April 19 – April 26, 2024

Friday, April 19

John 4.1-15: The story begins with a description of Jesus tired and thirsty. He is tired and thirsty because he is one of us, “consubstantial with us,” said the Council of Chalcedon. According to the Epistle to the Hebrews, he is a high priest familiar with human frailty, compassionate with our weakness, merciful to our failings.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus is twice described as thirsty: at the Samaritan well and on the Cross (19.28). In the later scene his tormentors give him vinegar to drink.

He finds himself in Samaria, a place where a Jew might not always expect kindness from the local citizens. History had set a barrier between the two races. This scene is freighted with a past in need of redemption.

As for the woman herself, she too had a past; she, too, needed redemption. She has more in need than Jesus was. She was not aware of this until she showed up at the well that day.

Ezekiel 12: Once again Ezekiel is charged to act out an elaborate pantomime as a message for his fellow Israelites in exile. Whereas the previous such actions, in Chapters 4-5, had to do with the destruction of Jerusalem and the sufferings of her citizens, the present instance is concerned with the experience of the coming new exile of those who still remained back home.

When his fellow exiles ask him, “What are you doing?” (12:9), Ezekiel responds with a stirring oracle by way of explanation: To those Jewish exiles already in Babylon who are imagining that they may soon be returning to the land of Judah, Ezekiel is stressing the point, “You think this is exile? You haven’t seen anything yet!”

He emphasizes in particular the suffering destined for Zedekiah, the King of Judah. Ezekiel’s walking with covered face (“that you may not see the land”) is an eerie prophecy of the day when the Babylonians would gouge out the eyes of Zedekiah, so that the execution of his sons would be the last thing he saw in this world before going into exile (2 Kings 25:4-7; Jeremiah 39:4-7; 52:7-11).

In verse 17 the prophet begins yet another pantomime, this one much simpler, and in verses 21-28 Ezekiel is charged to challenge two more cynical slogans popular at the time. These slogans, concerned with apparently unfulfilled prophecies, will lead into his condemnation of false prophets in the next chapter.

Saturday, April 20

1 Corinthians 8.1-13: Paul deals with the practical moral dilemma connected with the market sale of meat previously sacrificed to idols.

For Paul, the purchase and consumption of such meat did not raise a point of conscience. It did not matter that such meat had been offered in idolatrous sacrifice. The Christian had no moral obligation to inquire about the matter. The Christian mother could cook this meat and serve it to her family, no questions asked.

On the other hand, Paul knew that some believers, perhaps especially those from a rabbinic background, might be squeamish on the subject.

Paul deals with this problem with a general concern for the sensitivity of the more vulnerable Christians, without making them the sole arbiters of the moral order.

He speaks of their dignity as members of the household of faith. They are, first of all, blood-bought believers. Like everybody else, they “have been purchased with a price,” and that price was the blood of Christ.

Paul speaks of such a one as “the brother for whom Christ died.” A Christian’s assessment of human worth is not based on a sentimental response, but on a fact—the historical fact of the death of Christ—the theological fact of the value of His blood. The outpoured blood of Christ is the price tag that hangs on the human soul.

Ezekiel 13: This chapter contains an oracle against false prophets (13:2-16) and an oracle against false prophetesses (verses 17-23). The major problem with all such folk is that they “prophesy out of their own minds” and “follow their own spirit” and “divined a lie.” Thus, grave spiritual harm befalls those who listen to their fantasies and follow their counsels.

Even though a wall is just about to fall, says Ezekiel, they daub it with whitewash to make it look new and secure. Well, the whole thing is about to come down, he warns, in spite of the false hopes raised by false prophets.

In his oracle against the false prophetesses, Ezekiel speaks of wristbands and headbands (if these things are, indeed, what these rare Hebrew words mean), evidently the paraphernalia of their rituals and incantations. We should probably think of these women as fortune-tellers, the sort of charlatans that are still among us. The prophet’s point here is that this sort of thing is not harmless; foolish individuals, who probably need sound counsel for important decisions, really do pay heed to such imposters, rather often to the harm of their souls. God will thwart the designs of these deceivers, says Ezekiel, by showing their predictions to be false.

Sunday, April 21

John 4.27-38: The Samaritan woman leaves the well with a question in her mind, a question posed by Jesus’ declaration that she was speaking, in fact, to the Messiah. Is he? Indeed, who is he? . It is the fundamental question that would in due time be addressed by the Ecumenical Councils: “Who do
you say that I am?” Just exactly who is Jesus? “Come,” she invites her friends, “see a Man who told me all things that I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” (4:29). Everyone in John’s Gospel seems to be asking such questions: “‘This is the Prophet.’ Others said, ‘This is the Messiah’” (7:40, 41).

