April 26 – May 3, 2024

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.

Saturday, April 27

Ezekiel 20: This oracle, delivered on August 14, 591 B.C., was occasioned by an inquiry made to Ezekiel by a group of exiled Jewish elders, apparently undeterred by their earlier failure in 14:1-11.

So Ezekiel answers them: Beginning with Israel’s ancient sojourn in Egypt, prior to the Exodus, idolatry has been an abiding sin of God’s Chosen People. That rebellion against the Lord in Egypt was simply continued during the people’s wandering in the desert of Sinai. During both of those periods God spared His people, so that their enemies (and His) might not take comfort from their destruction.

Indeed, because Israel constantly violated the Lord’s ordinances, these ordinances proved not to be good for them, inasmuch as the very disobedience rendered the people morally worse (verses 23-26). (This is a motif, of course, that St. Paul will later develop in his Epistles: the futility of the Law to bring about salvation.) Then, even after their settlement in the Promised Land, the people continued their ancient infidelities.

Now, after all this, do these elders dare to come and “inquire of the Lord”? They are told that this inquiry amounts to a mockery. They have always known God’s will, yet they have decided to disobey it. Why should the Lord have anything further to say to them? (We should particularly observe here that, among the sins of Israel specifically named, child sacrifice is very prominent. Since the murder of unborn children is one of the most serious offenses of our own society, this oracle seems especially relevant today.)

Even after conveying this oracle, however, Ezekiel goes on in verses 32 to 44 to deliver a prophecy of Israel’s eventual restoration. Although Israel’s kings have brought the nation low, God is still Israel’s true king (20:33).

Psalms 136 (Greek & Latin 135): Because the line “for his mercy endures forever” appears in each of its twenty-six verses, this psalm is commonly known in the East as the polyeleion, or “manifold mercy.”

After three introductory verses that call for the praise of God, one may distinguish three stanzas in this psalm. Stanza 1, verses 4–9, we may think of as the “cosmic stanza,” because it deals with God’s work of Creation described in the opening verses of Genesis. This stanza is structured on four verbs (descriptive participles in Hebrew): “does great wonders . . . made the heavens . . . laid out the earth . . . made great lights.” Verses 8 and 9 are a continuation of verse 7 (“the sun to rule by day . . . the moon and stars to rule by night”) and bring the “cosmic” portion of the psalm to a close.

But Creation is the stage on which God makes history, so in stanza 2, verses 10–22, we move from Genesis to Exodus. This we may think of as the “history stanza,” containing material from the Books of Exodus, Numbers, and Joshua. In this stanza likewise there is a fourfold series of verbs (again, descriptive participles in Hebrew), this time mainly in pairs, that describe God’s redemptive activity for His people: (1) “struck Egypt . . . and brought out Israel;” (2) “divided the Red Sea . . . and made Israel pass through;” (3) “overthrew Pharaoh . . . led His people through the wilderness;” (4) “struck down great kings . . . slew famous kings . . . and gave their land as a heritage.”

Finally, stanza 3, verses 23–26, speaks of God’s continuing care for His people down through the ages. He is not simply a God of the past, but of “us,” the present generation of believers. The last part of the psalm is about here and now: “remembered us in our lowly estate . . . rescued us from our enemies . . . gives food to all flesh.”

Sunday, April 28

John 9.1-12: This story about the gift of sight pertains to a theme integral to the entire Gospel of John and the Bible as a whole. The first thing God created, according to Genesis, is “light.” God created light three days before he created the sun and the moon. That light is the inner truth of Creation, which is identical “good” of Creation. “And God saw the light that it was good.” This goodness and truth lie at the heart of everything God makes.

The original “vision” in Holy Scripture is God’s own vision of the world. Through man’s intellect God gives him the means of perceiving the same truth God beholds when He looks at the world. Heaven and earth, says Isaiah, are full of his glory. The Hebrew word for glory is kavod. This word has the same radicals as the word kaved, which means “weight.” “Glory” in Hebrew indicates a certain weightiness, a substantiality. One should think of the sheer weightiness of gold. We gain some sense of this in St. Paul’s expression, “eternal weight of glory.”

Ezekiel 21: The deep, very personal lamentation in this text will remind the reader of Ezekiel’s older contemporary, Jeremiah, who expressed very much the same sentiments during that decade immediately preceding the fall of Jerusalem in 586.

There are four oracles in this chapter (the first oracle actually beginning in 20:45), three of them against Jerusalem, and the fourth against the Ammonite capital of Rabbah (the present city Amman, capital of the modern country of Jordan). Even as Ezekiel speaks, the Babylonian army, with its “well polished sword,” is already on the march toward those two cities.

