August 25 – September 1, 2023

Friday, August 25

Acts 28.17-31: Paul invites local Jewish leaders to meet at his lodging, where he is under house arrest (28:16-17). It is significant to Luke’s literary and theological purpose to record Paul’s last rejection by the Jews — the last of so many that he has recounted — in that very city which was the capital of the Gentile world, the city towards which the dynamism of this narrative has been directed. Paul is at last in the capital of the Roman Empire, the city so closely tied to his and Peter’s destinies. It is precisely here that Paul declares to the unbelieving Jews that “this salvation has been sent to the Gentiles” (28:18).

Psalms 132 (Greek & Latin 131): As Israel’s mounting pilgrims neared the top of Mount Zion and beheld the glory of the temple in greater detail, they sometimes spoke thus to one another: “See what manner of stones and what buildings!” (Mark 13:1). They doubtless also reflected, some of them, on how that temple came to be on Mount Zion, and such reflections perhaps go far to explain why Psalm 132 is found toward the end of these “psalms of ascent.” This psalm is concerned, after all, with David’s role in the construction of Jerusalem’s temple.

As the pilgrims remembered King David in the context of the temple, they prayed that the Lord would do so too: “O Lord, remember David and all his self-abasement—how he swore unto the Lord, and vowed an oath to the God of Jacob.” And exactly what were the terms of David’s oath? “The shelter of my house I shall not enter, nor mount to lie upon my bed; neither close my eyes to sleep, nor let my eyelids drop in slumber, nor give repose unto my brow—till I should find the Lord a place, a shelter for the God of Jacob.”

There are several details in these lines most striking and worthy of comment. First, there is a pronounced delay in the pace. The verses move very slowly and deliberately, as though David were quite tired. Each movement is detailed: entering the house, climbing the steps to go to bed, closing the eyelids and resting the eyes, letting the head sink into the pillow. It is the entire process of relaxing and falling asleep. But the irony, of course, is that David is not going to do any of these things! He looks longingly, as it were, at a coveted chance to rest, but he forswears indulging it, until he accomplish this great task of building the Lord a temple.

Second, the reason prompting David to make this vow is that the Lord Himself does not yet have a dwelling comparable to David’s own. (The same word, skenoma, translated here as “shelter,” is used to speak of both David’s house and the Lord’s.) Although the narrative descriptions of David’s resolve (cf. 2 Sam. 7:1–13; 1 Chr. 22:7; Acts 7:46) do not speak specifically of an oath in this respect, we know that David was disturbed by the circumstance that his own dwelling was so much superior to the Lord’s desert tabernacle (2 Sam. 7:2). This sentiment of deep piety in David’s soul is what our psalm calls his praütes, meekness or self-abasement.

Third, we are well advised not to interpret literally every detail of our psalm’s description of David’s oath. Otherwise we might conclude that David never again went to bed, since he did not, in fact, build the temple. Nonetheless, there is good reason to believe that David sometimes went to bed toward the end of his life (cf. 1 Kin. 1:1–4)!

In ascribing this large role to David in the construction of Solomon’s temple, Psalm 131 is in harmony with the perspective in 1 Chr. 28 and 29, where David is described as making the necessary preparations for the building and conferring on Solomon the mandate to build it. The affinities between Psalm 131 and the theology of the Chronicler are further indicated by the latter’s recording Solomon quoting a verse from this psalm: “Arise, O Lord God, to Your resting place, / You and the ark of Your strength” (2 Chr. 6:41).

Saturday, August 26

Luke 4.42—5.11: Luke’s account of the calling of the Apostles is followed immediately by the story of the miraculous catch of fish. Christians have long seen in this juxtaposition—the calling of the Apostles and the miraculous catch of fish—a hint of the large crowds who would come to faith in Christ through the preaching of the Apostles.

This image of the overflowing nets ties the story to the large crowds of converts Luke records in the Acts of the Apostles. On the day of Pentecost itself, Luke tells us—on the basis of a single sermon delivered by a Spirit-filled fisherman—three thousand people presented themselves for Baptism.

