March 24 – March 31, 2023

Friday, March 24

Proverbs 30: This chapter contains the first of the book’s three final collections of wisdom maxims, a collection called “the words of Agur, the son of Jakeh.” The Hebrew text further identifies Agur and Jakeh as “of Massa,” the same place in northern Arabia (Genesis 25:14; 1 Chronicles 1:30) as King Lemuel in the next chapter. Agur, the son of Jakeh, is not called a king, however, nor is he otherwise identified. It is reasonable to suppose, therefore, that he must have been a figure of some renown among the readers for whom the Book of Proverbs was intended, requiring no further introduction.

What we have in this chapter is a philosophical discourse delivered by Agur and recorded by his two disciples, otherwise unknown, named Ithiel and Ucal (verse 1). Ancient history from places as diverse as China, India, Egypt, and Greece provides other examples of such discourses given by masters and transcribed by their disciples. One thinks, for instance, of the “Deer Park Sermon” of Siddhartha Gautama.

Unlike Siddhartha, however, whose recent enlightenment (Bodhi) enabled him to discern a relentless Chain of Causation in existence and to devise an ascetical system for dealing with it, Agur of Massa confessed himself completely bewildered by the whole thing: “Surely I am more stupid than any man, and do not have the understanding of a man. I neither learned wisdom, nor have knowledge of the Holy One” (verses 2-3).

Such a sentiment makes Agur resemble Socrates more than Siddhartha. Socrates, we recall, once identified by the Delphic oracle as the world’s wisest man, spent his life trying to prove the oracle wrong. Socrates finally concluded, however, that the oracle must be correct because he discovered all reputedly wise men to be just as ignorant as himself, except that they were not aware of being ignorant. Socrates concluded that it was as though the oracle had declared, “Among yourselves, oh men, that man is the wisest who recognizes, like Socrates, that he is truly nobody of worth (oudenos axsios) with respect to wisdom.” Socrates and Agur, then, both associate the quest of wisdom with a humble mind.

Whatever his resemblance to that wise Athenian, nonetheless, Agur more readily puts us in mind of the Psalmist, who confessed to God, “I was so foolish and ignorant, I was like a beast before You” (Psalms 72 [73]:22) and “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it” (138 [139]:6).

Whereas the philosophical humility of Socrates was spawned of epistemology—that is, the accepted limitations of the human being’s ability to know—that of Agur was inspired, rather, by cosmology; he considered the sheer vastness of the varied things to be known: “Who has ascended in heaven, or descended? Who has gathered the wind in His fists? Who has bound the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth?” (verse 4) Agur’s are the sorts of reflections we associate with God’s final answer to Job (Job 38-39).

With scant confidence in his own intelligence, then, Agur began the quest of wisdom by trusting in “every word of God” (kol ’imrath ’Eloah), which word he described, exactly like the Psalmist, as “pure,” seruphah (verses 5-6; Psalms 17 [18]:31). He then turned to prayer—the only explicit prayer in the whole Book of Proverbs—in which he begged God for a modest life, free of falsehood. The life that Agur craved from on high would be neither wealthy nor poor, in order to avoid both arrogance and desperation, either of which might lead him into sin (verses 7-9).

Agur did not think very highly of his contemporaries, whom he described as disrespectful of authority and tradition, morally dissolute and socially irresponsible, insatiable in their appetites, and entertaining too high an opinion of themselves (verses 11-14). If one looks closely at the criticism, it is clear that Augur’s complaint had a fourfold structure. In fact, he was especially fond of maxims based on the number four: four things that are never satisfied (verses 15-16), four things too hard to understand (verses 18-19), four things the world cannot endure verses 21-23), four small but wise animals from whom men can learn useful traits (verses 24-28), and four things “which are stately in walk” (verses 29-31).

Agur’s was, in short, the simple, observant philosophy of a humble man, content to live in this world by the purity of God’s word and a prayerful reliance on God’s gifts, offending the Almighty by neither the food he put into his mouth nor the words he caused to come forth from it.

