Saturday, June 23, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Sirach [Ecclesiasticus] 8-10 and Acts 6

Well, summer vacation time is here and I will not be able to post anything until I get back on July 15th. See you then, I hope.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Sirach [Ecclesiasticus] 4-7 and Acts 5

Sirach 4 – He begins with lines of advice on dealing with the poor, the angry and the destitute, “for if a man curses you in the bitterness of his soul, his maker will hear his imprecation. Gain the love of the community, bow your head to a man of authority. To the poor man lend an ear, and return his greeting courteously” (4:7-9).

“Whoever loves her [wisdom] loves life, those who wait on her early will be filled with happiness” (4:12). For, “though she takes him at first through winding ways, bringing fear and faintness on him, plaguing him with her discipline until she can trust him, and testing him with her ordeals, in the end she will lead him back to the straight road, and reveal her secrets to him” (4:17-18).

“Fight to the death for truth, and the Lord God will war on your side” (4:28).

Sirach 5 – “Do not give your heart to your money, or say, ‘With this I am self-sufficient’. Do not be led by your appetites and energy to follow the passions of your heart” (5:1-2).

“Do not be so sure of forgiveness that you add sin to sin, and do not say, ‘His compassion is great, he will forgive me my many sins’: for with him are both mercy and wrath, and his rage bears heavy on sinners. Do not delay your return to the Lord, do not put it off day after day” (5:6-7).

Sirach 6 – “Do not give in to the promptings of your temper, in case it gores your soul like a mad bull; in case it gobbles up your leaves and you lose your fruits, and are left like a withered tree” (6:1-3).

“Let your acquaintances be many, but your advisers one in a thousand. If you want to make a friend, take him on trial, and be in no hurry to trust him; for one kind of friend is only so when it suits him but will not stand by you in your day of trouble” (6:7-8).

“A faithful friend is a sure shelter, whoever finds one has found a rare treasure, a faithful friend is something beyond price, there is no measuring his worth. A faithful friend is the elixir of life, and those who fear the Lord will find one. Whoever hears the Lord makes true friends, for as a man is, so is his friend” (6:16-17).

“[F]rom your earliest youth choose instruction, . . .[c]ultivate her . . . and wait for her fine harvest” (6:18-19).

“Listen, son, and take my warning, do not reject my advice: put your feet into her fetters, and your neck into her harness; give your shoulder to her yoke, and do not be restive in her reins; court her with all your soul, and with all your might keep in her easy; go after her and seek her; she will reveal herself to you; once you hold her, do not let her go. For in the end you will find rest in her and she will take the form of joy for you: her fetters you will find are a strong defense, her harness a robe of honor” (6:23-29).

Sirach 7 – “Do no evil, and evil will not befall you” (7:1).

“Do not ask the Lord for the highest place” (7:4). A long series of “do nots” follows:
“parade your virtue,” “scheme to be appointed judge,” “wrong the general body of citizens,” “be impatient in prayer,” “neglect to give alms,” “laugh at a man when he is sad of heart,” “draw up a lying indictment,” “tell lies,” “make long-winded speeches,” “shirk wearisome labor,” etc.

Then it turns to family obligations, respect for religious leaders, concern for the poor. “In everything you do, remember your end [your mortality], and you will never sin” (7:36). 

Acts 5 – Ananias and his wife Sapphira, together, seek to join the community but only half-heartedly, deceitfully. They have land and sell it as new believers were wont to do. But instead of turning over everything, they keep a portion of the proceeds. Peter knows though and challenges Ananias: Why “has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land?” (5:3) Ananias didn’t need to do any of this. It’s the lie that is the bad thing. Ananias “fell down and died” at Peter’s words. A little while later the same happens to his wife (5:10). Luke tells us that “great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things” (5:11). This is the first use of the word church. A Jerusalem Bible note says it is adopted from the OT to signify the messianic community. In Mt 16:18, Jesus uses it to Peter. In the OT it designates the community of “chosen people,” particularly the community of the desert period. Jesus seems to indicate that the eschatological community is to have its beginning here on earth in the form of an organized society whose leader he appoints. In Acts the term refers to the community of believers in Jerusalem, but soon is applied to the communities established by the apostles outside of Jerusalem.
Many signs and wonders are done by the apostles. Believers are added in great numbers (5:14). They “even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on cots and mats, in order that Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he came by” (5:15). The Sadducees finally take action out of jealousy (5:17). They arrest the apostles and put them in prison. But during the night “an angel [a slap at Sadducees disbelief in angels] of the Lord opened the prison doors, brought them out, and said, ‘Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life’” (5:20). Jerusalem Bible note says literally it is “all the words of this Life.” This is the message of salvation (13:26) and life.
The authorities send to the prison to have them brought, but they learn that they are not there and are preaching in the temple. They send the captain of the temple police to get them there; they are brought without violence out of concern that the people will react badly against them.  The high priest questions them and reminds them they were warned once. Peter says, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, who you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior [JB - seen as reference to titles applied to Moses, once again implying the Jesus is the New Moses. See 7:35, Heb 2:10 and 12:2] that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him” (5:29-32).