2 Corinthians 1:1-14: This epistle is addressed not only to Corinth, but also to the Christians of the whole Roman province of Achaia, of which Corinth was the capital (cf. 9:2). In this detail we see already the beginnings of the ecclesiastical structure later known as “diocesan,” in which Christians in rural areas, smaller towns, and villages were associated with and brought under the pastoral supervision of a larger, usually more centralized church in a given region.

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 27

2 Corinthians 1.15—2.2: Paul begins to correct a misunderstanding. He had disappointed some of the Corinthians by failing to visit them at a time when he was expected. Indeed, he had announced plans for such a visit (1 Corinthians 16:5). In fact, he changed his plans more than once. Recently he had planned to stop for visits twice at Corinth, once going to Macedonia and once coming back (verses 15-16). Even these plans had been changed, to the chagrin of some of the folks at Corinth, who thought the Apostle a bit fickle and irresolute (verse 17).

St. Paul defends himself, insisting that these changes of travel plans did not indicate a deeper spiritual problem. In his proclamation of the Gospel to the Corinthians he was not fickle or irresolute (verse 18). His readers, therefore, should not interpret his recent behavior as a sign of irresolution.

Paul uses this occasion to teach a lesson. Steadfastness of purpose, he says, is what characterizes the word that God speaks to us in Christ. It is an enduring affirmation, indicated by the perfect tense of the verb (gegonen–verse 19). That word is the same as when Paul and his companions had first preached it among the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15:11), because God’s promises are not subject to changes of plans (verse 20). They are always “Amen,” the same word that Christians speak back to God at the close of their prayers in Jesus’ name.

In fact, God has already sealed these promises in the hearts of the Corinthians at the time of their baptism (verses 21-22). This sealing is already a down payment or “earnest money” (arrabon) of their eternal inheritance (cf. 5:5; Romans 8:23).

Paul then returns to his disputed travel plans, saying that it was for the good of the Corinthians themselves that he had failed to show up when they expected him (verse 23; compare 13:2). Things were not yet right at Corinth.

Paul saw no value in returning yet again to Corinth while feeling distressed at the situation there. Such a visit, he felt, would only have made things worse.

Monday, August 28

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

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

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

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

Phineas had been hardly more than a child when he saw the divine retribution visited on two of his priestly uncles, Nadab and Abihu, for a single offense in the service of God. Nor had those been insignificant men who were thus punished. On the contrary, Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron and his heirs in the priesthood, were men of stature and respect among the people. They had accompanied Moses, their very uncle, as he began his climb of Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:1), and had partly shared in his vision of the divine glory (24:9-10). Nonetheless, Nadab and Abihu had been instantly struck dead, devoured by a fire from the divine presence for just one moral lapse (Leviticus 10:1-3). The memory of that swift retribution had seared itself into the memory of young Phineas. He knew by experience that Israel’s Lord was a morally serious God, not some feather of a deity to be brushed away at one’s convenience.

At the time of the Moabite crisis, then, the reaction of Phineas was utterly decisive and equally swift. Responding to the Lord’s decree to punish the offenders (Numbers 25:4-6), he resolutely took the matter in hand and thus put an end to the divine wrath already plaguing the people (25:7-15). For his part in averting the evil, Phineas came to enjoy great respect in Israel. Not long afterwards, for instance, he was the priest chosen to accompany the army advancing against the Midianites (Numbers 31:6). After the Conquest, Phineas inherited land among the Ephraemites (cf. Joshua 24:33) and continued to be consulted by Israel, especially in times of crisis (cf. Judges 20:28). He would be remembered throughout the rest of biblical history, furthermore, as the very model of zeal in God’s service (cf. Psalms 105 [106]:30; 1 Chronicles 9:20; Sirach 45:23).

Tuesday, August 29

Mark 6.14-29: Although the father of John the Baptist declared that the mission of his son was t o give knowledge of salvation to God’s people and to guide our feet into the way of peace, the Holy Scriptures equally testify that a certain “violence” attended his entire ministry. Jesus spoke of this, saying that John’s appearance in this world introduced the days in which “the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come” (11:12–14).

