January 21 – January 28, 2022

Friday, January 21

Matthew 7.21-28: The foolish man, we are told, tries to build his house on something so unstable as sand. This is certainly the case of modern man. For this reason, the mind of the Gospel poses a special challenge to the contemporary world, because intellectual instability is the most notable characteristic of the modern mind.

Perhaps one of the best representatives of the thoroughly modern mind was Prince Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky, as Tolstoy describes him in Anna Karenina. For Oblonsky, thought consisted only in “cerebral reflexes.” His skills of critical reflection were only slightly above those of the earthworm, pretty much on the same level as the snail. His philosophy, if he could be said to have one, was simply to “go with the flow.”

Tolstoy describes him: “Stepan Arkadyevich took in and read a liberal paper, not an extreme one, but one advocating the views held by the majority. And in spite of the fact that science, art and politics had no special interest for him, he firmly held those views on all these subjects which were held by the majority and by his paper, and he only changed them when the majority changed them- or, more strictly speaking, he did not change them, but they imperceptibly changed of themselves within him.”

Tolstoy continues, “Stepan Arkadyevich had not chosen his political opinions or his views- these political opinions and views had come to him of themselves- just as he did not choose the shapes of his hat and coat, but simply accepted those that were being worn. And for him, living in a certain society- owing to the need, ordinarily developed at years of discretion, for some degree of mental activity- to have views was just as indispensable as to have a hat. If there was a reason for his preferring liberal to conservative views, which were held also by many of his circle, it arose not from his considering liberalism more rational, but from its being in closer accordance with his manner of life.”

In all these respect, Stephan Arkadyevich simply conformed to whatever intellectual bias held sway. His was a completely passive mind. A personal philosophy could be changed as easily as a shirt or a dress.

It was always a question of being in fashion. Stephan Arkadyevich totally conformed to whatever society dictated, whether in dress or in prejudice. Nothing inside his head actually rose to the level of thought.

Hence, he was a man that had built his house on sand. Foundational instability was the chief characteristic of his mind, to the extent that he could be said to have a mind.

Saturday, January 22

Matthew 8:1-13: Here are the first two of the Ten Miracles that Matthew, following his standard pattern of comparing Moses and Jesus, sets in parallel to the Ten Plagues visited on Egypt. All of these Ten Miracles illustrate this authority of Christ: over sickness and paralysis, over the demons, and over the forces of nature. Just as the Lord teaches with authority (7:29), we also find Him healing with authority; unlike the prophets and rabbis, Jesus heals by command, not by intercessory prayer.

In the first of these miracles, the curing of the leper, the Lord invokes the authority of Moses (8:4), and in the second he extends the blessing of the Chosen People to the faith of the Gentiles (8:11).

Matthew 7:29 introduced the theme of the Lord’s “authority” (exsousia), which appears here again in 8:9. It will reappear presently in the matter of the forgiveness of sins (9:6), where we will learn that this authority is shared with the Church (9:8).

Hebrews 10.11-18: The Old Testament sacrifices were many, whereas the New Testament sacrifice is unique: “And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices . . . But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God.” In the previous chapter we read that “Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many” (9:28). This word “once” (hapachs) is found in Hebrews 8 times, more than all the other New Testament books put together.

This hapachs, “once,” is contrasted with pollakis, “many times” (9:25-26).

The Old Testament sacrifices were unable, of themselves, to atone for sins and purify the heart: “And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins, and “by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.”

Implied in the development of this theme is an underlying judgment on the Jewish religion itself: Now that the fulfillment of its history has come in Christ and His redeeming work, the Jewish religion no longer represents God’s will for history. This is why it is called “the old covenant: “In that He says, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (8:13). The continued existence of a “Jewish religion” alongside the Christian Gospel remains an anomaly yet to be resolved.

Sunday, January 23

Matthew 8.14-17: This, the third of the Ten Miracles of this section of Matthew, is illustrated by its differences with the parallel text in Mark 1:29-31. Matthew’s account is distinguished by: (1) the removal of all the characters except Jesus and this woman, so that the encounter is entirely person-to-person (Indeed, in verse 15 the lady in question serves “Him,” not the “them” of Mark 1:31.); (2) Matthew’s insertion of the expression “by word” (logo) in verse 16, an addition that heightens the sense of the Lord’s power and ties this text back to 8:8; (3) the quotation from Isaiah in 8:17, which continues Matthew’s sustained emphasis on Jesus’ fulfillment of the Old Testament. Thus, in the three miracles we have seen so far, the Lord conquers leprosy, paralysis, and infection. That is to say, he reverses the plagues of Egypt.