Saturday, March 25

Hebrews 2.5-18: The mediation of Christ, which is a major theme of this book, requires his essential, physical, psychological, and biological solidarity with the rest of the human race. To save us from our sins, He must be one of us. Such is the burden of this section, which speaks of Jesus in terms of brotherhood: “He is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying: “I will declare Your name to My brethren” . . . Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God.”

More particularly, Jesus claims brotherhood with all mankind in the context of history’s final judgment, where we learn, “inasmuch as you did it to the least of My brethren, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:40).

Jesus’ proclaimed solidarity of brotherhood with the whole human race means that the proper destiny of that race is a true community, founded and centered on the Incarnation.

Here in Hebrews this solidarity with the rest of human beings especially pertains to death: God’s Son assumed our humanity in order to die as a human being.
Some chapters later, our author will repeat this thesis, citing the Book of Psalms: “”Therefore, when He came into the world, He said: ‘Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, / But a body You have prepared for Me. / In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin / You had no pleasure. / Then I said, / Behold, I have come/ —In the volume of the book it is written of Me— / To do Your will, O God'”(10:5-7).

That is to say, the obedience of Christ was to fulfill and replace the various sacrifices of the Mosaic Law, and for this task the Son obviously required a body. Today’s feast, exactly nine months before his birthday at Christmas, celebrates the anniversary of the eternal Word’s assumption of our full humanity, in a tiny, unicellular form, in the virginal womb of his Mother.

Proverbs 31: Although Proverbs several times encourages a young man to pay attention to the teaching of his mother (1:8; 6:20; 15:20), verses1-9 of this chapter, wisdom from Lemuel’s mother, are the only example of maternal teaching explicitly contained in this book. And, on reading this material, one has the impression that it is not much different, on the whole, from the instruction that a young man received from his father. There are warnings against lust (verse 3) and drinking alcohol (verse 4), along with an exhortation to take care of the oppressed and the poor (verses 5-9).

The final twenty-two verses of Proverbs (verses 10-31) form an acrostic, the verses all beginning with the sequential letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The theme is the good wife, a blessing often remarked on throughout this book (5:15;11:16; 12:4; 18:22; 19:14; cf. Sirach 7:19; 26:1-4,13-18). Here, however, the ideal wife is elaborately described in terms of her industry, economics, stewardship, discipline, labor, charity, wisdom and piety.

Sunday, March 26

Matthew 21.33-46: Today’s parable of the vine-growers continues the theme of the Incarnation, celebrated in yesterday’s feast. In this text, Jesus identifies himself with three names: Son, Heir, and Cornerstone. Clearly it is in these terms that this passage prompts us to think of him

First, Jesus identifies himself today as God’s Son, whom He sends into the world to inaugurate the final stage of history. “Then last of all,” declares the parable, “He sent His Son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my Son.’” God has never left Himself without witness in this world. He has spoken to the human race through the wisdom and power manifest in His Creation. He has addressed Himself to men through the testimony of conscience. In special times and circumstances, God has “spoken in past time to the fathers by the prophets.”

In this last stage of history, however, God has revealed Himself to the human race by the appearance of His own Son, “the brightness of His glory and the express icon of His person.”

It is the eternal Father who reveals His Son and draws the human heart and mind to that Son. Recall the words of the stern Pharisee who gave a brief account of his own conversion: “. . . it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, to reveal His Son in me . . .”

Who was the God who did this? What God spoke to Saul of Tarsus and revealed His Son? It was the same God whom Paul had served as a serious, devout, and conscientious Jew. It was not a God different from the God who spoke in times past by the prophets. It was not a God different from the God who speaks to the human conscience in wisdom. It was not a God different from the God who made all things out of nothing. It was the identical God ever present in the conscience of that loyal Pharisee. This very God spoke to the heart of Saul and said, “This is My beloved Son.”

No one comes to Christ the Lord unless the Father draws him. The identity of Jesus is known only as the Father reveals him, because “no one knows the Son except the Father.”

