August 27 – September 3, 2021

Friday, August 27

Luke 5.17-26: Matthew, Mark, and Luke all agree that Jesus was teaching when this remarkable scene began to unfold. None of them, however, records what Jesus was teaching. Nobody remembered what Jesus was teaching, because nobody was paying attention! How could people pay attention to anything going on in the room, while the roof was being removed from over their heads?

At length, the hole in the ceiling grows pretty big, and the sky is visible. After a few minutes more of commotion on the roof, the people who opened the hole are beginning to lower a sort of sling, on which lies a paralyzed man. They have ropes on this sling, which permit them to lower the man all the way down to eye level with Jesus.

Jesus, however, is not looking at the man himself. He is looking at those men who are still on the roof. And what does he see? He sees “their faith,” today’s story says. That’s what Luke calls it—faith.

This truly brassy act of the men on the roof is of a piece with other instances of faith in the Gospel stories: the Canaanite woman, who pleaded on behalf of her daughter, for example, and the man who brought Jesus his epileptic son.

It is unfortunate that faith is so often regarded as something a Christian can have apart from action. I confess to a suspicion that some Christians would have objected to what was done by those men on the roof. It might strike folks I know as a rather show-offy form of “works righteousness.” What they did was, after all, a labor, a “work.” Indeed, by this time, they were probably worn out from the effort.

Amos 7.10-17: While Amos has been preaching in the shrine at Bethel, he seems to have drawn a significant crowd. Now the apostate priest of the shrine complains to King Jeroboam II (786-746) about the prophet’s activities and his message (verses 10-11). This priest also reprimands Amos, telling him to head back south where he came from (verse 12-13). Amos suffers the usual accusation leveled by insecure governments—conspiracy.

By way of response the prophet tells of the rural circumstances and agricultural conditions of his calling (verses 14-15), adding a few choice words about what the accusing priest might expect in the near future (verses 16-17).

Saturday, August 28

Luke 5.27-32: This new disciple, because he collects taxes on behalf of the hated Roman overlord, belonged to a class of citizens odious to most Jews (except the Herodians, who favored Roman rule), and especially to Israel’s rabbinical leaders, identified here as “the scribes and Pharisees.” Moreover, when Levi invites all his friends to a party, so that they may meet Jesus, Jesus shows no concern at all for the scruples of those who oppose such things. He comes to Levi’s house and enjoys what appears to have been a jolly good time. It was from this occasion, apparently, that Jesus’ enemies tagged Him as a partygoer and a friend of sinners.

The Lord nowhere disowns this latter label. Indeed, He is certainly the friend of sinners. After all, He has demonstrated that He knows exactly what to do with sins, and in the present scene He gathers the sinners unto Himself as special objects of His mission . To the shock of the Pharisees, He insists on being the sinners’ friend who suffers and dies to redeem them, and one of the great ironies of the Gospel is that Jesus’ enemies are the very ones who make this redemption possible.

Amos 8: The prophet’s fourth vision is the basket of summer fruit (verses 1-3). The message associated with this vision, although perfectly clear to the first hearers of Amos, is a bit difficult to grasp without recourse to the original Hebrew. The summer fruit (qayis) suggests “ripeness” (haqes), the sense being “the end is nigh.” This is a reference to the imminence of “the day of the Lord.”

Greed and a worldly spirit have been the dominating sins of the people who suffer the accusations of Amos. They have kept all the proper religious and liturgical rules. They would not think of violating the prescribed days of rest, such as the weekly Sabbath and the monthly New Moon (Numbers 28:11-15; Colossians 2:16), but what good has come of it? It has simply provided them with more leisure to plot new ways of acquiring unjust gain! Their perfectly observed religious practices have had no beneficial influence on the quality of their hearts, which are still consumed with greed and the relentless acquisition of wealth at the expense of the needy and the weak (verses 4-6).

Amos describes the punishment destined for these offenders (verses 7-10). In this description Amos reminds his listeners of the awful darkness they had all beheld during the total eclipse of the sun over the Holy Land on June 15, 763 B.C.

Sunday, August 29

Luke 5.33-39: Whereas the Lord’s enemies had earlier complained of his eating with sinners, in this third story they are bothered by the fact that his disciples are failing to keep the Jewish weekly fast days. We know from the Mishnah and the Talmud that devout Jews regularly fasted on Mondays and Thursdays, two days equally distant from the Sabbath, to commemorate the forty days fast of Moses on Mount Sinai (the first of those being a Thursday and the last a Monday). Indeed, the Pharisee in the parable boasted of observing that discipline (Luke 18:12).

