September 3 – September 10, 2021

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.

Saturday, September 4

2 Corinthians 4.1-15: Paul begins this chapter by shifting to the apostolic “we.” It is this “we” that proclaims the Lordship of Jesus (4:5). The apostolic preaching is the means by which others contemplate the revelation of God’s glory on the face of Christ (4:6).

Paul repeats the dominant theme of this epistle—power made perfect in infirmity (verse 7). The clay jars means “in our body” (verse 10), “in our mortal flesh” (verse 11), “in us” (verse 12). Human beings, according to Genesis, are framed from the clay of the earth.

Nonetheless, Paul’s references here do not indicate a spirit/material contrast. The whole human person suffers the pangs of mortality, the soul as well as the body. Of himself, and considered entirely within his own resources, man is like the clay jars in which Gideon’s army carried the victorious flame. The contrast here in Paul is between human weakness and divine power, not between the body and the soul.

For Paul the apostolic experience was like a sustained sense of being put to death, but not quite (verses 8-12). This sense of mortality, repeated in so many circumstances of Paul’s life and travels, is seen through the interpretive lens of the “dying” (nekrosis) of Jesus (verse 10). The death and resurrection of Jesus are the paradigm of power made perfect in weakness (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:25-31).

Paul’s preaching is based on that faith (verse 13). He understands what happens in his life through his deep communion with Christ (1:5; 13:4; Galatians 6:17; Philippians 3:10-11). This is the source of his “boldness.”

This reading about the prominence of death in human experience prepares us for tomorrow’s story of the widow who follows her son’s coffin in a funeral procession that encounters Jesus at the city gate of Nain.

Psalms 11 (Greek & Latin 10): When Jesus would tell us of the final and catastrophic times, it is to Sodom that He sends us: “Likewise as it was also in the days of Lot: They ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built; but on the day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all. Even so will it be in the day when the Son of Man is revealed” (Luke 17:28–30).

Yes, “even so,” for we too yet abide in the cities of the plain, “as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities around them in a similar manner to these” (Jude 7). Living in the world where injustice thrives and the wicked flourish, daily our prayer rises to God with the sentiments of Psalm 11.

This is a psalm, then, about the plight of the upright, the overthrow of the earth, the crumbling of foundations hitherto fixed: “For behold, sinners bend the bow, their arrows stand ready in the quiver, to shoot down in darkness the upright of heart. For they pull down what You established, and what has the just man done?” The “just man” of Psalm 11 is ultimately Jesus the Lord, that Righteous One of whom it is said: “We indeed [suffer] justly, . . . but this Man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:41).

Our psalm, then, bears a special relevance to the day of the Lord’s sufferings, that hour of the earth’s consummate injustice. In truth, this whole psalm may be prayed against the backdrop of Holy Friday. And what of the setting that is envisioned here, where the bow is bent against the righteous? It is “the great city which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified” (Rev. 11:8).

Sunday, September 5

Luke 7.11-17: A normal experience of the life in Christ is a conflict between what I shall call a “quantitatively induced desperation” and an “aprioristic assurance.” Each element of the conflict needs explanation.

Quantitatively induced desperation is what prompts the soul to look at all that opposes us and to wonder, “How in the world can we handle this? It is simply too much.”

We Christians must know that the numbers are normally against us. No matter how many people come to believe that Christ has triumphed over sin and death, there is not the slightest reason to think they will ever be a majority.

Consider the widow in today’s Gospel. Her son, her only support in life has died. Now the numbers indicate that this son will stay dead. Most people who have die—an impressive majority—have stayed dead. The widow of Nain can find no comfort by examining the numbers. She can say with the Psalmist, “Many are they who rise against me. / Many are those who say of me, / “There is no help for him from God.”

We believers must not imagine that things will ever be different from this. It is unlikely the numbers will ever be in our favor. This sane reflection is what induces “quantitatively induced desperation.” This simply means that the numbers are almost never in our favor.

The other side of the conflict is what I call “aprioristic assurance.” Something is said to be A priori if it requires no evidence. An a priori does not, in fact, pay the slightest attention to evidence. It never consults the numbers. Its certainty is founded on the direct perception of the truth, not the weighing of arguments. (For instance, I need no evidence to know that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Indeed, no evidence can be adduced except the line itself.)