When Simon Peter confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” how does Jesus answer him? “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” Flesh and blood—human power—is not adequate to identify Jesus as God’s Son. We make this confession because the eternal God reveals His Son to our hearts and minds. We listen to His voice on the mountain of the Transfiguration: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

Second, when Jesus identifies himself as the Son in this parable, he goes on to call himself the “heir” of the vineyard. Indeed, within the Gospels this parable is the only place where the word “heir” (kleronomos) is to be found.

Jesus is the heir of the vineyard precisely because He is the Son. Indeed, in the parable this is the very reason He is killed. His murder represents the attempt of the vine growers to usurp the lordship of the vineyard.

This association of sonship and inheritance, affirmed by the Apostle Paul (cf. Romans 8:17; Galatians 4:7), is one of the striking points of contact between this Gospel parable and the Epistle to the Hebrews. The latter work begins, “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners, spake in times past to the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son [hyios], whom he hath appointed heir [kleronomos] of all things”(1:1-2).

In today’s parable, the theme of inheritance is related to the history of Israel—the earlier stage of salvation history. Jesus is the true heir of the covenants by which God joined Himself to the Israelites by distinct interventions in their history.

The image of the heir, then, looks to the past, which Jesus describes as a series of historical missions. It was obvious to his enemies that in this parable Jesus was giving his own interpretation of the entire history of the Chosen People. He was making the claim that the vine growers, the Jewish leaders, had repeatedly rejected God’s messengers, the prophets, and now were about to culminate that dolorous history in a resolve to murder God’s very Son.

Third, if Jesus is the heir with respect to the past, he is the cornerstone with respect to the future. After speaking of Himself as the “Son” in this parable, Jesus went on to call Himself the “stone” of Psalms 118 (117):22—“The stone which the builders rejected has become the corner stone.”

In this transition of titles—from son to stone—we detect, resonating through the Greek text, a nuance of the Semitic original. Jesus was employing a play on words: The Hebrew word for “son” is ben, and the Hebrew word for “stone” being eben. The immediate tension of that very dramatic moment, then, is preserved in this subtlety just below the surface of the canonical text.

God’s choice of the rejected “stone” to become the chief stone of the building is important to the Lord’s own interpretation of His parable, because it refers to the final vindication following His murder at the hands of the vine growers. It is a prophecy, that is to say, of His coming Resurrection.
The Resurrection motif of this psalm is recognized by the Church’s traditional liturgical use thereof at Matins and in various services of Pascha.

As Son, Heir, and Cornerstone, Jesus is the one figure in history who actually sustains and upholds history. He is Jesus Christ, God’s beloved Son, whom we know to be the same, yesterday, today, and forever.

Monday, March 27

1 Corinthians 4.14-21: Today’s reading is the first of two times the Apostle exhorts the Corinthians to “imitate” him. He presumes that the believers at Corinth remembered him well enough to recall the example he set for them during those early days when he spent 18 months as their evangelist and pastor.

What he does, in these verses, is portray a style of living very much contrast with the style preferred by the Corinthians. They think of themselves as wise, strong, and distinguished, whereas Paul is conscious of being foolish, weak, and subject to contempt. This is the difference between the standards of the world and the standards of the Gospel.

Paul had spoken earlier of this contrast, when he declared, “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1:25). In the present text he presents this contrast in exactly three points: “Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat.” We may summarize these as prayer, patience, and persuasion.

Arguably the greatest value of the Pauline corpus is the instruction it provides for how a disciple is to regard Christ, how he lives by communion with Christ, indeed, how he feels about Christ. What Paul shares with his readers is what he shared with those who first knew him and received the Gospel from him: his own communion with Christ.

This kind of imitation is utterly essential. In Paul we see how this imitation is interior. It has to do with the mindset of Christian discipleship.