The imagery alternates between fire (particularly a forest fire, with Jerusalem being the timber) and sword, both images combined in that of the lightning.

The references to the “Negev” in the first oracle (20:45—21:7) should be understood simply as “the south,” which is often the case in Ezekiel. The invading army, marching from Babylon, did not go directly westward toward Jerusalem, a march through the Arabian Desert being quite prohibitive. Instead, it marched up and around the Fertile Crescent, following the course of the Mesopotamian and Syrian rivers, so that now it has turned southward, in the direction of the Negev Desert, tramping toward Jerusalem and Rabbah.

In the second oracle (verses 8-17) Ezekiel addresses the Babylonian sword itself, which is the instrument of God’s vindication. The Babylonians, though they are acting as God’s instrument in history, do not know this, no more than a sword recognizes who wields it.

The third oracle (verses 18-27), continuing the image of the Babylonian sword, portrays another of Ezekiel’s symbolic actions, which must be explained to those who witness it. It pantomimes a fork in the road; which city, Jerusalem or Rabbah, will Nebuchadnezzar strike first?

The final oracle (verses 28-32) addresses to Rabbah the same threats that have been spoken to Jerusalem.

Monday, April 29

John 9.13-23: With Jesus’ gift of sight to the man born blind, the moral ambient darkness continues to grow. In particular, darkness invades the Sanhedrin itself; a division (Greek schisma ensues. Those who are “of the truth” (19.37) are disposed to consider—at least—the rational and plausible evidence that supports the claims of Jesus: “How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?” One of these, doubtless, was Nicodemus, who had earlier argued, “Does our law judge a man before it hears him and knows what he is doing?” (7.52).

Nonetheless, an apparently larger part of the Sanhedrin, including the leadership, are resistant to the light; these are not “of the truth.” In this story we find illustrated John’s earlier assertion, “And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (1.5).

The former blindman’s parents are brought for questioning. Fearing excommunication by the authorities, they are not very helpful as witnesses.

This section of chapter 9 thus continues to examine the initial question of the narrative; namely, “who has sinned?” Jesus opponents have already made up their mind on this point: “This Man is not from God, because He does not [e]keep the Sabbath.” They will maintain this rash judgment to the very end, at which point Jesus will say to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, ‘We see.’ Therefore your sin remains.”

Ezekiel 22: This chapter contains three oracular prophecies, joined together by a common theme: ritual uncleanness, understood either literally or as a metaphor. Ezekiel, as a priest dedicated entirely to the correct worship of the true God, was particularly sensitive to this matter of cleanness, or purity, in both the sacrifice and the priest.

The first oracle (verses 1-16), directed against Jerusalem, is full of the imagery of blood, any flowing of which rendered a person ritually unclean. Blood is also, however, an image of violence.

The second oracle (verses 17-22) is directed against all unfaithful Israelites, who are described as dross (that is, metallic impurity), which God will clean away in the coming smelting process of His historical judgment. Ezekiel doubts that any true metal will be found once this process is complete.

The third oracle (verses 23-31) is against the Holy Land itself, which suffers uncleanness because of those who live there. These have defiled God’s land with bloodshed and other forms of impurity, rendering the land unholy and no longer fit to contain the Lord’s true worship.

Tuesday, April 30

1 Corinthians 16.12-24: We come now to the closing of First Corinthians, much of which, as usual toward the end of Paul’s letters, consists of the sending of greetings. He speaks of the mission to Ephesus of Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus.

He refers to the household of Stephanas as “the first fruits of Achaia,” meaning the first household he had baptized in Greece. Evidently Paul’s memory has improved a good deal since he began this epistle, because back in 1:14-16 he had momentarily forgotten that he had even baptized the household of Stephanas!

Paul also sends greetings from Aquila and Prisca, who are currently living at Ephesus (Acts 18:18). This couple is very well known at Corinth, of course (Acts 18:1-3).

Paul has been dictating this epistle to Sosthenes (1 Corinthians 1:1), who is likewise well known back in Corinth (Acts 18:17), but he takes the pen himself in verse 21. Paul normally does this toward the end of each epistle (Galatians 6:11; Colossians 4:18; Philemon 9). He began this custom when writing Second Thessalonians, in order to authenticate each epistle as his own (2 Thessalonians 3:17), after he learned of a forgery being circulated in his name (2:2).