Sometimes the truth is so obviously true that it does not occur to us to wonder about it. Consider the lion, for instance. Have you ever observed that lions seem to know nothing about mathematics? Have you ever known a lion who counted the sheep before he attacked the flock? The lion never says to himself, ‘There are more than a hundred sheep here. If they ever turn on me, I’m a goner.’ Ask yourself, ‘How many sheep does it take to strike terror in the heart of the lion?”

People sometimes count sheep, such as the shepherd who left the ninety-nine on the mountain while he went to search for the one that was lost. But lions? No, lions seem not to take notice of sheep in numerical terms.

When Saint Paul preached the Gospel, he never appealed to quantitative thinking. He never said to himself, ‘Everybody is joining this religion, so I have better get into it while they’re still taking new members.’

No, Paul says simply, “I know in whom I believe.” In all matters the Christian faith is aprioristic. It is a far more important thing to know that Christ has redeemed mankind than to count the numbers of those who believe this.

Monday, September 6

Judges 4: Early in the history of the chosen people’s occupation of the promised land appears the matriarchal and prophetic Deborah, the only woman listed among the “Judges” that guided Israel’s various tribes during the two centuries or so between the Conquest and the rise of Saul. Most of what we know of Deborah comes from Judges 4-5, an historical account followed by a canticle showing signs of great antiquity. This material, prior to its incorporation into the literary sources of the Book of Judges, was probably preserved for long time in Ephraim’s narrative traditions at the shrine of Bethel, not far from which stood the palm tree under which Deborah was known to sit and deliver oracular guidance to the people. Although we are not explicitly told so, the reference to forty years of peace in Judges 5:31 has suggested to some readers that this was the length of Deborah’s ministry.

The other character in this chapter is the reluctant Barak, the man who is supposed to lead Israel into battle. St. Jerome observed that, if Barak had been a brave and decisive man to begin with, Deborah’s intervention in the battle with Sisera would not have been necessary. He went on to compare her to Mary Magdalene, whom the Gospels likewise show to have been a courageous woman at the time of the Lord’s death and burial, in conspicuous contrast to the intimidated, bewildered, and discouraged apostles.

It is not surprising, then, that Christian readers have always seen the Deborah story as evidence of God’s equal regard for men and women. Their comments in this respect are rooted, of course, in the particulars of the story itself.

Indeed, the contrast between the forthright Deborah and the timid, reluctant Barak is one of the most obvious and entertaining examples of this literary technique in all of Holy Scripture. The robust directives of Deborah in Judges 4:6f (“Go . . . Deploy . . . Take”) are met by the poltroonish foot-dragging of Barak in verse 8. His pathetic response is composed of two hypothetical pronouncements that leave all the initiative to Deborah: “If you go with me, I will go. If you will not go with me, I will not go.” The very sounds of the Hebrew text mimic both the bee-like, rapid-fire delivery of Deborah (lek wumashakta . . . welaqahta) and the lifeless, melancholic mumbling of Barak (’im telki ‘immi wahalakti, we’im lo’ telki ‘immi lo’elek).

This amusing contrast is further heightened by the fact that Barak’s very name means “lightning bolt.” The energetic Deborah is manifestly frustrated, having a difficult time convincing this lightning to strike! A few verses later, Deborah must sting the sluggard again: Qum — “Up!” (4:14) This sharp command, qum, is repeated in the canticle in Judges 5:12.

It is not surprising, perhaps, that Christian readers have traditionally seen the Deborah story as evidence of God’s equal regard for men and women. On the other hand (if one may safely venture the remark) the woman in this contrast seems to be quite a bit more reliable than the man.

Tuesday, September 7

2 Corinthians 6.1-10: In the previous chapter Paul had exhorted the Corinthians to be reconciled to God (5:20), right after proclaiming that God in Christ had reconciled them to Himself (5:18). That is to say, there is a sense in which the reconciling work of God for man does not preclude, but rather calls for, man’s own act of being reconciled to God. Even this latter act, however, is something man can do only under the influence of divine grace. This is indicated by the passive voice of the verb: “Be reconciled.” What God does, then, does not preclude the work of man. On the contrary, it invites and enables the work of man. It is a “cooperation.”