Violence was especially evident in his apocalyptic preaching about “the wrath to come,” with axes laid to the roots of trees and the burning of chaff with unquenchable fire (3:7–12). This sense of violence introduces the first thing we want say about John: He was possessed of an uncompromising moral sense. H never learned to temper his language when he addressed the enemies of God. He treated them as . . . . , well, enemies.

In the New Testament triangle of the anemic Antipas, the hateful Herodias, and the relentless John, we have a striking parallel to the Old Testament triangle of the anemic Ahab, the hateful Jezebel, and, of course, the unrelenting Elijah. John’s uncompromising moral vision is what finally brought about his martyrdom.

And the consideration of his martyrdom—the event of today’s feast—brings us to the theme of the Cross. It is remarkable that the Gospel of St. Mark (6:14-29) provides the most complete detailed account of the martyrdom of John the Baptist. If one searches a reason for this, I suggest that the explanation lies in the central theme of Mark’s Gospel—namely, the mystery of the Cross. This theme is introduced very early in Mark, when Jesus is put on trial almost right away. At the beginning of the second chapter He is accused of blasphemy (2:7), and at the beginning of chapter three His enemies already plot to kill Him (3:6).

The evangelist Mark inserts the murder of John the Baptist at a point where his literary structure requires him to suggest a passage of time between two events. Thus, right before the story of John, Jesus sends out to evangelizing disciples (6:7-13). To indicate the passage of time during which these disciples were preaching, casting out demons, and anointing the sick, Mark tells the fairly lengthy story of the death of John the Baptist. Immediately after this account, Mark speaks of the return of the disciples from their preaching and healing mission (6:30).

This story of John’s death stands in Mark’s account as a foreshadowing, of sorts, of the trial and death of Jesus. Indeed, in both stories the tragedy comes about through evil forces working on the weakness of certain political figures. Thus, Herod orders the beheading of John the Baptist, much against his preference, when his hand is forced by the thoroughly corrupt Herodias. And Pilate, also against his preference, orders the crucifixion of Jesus, when his hand is forced by the corrupt Jewish leaders.

In both stories, that is to say, we witness the inability of cowardly political leadership to guarantee the most fundamental political rights: to life and a fair trial. Both stories are indictments of moral weakness; both Herod and Pilate are cowards, unable to resist injustice, even though they bear the responsibility of maintaining justice. Each case—the beheading of John the Baptist and the crucifixion of Jesus—demonstrates the inability of human power to render even the most basic justice.

This lesson was particularly significant for Mark’s original readers: the Christians suffering persecution and death at the hands of the weak political leader Nero, who diverted to them the wrath of the Roman people for the burning of Rome.

Wednesday, August 30

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.

The fault, however, was not of Moses but of the Israelites (verse 14). Here Paul has in mind less the Israelites of Moses’ time than the Israelites of his own day, those from whose synagogues, all over the Mediterranean basin, he and his companions had been expelled. These were the Israelites to whom the true face of Moses remained veiled. Satan, “the god of this world” (4:4), continued to harden their thoughts (noemata–verse 14). This veil has become, in Paul’s argument, an internal covering of the mind, which prevents the correct understanding of “the Old Testament.” This is the only place in the Bible, we may note, that uses this last expression.

The “abolishing” (katargeitai) of which Paul speaks here refers to the veil, not the Old Testament. This is clear in verse 16, where Paul refers to the removal of the veil from the heart (verse 15). No part of God’s Word is ever abolished or “out of date” (Matthew 5:17; Romans 3:31).

The Septuagint text of Exodus 34:34 throws light on this removal of the veil. It speaks of Moses taking the veil from his face when he “went in before the Lord to speak to Him.” It was in turning to the Lord that Moses’ veil was removed. Thus, says St. Paul, as soon as a man turns to the Lord, the veil is removed (verse 16). This interpretation is important as it indicates Paul understood Jesus to be “the Lord” to whom Moses went in to speak. The Lordship of Jesus is, in fact, at the base of all Paul’s reflections here (cf. 4:5).

