January 27 – February 3, 2023

Friday, January 27

Matthew 9:14-17: The terms of the question point to a feature that distinguished the disciples of Jesus from the followers of John the Baptist. In due course the followers of John the Baptist were absorbed into the Christian Church, a process of which we see evidence in the New Testament itself, notably the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel according to John, and it seems likely that the final stages of this assimilation may have been contemporary with the composition of Matthew. In His response to the question, Jesus makes it clear that the Christian freedom from fasting was a very temporary arrangement, entirely limited to the time of His earthly ministry, and we know that even prior to the end of the first century the Christian Church had already established Wednesday and Friday each week as fast days. This arrangement would distinguish the Christians from the Pharisaic Jews, who fasted on Mondays and Thursdays.

Genesis 27: The shrewdness of Rebekah (verses 1-13) was a family trait, which we have already seen in Jacob’s snatching of Esau’s birthright. Very shortly we will find Jacob matching wits with Rebekah’s brother, Laban. If we are disposed to judge Rebekah’s favoritism too harshly, it will be useful to bear in mind that the Lord had already given her a special insight into the matter: “Two nations are in your womb. Two peoples will be separated from your body; one people shall be stronger than the other, and the older shall serve the younger” (25:23). Rebekah knew which son was which, so she knew which son would do the serving and which would be served. If such was God’s plan, Rebekah saw no harm in moving things in the right direction, as it were. Moved by a mixture of both faith and anxiety, Rebekah decides to take the fulfillment of prophecy into her own hands. (We recall that Sarah also did that, when she gave Hagar to Abraham as a second wife.)

Christians have long been bothered by Rebekah’s and Jacob’s deception of Isaac. Their discomfort is understandable, but we should bear in mind that Holy Scripture is simply telling us what happened. The cunning of the mother and the mendacity of the son are not being held up for our emulation. Ultimately this is a story about what God does, not man. This is “mystery, not mendacity,” said St. Augustine.

There is no indication that anyone but Rebekah had received that revelation of God’s plan, so we should not be surprised that Isaac is unaware of it. Thus, his physical blindness becomes a symbol of his inability to see what is going on, according to God’s plan. His favoring of Esau over Jacob already puts him outside of God’s will; that is to say, his preference between his sons is not that of God. Being outside of God’s will, therefore, he is easily deceived. Acting outside of God’s will is a sure step toward deception. On at least two levels in this account, therefore, Isaac is acting blindly.

Saturday, January 28

Genesis 28: As we saw in the previous chapter, Rebekah does not want Jacob simply to flee from the possible vengeance of Esau. She correctly wants Jacob to be sent away by his father. There are several things to be said about Isaac’s sending Jacob away (verses 1-5).

First, there is a sense of historical continuity. Isaac is aware that he is handing on a legacy that he himself received. The current family crisis is not treated simply as a matter of the present; it is subsumed into a larger historical picture.

Second, there is the prayer and promise of fertility. The effects of this prayer (twelve sons and a daughter!) show how powerful a man of prayer Isaac really was (cf. also 25:21).

Third, Jacob continues the tradition of being a “stranger” (verse 4), like his grandfather and father. This theme will be picked up in the New Testament: “By faith [Abraham] dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tends with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise” (Hebrews 11:9).

Esau, having twice failed to please his parents by his choice of wives, decides this time to choose a bride from within the family (verses 6-9). Alas, he marries into the discredited side of the family! One sometimes has the impression that Esau’s brow was branded with the word “Loser.”

The religious experience of Jacob at Bethel is divided into two parts: his vision, in which God speaks (verses 10-15), and his thoughtful reaction within the dream (verses 16-22). This division of religious experience into the visionary and the deliberative is found in other places of Holy Scripture, such as the case of Peter in Acts 10:9-17 and several places in Ezekiel. Jacob’s is a night-vision, like that of Abraham in Genesis 15 and Isaac in Genesis 26; indeed, God says to him (verse 15) much the same things that He said to Abraham (15:17-18) and to Isaac (26:24-25). Thus, all three of the patriarchs have visions in the night, and all three establish shrines: Abraham at Hebron, Isaac at Beersheba, Jacob at Bethel.

Bethel (“house of God”) is the place where earth and heaven are joined, as though by an umbilical cord (verse 12). When Jacob rises in the morning, he consecrates the place, somewhat terrified that he had picked, as his place to sleep, the very spot where heaven and earth are joined; he was nearly run over by all the angelic traffic, as it were.

