November 9 – November 16, 2018

Friday, November 9

1 Thessalonians 3:1-13: The two verbs “strengthen” and “encourage” (sterixsai, parakalesai) (verse 2) are used fairly often in the New Testament to describe what Christians are supposed to do for one another. Indeed, in the pastoral work of the early Christians, these are practically technical expressions for matters of duty. In addition to being used separately, they sometimes appear together in the writings of the two great missionaries who traveled together, Paul and Luke (Romans 1:11; 2 Thessalonians 2:17; Acts 14:22; 15:32).

Probably we should not try to find a distinction between the two verbs, as they are employed in such contexts. Their union is more likely a hendiadys, a way of saying something twice (as in “will and testament”). Strength and encouragement are the same thing, and it is very necessary to Christians (Luke 22:32; Revelation 3:2).

In the present text Paul relates this “strengthening” to faith (as also in Romans 1:11), because he is aware that our faith is always weak. To gain some idea of how little faith we have, it is useful to recall that faith the size of a mustard seed can move a mountain. In any case, it is imperative to strengthen the faith of others by our own faith. John Calvin remarked on this verse: “The fellowship that ought to exist among the saints and the members of Christ surely extends to this point, that the faith of the one proves the consolation of the other.”

According to Paul’s thought here, the Christian who encourages and strengthens other Christians is God’s “fellow laborer,” because he is doing God’s work This also implies, of course, that the Christian who discourages or weakens the faith of other Christians is really working against God.

We may list any number of ways by which we Christians encourage and strengthen one another: a kindly disposition, magnanimity, generosity, genuine and sympathetic interest in the lives of others, good example, a willingness to listen to others when they tell us their troubles. Likewise, there are all sorts of ways to discourage and weaken the faith of others: bad example, excessive criticism and pickiness, unwarranted challenging of the good will and intention of others, being mean minded and selfish.

Saturday, November 10

Luke 13:1-9: The lessons of the previous chapter stressed the necessity of repentance in advance of the historical judgment soon to be visited on Israel. Whereas the verses immediately before (12:57-59) and immediately after (verses 6-9) emphasize the shortness of time left for decision, the present pericope underlines the grave consequences of not repenting.

Here we have no parable but a couple of contemporary tragedies that convey the necessity for repentance.

First, Jesus is told of the incident in which Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, had recourse to violence in order to repress a sedition of Galileans (verse 1; Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews 18.85-89; The Jewish War 2.169-177). Were those that perished in that incident worse than anyone else? asks Jesus. Certainly not!

The example is particularly telling, inasmuch as Pilate represented the authority of Rome in the Holy Land. This story implies to the Jews what sort of treatment they may receive at the hands of the imperial forces, which the Lord of history is about to employ as a scourge on an unrepentant people. In the case of Israel too, the divine judgment willfall swiftly and without remorse (verse 3).

The second incident (verse 4), which is unrecorded outside of the Gospel of Luke, conveys the same message. Those that perished in the collapse of the tower were not sinful beyond their compatriots. Yet, destruction had come upon them quickly and unawares. The message is the same: Repent now and do no delay!

1 Thessalonians 4:1-8: Paul prays that the Thessalonians will abound more and more (verses 1-2). This idea of growth is frequent in Paul, for whom the Christian condition of justification is less a “state” than the dynamic possibility of growth in the Holy Spirit. The word “more” (mallon) appears seven times in Romans, eight times in 1 Corinthians, twice in 2 Corinthians, five times in Philippians, once each in Galatians, Ephesians, 1 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and twice in the tiny letter to Philemon.

This frequency of a simple adverb suggests something of how Paul experienced the life in Christ. It had no limits, neither in knowledge nor in love. He does not, therefore, attempt to “define” a disciple of Christ, because to “define” means to “determine the limits of.” Belonging to Christ is limitless, because Christ Himself is limitless.

