December 28, 2018 – January 4, 2019

Friday, December 28

Matthew 2:1-23 and Psalm 2: The Book of Psalms, having begun on a theme associated with Wisdom, next turns to messianic considerations. Psalm 2 commences: “Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine something vain.” The “blessed man” introduced in Psalm 1, Jesus our Lord, is an affront to the wisdom of this world. The powers of this world cannot abide Him. The moral contrast described in Psalm 1 thus becomes the messianic conflict narrated in Psalm 2.

A king of this world, Herod, immediately felt threatened at the birth of God’s Anointed One. Well he should, for there can be no compromise nor compatibility between the wisdom and power of this world and the wisdom and power of God. They are at deep enmity (cf. 1 Cor. 2:4–14), and our second psalm is oncerned with this historical conflict. Psalm 2 is a Christological interpretation of history.

Psalm 1 had spoken of the “counsel of the godless,” and now Psalm 2 will go on to describe that counsel: “The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers were gathered in counsel, against the Lord and against his anointed [Messiah in Hebrew, Christ in Greek].” The counsel of this world will not endure the reign of God and Christ. “Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us,” they say.

There is an important parallelism between the story of the Magi and the account of the Great Commission; namely, the theme of the Church’s universal calling. Whereas Matthew ends his story with the Apostles being sent forth with the command, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (28:19), he begins his whole account with a kind of foreshadowing of that final mission by the arrival of the Magi, those wise searchers from the East who come to adore the newborn King of Israel. These two passages, then, thus embrace Matthew’s entire story of Jesus.

There is more suggested by the juxtaposition of these parallel texts, however; for the very purpose of the Great Commission is to transform the whole of humanity as the rightful heirs of the Magi. Like the stars themselves, the Apostles are sent forth to lead all nations into that path first followed by the wise men from the East.

Indeed, St. Paul compared the Apostles to those very heavens that “declare the glory of God,” quoting in their regard the Psalmist’s affirmation that “Their line has gone out through all the earth, / And their words to the ends of the world” (Psalm 18 [19]:4; Romans 10:18). The stars and the Apostles proclaim the same universal message, and that message is the Gospel.

Although the Magi were instructed by what they read in those heavens that ‘declare the glory of God’, they did not pursue their quest among the stars but upon the earth. They found the answer to their quest, that is to say, in a particular place and at a particular time. They accepted the spatial/temporal, fleshly limitations that God Himself assumed.

By way of prophetic type in the Book of Genesis, it was the dreaming of a man named Joseph that originally brought the Chosen People into Egypt. That prophetic type is fulfilled in today’s Gospel reading, when another Joseph has a dream that results in his taking the Chosen People back to Egypt. According to today’s reading from Exodus 1:8-22), it was in Egypt that the little boys were sacrificed to the fears of a sinful king. This also happens in today’s Gospel.

Indeed, the parallels of Psalm 2 with the “last days” described in the Bible’s final book, Revelation, are quite remarkable: the anger of the nations and the wrath of God (Rev. 11:18), the political conspiracy against God (19:19), the Messiah’s “rod of iron” inflicted on His enemies (2:27; 12:5; 19:15).

God, meanwhile, may laugh at His enemies: “He that thrones in the heavens shall laugh; the Lord will hold them in derision.” His Chosen One and Heir is already anointed. In the verse that explains the Church’s partiality to this psalm at Christmas time, the Messiah proclaims: “The Lord said unto Me: ‘You are My Son; this day have I begotten You.” These words, partly reflected at the Lord’s Baptism (Matt. 3:17) and Transfiguration (Matt. 17:5; 2 Pet. 1:17), came to express the essential Christological faith of the Church. This verse is cited explicitly in the apostolic preaching (cf. Acts 13:33; Heb. 1:5; 5:5; also 1 John 5:9) and directly answers the major question posed by Christian evangelism in every age: “What do you think of the Christ? Whose Son is He?” The (most likely) earliest of the Gospels thus commences: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).

Saturday, December 29

Matthew 24:45-51: This parable is drawn from common social experience—namely, the vigilance necessary to prevent the entrance of a burglar into the home (verses 43-44). This image of impeding thievery appears often in the New Testament, not always as a quotation from Jesus. In his very first epistle, nonetheless, St. Paul explicitly presumes that his readers are already familiar with it (1 Thessalonians 5:2). Matthew and Luke (12:39-40) are nearly identical in their preservation of this wording of this parable. The warning to the Church at Sardis is very similar in its wording (Revelation 3:3). Second Peter 3:10 and 1 Thessalonians 5:2 both add “in the night” after “thief.” The metaphor appears again in Revelation 16:15.