Bethel is a type and prefiguration, of course, of the real house of God, where heaven and earth are joined, Jesus Christ our Lord (John 1:43-51).Christians since the second century have regarded Jacob’s ladder as the ladder of Christ. For this reason, Jacob poured oil (chrisma) on the stone, making it a “Christian stone” (cf. Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho 86).

Sunday, January 29

Matthew 9.27-38: There are three things we may consider in Matthew’s story of the two Blind: the story’s setting in Matthew’s Gospel, the reaction of the Lord’s enemies, the Pharisees, and finally the significance of the two blind men themselves.

First, let us reflect on the context of this story near the end of Matthew 9. Commentators on the Sacred Text have long observed that chapters 8 & 9 of Matthew contain a list of ten miracles of our Lord, a list that corresponds to the ten plagues of Egypt as described in the Book of Exodus. This healing of the two blind men is #9 in that list of miracles, and it thus conforms to the ninth plague of Egypt. Now, let us recall that the 9th plague of Egypt was the deep darkness that covered the whole land.

It is worth considering the significance of that night plague. It is described in the Book of Wisdom: “while the wicked thought to be able to have dominion over the holy nation, they themselves being fettered with the bonds of darkness, and a long night, shut up in their houses, lay there exiled from the eternal providence.

And while they thought to lie hid in their obscure sins, they were scattered under a dark veil of forgetfulness, being horribly afraid and troubled with exceeding great astonishment. For neither did the den that held them, keep them from fear: for noises coming down troubled them, and sad visions appearing to them, affrighted them. And no power of fire could give them light, neither could the bright flames of the stars enlighten that horrible night (Wisdom of Solomon 17:2-5).

This, then, was an obscurity of the spirit, in which each soul was abandoned to its own inner darkness. It was the darkness of man without God. It was the darkness of hell, where the fire gives off heat but no light.

When Matthew says, therefore, that Jesus set these two men free from their darkness, the story is a parable of God’s grace, s symbol of man’s liberation by the light of Christ.

Second, let us look at the reaction of the Lord’s enemies. Matthew writes, ““He casts out demons by the ruler of the demons.” This is essentially the sin of Egypt and Sodom, the confusion of light and darkness. These enemies of Jesus ascribe to Satan what is really the work of God. That is to say, they confuse light and darkness. They prefer the darkness to the light. This is the sin of the Pharisees, and it seems to be a pretty common sin, this confusion of darkness and light.

The confusion of darkness and light comes very close to being the unforgivable sin. If a man deliberately embraces the darkness and calls it light, he returns to that primitive chaos, which God dispelled by saying, “Let there be light!” This is not a casual sin, so to speak. Such a man offends at the very root of reality.
The world in which we live is full of light, yet most men walk in darkness. All of us sin, every day. Let each of us be especially careful, however, not to sin deliberately, not to sin against the light. Let us avoid this sin at all costs.

Third, let us consider these two blind men more closely. The Sacred Text minces no words about their condition. There is no attempt to disguise their affliction. These two men are not “visually challenged.” They are blind; they are very seriously disadvantaged. They know that there is something wrong with them. They do not suffer the illusion that blindness and sight are equal states. They are surrounded by light but have no access to it.

It is significant that these blind men invoke Jesus as “Son of David,” which means the Messiah. This is an important confession of faith, because it lays claim to the biblical prophecies about what was expected with the coming of the Messiah. For example, we read in the Book of Isaiah, “In that day the deaf shall hear the words of the book, /And the eyes of the blind shall see out of obscurity and out of darkness. . . Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, /And the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. . . I will keep You and give You as a covenant to the people, /As a light to the Gentiles, /To open the eyes that were blind, /To bring out prisoners from the prison, /Those who sit in darkness from the prison house” (Isaiah 29:18; 35:5; 42:7).

When these two blind men, then, invoke Jesus as “Son of David,” they were taking their stand on these prophecies of Holy Scripture. When they said that they “believed” He could heal them, it was an act of faith in the person and claims of Jesus. The light that they receive is not some abstraction; it is a light inseparable from the person of Christ.

The healing of blindness is one of the most significant things that Jesus does in the Gospel stories. This restoration to sight symbolizes the very mystery of salvation. It was of our salvation that St. Paul wrote, “For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).