For this reason St. John Chrysostom comments on this verse, comparing the soul to fertile soil: “For as the earth ought to bear not only what is so upon it, so too the soul ought not to stop at those things that have been inculcated, but to go beyond them.”

The image of the seed sown on the earth is a famous one, of course. The Lord’s parable of the sower is only one of its uses.

Sunday, November 11

Like 13:10-21: Hardness of heart can be found even in the house of God. Quick to pass judgment on others and blinded by his own vicious, miserly spirit, this religious leader was unable to recognize the divine presence and the outpouring of grace. Devoid of mercy, we notice, he was also without courage. Consequently, instead of confronting Jesus directly, this coward had recourse to what had always worked for him in the past—he harangued the congregation about the woman herself!

It is often said—and said, I think, more often than is true—that churches are full of hypocrites.

Here was one occasion, however, when the Lord really did use that noun to describe someone in the place of worship. Unlike Eli, who failed to give a proper pastoral admonition to Elkanah, Jesus turned His not amused attention to this so-called ruler of the synagogue: “Hypocrite! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it?”

1 Thessalonians 4:9-18: The early Christian parishes had a strong sense of identity based on a negative attitude towards the society in which they lived. They realized that what Jesus meant was radically opposed to what the world stood for, and that the call to holiness, an essential feature of the life in Christ, required from them a radical break with their pagan past. Often enough this also meant, in practice, a break with their pagan friends (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

Thus, the local Christians congregations served as communities of support, because believers could find with one another a very real solidarity in those convictions that separated them from other people. We find in early Christian literature ample evidence these Christians felt a great gulf between “them” and “us.” The New Testament and other primitive Christian literature leave no doubt that the specifics of Christian existence were founded on a position of contrast with, and opposition to, the “world.”

Indeed, today’s reading uses a technical expression to designate non-Christians, hoi exso, “those outside” (verse 12). This was evidently a common term among the early believers (1 Corinthians 5:12-13; Colossians 4:5; Mark 4:11; cf. also Titus 2:7-8; 1 Timothy 3:7).

Christians at that period were enormously aware of their minority status among non-Christians, and they were careful how they impressed those non-Christians (1 Peter 2:12; 1 Corinthians 10:32-33; Matthew 5:16).

The picture that emerges of the Christian parishes during that early period is one of communities of sobriety, hard work, and a closely-knit bond of fraternal love (philadelphia). In today’s reading Paul stresses minding one’s own business and doing one’s own job becomingly and unobtrusively. There is no question of evangelizing one’s neighbor’s by aggressive approach or slick advertising. In the words of Tertullian, Non magna loquimur, sed vivimus—“We don’t talk big, but we live.”

Monday, November 12

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11: In this passage Paul deals with, among other subjects, the theme of vigilance. This was not a theme peculiar to Paul, but part of the common catechetical inheritance of the Church, going back to Jesus Himself (Mark 13:33-37). Being common, it is found in other New Testament writers as well (1 Peter 5:8; Revelation 3:2-3). When Paul speaks on this subject, therefore, he is saying something Christians generally expected him to say (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:13; Colossians 3:2).

The life in Christ includes a vigilant, heightened consciousness, a stimulated awareness, a certain kind of mindfulness, clear and sharp thinking, and intelligent questioning. This vigilance will have some trouble with the general sense of stupor common in contemporary culture, where piped-in music prevents a person from hearing his own thoughts, and great efforts are made in the advertising world to prevent us from seeing the complications of things. Every single project—from the offering of new deodorant on the market to the construction of a new bridge or road—involves an underlying philosophy and a set of metaphysical presuppositions. The alert mind will search out these things, for the simple reason that its adversary, the devil, goes about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.