Paul continues this theme of “cooperation” (in Latin) or synergism (in Greek) in the exhortation that commences the present chapter: “In cooperation [synergountes], therefore, we exhort you not to receive the grace of God in vain” (verse 1). The cooperation here appears to be twofold. First, Paul cooperates (literally, “works together with”) God, inasmuch as he is God’s ambassador (5:10; 1 Corinthians 3:9); his preaching is authorized and enabled by God. Second, the Corinthians are not to let God’s grace go “for naught” (literally, “unto empty”–eis kenon). Not receiving God’s grace in vain is a specification of “be reconciled.” That is to say, what God does for man is not the complete story; man must also do certain things, so that God’s grace will not be “in vain.” In the several verses referring to his own experience, Paul hints at what some of these things may be. They form a pretty tough narrative of what it is to “cooperate” with God.

As indicated by the aorist tense of the Greek verb “to receive,” Paul is not thinking of repeated, continuous conversion; he is summoning the Corinthians, rather, to a decisive act made in the “now” of the divine summons (verse 2). It is this act of decision that renders any day “the day of salvation.”

Paul then turns to a description of the conditions and circumstances of his ministry (verses -10). This section, apologetic and given in answer to the critics of that ministry, contains the second such description (cf. 4:8-9), and two more will follow (11:23-29; 12:10. Elsewhere, cf. 1 Corinthians 4:10-13; Philippians 4:12; Romans 8:35,38-39). In all such descriptions we see Paul feeding on his inner communion with God in Christ. That is what separates these “autobiographical lists” from the Stoic and Jewish apologetic lists with which they are sometimes compared (cf. 4:10-11).

Wednesday, September 8

2 Corinthians 6.11—7.1: The Apostle takes up in this section a very practical matter—marriage. This subject is so unexpected in the context that some scholars speculate that it slipped out of place in the manuscript transmission. This speculation, I believe, is unwarranted. It seems more reasonable to suppose that the harmful effects of “mixed marriages” may lie at the heart of the problems that Paul is having at Corinth. This would explain why the treatment of this subject appears in this apologetic section of the epistle.

In a previous letter to Corinth, a year or so earlier, Paul had been obliged to deal with the problems that arose when a man or woman, after their conversion to Christ, was consequently abandoned by an unbelieving spouse (1 Corinthians 7:12-17). His directions at that time had concerned only marriages formed prior to someone’s conversion. However, a different sort of problem has since arisen at Corinth. Now there is question of a Christian actually marrying a non-Christian.

Paul perceives a problem already addressed specifically in the Scriptures of God’s People. Although in earlier periods of biblical history relatively little attention had been given to marriage with pagans—especially when a Jewish man married a non-Jewish wife—Israel’s religious leaders became more pastorally sensitive to such situations during the Babylonian Captivity (587-538) and the following centuries.

We see this sensitivity at work in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which cover the century and more that followed the Captivity. When, with the rise of Cyrus in 539, the exiled Jews were permitted to return to the Holy Land, it fell mostly to the lot of young, unmarried men to undertake that arduous enterprise. When these returned to restore the fortunes of their ancestors, it was hardly surprising that they began to intermarry with the local heathen population.

Spiritual leaders like Ezra and Nehemiah quickly perceived the danger. Had not such marriages proved to be the spiritual downfall of Israel in times past? Who could fail to see, for example, how King Ahab’s marriage to the Phoenician princess Jezebel had introduced every manner of moral and spiritual decay among God’s People? Indeed, in the eyes of the Chronicler, who wrote shortly afterwards, this problem could be traced back to Solomon himself and his numerous pagan wives.

This pastoral perception led to a stern reform in Israel, as the scribal and rabbinical leadership became tougher on this matter. In the present text it is clear that Paul is heir to the tradition of Ezra and Nehemiah in this respect. His reasoning here, which requires almost no comment and certainly leaves nothing in doubt on the point, is simply a Christian variation of the thinking of Ezra and Nehemiah.

Nor is it surprising that Paul quotes, on this point, a prophet of the period of the Captivity (verse 16; Ezekiel 37:27), using Israel’s separation from Babylon as his interpretive metaphor (verses 17-18).

In our modern context these biblical standards seem particularly relevant and applicable, and they should be expressed in both the canonical norms and pastoral practice of Christian congregations. To young Christians today it should be made plain, in the home and at the local church, that non-Christians are simply off-limits with respect to dating and marriage. It is no insult to either oxen or horses to observe that they are not suitably harnessed together.