Monday, January 30

Genesis 30: This chapter describes two tests of wills: between Rachel and Leah, and between Laban and Jacob. In fact, this is an important chapter in the mounting tension and conflict of the Genesis story. We began with the conflict between Sarah and Hagar. Then came the conflict of Isaac’s household, between Esau and Jacob. After the present chapter it will continue in the accounts of Jacob’s family, eventually leading to Joseph’s being sold by his brothers into slavery. Among the patriarchs there seems to have been precious little domestic tranquility. If one is looking for something along the lines of “The Secret to a Happy Family Life,” Genesis is generally not much help.

At the end of Genesis 29 the competition between Leah and Rachel was going strongly to the favor of the former. She has four sons to Rachel’s none, as Genesis 30 begins. Growing rather desperate (verses 1-2), Rachel resorts to a tactic earlier employed by Sarah; this legal fiction is well attested in the extant literature of that time and period, specifically the Nuzi Tablets from excavations near the Tigris River.

Rachel’s plan, which effectively gives Jacob a third wife, works to her advantage (verses 3-8). Two can play that game, thinks Leah, who promptly follows the same tack (verses 9-12). Now Jacob has four wives and eight sons. Very quickly, however, the two sisters go beyond the niceties of the law. Leah resorts to a fertility drug (verses 13-21) and bears two more sons and a daughter. At last Rachel has a son (verses 22-24), whose story will dominate the final chapters of Genesis.

The relationship between Laban and Jacob has been something of a domestic business arrangement all along. For all legal and practical purposes, Jacob has become Laban’s son and heir. Meanwhile, however, everything still belongs to Laban. When Jacob asks to have a little something for himself (verses 25-34), he appears to be requesting a mere pittance, because in the Middle East the sheep are normally white and the goats normally black. Speckled and spotted animals are the exception. Laban, however, takes steps to eliminate even that pittance (verses 35-36).

Meanwhile, Jacob, having grown a great deal smarter, has plans of his own (verses 37-43). In putting three days distance between his own herds and those shepherded by Jacob, Laban intends to keep the speckled goats and the dark sheep away from him. This plan backfires, because it permits Jacob to have a three-days jump on Laban when it came time to leave!

Tuesday, January 31

Matthew 10:16-26: Four animals are mentioned in the first verse, all of them for their symbolic value. Although this initial mission is only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” it is significant that the “nations” are mentioned in 10:18; again, this foreshadows the Great Commission given at the end of Matthew. These verses make it clear that the proclamation of the gospel by the Church will be met with resistance, just as we saw to be the case in chapters 8 and 9. Like Jesus, the disciples will be “handed over” to “councils” (synedria). This description, contained here in prophecy, was very much the experience of the Christians whom Matthew knew when he was writing these words. Similar experiences are recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.

Genesis 31: Jacob summons his wives away from the tents and the ears of inquisitive servants who might report the discussion back to Laban. His argument is twofold, both earthly and heavenly. In purely earthly terms, he is fed up with working for Laban. As regards the heavenly, Jacob has heard from the God who had revealed Himself earlier, the “God of Bethel,” El-Bethel. That God had earlier promised to bring him back home (28:15), and now He is fulfilling that promise (verses 3,13).

It turns out that Laban’s daughters are none too happy with their father’s treatment either. In his injustice to Jacob, Laban has also been unjust to his own flesh. He has treated them, not as daughters, but as outsiders. He not only sold them to Jacob; he has already used up the money he got for them! Leah and Rachel do not agree about much, but they do agree that it is time to start thinking of the welfare of their own children (verses 14-18). They flee (verses 19-21).

When Laban overtakes them (verses 22-32), his complaints seem natural enough: “I did not get to say goodbye. I did not get to kiss my grandchildren. I did not get a chance to throw a going-away party. How could you treat me like this after all these years?”

Somebody in Jacob’s party (and the reader already knows who) has, in addition, pilfered one of Laban’s household gods. This incident does say something about the introduction of idolatry into the family, a problem that will prove to be chronic in biblical history. Holy Scripture provides numerous instances of idolatry introduced into Israel by the wives of Israel’s kings (cf. 1 Kings 15:13, for instance).

To cover her tracks, Rachel resorts to a ruse (verses 33-37), about which two points may be made. First, the reader is expected to be amused that a god is being sat upon. Second, there seems to be no end of deception in this family!