The lady takes her question to her friends, much as original Apostles, near the beginning of this gospel, brought their discovery to one another: “We have found the [l]Messiah” (which is translated, the Christ) (1.41); “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law, and also the prophets, wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (1.45). Indeed, Jesus declares, the seed is already being sowed; in fact, a harvest is already arriving: “Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest!”

Ezekiel 14: In verses 1-11, the elders who came to consult Ezekiel got more than they anticipated, because the prophet was given insight into the deeper idolatry of their hearts. These men were apparently looking for some prediction about the future, only to be told that God’s prophetic word is not truly available for the unrepentant. That is to say, the prophet’s task is not to satisfy human curiosity about future events, but to call sinners to the due consideration of their souls. To borrow a concise expression from Saint Augustine, the prophet’s task is often that of “prescribing, not predicting”: praecipientis videlicet, non praedicentis modoThe City of God15.7).

Thus, instead of responding to their query about the future, Ezekiel summons these men to look inside themselves, at the idolatry in their hearts, before it is too late.

The second oracle in this chapter (verses 12-23) insists that the whole society, if it is unfaithful to God, will be punished as a whole. The Lord will not spare any society simply for the sake of a few just men in it, even if these latter include the likes of Noah, Daniel, and Job. While the just individuals themselves will be respected, this will have no affect on the lot of the whole, because God is fair and will render to each man according to his deserts.

Before God’s throne of judgment, therefore, it will not matter “who you know.” This thesis, which will be repeated throughout the Book of Ezekiel, is identical to that in the Book of Jeremiah (for instance, 15:1-4), and is a great deal tougher than we find, for instance, in Genesis 18, where it appears that the presence of five just men would have spared the destruction of Sodom.

Monday, April 22

John 4.39-45: At the end of the woman’s story, the designation “Christ” is embraced by her Samaritan friends, who promptly complete it with another
important Christological title: “We know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world” (4:42).

The lady from Samaria has now come all the way. Starting out that day, hardly suspecting what lay ahead, she laboriously carried her sins to the well, where she met a Jew, who asked her for a drink of water. The Jew presently became a “Sir,” and then a “prophet” who reminded her that she was a sinner. No matter, though, because this prophet was also the “Christ,” who, because he was the Savior of the world, knew exactly what to do with her sins. Seeking her he sat down weary, and to redeem her he would, in due course, endure the cross.

Ezekiel 15: This parable of the vine wood is more reflective than ecstatic, more analytical and rational than poetic; it conveys the studious, logical aspect of Ezekiel’s thought.

And the message of this parable could hardly be more straightforward or less complicated: Vines and their stocks are of no constructive use unless they are still in the process of growing grapes. Once they have stopped doing that, they are useless for any constructive purpose. Unlike other kinds of wood, vine wood cannot be used to fashion homes or furniture or even basic tools. Indeed, one cannot employ such wood to make an instrument so elementary as a wall peg on which to hang a pot in the kitchen. (The partial burn damage in verse 5 alludes to the partial exile of Jerusalem’s citizens in 597, some five years earlier.)

However, the parable proceeds to say, this wood can still be burned! No matter how otherwise useless, it still makes decent fuel. So, says the Lord, let Jerusalem take heed, because He has not seen any fruit on that vine for many a year.

The motif of this parable should put one in mind of Jesus’ cursing of the barren fig tree in the gospels of Matthew and Mark. Both Ezekiel’s parable and Jesus’ parabolic action had to do with impending destructions of Jerusalem.

Inasmuch as Jerusalem is also a mystic symbol of the soul, the moral sense of this parable is applicable to us all on a daily basis. It is the other side of the Gospel injunction that we are to live lives that bear fruit; otherwise we are useless to God for any constructive purpose.

Tuesday, April 23

Ezekiel 16: This parable is more elaborate than the one in the previous chapter, showing more evidence of allegorical detail. Both parables convey roughly the same message. Each parable is an illustration of failure. A beautiful but egregiously unfaithful wife is as useless as a cut and dried vine.

Several of the various details in this account of the harlot refer to specific periods and events in Israel’s history: the origins of the people, the time of the Covenant, the founding of the united kingdom, the prosperity of the Solomonic era, and the division into two kingdoms.

The oracle’s final part prepares the listeners for Jerusalem’s impending doom, which is to be like the earlier total destructions of Sodom and Samaria. Jerusalem, says the Lord, is more evil than either of these.

At the very end, however—after Jerusalem has fallen—appears a message of hope and renewal. Even the prophets most pessimistic about Jerusalem at this time, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, never cease to trust in God’s ultimate mercy. In particular, God will not hold children responsible for the sins of their parents, a theme to be elaborated in Chapter 18.