This speech enrages them. A Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, has the apostles put out for a while so he can advise the group. His advice is to leave these men alone. If “this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (5:38-39). The council is convinced by his argument. Still they have the apostles flogged and ordered again not to speak in the name of Jesus. But they did not cease to teach in his name and “proclaim Jesus as the Messiah” (5:42).

Ray Brown notes anachronisms in Gamaliel’s speech. The revolt of Theudas, which he mentions, had not yet taken place, and Judas’ revolt had taken place 30 years earlier—assuming the session took place around 36 AD. Brown also notes that Luke, unlike other gospel writers does not include Pharisees among Jesus’ enemies, and this appeal by a leading Pharisee for patience in dealing with Jesus’ followers would also indicate less friction than others sometimes indicate between Christ and the Pharisaical party.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Daily BIble Reading: Sirach [Ecclesiasticus] 1-3 and Acts 4

The Apocrypha – Books of the Old Testament – about 16 of them - included in the Septuagint and Latin Vulgate but not in the Masoretic Bible or the Protestant Bibles. The word in Greek originally meant “hidden” or “secret” – thought to be somewhat beyond the reach of ordinary readers - but because of the exclusion of some of the texts from the Masoretic text, compiled by Torah scholars between the 7th and 11th centuries AD. Their criteria was generally to accept the book as canonical only if it was written before the time of Ezra (450 BC), before the promulgation of the Pentateuch as binding.  Ecclesiastes we now know came after, but at the time it was thought to have been written by Solomon (Boadt, 535) And among Christians during the Protestant Reformation, it came to mean “questionable” or “false” - not reliable. While the books were not seen as canonical by the Lutherans or Anglicans, German and English bibles kept the books as a separate group of “apocryphal” books that should not perhaps be given as much authority, but should be approached with a degree of respect since they were often alluded to or quoted in New Testament writings.

Sirach (Ecclesiasticus)

The book of Sirach (Jesus Ben Sira) or Ecclesiasticus is part of the Greek Bible and is not in the Jewish Canon. St. Cyrpian is the one who started to call it Ecclesiasticus. The forward has words alleged to be those of the author’s grandson, and it refers to a time around 132 BC as the date of composition. At this time Palestine was newly under the rule of the Seleucids; and it was a time when that ruling class promoted Greek culture. Ben Sira is part of the traditionalist resistance of the time. He is devoted to the Temple and the law. He has studied the Prophets and the wisdom writings.
There is little logic to the writing overall though many parts of it are quite beautiful. The author believes that the way to wisdom is through adherence to the Mosaic Law and the Prophets. In this he is somewhat different from other wisdom proponents. The Jerusalem Bible introduction to the book says Sirach, the author, “is an outstanding example of those Hasidim (the ‘devout’) of Judaism, . . . who were soon to defend their faith against the persecutions of Antiochus Epiphanes, and preserve little islands of faith in Israel, in which the teaching of Christ could later take root” (1035).
In the New Testament, James borrows from it and “it is, next to the Psalms, the Old Testament book most frequently quoted in the Christian liturgy” (1035).

Translator’s Forward - The Translator’s (Greek) Forward is included in the Jerusalem Bible translation, which I will use: He refers to his grandfather, the supposed author, as Jesus. He saw “Wisdom” as rooted in the Mosaic Law and the Prophets. He says it was when he went to Egypt in the year 132 BC that he sought to instruct himself in the language so he could translate this text. It is intended to help people live according to the Law.

Sirach 1 – “All wisdom is from the Lord, and it is his own forever” (1:1).

“Before all other things wisdom was created. . . One only is wise, terrible indeed, seated on his throne, the Lord. He himself has created her, looked on her and assessed her, and poured her out on all his works to be with all mankind as his gift, and he conveyed her to those who love him” (1:4-10).