Feeling vindicated by Laban’s failure to find the absconded god, Jacob then upbraids his father-in-law, laying it on pretty thick (verses 43-54). It is a masterpiece of self-justification, in which the speaker is manifestly enjoying himself. By ascribing all his success to God, Jacob also intends to make Laban pause for thought; does Laban really want to be tough on someone whom God favors? Laban, evidently chagrined at not finding the stolen god, is at some disadvantage; he is unable to answer Jacob. The two men make a covenant and call it a day (verses 41-54). Jacob heads for home.

Wednesday, February 1

Genesis 32: After taking leave of Laban, Jacob must think about how to approach Esau, for Esau represents the tricky aspect of Jacob’s homecoming (verse 4-7). Esau, meanwhile, has moved south to the land of Edom, a dry and inhospitable land that lucidly explains the words of God, “Esau have I hated, and laid waste his mountains and his heritage, for the jackals of the wilderness” (Malachi 1:3).

If Jacob is feeling threatened by Laban, he now feels even worse from the information that his older twin is coming to meet him with four hundred armed men. That last part is hardly the sort of detail calculated to allay anxiety. Indeed, a certain sense of anxiety may be exactly what Esau wants to inspire in Jacob. If so, the maneuver is successful.

Jacob does two things (verses 8-13). First, he prepares for the worst, taking certain practical steps with a view to at least a partial survival of his family. Second, he takes to prayer, certainly the most humble prayer he has made so far.

Ultimately, after all, this is a story of Jacob’s relationship to God. Up to this point, God is still Isaac’s God, the “God of my fathers” (verse 9). Jacob has not yet done what he promised at Bethel — take God as his own (28:21). God had also made certain promises to Jacob at Bethel, and Jacob now invokes those promises.

He continues his preparations for meeting the brother he has not seen in twenty years (verse 14-23). He sends delegations with gifts, which are intended to impress Esau. Jacob, after all, knows that Esau has four hundred men, but Esau does not know how many Jacob may have. Jacob’s gifts, including five hundred and eighty animals, verge on the flamboyant.

Jacob approaches the fords of the Jabbock, at a place called Peniel, or “face of God” (verse 30). To prepare the reader for this place, verses 22-23 used the word “face” no fewer than five times. Jacob knows that Esau will soon be “in his face.” He must “face” Esau, which is why he is going directly toward him. Up to this point, Jacob has been a man of flight, flight from Canaan, flight from Haran, flight from Esau, flight from Laban. This all must change. Jacob cannot face his future until he has faced his past.

Even before he can face Esau, however, Jacob must face Someone Else (verses 23-33). This encounter with God, which apparently Jacob has not anticipated, is far more significant than his encounter with Esau. A millennium later the prophet Hosea would meditate on this scene. This wrestling match is Jacob’s decisive encounter with God. Everything changes. First, his name is changed to Israel (verse 29), as Abram’s was changed to Abraham in a parallel encounter with God (17:3-5,15). Second, God is no longer simply “the God of my fathers.” He is now “the God of Israel” (verse 20). Third, Jacob will limp from this experience for the rest of his life (verses 26,32-33). No one wrestles with the living God and looks normal and well adjusted. There is a further irony here. Jacob began life by tripping his brother as the latter exited the womb. Now Jacob himself will be permanently tripped up by a limp.

Jacob has remained on the near side of the river all night long, not fording the Jabbock with the rest of his family. When he rises in the morning, he must limp across alone. Esau and his four hundred men are just coming into view.

Thursday, February 2

Luke 22.22-40: Luke’s story takes for granted the full significance of the temple. He presumes that the reader is familiar with the Lord’s assumption of “residence” there shortly after its completion (1 Kings 8), His departure from it at the time of its destruction (Ezekiel 10), and His return there when the temple was rebuilt (Haggai 2:1-9; Zechariah 8-9).

Luke especially presumes the prophecy of the Messiah’s coming appearance at the temple, an oracle found near the end of the last prophetic book of the Hebrew Scriptures: “And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight. Behold, He is coming, says the Lord of hosts” (Malachi 3:1).

According to that same prophecy, the purpose of the Messiah’s coming to the temple was to purify its priesthood: “He will purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer to the Lord an offering in righteousness” (3:3).