In response, Jesus does not denigrate the importance of fasting but directs the structure of the fasting observance to His own person, explaining that His presence with the disciples is sufficient warrant for their not observing the fast. Then, aware what His enemies are even now plotting against Him, He foretells His coming death, “when the Bridegroom will be taken away.”

Amos 9: The prophet’s final vision is the altar at which the Lord stands to commence the day of judgment (verses 1-6). This is apparently the altar in the shrine at Bethel. The burden of this message is that no one will escape the judgment of God, for the whole universe belongs to Him, and no one can hide from His presence.

The closing verses introduce a reassessment of the very notion of Israel as God’s “chosen” people. Chosen for what? For privilege? Hardly. For responsibility, rather, at which the people have abjectly failed. It has become obvious to Amos that if God chose Israel, it was for reasons larger than Israel, which has so thoroughly repudiated the implications of His choice. The history of all nations, in fact, is under His sway, and the history of Israel fits into the larger designs of His heart.

For that reason the destruction of Samaria is not the end of God’s interest in the world. Judah yet remains (verse 8), and God has other purposes in mind in the sometimes violent sifting process of history (verse 9).

The Northern Kingdom was never party to an independent covenant. The house of David was, however, and the Lord will honor that covenant (verse 11). Christian readers correctly see in this proclamation the promise of the Messiah, in whom will converge all the developments of history.

Thus, the nations condemned in the opening two chapters of this book are blessed on its final page.

Monday, August 30

Luke 6.1-11: Another story about eating. Walking with Jesus through a field of standing grain on a Sabbath day, the disciples reach out and pick ripe kernels from the stalks that have grown up to about the level of their hands. They rub the kernels between their fingers to remove the residual chaff and begin eating them. Most of us would probably not think of such activity as “harvesting a crop,” but to the scrupulous, supercilious minds of Jesus’ enemies it amounts to nothing less than a violation of the Sabbath by “laboring.” As in the previous story Jesus assessed the value of fasting solely in terms of His own identity (“Bridegroom”), in the present account He does the same with respect to the Sabbath (“Lord of the Sabbath”).

2 Corinthians 1.1-14: This epistle is addressed not only to Corinth, but also to the Christians of the whole Roman province of Achaia, of which Corinth was the capital (cf. 9:2). In this detail we see already the beginnings of the ecclesiastical structure later known as “diocesan,” in which Christians in rural areas, smaller towns, and villages were associated with and brought under the pastoral supervision of a larger, usually more centralized church in a given region.

Paul calls himself an apostle, but it is noteworthy that he does not extend this title to Timothy. Paul normally, as here, restricts the title to those men who had been directly and immediately called by Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:8). However, the application of the title “apostle” is not uniform throughout the writings of the New Testament.

Timothy, already well known to the Corinthians (verse 19; 1 Corinthians 4:17), is named as co-author. This identification of Timothy with himself in the authorship of this epistle corresponds quite closely to our own custom of naming others as co-authors of our own letters. Thus, for instance, Lois may write, “Love from Lois and Frank,” or even “Frank and Lois,” at the end of a letter that Frank himself may not even know about. It was Paul’s way of saying, “Timothy is here with me,” but it also enhances the dignity and authority of Timothy in the eyes of the Corinthians.

Right away Paul introduces the theme of the divine strengthening that accompanies the trials of the saints. This subject, sustained and thematic throughout the epistle, appears ten times in verses 3-7.

The afflictions that Paul suffered in Asia (verse 8) seem to be connected to the riot of the Ephesians, recorded in Acts 19:23-34 (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:9-10). It was during that difficult period that Paul learned the strength of Christ which is stronger than death (verses 9-10; Romans 4:17).

The lesson learned from his experience in Asia heightened Paul’s sense of the difference between divine grace and worldly wisdom (verse 12), a difference about which he had earlier written to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 1:20; 2:5). By means of the present epistle Paul’s readers will be taught this lesson also (verses 13-14). It is important that they be so, because they endure the same trials as Paul (verse 7). The sufferings endured are, in fact, “the sufferings of Christ” (verse 5).

Tuesday, August 31

Joshua 22: After wandering in the Sinai and Negev deserts for most of a generation, the people of Israel had now arrived at a place called Shittim, just east of the Jordan River and only about ten miles from Jericho. Then came a new crisis.

It was a moral crisis, involving some Israelite men of slack discipline with certain Moabite women of relaxed virtue. Fornication was the problem, that term understood both literally and in the figurative sense of their falling prey to the idolatrous worship of the Moabite god, Baal of Peor (Numbers 25:1-3).