Psalms 74 (Greek & Latin 73): This psalm, Asaph’s most important poems, is concerned with the maintenance of sacred space and sacred time.

Asaph regards sacred space and sacred time as the consecration of the Universe itself. The godless man, he observes, has no respect for either sacred space or sacred time. He wants to destroy both. And his efforts to defile them express contempt for the works of God.

This psalm is called a maskil, a term denoting a song enforcing some lesson of wisdom or piety, a didactic song. Although there is a lot of action in this psalm, its theme invites a slow and seriously reflective recital.

It is a psalm about God’s domain, as symbolized in the sacred space of the sanctuary and the sacred time of the calendar. In this psalm, both aspects of God’s domain are being challenged by man’s rebellion.

The godless man hates the sanctuary for the same reason he hates the feast day. Both sanctuary and feast day signify God’s lordship of space and time.

What is at stake in this destructive activity, according to Asaph, is an arrogant contempt for the structure of Creation—and, more especially, for the Creator, who made all things according to His Wisdom. What is at stake is the structure of Creation. Men are deliberately destroying what God made.

Observe here Asaph’s description of the Universe. Rightly is he called “Asaph the Seer,” for he contemplates the Universe in its ordering Wisdom. To the eyes of Asaph, Creation subsists in a wise and judicious structure—the balancing of light and darkness, the polarity of heat and cold, the partnered dance of day and night, the dry land nestled in the embrace of mountains and seas. All of created reality has this “binary” structure. God made it this way.

Wednesday, April 24

1 Corinthians 12.12-31: Continuing to address the schismatic spirit at Corinth in the more recent chapters of this epistle, Paul has concentrated on the “good order” (taxsis) requisite in Christian congregational worship. In chapter ten, he began to focus his attention on the Lord’s Supper, that solemn rite around which all of Christian worship is centered—from which it flows and towards which it tends.

In the mystery of the Lord’s bodily presence in the Eucharist, Paul found the source of the unity of the Church. Jesus had identified the eucharistic bread as his own body. Jesus said it; Paul believed it. Moreover, he took it as a starting point to address the problems at Corinth: “The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ (koinonia tou somatos tou Christou)? For we many are one bread, one body, because we all partake of that one bread” (10.16-17).

When Paul speaks of the Church as the body of Christ, he does not understand this as a figurative or metaphorical speech, no more that Jesus, when he spoke of eating his body as a figure or metaphor. Jesus’ “hard saying” (skleros estin ho logos toutos) in John 6.60 becomes, for Paul, a principle of ecclesiology. If all of us truly eat the body of Christ, then, in some way passing understanding, we all become the body of Christ.”

And if we are the body of Christ, Paul continues in these verses, Christian unity is organic. Each Christian is to find, in the body of Christ, the specific place and ministry that God has assigned him, because the parts of any body are diverse.

The Church of Jesus Christ is not an abstract, spiritual entity. It is not some general conceptual reality. It is a concrete, visible organism. (Purely spiritual realities, invisible realities, do not have the sorts of problems prevalent at Corinth.) The Church is an “organized” religion, in the sense of an “organism,” originally a Greek word (organismos) derived from the noun, organon, meaning “instrument.” An instrument, an organon, is something constructed according to a plan and for a purpose. Just as the growing fetus growing in the womb, even at the zygote stage, is not just a mass of disorganized cells, so the members of the Church are not just a bunch of individuals thrown together. Their unity is organic; they belong to a concrete reality, constructed according to a plan and for a purpose.

The Church is the body of Christ, not the soul; it is a corporate entity, “knit together by joints and ligaments” (Colossians 2.19); it is “the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the construction of itself in love” (Ephesians 4.16).

It is of the essence of a “body,” says Paul, that the parts of it work together, each organ, limb, and cell taking care of one another. This is the model he holds out to the Corinthians.

Thursday, April 25

Ezekiel 18: This is an oracle about personal responsibility, a matter on which the mind of Ezekiel may be contrasted with modern sensibilities. Modern ideas of individual moral responsibility often run along such lines as, “You must not do anything you can’t live with.” According to this perspective, moral norms are established by the limits of a person’s psychological comfort; what is evil or good is determined by whether or not a person can endure having done it.

Ezekiel knows nothing of such nonsense. For him personal moral responsibility means that a man must ultimately be responsible, not to the dubious dispositions of his own conscience, but to the all-righteous God who gave the law.

Each man must respond for himself, however, not for either his ancestors or his progeny. The people at Jerusalem needed to hear such a message, because some of them contended that they were being punished—with doubtful justice!—for the sins of their fathers. Ezekiel was charged to set them straight on this matter.

Although the social and even psychological effects of sin are handed down from one generation to the next, the moral burden of sin is not. Each man will answer for himself and his own moral decisions, not for those of his grandparents. The retributive principle is always: “The soul that sins shall die.”