Thursday, September 9

Luke 8.1-3: Jesus’ sense of mission and vocation was not something separable from the social tissue of his life—its organic particularity, the extended web of personal relationships by which he was bound to his countrymen and contemporaries, and to their common history. Notwithstanding his partiality for solitary prayer, the gospels do not portray Jesus as a hermit who made occasional visits into town. They picture him, on the contrary, as a prayerful man actively involved with real people and surrounded by friends and disciples.

Some of these specific and identified people were women—specific women, the particular women in whose company we find him: mother, friends, disciples, and beneficiaries of his mercy. These women appear to have been every bit as individual and unique as any of the apostles. The Good Shepherd called them by name (for example, Luke 10:41; John 20:16).

In today’s selection from his Gospel, Luke summarizes the Christian female discipleship, testifying that its company was not only numerous, but also a source of concrete support in Jesus’ ministry:

Like the other Gospels, Luke gives special attention to Mary Magdalen, mentioning the “seven demons” driven her (cf. also Mark 16:9). This detail prompts the suspicion that some of these women were the recipients of Jesus’ healing and mercy.

One thinks, for instance, of the “daughter of Abraham” whom Jesus healed in the synagogue, that lady “who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years and was bent over and could in no way straighten upright” (Luke 13:10-17). Then, there was another “daughter” who, until she touched the hem of his garment, had been hemorrhaging for twelve years (Luke 8:42-48). We recall, as well, the wife of Jairus, who watched Jesus raise her own daughter from the dead (Luke 8:49-56).

In addition to the Galilean women who traveled with him and the Twelve, we know of others associated with Jesus’ ministry. They included the two sisters of Lazarus at Bethany—that family of which John observes, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11:5).

Nor was his ministry limited to Jewish women. Both Mark (7:24-30) and Matthew (15:21-28) testify that he expelled a demon from the daughter of a Gentile woman, and John records a lengthy conversation with a woman of Samaria (John 4:6-26).

Friday, September 10

Judges 8: This chapter records the incident in which Gideon, leading his three hundred exhausted and hungry warriors in pursuit of fifteen thousand escaping Midianites, requested loaves of bread from the cities of Succoth and Penuel. This request was entirely reasonable. Gideon’s small force, by routing the Midianite army by the hill of Moreh (7:19-22), had effectively delivered all Israel, including Succoth and Penuel, from seven years of oppression (6:1). Now there remained only a modest mopping-up operation to subdue the last vestiges of the fleeing Midianite force, led by Zeba and Zalmunna. Providing Gideon’s little army with a bit of bread was the very least to be expected from those cities which benefited from that army’s victory.

Yet, the leaders of Succoth and Penuel refused Gideon’s petition. The Sacred Text tells us why: “Are the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna now in your hand, that we should give bread to your army?” (8:6) That is to say, the men of those two cities, Succoth and Penuel, were afraid to take the chance. If they were to give bread to Gideon’s forces and then Gideon should lose the battle to Zebah and Zalmunna, the Midianites would retaliate against the cities that had provided the requested assistance. (One recalls the vengeance of Saul against the priests of Nob, who honored an identical request from David; see 1 Samuel 21:1-7; 22:6-19.) In short, until the battle was actually over, the men Succoth and Penuel decided to play it safe. No bread, then, for Gideon’s men.

This story illustrates the difference between those who play it safe and those who play for keeps. By boldly marching his three hundred men into the massive Midianite camp (“as numerous as locusts; and their camels were without number, as the sand by the seashore in multitude”), Gideon had played for keeps. This story emphasizes the fortitude of his army by its contrast to the cowardice of Succoth and Penuel. Gideon won that battle, because the Lord took his side. In some of the battles that men fight on this earth, you see, God does take sides. Never, however, does He take the side of the coward.

This story also illustrates why the virtue of fortitude is necessary for all the other virtues, as a condition and catalyst. The history of moral philosophy insists that no other virtue is possible without the virtue of fortitude, certainly not justice nor charity. The man deficient in fortitude will not measure up in anything else. In the words of Ambrose of Milan, “In the mediocre soul there is no fortitude, which alone defends the adornment of all the virtues” (De Officiis 1.39). ). For this reason, the leaders of Succoth and Penuel, falling short in fortitude, failed in an elementary duty of justice and charity.