July 30 – August 6, 2021

Friday, July 30

Mark 12.41-44: We may distinguish three layers of meaning in this story: First, what did the event mean at the time it happened? Second, what did it mean in the preaching of the early Church? Third, what does it mean in the literary context of the Gospel according to Mark?

With respect to the first inquiry—What did the event mean when it happened? —we consider three subheadings: What did it mean to the woman herself? What did it mean to the passers-by? What did it mean to Jesus?

First, what did it mean to the widow? We may start with the consideration that these two small coins were her last resources. It was all she had, and the amount was divisible. She could have put in only one of those coins. Even that gift would have amounted to five times her tithe! No one would have blamed her for keeping back one of those coins.

In fact, it may have occurred to this woman that she need not have given anything. The Temple certainly did not need that gift. Moreover, the gospels tell us that rich people were putting large amounts into the Temple treasury. The woman could see this as well as Jesus did.

This woman’s gift scarcely affected the Temple’s annual budget. There would be no shortage of candles, if she failed to put in her two cents’ worth.

It may have occurred to the woman to consider that her own gift was relatively unimportant, because it would not be missed by those who counted the collection.

All these considerations may have been going through her mind, by way of temptation. After all, she was a widow with no one to care for her. Every penny counted, as in the parable of the woman who lost just one of her ten coins.

Moreover, we observe that Jesus did not say anything to this woman. She was left to settle the matter on her own, with only the judgment of her own conscience in the presence of God.

What did her gift mean to the passers-by? Probably nothing. Being poor, she was socially insignificant. Only Jesus sees her.

What did her gift mean to Jesus? Well, he tells us, drawing attention to the completeness of her gift and its relationship to her life. This woman would suffer because of this gift. Already poor, she thereby became poorer. Jesus saw in this woman’s deed the completeness of self-giving. It embodied the drama of Holy Week itself. This woman, like Jesus, gave “her whole life” to God.

Saturday, July 31

Psalms 78 (Greek & Latin 77): The long psalm that we begin today is largely devoted to the theme of Israel’s wandering in the desert. This psalm, which is a kind of poetic summary of the Books of Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and even some of Joshua, Judges, and 1 Samuel, concentrates on the Chosen People’s constant infidelity and rebellion, but especially during the desert pilgrimage: “But they sinned even more against Him by rebelling against the Most High in the wilderness. . . . How often they provoked Him in the wilderness and grieved Him in the desert! Yes, again and again they tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel. They did not remember His power: The day when He redeemed them from the enemy.”

Quite a number of hours are required to read the whole story of the people’s infidelity in the desert as it is recorded through several books of the Bible. Psalm 78, however, has long served as a sort of meditative compendium of the whole account. Its accent falls on exactly those same moral warnings that we saw in 1 Corinthians and Hebrews—the people’s failure to take heed to what they had already beheld of God’s deliverance and His sustained care for them. They had seen the plagues that He visited on the Egyptians, they had traversed the sea dryshod, they had been led by the pillar of cloud and fire, they had slaked their thirst with the water from the rock, they had eaten their fill of the miraculous bread, they had trembled at the base of Mount Sinai, beholding the divine manifestation. In short, they had already been the beneficiaries of God’s revelation, salvation, and countless blessings.

Still, “their heart was not steadfast with Him, nor were they faithful in His covenant.” And just who is being described here? Following the lead of the New Testament, we know it is not only the Israelites of old, but also ourselves, “upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” The story in this psalm is our own story. So we carefully ponder it and take warning.

Just as the early Christians saw the Passover and other events associated with the Exodus of the Old Testament as types of the salvation brought by Jesus (cf. 1 Cor. 5:7; John 19: 36, etc.), so they interpreted the forty years of the Israelites’ wandering in the desert as representing their own pilgrimage to the true Promised Land. Thus, the passage through the Red Sea became a symbol of Baptism, the miraculous manna was a foreshadowing of the Eucharist, and so forth. In particular did they regard the various temptations experienced by the Israelites in the desert as typical of the sorts of temptations to be faced by Christians. This deep Christian persuasion of the true significance of the desert pilgrimage serves to make the Books of Exodus and Numbers necessary and very useful reading for serious Christians.

In the New Testament there are two fairly lengthy passages illustrating this approach to the Israelites’ desert pilgrimage: 1 Corinthians 10:1–13 and Hebrews 3-4.