Meanwhile, the possibility of moral change remains for each of us as long as we are alive. A bad man can become good, and a good man can become bad. Our moral fate depends on what we become, not on what we were before.

The closing part of this oracle stands as a strong witness against any religious theory claiming that God is glorified even by someone’s eternal loss. No, eternal loss is a pure waste of proffered salvation. God is not glorified by anyone’s going to hell.

Psalms 127 (Greek & Latin 126): Among the “psalms of ascent,” chanted by Israel’s pilgrims as they climbed the final steps up Mount Zion on their pilgrimage to the temple, this is the only one ascribed to Solomon. The latter being the Bible’s preeminent wise man, this detail may serve to direct our attention to certain “wisdom themes” in the psalm, and, in truth, these are readily discerned. Most particularly there is the theme of the wise householder.

A man did not normally make this pilgrimage to Jerusalem alone, but in the company of his family (cf. Luke 2:41). Indeed, this customary pilgrimage was a significant way of giving a godly identity to a man’s family. It was itself an exercise of “edification,” this word taken in its etymological sense of building or constructing an “edifice.” An important purpose of the pilgrimage was that of “building the house,” the latter term understood as “home” or “household.” Like everything else a family does together, the regular pilgrimage was an exercise in house-building. In fact, this is a psalm about the proper maintenance of the household and, by extension, the city. Any simple reading of, say, Proverbs will show that these preoccupations very much constitute a wisdom theme.

Now the message of Psalm 127 is that all human effort directed toward such wise pursuits must be founded on a firm trust in God’s grace and assistance. Thus, our psalm begins: “Unless the Lord should build the house, in vain have the builders toiled. Unless the Lord should guard the city, in vain did the guardian keep watch.”

In our present state these tasks, construction and vigilance, are matters of great toil, of course, and frequently of frustration and sadness, because we are children of fallen Adam, who discovered his daily labor impeded by thistle and thorn. Thus, our psalm addresses those “who eat the bread of grief”—that is to say, ourselves, descendants of that man to whom the Lord said, “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” (Gen. 3:19). We are heirs of that Eve to whom it was declared, “I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; / In pain you shall bring forth children” (3:16).

No matter with how much discipline and industry we labor for our family’s bread, the bread itself is always God’s gift, a truth we acknowledge each day when we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Likewise, the wearisome toil of the Apostles, fishing all night to no avail, is followed by the sudden and unexpected catch at the Lord’s bidding (cf. Luke 5:5, 6; John 21:3–6). No human effort can hope for much apart from the graciousness of God.

Friday, April 26

John 5.24-30: “Our Father”—Abinu—was a common way for the Jews of Jesus’ day to address the God of Israel. No Jew would have been shocked that Jesus made this the initial invocation of what Christians call “the Lord’s Prayer” (Mt 6.9).

When Jesus spoke of this same God as “my Father,” however, there were eyebrows raised. Such an expression suggested an intimacy both unusual and unique. Indeed, to those who opposed Jesus, it seemed that, in speaking this way, Jesus was “making Himself equal with God” (Jn 5.18). Jesus made this point, moreover, in the context, of the Sabbath: “My Father has been working until now, and I have been working” (5.17).

Jesus himself, far from contradicting his critics, went on to emphasize his special relationship to the Father, even insisting that “all should honor the Son just as they honor the Father.” Indeed, Jesus went on, “He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (5.23).

That is to say, Jesus’ enemies did not reject him because of a misunderstanding. On the contrary, they knew and understood exactly what he meant. The unique title “Son of God” was the reason for their opposition.

Ezekiel 19: This passage is a “lamentation” (verses 1,14), descriptive of Jerusalem’s recent history, in a tripartite allegory. The lioness, Judah, gave birth to two kings–the two lions–whose stories are told in the first two parts of this allegory.

The first king (verses 3-4) is Jehoahaz, who took the throne when the great Josiah was killed in 609 at the Battle of Megiddo. His very short reign (only two verses here) came to an end that same year, because he was deposed by Pharaoh Neco and taken in bondage to Egypt (2 Kings 23:31-34).

The second king (verses 5-9) is Jehoiakin, deposed by the Babylonians in 597 after an unsuccessful rebellion on his part, and carried away to exile in Babylon, along with the cream of Judah’s leadership, a group including Ezekiel himself (2 Kings 24:8-16).

At the time of this oracle, both of these deposed “lions” are still alive–one in Egypt, the other in Babylon—but they are impotent to help their mother, Judah. This mother is then portrayed as a vine in the third and final section of the oracle (verses 10-14), which describes the devastation attendant on the inept and irresponsible government of Judah’s last king, Zedekiah.