Zechariah 2: Jerusalem’s wall would not be reconstructed until the time of Nehemiah. During these prophecies of Zechariah, around 520, Jerusalem is still only a little village without walls. There is no slight irony, then, when an angel proposes to measure the length and breadth of it (verse 2). The irony itself is prophetic, because the day will come when Jerusalem will be too large to measure, “for the multitude of men and cattle therein” (verse 4).

More than the earthly Jerusalem is involved here, of course. The perspective of this prophecy is turned, rather, to that Jerusalem yet to come, “when many nations shall be joined to the Lord” (verse 11). The Jerusalem where Zechariah lived had already been destroyed once, and less than six centuries later it would be destroyed again. None of the promises made to that ancient Jerusalem were completely fulfilled in this regard, because that Jerusalem was a type and prefiguration of the more ample and catholic Jerusalem to whom the pledge was made, “Behold, I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world” Matthew 28:20). This is the Jerusalem where God’s Exodus-presence is fulfilled: “For I, says the Lord, will be unto her as a wall of fire round about, and will be the glory in the midst of her” (verse 5). This protecting presence of the Lord is the chapter’s major theme (cf. verse 11,13). In verse 12 we have the first occurrence of the expression “Holy Land” with reference to the land of promise. The expression will later appear in the Wisdom of Solomon 12:3 and 2 Maccabees 1:7.

Tuesday, March 28

Zechariah 3: Chief among the priests who returned from Babylon was the high priest Jeshua, or Joshua, whose father Jehozadak had been carried away to Babylon back in 586 (1 Chronicles 6:15). Jeshua’s name invariably appears second among the returning exiles (Ezra 2:2; Nehemiah 7:7; 12:1,10,26), right after Zerubbabel, the governor appointed by Cyrus to oversee Jerusalem’s restoration. In the prophecies of Zechariah, Zerubbabel and Jeshua are paired as the spiritual and political leaders of the people, as we shall see in Chapter 4.

In the present chapter the prophet beholds the high priest Jeshua standing before God with an angel and with Satan. Satan is doing for Jeshua what he did for Job, namely, “opposing” him, saying bad things to God about him (verse 1; cf. Job 1:9-11; 2:4-5). In both these cases Satan is the “accuser of our brethren, who accused them before our God day and night” (Revelation 12:10).

In the case of Jeshua, Satan’s accusation had to do with the “filthy garments” of the high priest (verse 3), which signify his unworthiness. This may refer to his personal unworthiness and/or to the unworthiness of the people that he represents at the altar. Either and both interpretations will fit the context. The question under debate is, can such a priest, so improperly vested, properly offer sacrifices to the Almighty? At this point the angel of the Lord rebuked Satan for his accusation against the priest: “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you!” (Zechariah 3:2) (In case anyone inquires, “The Lord rebuke you!” is the execration regularly preferred by angels who are obliged to deal with Satan; cf. Jude 9.)

Jeshua may be taken to represent any and all of God’s servants aware of their total unworthiness as they come to worship. Their hearts are full of such sentiments as, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8), “I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof” (7:6), and “God, be merciful to me a sinner! (18:13).

Satan, of course, is ever at hand on such occasions, ready even further to discourage these saints who feel guilty in their filthy garments, suggesting to their minds that they may as well give the whole thing up as useless. But what do the angels say? “Take away the filthy garments from him. . . . Let them put a clean turban on his head.” We do not come before God with any cleanliness of our own. “See,” the Lord says, “I remove your iniquity from you, and I will clothe you with rich robes” (verses 4-5).

That is to say, we approach the worship of God only in the pure grace of our redemption. “Is not this,” asks our good angel, “a branch plucked from the fire?” (3:2) In the literal context, this plucking refers to redemption from the Babylonian Captivity. In its Christian context it refers to a more radically redemptive plucking from a far more serious fire. In either case, when someone is plucked from the fire, he tends to be a bit smudged up, and his clothes are in pretty bad shape. Not to worry, the angel says, God can handle that.

Wednesday, March 29

1 Corinthians 6.12-20: Our bodies do not belong to us. They have been purchased. Paul writes: “For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body, which belongs to God.”