Ezekiel 23: About to see the ruin of Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, Ezekiel thinks back to the year 722 B.C., when the Assyrians had destroyed Samaria, the capital of Israel. As Samaria fell then, Jerusalem will fall now. How closely the two cases resembled one another, the prophet reflects, both cities unfaithful to God, like two loose women who could not be trusted. This comparison of the two cities is the basis of the long allegory that fills the present chapter.

Once again, Ezekiel traces the problem back to Egypt, where the Israelites first learned the seductions of idolatry (verse 3). Samaria, having handed herself over to Assyrian seductions, was finally destroyed by Assyria (verses 5-10). Jerusalem was worse, falling under the idolatrous sway of both Assyria and Babylon in turn (verses 11-18). In addition, as a final irony, Jerusalem was now turning once again to the gods of Egypt (verses 18-21), Ezekiel’s reference to King Zedekiah’s recent appeal to Egypt against the Babylonian overlord.

The various nations of the Fertile Crescent (verse 23), all now part of the Babylonian Empire, will attack Jerusalem from the north (verse 24). History, Ezekiel saw, was about to be repeated. Thus, in this chapter the prophet extends the metaphor of marital fidelity that was the theme of Chapter 16.

Wednesday, May 1

1 Peter 1.1-12: Peter’s name, which is the first word in this longer of his two epistles, is immediately qualified by the noun “apostle.” The absence of the definite article with this noun prompts most English translations to insert the indefinite article, “an Apostle,” indicating that Peter was one of a group.

While this is grammatically correct—nor, given the difficulty of translating from one idiom to another, can I think of an obvious alternative—this rendering can be misleading. Although it is true that Peter was one of a group, the absence of the definite article in that first verse implies something more and a tad subtle: The noun “apostle” here, used without the article, points to the quality of Peter’s testimony, the proper note of the authority with which he writes; it modifies Peter, much like an adjective, making his apostleship the foundation of the pastoral concern he expresses in this letter. Thus, as he begins to dictate the words to Silvanus (cf. 5:12), Peter formally and explicitly puts on his apostle-hat, as it were, and he wears it throughout the ensuing message. He is not sending his readers his good advice; he is speaking on behalf of, and with the authority of, God’s Son.

Peter has clearly come a long way since God’s Son called him to the apostleship. Whatever schooling he received as a boy growing up in the synagogue, Peter could still be called, in those early years, “unschooled and ignorant” (Acts 4:13). Things had already begun to change, nonetheless, even then. At 9 o’clock on the morning of Pentecost, Peter boldly emerged from that upper room with a singular display of eloquence and with an impressive command of the Holy Scriptures, enough to prompt 3000 souls to accept Baptism.

Ezekiel 24: This chapter is constructed of two quite separate parts, the first being the allegorical oracle of a pot cooking on the fire, the second a prophecy and prophetic action connected with the death of Ezekiel’s wife.

The first oracle (verses 1-14) is dated on January 15, 588 B.C., the day that Nebuchadnezzar began the siege of Jerusalem. This siege is compared to the flames surrounding a pot until its contents are cooked. This pot is, of course, Jerusalem, where the long siege has begun. The rust on this metal pot, which is the same color as blood and is likened to blood, carries forward the image of dross from Chapter 22.

The second oracle (verses 15-27) is occasioned by the sudden death of Ezekiel’s wife. He is not the only biblical prophet whose “home life” becomes part of the prophetic message. Thus, Hosea was obliged to marry a prostitute as part of his prophetic vocation, both Hosea and Isaiah were told to give strange and symbolic names to their children, and Jeremiah is commanded to remain celibate as a witness to the imminent passing of the era.

In the case of Ezekiel, he is ordered not to mourn at the death of his wife, no matter how grieved he feels. He must then interpret this strange behavior to his neighbors, giving him the opportunity to explain why, in their concrete historical circumstances, it would be inappropriate for them to mourn, even though their hearts are broken. Thus, in his grief Ezekiel himself becomes a “sign” to the people who are soon to see their beloved city destroyed.

Thursday, May 2

1 Peter 1:13-25: This section is an invitation to hope (verses 13,21). Christian hope is sustained by a twofold consideration. First, it is inspired by the final goal of the life in Christ (verses 13-17), and second, by the initial grace of the life in Christ (verses 18-21).

With respect to the first, hope is directed to the final “revelation of Jesus Christ,” his “being made visible” (apokalypsis—verses 7,13; 4:13). Relying “completely” (teleios) on this hope, believers refuse to conform to the deeds of their past, aware of their responsibility to be holy, even as God is holy (verses 14-16; Leviticus 19:2; 18:1-5,30; Clement of Rome, To the Corinthians 29.1—30.1).