“To fear the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, she was created with the faithful in their mothers’ womb; she has made a nest among men, an age-old foundation, and to their offspring she will cling faithfully. To fear the Lord is the perfection of wisdom; she intoxicates them with her fruits; she fills their whole house with their heart’s desire, and their storerooms with her produce. The fear of the Lord is the crown of wisdom; it makes peace and health to flourish. . . To fear the Lord is the root of wisdom, and her branches are long life” (1:14-20).

“If you desire wisdom, keep the commandments, and the Lord will convey her to you. For wisdom and instruction mean the fear of the Lord, and what pleases him is faithfulness and gentleness. Do not be unsubmissive to the fear of the Lord, do not practice it with a double heart. Do not act a part in public, and keep a watch over your lips” (1:26-29).

Sirach 2 – “My son, if you aspire to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for an ordeal. Be sincere of heart, be steadfast, and do not be alarmed when disaster comes. Cling to him and do not leave him. . .” (2:1-3).

“Whatever happens to you, accept it, and in the uncertainties of your humble state, be patient, since gold is tested in the fire, and chosen men in the furnace of humiliation. Trust him and he will uphold you, follow a straight path and hope in him” (2:4-6).

“Look at the generations of old and see: who ever trusted in the Lord and was put to shame? Or who ever feared him steadfastly and was left forsaken? (2:10)

“Let us fall into the hands of the Lord, not into the hands of men; for as his majesty is, so too is his mercy” (2:18).

Sirach 3 – The first part is about respect for father and mother.

“The greater you are, the more you should behave humbly, and then you will find favor with the Lord” (3:18).

“Do not try to understand things that are too difficult for you, or try to discover what is beyond your powers. Concentrate on what has been assigned you; you have no need to worry over mysteries. Do not meddle with matters that are beyond you; what you have been taught already exceeds the scope of the human mind” (3:21-23).

Acts 4 – The priests, the captain of the temple and some Sadducees complain that Peter and John are teaching the people about resurrection from the dead. They are arrested and brought the next day to Annas, Caiaphas and others. Peter speaks out of the Holy Spirit to them, that the good deed done by them was done in the name and power of Jesus Christ “whom you crucified,” again trying to spark in listeners a sense of the terrible thing they had done. For Peter, there “is salvation in no one else” (4:12).
The fact that Peter and John are “uneducated and ordinary men,” or “uneducated laymen” in the Jerusalem BIble, they are not held to quite the same standard as a rabbi would be found teaching something like this, so they are warned to stop. The apostles retort by saying, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge” (4:19). They know they cannot keep from speaking “about what we have seen and heard” (4:20). The official lets them go, fearing the people.

Peter and John return to their friends. The incident only shows them that the “kings of the earth . . . and the rulers have gathered together against the Lord and against his Messiah,” quoting Psalm 2. They simply ask God to grant them power to speak his word “with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus” (4:30).
The writer returns to the theme of the apostles’ social testimony: The “whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (4:32). An example given is Barnabas, who sold a field that belonged to him and brought the proceeds to the apostles. The Jerusalem Bible translates 4:37 so it reads “he had a field and sold it”; the NRSV simply said “he sold a field that belonged to him,” (4:37) leaving it to the reader to wonder if it was one of many or his only field. I guess, considering what happens to Ananias in the next chapter, the Jerusalem Bible translation probably reflects better what the tradition believed about Barnabas.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Esther 7-10 and Acts 3

Esther 7 – The king’s eunuchs come to get him for the banquet with Esther. There, the king asks Esther what it is she wants; and she tells him she desires only “the lives of [her] people” (7:4). In the course of talking to him about the matter, Haman’s name comes up as the one behind the terror. The king leaves the banquet in a fury and Haman realizes the “gig is up.” He begs Esther for mercy and help. When the king returns he thinks Haman is trying to assault Esther. One of the eunuchs throws a “veil” over Haman, and the end of it all is Haman is hanged on the gallows he erected for Mordecai.

Esther 8 – Esther receives all the property of the “House of Haman” and Mordecai the ring with the king’s seal that Haman had. Esther asks the king to revoke the order he had issued at Haman’s prompting – for the extermination of the Jewish population.