The seduction of these Israelites, moreover, was not a mere boy-meets-girl happenstance. It resulted, rather, from a deliberate machination on the part of the Moabites, plotting to weaken the military resolve and moral will of the Israelites. Indeed, there is reason to believe that the scheme had been concocted in the mind of the religious philosopher Balaam, who was at that time in the service of the Moabite king (cf. Revelation 2:14).

Seeing it happen, the young priest Phineas discerned the peril of the hour, for an earlier experience had taught him the hazards of moral compromise. If he was sure of anything at all, Phineas was certain that God’s punishment of sin was invariably decisive and might very well be swift.

If we knew only of Phinehas’s decisive action at the time of the Moabite trouble, it might be easy to think of him solely as an energetic, resolute, executive sort of man, but this would be an incomplete perspective. Phineas was also a thoughtful person, able to consider a delicate question in its fully nuanced complexities.

This latter trait of his character was revealed in the crisis later created by the construction of an altar to the east of the Jordan River by the Israelites who lived in that region (Joshua 22:10). Regarded as a rival altar outside of the strict confines of the Holy Land, this construction proved so provocative to the rest of Israel that there arose the real danger of civil war (22:12). Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and the decision was made to establish an eleven-member committee of inquiry to investigate the matter. Phineas was the head of that committee (22:13-14).

Probing into the construction of that altar, Phineas’s committee concluded that it was not intended to be used as such but would serve merely as a monument to remind all the Israelites of their solidarity in the worship of their one God. Civil war was thus averted, and Phineas, once so swift unto bloodshed, was thus in large measure responsible for preventing it (22:21-34).

Wednesday, September 1

Luke 6.20-26: The last of Luke’s “four beatitudes” includes a detail not found in the parallel place in St. Matthew; it is a reference to those who “revile and cast out your name as evil.’ Our understanding of this reference should begin, I think, with the observation that it is oddly worded: “Cast out your name.” What does it mean to “cast out” a “name”?

I believe this expression reflects Luke’s actual experience in the mission field. When he joined Paul’s ministry, he attached himself to a group already known by the name “Christians.” They had received that name several years earlier at Antioch, the first place where Jews and Gentiles assembled to form a single congregation (11:26). When Luke included in his version of the beatitudes a reference to “your name,” the name he had in mind was “Christians.” Those called “Christians,” he knew, were outcasts.

During Paul’s trial in Caesarea, Herod Agrippa remarked to him, “You almost persuade me to become a Christian.” Paul, in response, referred to the tokens of his suffering for that name: “I would to God that not only you, but also all who hear me today, might become both almost and altogether such as I am, except for these chains” (Acts 26:28-29). In the final appearance of the name “Christian” the reference to persecution is even more explicit.

The Apostle Peter, writing to “the pilgrims of the Diaspora,” hoped that none of them would suffer as a murderer or a thief. If, however, one of them should suffer “as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this name–en to onomati touto” (1 Peter 4:15-16).

From his missionary experience, Luke was familiar with cities in which Christian Jews were no longer tolerated in the local synagogues; they were obliged to move elsewhere with their newfound Gentile companions. Luke recorded that this happened at Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:42-46), Iconium (14:1-5), Corinth (18:4-8), and, apparently, Rome (28:17-31).
2 Corinthians 2.3-11: Paul’s decision not to go to Corinth had at least not added further grief to those with whom he ought to share a common joy, and his letter had manifested his love and concern for the Corinthians (verse 4).

These references to their shared distress point to some troublemaker whom Paul had encountered in Corinth on a previous visit (verse 5). The Apostle here presumes his readers’ familiarity with the case, the particulars of which are, of course, unknown to us. Paul is confident that the Corinthians have adequately dealt with the problem (verse 6), inspired by his “letter of tears” and a recent visit by Titus (cf. 7:6-7).

Indeed, Paul has now become concerned for the offender, with whom the congregation had dealt somewhat severely (verses 7-8). In any case, the Corinthians have properly met the trial posed by the troublemaker (verse 9), and now it is time to move on (verses 10-1).

Thursday, September 2

2 Corinthians 2.12—3.3: Paul’s disappointment at failing to find Titus at Troas caused him, reluctantly, to abandon his ministry there and to sail over to Macedonia (verses 12-13). We readers find Paul’s distress understandable. Until he should meet Titus and learn what had transpired at Corinth, Paul would be distracted, uncertain how the congregation reacted to his “letter of tears.”

But why did Paul go over to Macedonia? This is not difficult to discover. If we think of him languishing at Troas for some days, perhaps even weeks, we imagine it would have been natural for him to sail over to Macedonia, from which, after all, Titus was expected.