It was those very priests, however, who failed to recognize the Messiah’s arrival. On His final recorded visit to the temple, in fact, Luke tells us that “the chief priests and the scribes, together with the elders, confronted Him” (20:1). Their confrontation came in response to the purging of the temple in the scene immediately preceding (19:45-48).

Those sons of Levi wanted nothing to do with any purging. They had no use for what Malachi called the “refiner’s fire” and “launderers’ soap” (3:2). What, then, resulted from their confrontation with the Messiah? Luke tells us, “the chief priests and the scribes that very hour sought to lay hands on Him” (20:19). The temple was the site where this messianic drama was decided. It is surely significant, therefore, that Luke, in describing Jesus’ words about Jerusalem’s coming destruction, places that prophecy in the temple itself (21:20-24; contrast Matthew 24:3; Mark 13:3).

Such is the full literary context of Luke’s story of the presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple. It is a prophetic preparation for the redemptive events that will culminate at the end of the Gospel. The Lord is met by Simeon, an elderly man whom Luke describes with references to the Holy Spirit in three successive verses (2:25-27). Cast in the role of a prophet by these references, the inspired Simeon, after a canticle of praise, prophesies the drama that will ensue in the temple toward the end of the Gospel: “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that will be spoken against” (2:34).

It was “in that instant” that Simeon was joined by “Anna, a prophetess,” who spoke of this Messiah “to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem” (2:36-38). This too, as we have seen, was a prophecy of the Lord’s death and resurrection, for those things brought about that “redemption in Jerusalem.”

Such, at the beginning of Luke, is the small company that welcomes the Messiah on His first visit to the temple. Upon these two old people comes an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, much as Luke describes in the beginning of Acts. Here too the Spirit descends upon a son and a daughter, a manservant and a maidservant, and they prophesy (Acts 2:17-18). Israel is well represented by these two figures who foster in their hearts the ardor of ancient hopes. But Simeon and Anna, even as they gave thanks to God for the Messiah’s arrival (2:28-29,38), dimly foretell the drama that will later unfold in the courts of the temple.

Friday, February 3

Hebrews 13.1-17: Because “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever,” a certain stability should be expected in the lives and conduct of Christians. For example, they should “not be carried away with various and strange teachings [didachai].” That is to say, they must avoid ideas alien (xsenai) to the doctrines handed down from the Apostles. The example given here concerns dietary restrictions based on the kosher rules in the Torah: “foods which have not profited those who have been preoccupied with them.” We recognize this admonition as reflecting the concern of St. Paul.

For the rest, the outline given here for Christian conduct is basic. There is, for starts, the primacy of fraternal love: “Let brotherly love abide”—he philadelphia meneto. This expression suggests that such love should be a constant habit of mind and a sustained pattern of response. Fraternal love, in other words, is the Christian’s “default” preference, the programmatic disposition of his mind and sentiments.

This fraternal love is expressed in hospitality (philoxsenia), described here as the entertainment of strangers. Besides its obvious sense of receiving others into our homes, it also suggests a certain open-mindedness to those who are different from ourselves, the ones designated as xsenisantes. Perhaps we may think of it as a willingness not to impose on others our own cultural and sympathetic preferences. This would mean that Christians, while avoiding “strange doctrines,” should not be necessarily avoid “strange people.”

Our author appeals to the Old Testament examples of those who “unwittingly entertained angels.” The obvious cases are those of Abraham and Tobit, who showed hospitality to angels.

A similar kindness must be shown to prisoners, “as if chained with them”—hos syndedemenoi. This surely refers, in the first place, to those Christians who suffer persecution for righteousness’ sake, but it will include also a compassion and concern for anyone incarcerated (Matthew 25:36). Indeed, it seems especially within our prison population that we may find the largest assortment of “strangers.” It is arguable that there is no more hopeless class of people on the face of the earth.

After speaking of charity toward one another, toward strangers, and toward prisoners, our author speaks of the marriage bond. He does this without elaboration, contenting himself with a simple and stern warning: “Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge.” No discussion, no alternate viewpoint. Just, don’t.

After lust, our author reminds us of the danger of covetousness, the antidote to which is a constant trust in God to take care of our needs. He cites the simple message of Deuteronomy and the Psalter: “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” and “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear what man can do to me.”

As symbols of the stability characteristic of the Christian life, our author reminds his readers of their “leaders,” those who went before them and from whom they have received the inherited faith. This modeled faith is to be their guide, as they avoid novel and strange teachings.