Xerxes feels that it would be unacceptable to revoke a proclamation issued in the his name and stamped with the royal seal (8:8), but it would be acceptable to her to write a letter of warning to the Jews and also have it stamped. She may write “whatever [she] wants. . . in [the king’s] name” and have it stamped with his seal. So Mordecai assembles the king’s secretaries and has them write letters to all 127 provinces in the empire explaining that “the king would allow the Jews in every city to organize for self-defense” (8:11). The Jews would be permitted to “fight back and destroy the attackers; they could slaughter them to the last man and take their possessions” (8:11).

The Jerusalem Bible also includes translation of the Greek additions to the Hebrew text. There follows in the Greek version a long letter, ostensibly from Ahaseurus [Xerxes], lamenting the ill-influence of bad advisers [like Haman] on kings and describing the things Haman did. Haman is called a Macedonian attempting to win for Macedon a victory over the Persians, but a note indicates they probably meant he was a Mede, as it was the Medes who had had a struggle for mastery with the Persians.

The letter goes on to say, “you will . . . do well not to act on the letters sent by Haman . . . since their author has been hanged at the gates of Susa with his whole household” (8:12). “Put up copes of this letter everywhere, allow the Jews freedom to observe their own customs, and come to their help against anyone who attacks them on the day originally chosen for the maltreatment . . . Jews, for your part, among your solemn festivals celebrate this as a special day with every kind of feasting, so that now and in the future, for you and for Persians of good will it may commemorate your rescue” (8:12). It refers to the Jews as people “of the Most High, the great and living God to whom we and our ancestors owe the continuing prosperity of our realm.”

Then the text returns to the Hebrew. The edict is greeted with “feasting and holiday-making” (8:17). An interesting last sentence from the Hebrew text says, “Of the country’s population many became Jews, since now the Jews were feared” (8:17).

Esther 9 – With Mordecai’s growing power and influence at the court, the persecutions end, and indeed it was the Jews who struck out, bringing their enemies down “with the sword, with resulting slaughter and destruction” (9:5). In Susa, five hundred are killed, including ten of Haman’s sons, but no plunder is taken. At Esther’s request the reprisals are permitted to continue for one more day, another three hundred are killed, and the bodies of Haman’s ten sons are displayed on the gallows.

Elsewhere in Persia, 75,000 are killed in the same way. The Jerusalem Bible notes says that there is no historical record of any such reprisals, that they should be taken as a way of showing how God will bring justice in an “eye for and eye” way.

When it is over, the Jews have a day of feasting and gladness—the 14th day of the month of Adar becomes the day for Purim – the word Purim comes from the word Pur for “lot.” Haman “had cast lots to determine the day for destroying the Jews (9:24). The festival was on the 15th in the cities. Mordecai writes the Jews everywhere and tells them to celebrate these days annually as days on which “their sorrow had been turned into gladness” (9:22). They are to celebrate and give gifts to the poor. Verses 9:20 on are, the note says, additions to the book from various sources.

Esther 10 – The deeds of Xerxes [Ahasuerus] and Mordecai are recorded in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Media and Persia. Mordecai was “honored and well-liked; he worked for the good of his people and for the security of all their descendants” (10:3).

The OT reading about Queen Esther is the prayer in which she (joined through a common memory with her whole people) begs for God to remember his promises to the Jewish people.  She accepts that the “handing over” of her people to their enemies has happened because of their unfaithfulness.  Still, the promises and favor of God do miraculously endure even when we are punished for our failures and are scattered.  God will listen to the “voice of the desperate,” (New Jerusalem 4:19 – the book is garbled organizationally).   The relationship with God is wonderfully reciprocal.  He hears our cries, our calls to him, our praises; and in return he expects us to listen for His voice, observe His commands, respond to His majesty, and fulfil His will with respect to what He has created.  This reciprocity is at the center of the psalm #138 “I will give thanks to you, O Lord, with all my heart, for you have heard the words of my mouth.” It is also at the center of the gospel (Matt. 7:7-12) where Jesus tells us that God will give if we ask, open if we knock.

Acts 3 – Peter and John encounter a man “lame from birth,” being carried to the temple, to the gate called the Beautiful Gate where he begs for alms. He accosts the two, and they approach him, looking intently at him. They tell him to look at them, and Peter says “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk” (3:6). Immediately he is able to get up and walk and leap. The people who know who he is are amazed and filled with wonder (3:10).

The man clings to Peter as they go into Solomon’s Portico. Peter uses the occasion as an opportunity to preach again. He says to the crowd that it is not through any power of theirs that the man was healed. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob healed him as a way of glorifying the name of his servant Jesus “whom you handed over and rejected” (3:13). You “rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead” (3:15). But he says, he knows they “acted in ignorance” (3:17). It is in this way though that “God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer” (3:18).