This image of the household in danger introduces the parable distinguishing the wise, good, and loyal servant from the lazy, dissolute, and wicked one (verses 45-51). This is the first of three consecutive stories in which the passage of time is integral to the testing of God’s servants. The next two are the parables of the ten virgins (25:1-13) and the talents entrusted to the three servants (25:14-30). Although Matthew encapsulates the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world into a consistent set of images, it would be wrong to interpret too literally the word “immediately” in verse 29. These next three parables, in fact, suggest that the end of the world may still be some way off.

Nonetheless, the Lord’s return in judgment must be constantly looked for, and the anticipation of it becomes a formal principle of Christian morality. Hence, this parable distinguishing the loyal and unfaithful servant is the first of four parables about the final judgment. All four end in punishment for those who are unfaithful (verse 51; 25:12,30,41,46).

In this first parable Jesus describes the righteous servant as “faithful and wise” (verse 45). In the present context “faithful” (pistos) probably bears the meaning of “loyal” rather than “believing.” Several times St. Paul uses this very adjective to describe the ideal pastor, missionary, or Christian leader (1 Corinthians 4:1-12; Ephesians 6:21; Colossians 1:7; Titus 1:9). In the present text, we observe that the vocation of this servant is to feed the others in the household (verse 46).

He is also called phronimos, often translated as “prudent” or “wise,” but perhaps better rendered here as “thoughtful” or “reflective.” It is the same adjective used to describe five of the maidens in the next parable (25:2,4,8,9). Matthew also uses it to describe the man who builds his house on a rock foundation (7:24). It is the characteristic that Christians are to share with snakes! (10:16)

The wicked servant, on the other hand, assures himself that he still has opportunity to neglect his stewardship. He is coaxed into this disposition precisely because there appears to be a delay in the return of his master. “My master is delaying His coming,” he says to himself (verse 48). That is to say, the sense of a postponement is an essential part of the story. The failure of the servant has to do with his inability to deal with the prolonged passage of time. What he lacks is perseverance. The Son of Man will come when the slackers do not expect him (verses 44,50).

Sunday, December 30

Matthew 25:14-30: Once again, in the story about the three stewards who receive “talents” from their Master the passage of time is integral to their testing. “After a long time,” says our Lord, “the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them” (25:19). There is no instant salvation in the Christian life, that is to say.

The point of comparison with the rest of Matthew’s context is found in the Master’s return to settle accounts. This is a reference to the parousia of the Son of Man, the subject of all the parables in this series. Once again, and for the third time (24:48; 25:5), the parousia is delayed (verse 19; contrast Luke 19:15).

Everything has to do with the ability to persevere through the passage of time. After all, we do not remain the same through the passage of time. Time changes things, and we must cope. Events affect our thoughts and sentiments. This coping with the passing of time is an integral part of our testing before God.

A “talent” was a unit of money in Roman times. It was something to be invested, in order to make a profit. The metaphorical sense of “talent,” meaning a natural gift with which a human being has been endowed, comes entirely from this parable. Indeed, the metaphorical use of this word has become so common that we do not realize that this usage was originally a metaphor.

The Master makes an investment in His servants. They work for Him. The talents belong to the Master, not the servants. Their responsibility is what is known as stewardship, and proper stewardship is the subject matter of the judgment that follows the Master’s return.

This parable is in great part an allegory. The master who departs is Christ our Lord, who has gone into heaven but will return in due course. The talents are the resources that He leaves to the stewardship of His servants, so that they may increase the yield thereof. His return is the end of history, and His calling to account is the final judgment.

The differences among the five, two, and one talents, however, are probably not meant to be interpreted allegorically. It simply means that some of God’s servants are given more responsibilities than others. The essential moral concern is that each steward is to work with what he has been given. He is not responsible for what he has not been given.

Two of the servants are good stewards and justify the Master’s confidence in them (verses 16-17). They receive “the joy of your Lord” (verses 21,23), which is eternal life. It is the equivalent of the marriage celebration of the last parable (verse 10) and the “Kingdom” of the next (verse 34). It is encouraging to observe the terms in which these parables describe the reward of the righteous. The faithful man is called “blessed” (24:46; 25:34). He becomes a guest at the wedding (25:10) and enters into the Lord’s joy (25:21,23). He becomes a “ruler” (24:47; 25:21,23). He inherits a kingdom (25:34).