We should bear in mind that the currents and wind patterns between Troas and Macedonia made an eastward voyage longer and more difficult than a westward voyage. Because the Black Sea is normally colder than the Mediterranean Basin (on the average of ten degrees), the faster evaporation in the latter causes a strong southwest current to run through the Dardanelles, seriously influencing the speed of travel between Asia and Macedonia. A trip from Troas required only two days (Acts 16:11), whereas the reverse might take more than twice that long (20:6).

Paul proceeds to bless God for this fortunate outcome (verse 14), typical of the divine solicitude for man’s salvation. That is to say, in the recent difficulties at Corinth, the Lord had displayed the power of the Gospel itself (verses 15-17). For both Paul and the Corinthians the Gospel had become a matter of empirical evidence and concrete experience. God had “triumphed over” them (thriambevonti hemas—-verse 14). This note touches the epistle’s major theme: God’s power made perfect in man’s weakness. Paul will speak incessantly of this “manifestation” (phaneroein–verse 14; 3:3; 4:10,11; 5:10,11 (bis); 7:12; 11:6).

Psalms 7: The foundational voice of the Psalms, the underlying bass line of its harmony is, rather, the voice of Jesus Christ, the only Mediator between God and man. The correct theological principle for praying the psalms is the Hypostatic Union, the ontological and irreversible coalescence of the human and the divine, “the synthesis achieved by God, which carries the name of Jesus Christ” (Hans Urs von Balthasar).

It is not surprising, then, that we will on occasion come across certain sentiments in the Psalms that are difficult to appropriate as our own. It does not take me long to discover that some of the lines of the Psalter are impossible to pray in my own person. There are cases in which my own “voice” is inadequate to express the sense of the psalm itself.

Psalm 7 provides an early example of this phenomenon. How many of us would feel comfortable claiming for ourselves the moral innocence expressed in this psalm? This is the prayer of someone whose hands are clean and mind undefiled, a man whose conscience finds nothing for which to reproach him. The voice of this psalm is His of whom St. Peter wrote that He “committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth” (2 Pet. 1:22).

Friday, September 3

2 Corinthians 3.4-18: Paul has “confidence before God” (pepoithesis pros ton Theon–verse 4, an expression that has no linguistic equivalent elsewhere in the Bible). He has this confidence “through Christ,” not from any self-sufficiency (verse 5). The infinitive logisasthai is better translated “to claim” than “to speak”: “We are not sufficient to claim anything” (compare 2:17). Paul’s competence comes from the God who commissioned his ministry (verse 6).

The Apostle introduces here his contrast of letter and Spirit (cf. Romans 2:27-29), which he will elaborate through the rest of this chapter.

What is perhaps most surprising in the first six verses of this chapter is Paul’s confidence in the Corinthian church, where he sees the activity of the Holy Spirit as the fulfillment of the prophetic promises in Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The Corinthians themselves are a testimony to the power and fruitfulness of his own ministry.

Paul them proceeds to contrast the Gospel ministry–the ministry of the Spirit–with the ministry of the Mosaic Law, a theme that runs through the rest of this chapter. Because “the letter kills” (verse 6), he calls the Mosaic ministry “a ministry of death” (verse 7). For someone that spent all his previous life in the study of the Torah, this is a very strong assertion.

The Apostle also introduces now the expression “glory,” which as a noun or a verb (“glorify”) appears thirteen times in the remainder of this chapter. Even the ministry of the Law, he says, was possessed of glory. How much more the ministry of the Spirit? (verses 8-9. Compare the same form of argument in Romans 8:32).

Paul felt the “boldness” (parresia) displayed in what he had just written with respect to the Mosaic Law (verse 12). After all, he had jut referred to the dispensation of the Torah–the ministry of Moses himself–as “the ministry of death” (verse 7) and “the ministry of condemnation” (verse 9). This was certainly bold speech for a rabbi who had spent his whole life in the study of the Torah!

Nor do these words of Paul convey the entire truth. Indeed, Paul was still working his way through this subject when he wrote 2 Corinthians. A year or so later he would give a more developed, nuanced treatment of this matter in his dialectical argument in Romans 9—11.

This boldness in speech Paul contrasts with Moses, who veiled his face so that the Israelites could not behold the fading glory of his countenance (verse 13; Exodus 34:30-35). In this context, in which the word “veil” (kálymma) appears four times (verses 13-16), the “unveiled face” serves as a metaphor for boldness.

The expression eis to telos (verse 13) should not be understood as expressing purpose (“in order that”) but as expressing effect (“with the result that”). Otherwise Paul would be accusing Moses of deceiving the people.