Psalms 80 (Greek & Latin 79): In this psalm there are two chief metaphors for the Church: the flock and the vine. First, the Church is a flock. Thus this psalm commences: “Attend, O Shepherd of Israel, You who herd Joseph like sheep.” Holy Church is called “the flock of God,” awaiting the day “when the chief Shepherd appears” (1 Pet. 5:2, 4), who is elsewhere called “that great Shepherd of the sheep” (Heb. 13:20). Our psalm is the flock’s prayer for the appearing of that Shepherd. Left to their own devices, sheep have been known to get themselves terribly lost, and, as our psalm suggests, they are vulnerable to many predators.

Second, the Church is a vine: “You transplanted a vine out of Egypt; You drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the way before it; You planted its roots, and it filled the earth.” It is a catholic plant, this vine, for its branches spread everywhere: “Its shadow covered the mountains, and its boughs the cedars of God. It stretched out its limbs to the sea, and its tendrils to the rivers.”

The vine, however, is at least as vulnerable as a flock of sheep: “A boar from the forest has ravaged it, and a wild beast has eaten it up.” Such things do happen to the Church, of course, whether from imprisonment at Philippi, beatings and dissensions at Corinth, heresy in Galatia, the synagogue of Satan at Smyrna, or the deeds of the Nicolaitans at Ephesus and Pergamum. It is against such beastly ravages that the Church prays this psalm.

Tuesday, November 13

Luke 14:1-6: Whereas Mark places this episode in a synagogue, Luke sets it in the home of a Pharisee. Luke also leaves out (1) Mark’s mention of Jesus’ anger and (2) the resolve of the Pharisees, on this occasions, to begin plotting Jesus’ death.

Everyone is watching his every move, trying to discover something for which they can accuse him. They watch him more closely when they observe his approach to the man with the withered hand. Will he heal this man on the Sabbath?

The hearts of these people are full of hatred. They have no compassion for the crippled man. They have no interest in his being healed, and they are not happy when he is healed. Their hearts of filled with hatred.

These enemies of Jesus illustrate here an interesting phenomenon, which has been called “Id-evil,” an expression coined by from the Slovenian sociologist, Slavoh Zizek, who wrote of it in his book, The Fragile Absolute.

Zizek describes this Id-evil as a deep, unformed instinct toward hatred and cruelty. He describes it as a “non-functional cruelty.” That is to say, it is not a cruelty directed to any purpose except the cruelty itself. Zizak speaks of it as “a violence grounded in no utilitarian or ideological cause. It has neither cause nor purpose beyond itself.

This concept seems to embrace what the Bible calls “hardness of heart.” The spiritual danger this poses to the human soul prompts the Psalmist to exhort believers, “if today you hear [God’s] voice, harden not your hearts.”

The Greek noun used here is porosis, “hardness.” This expression comes from another Greek word, poros, which refers to tuff stone, the kind of stone left by the consolidation of volcanic ash. It takes a long time—centuries, even millennia—for this kind of stone to take shape as a hardened product. The combination of heat and pressure serve as a kind of kiln to harden this rock.

Applied as a metaphor to describe the inner attitude of Jesus’ critics, we should think of a petrified heart.

Wednesday, November 14

Psalm 81 (Greek & Latin 80): This psalm, prescribing the blowing of this ram’s trumpet in the context of liturgical worship, links the context to the singular events of the Exodus:

Rejoice in God our helper, raise an ovation to the God of Jacob. Raise the song and roll the drum; strum the dulcet lyre and play the lute. Intone the trumpet of the New Moon, the famed day of your feast. For a command is ordained unto Israel, a decree of the God of Jacob. He made it a statute to Joseph, when he went out of the land of Egypt and heard a tongue he did not know.

Literary historians still debate which specific liturgical feast day formed the original context of Psalm 81, since trumpets seem to have been played on many of ancient Israel’s feast days (cf. Numbers 10:10). But this historical question is of no solid significance to the proper praying of this psalm. It suffices to know that our theme is the Exodus from Egyptian servitude.