The third servant describes himself as “afraid.” Because he refused even to try, the Master calls him “lazy.” Obviously they assess his character quite differently. Self-approval does not count for much with God.

The third servant “buried his talent,” an expression that is still common (verse 18). We observe that he blamed the Master for his own failure (verse 25). The Master’s response, in the second part of verse 26, should be read as a question: “You knew, did you . . . .?”

Rejected at the judgment (verses 27,30), this lazy, wicked servant is like the five improvident maidens in the preceding parable (verse 12) and the goats in the next parable (verse 41).

Monday, December 31

Matthew 25:31-46: The story of the Last Judgment, which closes Matthew’s fifth great discourse and comes immediately before the account of the Lord’s Passion, was chosen by the Orthodox Church to be read immediately before the start of Lent each year. This custom places the Last Judgment as the context for repentance.

This parable makes it very clear, if we needed further clarity, that “a man is justified by works, not by faith alone” and that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:24,26).

It is imperative to observe that the last activity ascribed to Christ in the Nicene Creed is that “He will come again in glory to judge.” This is Matthew’s fourth straight parable about the parousia of the Son of Man for the purpose of judgment. He had introduced this theme of final judgment much earlier, among the parables of the Kingdom (13:41), and in the coming trial before the Sanhedrin in the next chapter the Lord will speak very solemnly on this subject by way of warning to Israel’s official leaders: “I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven” (26:64).

Let us also observe that the Son of Man does not return to earth alone; He is accompanied by the angels, who have a distinct function in the coming trial (verse 31; 13:41,49; 16:27; cf. Zechariah 14:5; 1 Thessalonians 3:13).

The Son of Man will sit in judgment over “all the nations”–panta ta ethne (verse 32; 24:14; 28:19). Israel is numbered among these nations. As in any trial, a verdict will be given, leading to a division, the latter symbolized by the sheep and the goats.

The Son of Man is identified as the King (verses 34;40), an image that goes back to the beginning of Matthew’s narrative (1:1,20; 2:2,13-14) and will appear again at the Lord’s trial and crucifixion (27:11,29,37,42).

The elect are addressed as the “blessed of My Father” (verse 24). The inherited Kingdom has been planned and prepared since the beginning of Creation; it had been in the divine mind all along.

Then comes the criterion of the judgment, in which we recognize the components of Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan (10:29-37).

Especially to be noted in this parable is Jesus’ association with all mankind, especially the poor, the destitute, and the neglected. To serve the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the sick, and the imprisoned is to serve Jesus, who identifies Himself with them. This is the basis for all Christian service to suffering humanity. This is not a negligible aspect of the Gospel; it pertains to the very subject matter of the final judgment.
The dominant idea of this parable, in fact, is the divine judgment. God really does judge. He really does discriminate. He will not confuse a just man and an unjust man. He discerns the difference, and that difference means a great deal to Him. He does not take difference lightly. He assigns eternal destinies to men on the basis of that difference.

This is what we see in the present parable: sheep and goats are spread asunder, just as wise and unwise maidens are separated one from another, and wheat is distinguished from chaff. In this world the generous and the mean have existed side by side, but at the judgment it will be so no more.

How can we know where we stand with respect to that Judgment? In a sense, we cannot know. In a sense, it is not important that we know. We might become complacent. God will not have a Christian feel so secure that he neglects his duties in this world.

In the present parable the just are not preoccupied with themselves. They are preoccupied with the needs of the poor. Their lives are spent addressing those needs. They have neither the leisure nor the inclination to think about themselves, even about their “eternal security.” They are too busy doing God’s will with respect to their fellow men.

Thus, at the final judgment, they arrive unaware that they have ever served Christ at all. They imagined all along that they were taking care of the poor, simply because the poor needed to be cared for. At the judgment, then, the righteous are even surprised that they have been serving Christ all along. Their thoughts have been solely for the crying needs of their fellow men. They have had neither time nor opportunity to think about themselves.

As for the unrighteous, they are condemned to “eternal fire” (verses 41,46), this image apparently identical to the “fires of Gehenna” in 5:22. This fire, which also appeared in the parables of the Kingdom (13:30,40,42,50), was not intended for human beings but was “prepared for the devil and his angels.” In this respect, heaven and hell are very different, because heaven was “prepared for you from the foundation of the earth (verse 34). It was never God’s intention that men should be damned; He predestined no soul to hell. Men choose that fate for themselves when they join themselves to “the devil and his angels.”