Hebrews 10.26-39: Here we find one of Holy Scripture’s most solemn declarations of judgment. Having exhorted his readers to boldness in their access to God (verses 19-22), our author now describes the alternative in frightening terms.

In both instances—the exhortation to confidence and the warning of judgment—he uses the description “living, declaring that we have a new and living way,” and then reminding his readers, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” In both cases the modifier serves to put the reader on notice that these things are not matters of theory and abstraction. “Living,” in each of these contexts, indicates real, actual, existential. It means that both salvation and damnation are worthy of our most serious attention.

These verses depict the gravity of falling away from God. The author recalls that such falling away, even at the time of Moses, was dealt with in a radical manner—namely, those who rejected the rule of Moses were devoured with fiery indignation (verses 27-28). Our author, who has been at pains to emphasize the superiority of Jesus over Moses, argues here that this superiority implies a greater severity in those who fall away: “Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be deemed worthy who has trampled underfoot the Son of God” (verse 29). He had earlier contrasted Moses and Jesus, call the first God’s servant and the second God’s Son (3:5-6). How, he asks, which of them is it more dangerous to abandon?

Our author used this same argument in chapter 2, where he contrasted the word given by angels to the message given by Christ: “For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him?” (2:2-3)

In chapter 2, and again here, our author treats such apostasy as a sin against the Holy Spirit. Here he speaks of insulting the Spirit of grace (verse 29), and in chapter 2 he spoke of “the gifts of the Holy Spirit” as pertinent to the message of salvation (2:4).

Monday, January 24

Hebrews 1.1-7: The construction of the ark, according to this text, represented Noah’s faith, the foundation of his righteousness. Sirach wrote of Noah,

Noah was found perfect, just, and in the time of wrath he was made a reconciliation. Therefore was there a remnant left to the earth, when the flood came. The covenants of the world were made with him, that all flesh should no more be destroyed with the flood (Sirach 44:17-19).

But Noah not only lived in righteousness; he was also remembered as the Bible’s first “preacher of righteousness. The Apostle Peter explicitly referred to him as “a preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5). Late in the first century Clement of Rome continued that image of Noah: “Noah preached repentance, and those who heeded him were saved” (First Epistle 7.6).

This picture of Noah as a righteous preacher of repentance came to the early Christians from Jewish lore. Flavius Josephus wrote of Noah’s relationship to his contemporaries in this way:

Noah was most uncomfortable with their actions, and, not at all happy with their conduct, he persuaded them to improve their dispositions and their actions. Seeing, nonetheless, that they did not obey him but remained slaves to their own wicked desires, he feared that they would slay him, together with his wife and children, as well as the spouses of the latter, so he departed out of that land (Antiquities 13.1).

Unable to convert his contemporaries, Noah then followed the divine leading to build an ark for the delivery of his family. He knew that God intended to flood the earth and destroy its wicked.

The early Christians, as we see in the First Epistle of Peter (3:18-21), thought of the flood itself as a typos of Baptism. If we are to understand the story of Noah as the early Christians understood it, then, it will be useful to examine its relationship to repentance and baptism. We may start by considering the symbolism of water itself, especially water as threatening and destructive. The water in the Noah story is not the great life-sustaining fluid; it is utterly menacing, rather, and it is specifically menacing to sin.

Like the flood of Noah, baptism is destructive. Baptism has been given to the world because the world is full of sin, and through this water of baptism we are delivered from the sinful world. To be baptized means that we deliberately drown our sins in repentance. Whether we speak of the baptismal type in the Deluge, therefore, or of the fulfillment of that type in baptism itself, we must start with sin.

Thus, the Bible’s flood account begins with a description of a world full of sin (Genesis 6:1–5, 11–13), ending with God’s sorrow at having made man and His resolve to destroy man from the earth (6:6–7). God does not destroy the world in wrath, but in sorrow, and only our repentance at Noah’s preaching can spare us this great sorrow of God.

Unlike Noah’s contemporaries, we ourselves hearken to his preaching. That is to say, we submit to this new baptismal flood because we repent at the witness of Noah.