Sunday, August 1

Acts 24.22—25.12: Felix hardly knows what to make of this commotion. Here are all these warring groups among the Jews — Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Herodians. And now this new group they call the Nazarenes. Who can make sense of it all? Who would want to adjudicate all these religious disputes?

Feeling that he needs more concrete evidence about this Paul, Felix postpones a decision until Lysias should arrive at Caesarea to give testimony in the matter (24:22), and Paul, meanwhile, may continue to receive visitors freely while in custody. At least this is what Felix says. Since we hear nothing about Lysias ever coming to Caesarea, however, we begin to suspect that a certain amount of foot-dragging has commenced.

In fact, hearing about this collection of money that Paul and his companion had recently brought to the Holy Land, Felix is hoping for a bribe (24:26), a detail in Luke’s story that fits in very well with what we learn about Felix from other writers of the period. Two years pass (57-59/60), and Paul is still in prison. During this time he writes the epistles to the Ephesians, the Colossians, and Philemon. He receives many visitors, including Aristarchus, Tychicus, Mark, Jesus Justus, Demas, and Epaphras (Colossians 4:7-14). Luke the physician, who was in Jerusalem at the time of Paul’s arrest, comes to Caesarea to look after his favorite client (cf. Colossians 4:14; Philemon 24; Acts 27:2).

At the end of the two years, Felix is succeeded by Portius Festus, who inherits Paul as a bit of unfinished business. This new procurator, a conscientious man chiefly remembered for his efforts to stamp out the terrorism prevalent in the Middle East during that time (cf. Josephus, Jewish War 2.14.1 [271-272]; Antiquities>/i> 2.8.9-10 [182,185]), must deal with Paul as the first chore of his two years in office (59-61/62). He does so in less than a fortnight. The authorities in Jerusalem, of course, want Paul to be tried there, all along planning that Paul would never reach the city for his trial. The times are treacherous.

The substance of Paul’s defense (apologoumenou) in this section is that he has violated no law, whether of the Jewish religion or of the Roman Empire (25:8). His accusers, moreover, have not met their burden of proof (25:7). Festus, however, unwilling to offend the Jewish leadership so early in his administration, proposes a compromise: a trial at Jerusalem, over which the governor himself would preside (25:9).

Paul will have none of this compromise. He already stands before an imperial court as a Roman citizen; why should he forego that privilege in order to expose himself to a Jewish lynch mob? Therefore, he appeals his case to Rome. It is worth noting, in verse 11, Paul’s explicit recognition of the state’s proper authority to use the death penalty, the “right of the sword” (jus gladii), on certain classes of criminals. This position is identical to the one earlier espoused by Paul in Romans 13:1-4. Accordingly, the Christian Church, even when discouraging recourse to capital punishment in practice (in the Byzantine Empire, for instance), has always recognized, as a matter of clear principle, the state’s God-given, biblically affirmed authority to put certain criminals to death.

The response of Festus, taken with counsel, accedes to Paul’s legal appeal to a higher court (25:12).

Monday, August 2

Mark 13.24-37: There have always been Christians persuaded that they can discern, from a close reading of biblical prophecy, the various stages of world history and even the specific events attendant on the end of history. In the present reading, however, Jesus warns against such speculation, saying that no one knows of that day and hour except the Father (verse 32).

These prophecies of the last times, whether in the present chapter of Mark or elsewhere in Holy Scripture, are too general to disclose such particulars of time. They serve, rather, as warnings for all times, exhortations of vigilance to the Church in every age. They instruct us less about God’s schedule than about our responsibilities.

In this final section of Mark 13, Jesus takes up the question with which the chapter began: When will these things happen and what will be the signs thereof? That question, we recall, was raised by the Apostles in response to the Lord’s prediction of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. All through this chapter the Lord has described, in dramatic imagery, the complex events that will culminate in that catastrophe. He could truly assert, therefore, “I have told you all things beforehand” (verse 23). Jesus has clearly prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem within a generation, destruction so complete that it could foreshadow the end of the world itself.

And what are Christians to do in the face of these impending disasters? They are to remain vigilant, to watch and to pray and to trust in God.

Acts 25.13-27: After this decision of Festus there follows another scene, Paul’s somewhat unofficial hearing before King Agrippa II and his sister/mistress Berenice. The purpose of this hearing is to help Festus identify the charges for which Paul will be sent to Rome for trial. Thus, Paul, having been tried before a synagogue and a governor, now appears before a king (cf. Luke 21:12).