The condemnation of the unjust—“Depart from Me”—is the direct antithesis of the invitation offered to everyone through the Gospel: “Come to Me” (11:28).

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

1 John 2:3-11: How can we be truly certain that we really know God? John answers this question by telling us, not to analyze the state of our consciousness, but to observe the empirical data of our conduct. The question is simplified to “Am I obeying Christ’s commandments?” (verse 3). Our Blessed Assurance, that is to say, is related to the concrete moral evidence visible in how we live. This practical approach to the matter, typically Johannine (cf. John 13:35; 14:21-24) had a long antecedence in the Old Testament prophets (cf. Hosea 4:1-3; 6:4-7; Jeremiah 2:8). To take some other approach to the matter not only threatens us with self-delusion; it may simply render us liars (verse 4).

As in all things, John’s approach here is entirely practical. He regards a person’s conduct—how he walks—as the reliable barometer of that person’s spiritual state (verses 6,29). Like James (or, for that matter, Paul—“and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing”—1 Corinthians 13:2), John resists the thesis of justification by faith alone, or faith apart from works. Being “in Christ” means walking as Christ walked.

There is nothing “new” about this teaching, says John; his listeners have heard it over and over since the day of their conversion and new life in Christ (verse 7). Nonetheless, this same teaching is “new” in the sense that means newness of life, as the coming light begins already to shine into our human and demonic darkness (verse 8). The sight of believers loving one another, in obedience to the command of Christ, is truly God’s light shining into the world.

Not to love one another, on the other hand, is to remain in darkness, which is John’s metaphor for hatred (verses 9-11; cf. John 8:12; 11:10). It is not sufficient to make spiritual claims unsupported by one’s observable conduct. Indeed, to do this constitutes a true “scandal” (verse 10). This darkness, says John, is really blindness (verse 11).

Genesis 1: Day and night are simply the names of light and darkness (verse 5); light and darkness exist independent of the sun or any other heavenly body. We note that Genesis does not say that God creates darkness; darkness was, so to speak, already there. Darkness is nothingness; it is non-existence. Therefore night itself is symbolic of non-existence. This is why night will eventually disappear (Revelation 22:5).

Light, on the other hand, is the first creation of God; “Let there be light” are His first recorded words (verse 3). The light, then, and the darkness, which are called day and night, refer to something far deeper in Creation than the phenomena that our eyes behold. Light is not simply a by-product of solar energy. It is, rather, the principle of intelligibility in the structure of Creation. The light that God calls into being at the beginning of Genesis is that inner structure of intelligibility that the mind of man, in due course, will be created to discover and investigate. Man’s investigation of the light is called philosophy, just as his investigation of God’s Word is called theology.

Wednesday, January 2

John 1:19-28: The Evangelist continues with a double interrogation of John the Baptist by the religious leaders from Jerusalem. It appears that John has conflated stories of two delegations, one from the Sadducees (priests and Levites), the other from the Pharisees. John found it easy to conflate the two interrogations, since both groups apparently asked very much the same questions—all of them about John’s identity. We should presume that John the Baptist was questioned on this point several times (cf. Luke 3:7-18).

Both groups are said to represent “the Jews,” an expression that now appears for the first time in John’s Gospel. In most of the instances of this word in John, it designates Jesus’ enemies—the “Jews” as distinct from the Christians. That is to say, John’s use of this word appears to come from a period in which the Church was becoming an entity readily distinguished from the Synagogue.

Genesis 2: In this second account of Creation everything takes place much faster. Although man is said to sleep, night is never mentioned. Here God is said to “form” (yasar), to give shape to; it is the word normally used for working in ceramics. Indeed, man is shaped from the moist soil, the mud, like the work of pottery to which Jeremiah will later compare him. In this chapter of Genesis the plants and animals are not created until after the creation of man. Man is created in order to take care of the plants (verse 7-15), while the animals are created to be man’s companions (verses 18-20). The very word for “man” is the Hebrew generic word for a human being, adam, related to the adamah, or the “soil” from which he comes.

It is from this first man, Adam, that the first woman is formed. More specifically, it is from the part of man closest to his heart, from the place where woman herself lives, at man’s side. But she comes from within him; when Adam sees her, he recognizes this “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” She is, as it were, part of him. The sexual attraction between men and women, in the eyes of the Bible, is metaphysical, having to do with an essential craving for inner wholeness (verse 24). Jesus will later on appeal to this truth as the basis for His prohibition of divorce (Mark 10:8-9; 1 Corinthians 6:16-17; Ephesians 5:31-32). It also serves as the biblical argument against sexual activity outside of the marriage between a man and a woman. Any sexual activity that does not involve a man and a woman, married to one another, stands outside of the proper moral structure of human sexuality itself. This is one of the major applications of man’s transcendence to the animals.

