “Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother” (cf. John 1:38–42).

As the first-called of the Church, then, Andrew was apparently recognized
to enjoy a kind of special access to the Lord. Thus, when the Greek-speaking visitors to Jerusalem approached Philip (besides Andrew, the only other apostle with a Greek name) saying, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” Philip went first to Andrew so that the two of them might together facilitate that meeting (John 12:21–22). Evidently Philip felt the need to have the helpful, accessible Andrew by his side at that time.

In all the Gospels, however, there is one scene that seems most clearly to reveal this trait of friendly, relaxed availability in Andrew, and that scene is in John’s narrative of the multiplication of the loaves. Of the six New Testament stories on this theme, only John tells us of the special role of Andrew: “One of His disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to Him, ‘There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two small fish, but what are they among so many?’” (John 6:8–9).

Now, the attentive reader of Holy Scripture should be asking a question of the text at this point, namely, just how did Andrew know that there was a little boy present who was carrying those particular pieces of food? It is unlikely, after all, that a small boy would be holding all seven items in his hands at the same time. The five barley loaves and two little fish must have been carried in a sack of some sort. The lad was part of a large multitude that had been with Jesus for some days (Matthew 15:32), and his mother had packed him several meals in a lunch bag. By now, he has already eaten most of that food—the fresh fruit and sweets are gone, for instance. All the lad has left in that sack are five barley loaves, possibly a tad beyond their prime, and a couple of salted fish.

So how did Andrew know what was contained in that little boy’s bag? Surely the answer is obvious. He noticed the child standing near him, maybe alone, perhaps a bit distracted, and he simply asked in a cordial, engaging way, “Say there, son, what all did your mama pack for you in that bag?” From such friendly inquiries are missions and ministries begun, and miracles born.

Friday, December 1

Luke 20:9-19: The parable of the vine-growers—listed prominently in Jesus’
teaching during the last week of his earthly life—provides a sharp, defining outline of how he came to understand, not only his ministry to his contemporaries, but also his larger significance in the history of Israel. It illustrates how Jesus thought about his mission and destiny. No other of his parables, I believe, contains such an obviously “autobiographical” perspective.

This parable of the vine-growers, in which the sending of God’s Son is presented as the defining moment of history, may be regarded as an extension of what Jesus said when he first preached on Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth: “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). In the story of the vine-growers, we see the clearest evidence that Jesus addressed, in his own heart, the large dimensions of his destiny.

As to the meaning of the “vineyard,” the explanatory note in Isaiah left no doubt: “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, / And the men of Judah are His pleasant plant” (Isaiah 5:7). The “vineyard” has the same meaning in Jesus’ parable.

Jesus’ parable narrates the history of Israel in terms of God’s expectations: “Now when vintage-time drew near, he sent his servants to the vinedressers, that they might receive its fruit.” This feature of the vineyard, too, Jesus took from Isaiah, who declared that God “expected it to bring forth grapes” (Isaiah 5:2).

The narrative arrives at its culminating point, which is the mission of the Son. In Luke, as in Mark (12:6), the son in the parable is described as “my beloved,” agapetos mou, the same expression the Father used to address Jesus at both his baptism and his Transfiguration.

This identical expression—agapetos mou—is found, likewise, in the Septuagint (Greek) version of Isaiah’s poem—“My beloved has a vineyard.” Here agapetos mou translates Isaiah’s Hebrew expression dódi, “my beloved.” Jesus’ parable, then, identifies the son as the “my beloved” in Isaiah’s poem. It is to him that the vineyard truly belongs, because he is the heir. He is the son with regard to God, and the heir with regard to Israel’s history.

This, then, is Jesus’ interpretation of both his mission and his coming death: He is the “heir” of the ancient ministry of the prophets. Because of this, says Jesus, the unfaithful vine-growers “cast him out of the vineyard and killed him” (20:15). He sees that his own murder will be the culminating crime in Israel’s continued rejection of God and his messengers.