Observe that Luke feels no need to identify this royal couple. This is King Herod Agrippa II and his sister/mistress Berenice. Everybody knew who they were. Agrippa was the eighth and last ruler on the Herodian Dynasty. He was educated at the court of the emperor Claudius, and at the time of his father’s death he was only seventeen years old. Over the next decade or so, Claudius and Nero gave him governance over various sections of Syria and the Levant.

Berenice was his sister and, according to Josephus, also his mistress. She was a woman of international fame. By the year 48 she had been widowed twice, once from her own brother, to whom she bore two children. For several years she lived in incest this other brother, Agrippa II, in whose company we find her now at this trial of St Paul.

Tuesday, August 3

Mark 14.1-11:

Hosea 8: Following the death of Solomon, the Northern Kingdom—called here both Israel and, from its largest tribe, Ephraim—was founded as an act of rebellion against Solomon’s successor, Rehoboam. In the mind of the biblical author, however, it was an act of rebellion against God.

From the beginning of that rebellion, its true motive had always been financial: The ten northern tribes had far more resources and advantages than the royal tribe of Judah in the south: their land was more fertile, and, because of their geographical proximity to Phoenicia, they were better situated with respect to the international markets. Consequently, the northern tribes were reluctant to be ruled any longer by a tribe unable to pull its own economic weight. They separated from Judah for financial reasons, which in their estimate were more important than adherence to the covenanted kingship at Jerusalem.

Beginning with Jeroboam, says the Lord, “they set up kings, but not by Me; they made princes, but I did not acknowledge them.” Going further, they set up shrines at Bethel and Dan to rival the Temple at Jerusalem. These shrines quickly became idolatrous. Their financial and political idolatry finally found expression in cultic idolatry.

Now, Hosea warns them, having sown the wind of temporary advantage, they will reap the whirlwind of history which is the lot of all those acting outside the will of God.

And now, says Hosea, they are about to pay for that infidelity. Their love of money was only the first of the idolatrous preferences that have, at last, brought them to the disaster soon to visit them. Hosea sees the signs of that impending doom in the geopolitics of his day, particularly the rivalries among Assyria, Phoenicia, and Egypt. Poor little Israel will be trampled when these elephantine nations begin to march. Like his contemporary, Amos, Hosea foresees the tragedy of 722, barely a generation in the future. The Northern Kingdom will be no more, its tribes dispersed by exile throughout the Fertile Crescent.

Wednesday, August 4

Mark 14.12-21: We come now to Holy Thursday and the evening of the Last Supper. The traditions behind the four gospels attach several stories to the narrative of the Last Supper. These include the story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, a saying of Jesus relative to His coming betrayal, a prophecy of Peter’s threefold denial, various exhortations and admonitions by Jesus, and a description of the institution of the Holy Eucharist.

Only two of the stories are told in all four gospels. First, there is some reference by Jesus to His betrayal. In Matthew and Mark this comes before the institution of the Holy Eucharist; in Luke it comes afterwards, in John it immediately follows the foot-washing. Second, all four gospels tell the story of Peter’s triple denial.

Acts 26.19-32: Herod Agrippa was not the only person listening to Paul’s defense. The new procurator, Porcius Festus, was also listening, and he was not a Jew. For him, Paul’s argument had reached the point of insanity. Paul’s excessive study of literature (ta polla grammata) — that is to say, the Bible — has caused his mind to snap, Festus asserts, so that he can no longer distinguish between reality and fantasy.

In this response of Festus, we discern the reaction of the pagan world to this most Christian of doctrines — the resurrection. Greco-Roman culture, with its chronic disrespect for the material world (as evidenced, for example, in the pagan custom of cremating dead bodies), would have scanty respect for the doctrine of the resurrection. We recall the response of the broad-minded Athenian philosophers to Paul’s mention of the Resurrection in Acts 17.

When the Apostles proclaimed Jesus as risen, however, they did not mean that he had somehow survived in a spiritual state after his death on the Cross. They meant, quite plainly, “he rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:4). It was an event, not a static condition.

Also, it was emphatically physical, not in the sense of induced by physical forces, but in the sense that it happened to the body. Had this not been the case, the Resurrection of Jesus would not have happened according to the Scriptures. The Resurrection-hope held out by Holy Scripture had to do with the body. When Isaiah prophesied, “Your dead shall live,” he went on to specify, “their corpses will arise” (Isaiah 26:19).

Paul insists that he is not raving. Faced by a pagan unfamiliar with belief in the resurrection, Paul turns to Agrippa for a more sympathetic hearing.