All our prayer, after all, is the fruit of the Exodus. That is to say, all our worship of God is rooted in our deliverance from demonic slavery by His gracious redemptive hand. It is “to the praise of the glory of His grace” (Eph. 1:6) that He has saved us. Of each of us, then, it is proper to say that God “unfettered his back from the burdens and took from his hands the basket of bondage.”

According to Exodus (2:23–25; 3:8–10; 4:31, etc.), our deliverance is itself God’s response to prayer. Likewise in this psalm the Lord says: “You called upon Me in distress, and I delivered you. I answered you from the eye of the storm.” These words, which resonate with the tempestuous scene in Exodus 19:18 and 20:18, are uniquely and perhaps more forcefully expressed in the original Hebrew: ’e‘nka bseter ra‘am—“I heard you in the hiding place of thunder.”

Israel’s infidelity to the covenant during that lengthy desert wandering subsequent to her Exodus from Egypt remains the Bible’s perpetual admonition to the Church (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1–11; Heb. 3:12—4:2). Therefore this psalm contains both promise and warning for God’s people: “But My people heard not My voice, nor did Israel give heed to Me. So I dismissed them to their hearts’ desires; they shall walk in their own pursuits. If only My people would hear Me, and Israel would walk in My ways, I would humble their enemies at once, and take in hand their tormenters. The foes of the Lord will fawn before Him, and their doom will be eternal. But these folk has He fed with the finest of wheat, and with honey from the rock has He filled them.”

The sin to which we redeemed people are forever prone is that very idolatry from which the Lord has delivered us, that servitude to darkness from which “we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Eph. 1:7). Those idols seem forever to call us back, even after we have turned away from them “to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess. 1:9).

Thursday, November 15

2 Thessalonians 1:1-12: It has long been traditional among Christians to describe eternal loss in the imagery of fire. Such expressions are found in the Gospels, most liturgies, hymnography, and classical piety, from Book IV of the Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great to the sermons of Jonathan Edwards.

There is one important Christian thinker, however, who never does this—St. Paul. When Paul speaks of eternal loss, it is always in terms of the loss of God (verse 9).

Paul’s reasoning seems to run along these lines: Since the eternal life awaiting believers consists in being with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:17), eternal punishment must be the deprivation of that gift. Any other punishment must be secondary and of less importance.

The reason that Paul gives for the expulsion of the unjust from the Lord’s presence is that they do not know God (verse 8). Since such ignorance of God is proper to those who are lost, it cannot be just any kind of ignorance. After all, a great deal of human ignorance is faultless ignorance, ignorance for which no one is responsible or worthy of blame. Surely anyone that is eternally lost, however, is lost by his own fault. The person so lost has only himself to blame.

Consequently, the ignorance of God, concerning which Paul speaks here, must be, not only culpable ignorance, but seriously culpable ignorance. To be separated from God is an ultimate state; it can only be brought about by an ultimate decision. The damning ignorance of God, then must ignorance deliberately chosen, an ignorance in which the person deliberately prefers not to know. It is an ultimate decision not to know God, an ignorance identical with hardness of heart.

Psalms 83 (Greek & Latin 82): This psalm refers to many enemies of God’s People. Taken all at once, this list would describe a pretty impressive coalition of adversaries. Such a confederacy, in fact, never really came together against Israel. Moreover, at no point in Israel’s history did all of these forces even exist simultaneously. Our psalm is describing, rather, an ongoing general situation, not a specific historical event. Whoever the enemy happens to be at the moment, the servants of God live under constant threat of incursion. “Deliver us from the evil one” is ever a fitting petition.

In most of these names we recognize Israel’s real military enemies. Such are Moab, Ammon, and Amalek (cf. Judg. 3:12–30). The first two of these are likewise identical with “the sons of Lot.” Gebal was a city of the Philistines (cf. 1 Kin. 5:18), against whom Israel fought in many a battle. The Edomites are remembered in Holy Scripture for their participation in the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians (cf. Obadiah), and we will meet them again in Psalm 137. Hagar being the mother of Ishmael, the Hagrites and the Ishmaelites are apparently the same folk (cf. 1 Chr. 5:10, 18–22). Assyria, finally, was one of the cruelest and most loathed of Israel’s ancient foes (cf. Nahum).