In the New Testament the expression “be not conformed” (me syschematizesthe, in which we observe the English word “schema”) is found only here (verse 14) and in Romans 12:2—“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (We observe in passing that both of these works are associated with the church at Rome.) No less than the Chosen People of old, Christians are called to be a holy people in the midst of an unholy world. The latter is characterized by “ignorance” and “passions” (verse 14). We may compare this passage with 1 Thessalonians 4:5—“not in passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God.”

Christians are reminded that God’s judgment discerns the difference between His “holy ones” (“saints”) and the world (verse 17). In view of this divine discernment, Christians are to be ever mindful of the coming judgment (Romans 14:10-11; 1 Corinthians 3:12-15; 4:4; 2 Corinthians 5:10-11). Christian hope is not without this appropriate “fear” (en phobo—verse 17; cf. 2:18; 3:2,16; Acts 9:31).

The one who “ransoms” or “redeems” us is God (verse 18). This image is a figure of speech taken over largely from the Book of Isaiah, which habitually speaks of the Lord “ransoming” or “redeeming” His people from the Babylonian Captivity (Isaiah 41:14; 43:1,14; 44:6,22-24; 47:4; 48:17,20; 49:7,26; 51:10; 52:3,9; 54:5,8; 59:20; 62:12; 63:4,9). When the Lord “redeemed” or “ransomed” Israel from Babylon, it was not a commercial transaction. There was no quid pro quo. When the Lord is called Israel’s “redeemer” (go’el), therefore, the word is being used in a metaphorical religious sense.

It is in this sense that the present passage, following the lead of Isaiah 53, speaks of our “redemption” through the blood of Jesus (verse 19; Mark 10:45—once again, both texts associated with the church at Rome). While we say that the blood of Jesus was the “price” of our redemption, it would be a violation of the religious metaphor to inquire “to whom” the price was paid. Such an inquiry turns the image into a matter of commercial use.

The redeeming by Christ was predestined in the very construction of the world itself (verse 20: Romans 16:25-26; Hebrews 9:26; Ignatius of Antioch, Magnesians 6.1).

Friday, May 3

Ezekiel 26: The dating of this first oracle against the Phoenicians is obviously incomplete; it tells us the year (during the reign of Jehoiakin) and the day of the month, but not the month! Clearly the text has suffered in transmission. That is, some copyist made an error on this text when he transcribed it many centuries ago.

In spite of this circumstance, we can fix the date of this oracle fairly closely, at least within a month or two. Since it indicates that Jerusalem has already fallen (verse 2), we do have an earliest possible period, the summer of 586, when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. Nonetheless, we should bear in mind that the news of Jerusalem’s fall did not reach the exiles in Babylon until the following December (cf. 33:21). Therefore, we should date this text sometime shortly afterwards, between January and March of 585.

Tyre, an ancient capital of the seafaring merchant Phoenicians, was an island off the coast that we now know as Lebanon. The Phoenicians were of far greater mercantile and geopolitical stature than the little nations condemned in the previous chapter. The merchant ships and protecting navy plied all over the Mediterranean and adjoining seas. She placed her colonies (including Carthage) on every coast. Two thousand years before Vasco da Gama, Phoenician ships had passed through the Strait of Gibraltar, turned south, and explored the entire west coast of Africa, down to and around the cape.

Secure on its island, Tyre was not easily threatened by land attack, nor did the Babylonians have a navy on the Mediterranean. (Indeed, Tyre would not be successfully reduced by siege until 332, when Alexander the Great, having already dismissed his expensive mercenary navy, constructed a causeway to Tyre from the mainland, moving his army to besiege the city. That causeway has gradually accumulated a good deal of silt over the years, so that Tyre now sits on the end of a thin peninsula.)

Ezekiel’s complaint against Tyre is this: When Jerusalem fell in the summer of 586, the citizens of Tyre used the occasion to ask themselves a single question: “How can we make money from this situation?” Their reduction of a moral event to a purely economic concern was the substance of their sin.

Moral questions are always “of what sort”: right or wrong, true or false? Moral questions are qualitative. The Phoenicians, however, had become a “quantitative” people, interested only in “how much?” In due course, said Ezekiel, they will pay for it, and the price — the “how much?” — will be very dear.

Although Tyre did not weep for the fall of Jerusalem, other nations will certainly weep for the fall of Tyre. This is the first of several oracles against the Phoenicians, and St. John will later cite some of this material in the Book of Revelation, where he prophesies against the major military and economic power of his own time, Rome.