Baptism presupposes and requires this repentance of our sins, this conversion of our hearts to the apostolic word of Noah. In repentance we plunge ourselves into the deeper mystery of Noah’s flood, which is the death and Resurrection of Christ our Lord (Romans 6:3; Colossians 2:12).

Tuesday, January 25

Matthew 8:23-27: In this account of the stilling of the storm, the Lord again speaks of faith, which was also the point of the second miracle account, the story of the centurion (8:10,13). There is a striking contrast between the utter serenity of the Lord (asleep!) and the agitation of the disciples. The Lord imposes his own tranquility on the sea itself (8:26). Dominant in this narrative is a Christology of majesty, ending with the major query of the gospel itself: “Who is this?” (8:27) This is the very question that Peter, in the name of the Church, will answer in 16:16. The correct answering of this question is the affirmation of faith on which, as a foundation stone, is constructed (16:18).

Psalms 68 (Greek & Latin 67): The Book of Numbers 10:35 indicates what seems to have been the original context for this psalm: “So it was, whenever the ark set out, that Moses said: ‘Rise up, O Lord! / Let Your enemies be scattered, / And let those who hate You flee before You.’” This was the psalm chanted to accompany the movement of the ark of the covenant, as it was carried by the Levites from place to place during Israel’s desert wanderings.

Reference is made to the central event of that wandering—Mount Sinai: “O God, when You went out before Your people, when You marched through the wilderness, the earth shook; the heavens also dripped rain at the presence of God. Sinai itself was moved at the presence of God, the God of Israel.”

The enemies to be scattered, in that historical context, were those up-to-no-good Amalekites, Moabites, Amorites, Midianites and so forth, who did battle against the Chosen People on their way to the Promised Land: “Kings of armies flee, they flee. . . . But God will wound the head of His enemies, the hairy scalp of one who still goes on in his trespasses. . . . Scatter the peoples who delight in war.”

This wandering of Israel through the desert was a kind of procession, in which the various tribes marched in set formation: “The chariots of God are twenty thousand, even thousands of thousands. . . . Bless the Lord in the congregations, the Lord from the fountain of Israel. There is little Benjamin, their leader, the princes of Judah and their company, the princes of Zebulun and the princes of Naphtali.”

Other lines in the psalm make it clear, likewise, that it was later chanted to accompany liturgical processions in the temple at Jerusalem: “They have seen Your procession, O God, the procession of my God, my King, into the sanctuary. The singers went before, the players on instruments followed after; among them were the maidens playing timbrels. . . . Because of Your temple at Jerusalem, kings will bring presents to You.”

Wednesday, January 26

Matthew 8:28-34: The question asked in the previous story (“Who is this?”) is now answered by the demons themselves: “Jesus, the Son of God” (8:29). In all three of the Synoptic Gospels, the account of expelling of these demons follows the storm on the lake, that that the external turbulence of the elements prepares for the internal turbulence of the soul.

It is a point of great irony in this story that the local citizens, who had managed to overcome somewhat their fear of the demoniacs, are so completely terror-struck by the Lord’s action that they request that he leave them be (8:34).

Deuteronomy 26: This passage from Deuteronomy includes what is often called the Deuteronomic Creed. It is the formula of faith recited by the Israelite when he presents his first fruits to the Lord. The “creed,” we observe, is something prior to the biblical canon itself. In both the Old and New Testaments, we see creedal formulas already in use.

A creed is something to be memorized. The transmission took shape, rather, by listening and repeating, with a view to learning the content by rote. Indeed, doing things by rote is of immense importance in the Christian life.

In this recitation the material was to go directly from the ear to the mouth; and the memory, thus strengthened, was to grab hold of it in order to fix it in the heart. There was to be an actual sound, a living word, a formula pronounced, heard, repeated, and memorized. The hearers were to be repeaters: “Recite after me . . .”

Indeed, the biblical term for this process—“catechesis”—means “according to echo.” The “catechumen” is literally an “echoer,” indicating that the living word resounds (that is, “sounds again”) in the ears, is repeated by the tongue, and finally attains a round, full resonance in the heart.

Traditionally, indeed, the Christian Church did not hand over the Holy Scriptures to a person until this catechesis was completed and mature, because such initiatory instruction provided the key to the correct understanding of the Bible. The Bible is pretty useless, even harmful, if it is misunderstood. As we see in the temptations of Jesus, Satan loves to quote the Bible.