A special feature of this list, nonetheless, indicates that the enmity involved is more than simply military. That element is the mention of the Phoenician capital of Tyre. Although Israel’s relationship with the Phoenicians may sometimes have been strained (cf. 1 Kin. 9:11–14), we have no evidence of any military hostility between them.

Nevertheless, from another and more spiritual perspective, it may be the case that Phoenicia, with its capitals at Tyre and Sidon, was the worst enemy that Israel ever had, because it was through the various economic and political alliances with the Phoenicians that Israel learned ever anew the ways of infidelity to God. Solomon’s early pacts with this nation paved the avenue by which the likes of Jezebel and Athaliah traveled south to teach Israel to sin, and opposition to Phoenician influence was a sustained feature of the prophetic message, from Elijah’s encounter with the servants of Baal (cf. 1 Kin. 18), through Amos’s condemnation of the Phoenician slave trade (cf. Amos 1:9), to Ezekiel’s lengthy tirade against their great economic empire (Ezek. 26—28).

Friday, November 16

Luke 14:25-35: This section of Luke, containing a series of dominical sayings relative to the cost of Christian discipleship, includes two parables not found outside of Luke (verses 28-33). Both parables, the tower-builder and the warring king, have to do with “counting the cost.” Good beginnings are all very well, of course, but the real test of the Christian life lies further down the road. Fervent and devout feelings, especially during the early stages of the life in Christ, must not be confused with a person’s true spiritual state. Feeling holy is not the same thing as being holy, and time will test all things. These two parables, then, convey much the same message as the parable of the ten maidens waiting for the bridegroom in Matthew 25; namely, the need to prepare for the “full distance” of the appointed task. The parable of the salt in verses 34-35 has parallels in Mark 9:49-50 and Matthew 5:13, but a comparison among these three texts shows in Luke’s version a greater emphasis on the hearing of the Word (verse 35). Unlike Matthew’s version, this text does not identify the salt as the Christians themselves, and unlike Mark, there is nothing about the salt as burned in sacrifice. In Luke’s version the accent falls on salt as a preservative over a period of time; its sense, then, is related to the two parables that immediately precede it. All three parables are related to the Cross (verses 25-27), which is the dominant symbol of the cost of discipleship. The idiomatic meaning of “hate” in verse 26 is “to love less,” as in Genesis 29:31-33 and Malachi 1:2-3.

2 Thessalonians 2:1-12: In this reading Paul uses the striking expression “the love of the truth,” prompting a later remark of St. Gregory the Great, to the effect that veritas non cognoscitur nisi amatur–“the truth is not known unless it is loved.”

It is worth reviewing the persuasion of the ancients on this point, those who believed that the goal of education was love of the truth. Our modern attitude, by contrast, seems to be that of a true-or-false test, in which the question of a statement’s content pertains solely to the intellect.

This attitude is difficult to reconcile with Holy Scripture, where the opposite of truth is not falsehood but deception. Eve in the Garden was not taking a true-or-false test, which she happened to fail. Eve was deceived by a lie. Jesus later calls Satan a liar from the beginning. In the Bible, the opposite of truth is deception.

Knowledge of the truth always involves an act of judgment, and the act of judgment always depends on the orientation of the heart. Hence St. Gregory’s assertion that the truth is not known unless it is loved. The business of knowing the truth has to do with the quality of the heart, which is why Paul contrasts truth with wickedness (verses 10-12). A few years later he would tell the Corinthians, “Charity does not rejoice in evil, but in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6). Similarly he would tell the Romans about those who “disobey the truth and obey wickedness” (Romans 2:8).