This truth of the Christian faith is derided in the modern world, where we actually hear people boast, “No one can tell me what to do with my body!” In the Church of God, however, the human body is not an entity alien to salvation. On the contrary, our very limbs and organs belong to Christ. Paul inquired of the Corinthians, then: “Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot?”

More particularly, by our incorporation—corpus—into Christ, our bodies become mystical extensions of His own body. This incorporation commences at Baptism and strengthened each time we partake of the Mystical Supper of the Altar. In this same epistle, Paul writes to the Corinthians: “For we many are one bread, one body, for we all partake of that one bread.” Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not mere symbols of grace; they are the channels of grace, the means by which the divine life flows into our flesh with the energies of transformation and immortality.

In the texts the Apostle to the Gentiles identifies the sacramental foundation of Christian bodily holiness. And very much to the same point, Jesus proclaims, “I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.

Zechariah 4: As in other prophetic accounts (cf. Amos 7:8; 8:2), a dialogue of questions and answers accompanies this vision of Zechariah. This is apparently necessary, as the vision is complex and detailed.

The image of the lamp stand is surely related to the lamp stand in the Mosaic tabernacle (Exodus 25:31-37) and in the Solomonic temple (1 Kings 7:49). From the bas relief on the Arch of Titus in Rome, we know that the second temple also had such a lamp stand. The lamp stand of Zechariah’s vision is not entirely identified with these, however. Being visionary, it is differently contoured. The seven lamps represent the fullness of the God’s providential knowledge of the world (verse 10), of which the constant worship in God’s temple at Jerusalem served as a sign.

These lamps were nourished by the oil provided by the two ministries of the secular ruler and the priest, Zerubbabel and Jeshua (verses 10-14). We recall that both the kings and the priests of Israel were anointed with the same oil that burned in the seven-branch lamp stand (Exodus 27:20; 30:23-24; Leviticus 24:2). They are “sons of oil.”

In their historical context, the efforts of these men seemed weak, but they acted by the power of God’s Spirit (verse 6). Consequently, no matter how tiny appeared their efforts, let no one despise “the day of small things” (verse 10), which refers to their laying of the foundation for the new temple (verse 9). This foundation stone of God’s house (verse 7), which is mystically identical with the seven-faceted stone in 3:9, should be viewed as a Christological prophetic reference. Much of the imagery of this chapter will appear later in Revelation 11.

Thursday, March 30

Matthew 23.29-36: The burden of the Lord’s judgment falls on the failure of his hypocritical enemies to go deeper than the mere surface letter of observance—deeper in the Torah, deeper into their own hearts, where all is corruption and death. They stay away from an interior transformation that would render valuable the observance of the Torah: judgment, mercy, and faith. This criticism, with its accent on interiority, is an echo and summary of what Israel’s prophets taught over the centuries.

Hence, these leaders deserve the “woe” that those prophets spoke against earlier infidelities (just to limit ourselves to the 8th century, cf. Amos 5:18-20; 6:1-7; Isaiah, 5 passim; 19:1-3; 28:1-4,15; 30:1-3; 31:1-4; Micah 2:1-4).

The gulf between external observance and internal corruption, which is the very essence of hypocrisy, is the chief and unifying complaint that the Lord voices against these Jewish leaders.

In addressing these hypocrites as “serpents, offspring of vipers,” the Lord takes up the early censure by John the Baptist near the Gospel’s beginning (3:7).

Their persecution of the prophets and sages (verse 34) throughout history had recently been mentioned in two parables (21:34-35; 22:6). The reference to crucifixion, alien to the Holy Land before the coming of the Romans, seems to reflect Matthew’s own time, when Jews had ill-treated Christian missionaries, a thing we see repeatedly in the Acts of the Apostles, The Martyrdom of Polycarp, and other sources.

The reference to “Zechariah, the son of Barachiah,” which has never been pinned down with precision, seems to include elements of the biblical prophet Zechariah, Jehoiada’s son in 2 Chronicles 24:20-22, and the son of Beeis, whose story in narrated in Josephus (Wars 4:334-344).