Romans 5:1-1: Only in Christ has dying ever been an act of redemption, a victory instead of a defeat. His death vanquished the power of death (verse 9). This knowledge of what God has already done for us in Christ will sustain our hope for the full salvation that awaits us. Reconciled by His death, we shall be saved by His life (verse 10).

We observe the Trinitarian structure of the Christian life: the love of our Father has been poured out and proved in His Son and Holy Spirit (verses 8-11). This is the reconciled life of the believer in communion with God (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).

Thursday, January 3

John 1:29-34: In this section John the Baptist makes several points about Jesus: First, Jesus is identified with “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” For John the Baptist, who preached a baptism of repentance of sins, this was the most fundamental fact about Jesus of Nazareth—He is the sacrificial victim, the definitive sin-offering, by whose oblation the sin of the world is removed.

When Jesus is called the “Lamb” in the New Testament, two OT images come particularly to mind: the Paschal Lamb and the Lamb offered for sin on the Day of Atonement.

Jesus as the Paschal Lamb will later appear in John in the story of the Passion: “But when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. . . . For these things were done that the Scripture should be fulfilled, ‘Not one of His bones shall be broken’” (19:36; Exodus 12:46; Numbers 9:12; Psalm 34:20). This also appears in Paul: “For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7). Both Paul and John, then, regard Jesus as the true Paschal Lamb, who delivers the Chosen People on the night of the Exodus.

Second, John identifies Jesus as the One through whom the world receives the Holy Spirit: ““I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’”

Here in John’s Gospel, the Lord’s baptism by John the Baptist is not described, but it is clearly presupposed. John’s vision of the Dove (verse 32) corresponds to the Synoptic descriptions of Jesus’ baptism. We may observe here that the revelation at Jesus’ baptism is portrayed as an objective, not just a spiritual experience of Jesus.

Third, John testifies that it was the Holy Spirit who revealed to him the identity of Jesus: “I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God.”

John, then, is the first preacher to proclaim that the true identity of Jesus of Nazareth can only be given in the Holy Spirit.

In verse 34, some manuscripts read “the Chosen One of God” instead of “the Son of God.”

Friday, January 4

John 1:35-51: Today’s readings present us with two sets of brothers: Peter and Andrew, Cain and Abel. We start with Peter and Andrew.

Even though Peter often served as a spokesman for the other Apostles, 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 1:29). 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.

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 this 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.” There is more attention given to Andrew in this Gospel than in the other three.

1 John 3:4-15: This reading presents us with two other brothers: Cain and Abel.

Our brotherhood in Christ is contrasted with history’s first brotherhood, that of Cain and Abel (verse 12). In that ancient case Cain violated the most elementary duty of brotherhood by murdering Abel, and he murdered him, John gives us to believe, because he hated him. From this, John concludes that anyone who hates his brother is a murderer (verse 15). This is the reason why, from the beginning, Christians have been instructed to love one another (verse 11; cf. 2:7-8).

The negative example of Cain, a man lacking in both faith (Hebrews 11:4) and love (verse 12), was taken over in Christian moral instruction (Jude 11; First Clement 14), and John clearly expects his readers to be familiar with both the biblical text and the theme.

Augustine of Hippo pursued this motif in a particularly Johannine way by comparing the biblical story of Cain and Abel to the classical account of Romulus and Remus. The two murderers, Cain and Romulus, both fratricides, were also founders of cities. These two cities, Rome and Enoch (cf. Genesis 4:17), symbolize what St. John called “the world,” understood as humanity’s attempt to live its own life in defiance of God. John’s world corresponds to what Augustine calls “the city of man,” which he contrasts with the City of God (cf. The City of God 15:5-8).

Cain’s story, because it is a tale of hatred, exemplifies the world’s murderous attitude toward Christians (verses 13-15; John 15:18). In this respect John provides a further elaboration of the incompatibility between God and the world. To be a child of God is to be the beneficiary of an immense love, a love radically incompatible with hatred toward anyone. A person certainly cannot be a child of God and still hate other children of God. Nowhere does the spirit of the world more seriously endanger Christians than by tempting them to hate one another.