Thursday, January 27

Matthew 9.1-9: Once again Matthew, omitting the colorful detail about the removal of the roof, has simplified a story for purposes of concentrating the attention on the person-to-person encounter between Jesus and the paralytic.

Matthew’s version is further distinguished by the reference to Lord’s sharing of His exsousia, or authority (specifically the authority to forgive sins), with “men” (8:8); that is, the Church. Indeed, the Church’s authority to forgive sins is very much spelled out later in Matthew 18:18, just as the entire ministry and mission of the Church is rooted in Christ’s reception of “all authority in heaven and on earth” (28: 18f).

Hebrews 11.23-29: Arguably one of the most puzzling verses in Holy Scripture is that which tells why Moses’ mother did not drown him at birth. For the purpose of introducing this subject as a matter of inquiry, but without recommending the accuracy of the translation, I quote the relevant verse in the New King James Version: “And when she saw he was a beautiful child, she hid him three months” (Exodus 2:2).
This verse is puzzling in two ways. First, taken as a plain assertion—“he was beautiful, so she hid him”—the verse just won’t do. Are we to imagine that all the other little Hebrew boys were ugly? Since the beauty in Moses’ case is given as the reason for his parents’ refusal to obey Pharaoh’s command, we suspect that a deeper, subtler significance is intended.

Second, ancient interpreters (Josephus, Stephen, and others), though differing among themselves somewhat about details, agree that its meaning is more mysterious than at first appears.

In the Epistle to the Hebrews, where the appearance of the newborn Moses is given as the reason why his parents “were not afraid of the king’s command,” the entire context is that of faith: “By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden three months by his parents, because they saw that he was a beautiful child” (11:23).

Here the point is very subtle indeed. When the parents looked upon little Moses, they were able to discern “by faith” some aspect of the child’s appearance that was not otherwise obvious. We recall that this section of Hebrews began by defining faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (11:1). In Hebrews 11, faith invariably has to do with an adherence to the unseen future. The infant Moses, then, gave evidence of something hoped for but not yet seen, and faith granted his parents a special discernment in his regard.

Friday, January 28

Matthew 9.9-13: By comparing this story with the parallel accounts in Mark and Luke, we learn that Matthew’s other name was Levi. Much like the previous story of the paralytic, this account of the call of Matthew’s call combines the theme of forgiveness with healing, for Jesus is here portrayed as a physician (9:12). As so often, Matthew’s version of this story includes a reference to the fulfillment of prophecy, in this case the prophet Hosea (cf also Matthew 2:15). Matthew was fond of this verse of Hosea about the Lord’s preference of mercy over sacrifice, and he will quote it again in 12:7.

Hebrews 11.30-40: This summary of the “great cloud of witnesses” may be described as centered on the author’s reference to what he calls “a better resurrection.” In the context, the comparative adjective, “better,” distinguishes this resurrection from the dead from earlier biblical stories in which, as he says, “women received their dead raised to life again.” Those earlier stories include those accounts in which Elijah and Elisha raised to life the deceased sons of the widow of Zarephath and the Shunammite woman.

These true resurrections from the dead may be compared with Jesus’ resurrections of Lazarus, the son of the widow of Nain, and the daughter of Jairus. These were true resurrections, genuine victories of life over death, and Holy Scripture uses the same word—anastasis—to describe them.

For all that, however, those resurrections were not complete, because those who were raised were still obliged to face death once again. When our author speaks, therefore, of a “better resurrection,” he has in mind that definitive victory over death, which was Israel’s most precious hope. “Others were tortured,” he tells us, “not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection.”

This “better resurrection,” the final and highest hope of the Old Covenant, is the major and defining thesis of the New. St. Paul made this claim before the Sanhedrin itself: “I worship the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the Law and in the Prophets. I have hope in God, which they themselves also accept, that there will be a resurrection” (Acts 24:14-15). Paul finished his defense by declaring, “Concerning the resurrection of the dead I am being judged by you this day.”

The Resurrection is the core substance of the “good news.” It is not just one of the things that Christians believe, but the heart and kernel of the evangelion. For this reason the earliest, shortest version of the Creed asserted simply, “Jesus is Lord,” an assertion explained in the first apostolic sermon: “This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses. . . . Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:32,36). Peter preached this message to the Jews, because it addressed a specifically Jewish hope. “Let the whole house of Israel know,” he said. What God accomplished in the resurrection of Jesus was the fulfillment of a specifically Jewish hope.