All this just blood, unjustly spilt, will fall on the present “generation” (verse 36; 11:16; 12:39,41; 16:4; 17:17; 24:34). Matthew saw the fulfillment of that threat in the events associated with Jerusalem’s fall in the year 70.

Zechariah 5: In this chapter, which also uses dialogue to interpret what is seen, there are two visions. In the first (verses 1-4), the prophet sees a flying scroll considerably larger than one would expect; indeed, it is the same size as the portico in Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6:3). This scroll contains the curses attendant on those who violate the terms of God’s covenant (cf. Deuteronomy 29:18-20). This scroll represents a permanent warning of the dangers of infidelity.

In the second vision (verses 5-11), the prophet sees “Wickedness” portrayed as a woman carried in a basket. Unlike the very large scroll in the first vision, the present vision gives us a very small basket. It holds only an ephah, yet this woman can fit into it. She must be a pretty insignificant woman—this Wickedness—and the angelic figures contemptuously shove her down into the basket and enclose it with a leaden lid. Representing the power of Babylon, which the Bible holds in contempt, the woman and her basket are deposited in the Babylonian plain (verse 11; cf. Genesis 11:2). This is the same woman, by the way, who looks so much larger and more impressive in Revelation 17.

Friday, March 31

1 Corinthians 13.1-13: When the Apostle Paul lists faith, hope, and love as the triad of things that “abide,” he takes care to assert, “the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). This superiority of love within the standard Pauline triad seems noteworthy in two ways.

First, there is the stark fact that Paul accords the supremacy to love, not to faith. Let me suggest that if Paul had not made this point explicitly, there is reason to suspect that certain later readers of his epistles might have concluded, “and the greatest of these is faith.” My speculation here is justified by the plain fact that some of Paul’s later readers really did attempt to condense his teaching on justification by coining the expression “faith alone.”

Unless I am mistaken, Paul never claims, “faith loves all things.” He emphatically does assert, however, “love believes all things.” What else can this mean except that real Christian love—agape–includes faith?

Second, the supremacy of love among the three that “abide” lays the basis for yet another triad: faith, hope, and patience. In Paul’s thought these three become, as it were, aspects of love. That is to say, “love believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (13:7). It is love that believes, love that hopes, and love that endures. The other three are contained in love.

Zechariah 6: This chapter contains both a vision and an oracle. In the vision (verses 1-8) the prophet sees four chariots drawn by horses, which are also four “winds” or “spirits,” as it were (verse 5). He saw them earlier (1:7-11). Like the “four winds” of common parlance, these horses go in four directions: the black northbound, the white westbound, the dappled southbound, and the red eastbound. They represent God’s providential “patrol,” as it were, of the whole universe. God is keeping an eye on things, Zechariah is reminded, even things that don’t seem to be going very well.

Although Babylon lies east of Jerusalem, one journeys there by leaving Jerusalem in a northerly direction and then following the contour of the Fertile Crescent. (If one journeyed straight east, he would simply have to pass through the Arabian Desert, an area best avoided.) Consequently, there is a special significance in the northbound horses in this vision, for they go to Babylon, where, God assures His prophet, He has everything under control (verse 8). This vision is related, then, to the woman in the basket in the previous chapter. The “Spirit” that guides world history, including geopolitical history, is the same Spirit proclaimed to Zerubbabel in 4:6.

The oracle in this chapter (verses 9-15), like the vision of the two olive trees in 4:11-14, pertains to the Lord’s two “sons of oil,” Zerubbabel and Jeshua, the priest and the governor, the religious and civil authority. Both are anointed by God and must work in common endeavor for the Lord (verse 13). The “branch” in verse 12, as in 3:8, refers to Zerubbabel, whose Akkadian name means “the branch of Babylon.” He is both a foreshadowing and a forefather (Matthew 1:12-13) of the One who combines in Himself the twin dignities of King and Priest.