To speak of Christ, however, is concretely to speak of the Holy Spirit. We do not get the One without the Other (verse 17). They are necessarily, or at least practically, concomitant. It is as though a foreign diplomat were to say, “Washington is the United States,” or as if an epicure should remark, “Baltimore is crab cakes,” meaning that the one implies the other. With Christ comes the Holy Spirit; when a man turns to Christ, he receives the Holy Spirit. (Indeed, even this affirmation is oversimplified, because a man cannot even turn to Christ except through the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit.)

Contrasted with the veiled Israelites are the unveiled Christians, beholding and being transformed by the glory of the Lord (verse 18). Like Moses in God’s presence, their faces are uncovered, because there is freedom in the new covenant (verse 17). To Christians, then, it is given to share in the doxological transformation accorded to Moses, as they are transformed progressively into the image of Christ.

Thursday, August 31

2 Corinthians 4.1-15: Paul’s comments in chapters 3-4 are partly biographical; he is remembering his own experience of conversion to Christ and the glory on the road to Damascus, the experience that led to his radical reassessment of the Torah. This is why he shifts to the “apostolic we” (4:1). 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

Paul now returns to 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.”

Psalms 148: Psalm 148 is a summons directed to all of creation to praise God, its constantly repeated exhortation being allelu, “praise ye.” In structure and imagery Psalm 148 has great affinities to the Greek form of the hymn of the three young men in the fiery furnace in Daniel 3:52–90, and in the Western liturgical tradition this latter is very often, and always on Sundays, the Old Testament canticle immediately preceding this psalm itself.

Psalm 148, in calling on all creation to praise the Lord, also follows much the same sequence as the fiery furnace song in Daniel: heaven, sun, moon, stars, angels, waters above the heavens, followed by the various elements and formations on the earth, etc. A similar sequence is found in other biblical poetry, such as Job 28 and Sirach 43. The general format for this sequence is derived, of course, from the created order in Genesis 1. Indeed, the doctrine of creation is precisely the reason given for the praise: “Let them praise the name of the Lord, for He spoke, and they came to be; He gave command, and they were created. He established them forever and ever. He decreed His precept, and it will not pass away.” One may pray this psalm, then, as Genesis 1 adapted to the form of praise.

Friday, September 1

The Book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 46.1-12 —

1 Joshua, son of Nun, was a valiant warrior
and the successor of Moses in the prophetic office,
destined to become, as his name implies,[b]
the great savior of God’s chosen people,
to wreak vengeance on the enemies who attacked them
and thus bring Israel into its inheritance.
2 How glorious he was when with uplifted hands
he brandished his sword against cities!
3 Who could withstand him
when he fought the battles of the Lord?
4 Was it not through him that the sun stood still
so that one day was lengthened into two?
5 He called upon the Most High God
when his enemies pressed him on every side,
and the great Lord answered him
with hailstones of mighty power.
6 He overwhelmed that hostile nation in battle
and destroyed his assailants as they fled down the slope,
so that all the nations might know his power
and that he was fighting before the Lord.
For he was a devoted follower of God,
7 in the lifetime of Moses proving his loyalty.
Joshua and Caleb, son of Jephunneh,
stood their ground against the rebellious assembly,
restrained the people from sin,[c]
and silenced their wicked grumbling.
8 As a result, out of the six hundred thousand infantry,
these two alone were spared
to lead the people into their inheritance,
a land flowing with milk and honey.
9 And the strength that the Lord gave to Caleb
remained with him even in his old age;
thus, he was able to invade the hill country
and win possession of it for an inheritance,
10 so that every Israelite might see
how good it is to follow t e Lord.
11 The Judges too, every one of them by name,
whose hearts did not succumb to idolatry
and who did not turn their backs on the Lord—
may their memory be blessed.
12 May their bones send forth new life from the grave,
and may the names of those illustrious men
live again in their children.