Thursday, August 5

2 Peter 1.1-9: Readers of this epistle have long observed its difference in style from the First Epistle of Peter. This stylistic difference is easily explained, if one bears in mind that 1 Peter was written through the pen of a secretary (Silvanus), who may very well have been translating from Aramaic to Greek even as Peter dictated the letter (cf. 1 Peter 5:12); if one remembers that Paul himself seems to have used Silvanus as a secretary sometimes (the two letters to the Thessalonians), this would likewise account for the similarity in style between 1 Peter and the letters of Paul.

If, as seems likely (though not absolutely positive) the letter referred to in 2 Peter 3:1 is 1 Peter, then 2 Peter was obviously written later than the other. Indeed, it seems to have been written near the end of the apostle’s life (cf. 1:14).

Moreover, the reference to 1 Peter in 2 Peter 3:1 suggests that the latter epistle was written for the same recipients; namely, the Christians of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia (cf. 1 Peter 1:1). A reasonable estimate for the date of this epistle is sometime immediately prior to the fire in Rome during the summer of 64, because the epistle makes no reference to the Neronic persecution that followed that fire.

In the present reading Peter speaks of Jesus as “Savior,” a term more often used in the New Testament to refer to God the Father. Nonetheless, in these three chapters Peter uses the expression five times in reference to Jesus (1:1,11; 2:20; 3:2,18). In each case, except in 1:1, the use of “Savior” is joined with “Lord.” This is very rare in early Christian literature. Christians today are so accustomed to speaking of Jesus as “Lord and Savior” that they do not realize that, were it not for 2 Peter, this expression would probably never have become so standard a part of Christian vocabulary.

Verse 4 is the only place in the New Testament that describes Christians as “partakers of the divine nature” (theias koinonoi physeos), a very bold description of divine grace. However, an identical theology of grace is expressed elsewhere in the New Testament with a different vocabulary (e.g., 1 John 1:3; 3:2,9; John 15:4; 17:22-23; Romans 8:14-17, and so on).

One also observes that this sharing in the divine nature is manifest as a particular “knowledge” (epignosis and gnosis) of God in Christ (verses 3,5,6,8). This knowledge of God, which is the substance of our call (klesis), must be made “secure” (bebaia – verse 9) by the cultivation of virtue (verses 5-8) and the avoidance of sin (verse 9).

Friday, August 6

2 Peter 1.10-21: After they have been initially catechized, it is imperative that believers be repeatedly instructed in the foundations of the faith, considering its various aspects in their mutually interpretive connections (what is called the “analogy of faith” in Romans 12:6), and more profoundly reflecting on its implications in their lives (traditionally called the moral sense or tropology).

In the Holy Scriptures this ongoing endeavor of the Christian experience is known as “reminding,” in the sense of a renewal of mind. It is also known as “remembering,” in the sense of “putting the members back together again,” seeing the diverse parts of the faith afresh, in relationship to the whole.

This repeated pedagogical exercise of “calling to mind” is not an optional extra in the Christian life. (The only recognized “graduation ceremony” from Sunday School in the Christian Church is called the Rite of Burial.) It is, rather, an essential exercise of loving God with the whole mind, and the Bible often speaks of such remembrance (cf. 2 Peter 3:1-2; John 2:22; 12:16; Jude 3,5,17; 1 Corinthians 11:2,24).

The present text represents such an exercise (verses 12,13,15), in order to bring Peter’s readers more consciously into what he calls “the present truth,” or, if you will, the truth as presence.

By way of pursuing this living remembrance, Peter narrates for them a story they must have heard many times, the account of the Lord’s Transfiguration (also told in Mark 9, Matthew 17, and Luke 9), and he does this to serve, as it were, as a final testimony to them before his death (literally exodus in verse 15). Peter himself, that is to say, conscious that he will be outlived by one or more generations of Christians, writes this text as a legacy.

This perspective is quite different from the earlier epistles preserved in the New Testament (Paul’s, for instance), all of them composed, not with a direct view to the future generations of the Church, but in order to address concrete questions of the hour. In this respect, the Second Epistle of Peter more closely resembles the four canonical gospels, which also bear the more explicit mark of “legacy.”

Finally, verse 11 identifies eternal life as “the kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” an idea rare in early Christian literature (cf. Ephesians 5:5), which more often refers to the “kingdom of God.” The expression here in 2 Peter forms the biblical basis for that line of the Nicene Creed that says of Jesus, “of whose kingdom there shall be no end.”