He asks them to repent, “and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets” (3:21). He refers to Deut. 18:15. “Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you from your own people a prophet like me. You must listen to whatever he tells you.” He tells them they are the descendents of the prophets, that in them “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (3:25). That is why God sent Jesus first to them, to bless them and turn them from their wicked ways.

I left this chapter and turned to Penn’s No Cross, No Crown and found this very apropos reflection on the state of early Friends minds when they came to be aware how far they had strayed (with all of Christendom, in ignorance of the spirit) from the true path of Christian faithfulness:

. . .we were made to see him whom we had pierced, and to mourn for it. A day of humiliation overtook us, and we fainted to that pleasure and delight we once loved. Now our works went beforehand to judgment, a thorough search was made, and the words of the prophet became well understood by us; ‘Who can abide the day of his coming, and who shall stand when he appears. . . . . .the terrors of the Lord took such hold upon us, because we had long, under a profession of religion, grieved God’s Holy Spirit, which reproved us in secret for our disobedience; that as we abhorred to think of continuing in our old sins, so we feared to use lawful things, lest we should use them unlawfully” (Penn 104-105).

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Esther 4-6 and Acts 2

Esther 4 – A long chapter what with Greek additions: Mordecai puts on sackcloth and ashes when he hears about the order that has gone out, and so do all the Jews when they hear the decree.

Mordecai goes to see Esther, but cannot be admitted to the palace in sackcloth. A eunuch, Hathach is the go-between. Mordecai sends her a message begging her not to forget her “humbler circumstances” and telling her she should go and plead for her people. She sends back a message that only those summoned can go before the king on pain of death.

Mordecai’s response is good: “Do not suppose that because you are in the king’s palace, you are going to be the one Jew to escape. No, if you persist in remaining silent at such a time, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place, but both you and the House of your father will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to the throne for just such a time as this” (4:13-14).

Esther promises to do what she can.

Then follows the Greek prayers of Mordecai and Esther, both concerned also to lay out that what they have done—Mordecai’s refusal to “bow down” to Haman, and Esther’s favor at the king’s court are not things that should be held against them, that their intentions were always good. They both appeal to God to listen to “the voice of the desperate, [and] save [them] from the hand of the wicked” (4:17z) – this prayer is in the Greek version and is not in Protestant Bibles that excluded them.

Esther 5 – The Hebrew text is much elaborated in the Greek additions, but basically it says Esther dressed up and went to see the king. The Hebrew has no comment on her emotion. Nor does the Hebrew much describe the king’s dress or emotion, which is depicted in the Greek as furious at first. The Hebrew shows him willing from the first to help her: ‘Tell me what you desire; even if it is half my kingdom, I grant it you.’ She requests that Haman be summoned to a feast.
It is done. When he is there the king asked again what she wants. She says she wants Haman to come to yet another banquet the next day. Haman leaves the banquet full of joy, but runs into Mordecai who shows him no deference at all. Haman is furious again, but goes home, tells his wife he is honored to be invited as the only guest to this banquet with the king and Esther Apparently he does not know that Esther is a Jew. He also mentions the aggravation he felt at seeing Mordecai. The wife and friends suggest he have a gallows prepared so he can ask the king to have Mordecai hanged for his offenses. Haman does this

Esther 6 – That night the king cannot sleep. He has the record book [of state matters] brought to him and reads about how it was Mordecai who helped him with the two men who had plotted against him. The story reads almost like a play because the timing of lines and ironies involved is so dramatic. As Haman comes in to ask the king to hang Mordecai, the king is actually deep in thought about how he never honored Mordecai for the good deed had did for him; Haman, of course, thinks that the king must be thinking of him—Haman (so full is he of himself). So, he answers, “have royal robes brought, which the king has worn, and a horse which the king has ridden, with a royal diadem on its head . . . .[and] he should array the man whom the king wishes to honor and lead him on horseback through the city square. . .” (6:9). So the king tells Haman to do just this for Mordecai and not to leave anything out.
So Haman does these things, suffers terribly for it and goes home to tell his wife and his friends. They tell him it means the end for him.

Acts 2 – They are together at Pentacost. Suddenly “from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (2:2-4). There were Jews in Jerusalem from everywhere and they recognize their various languages—Parthians, Medes, Elamites, etc. They hear “them speaking about God’s deeds of power” (2:11).

 Peter, standing with the eleven, addresses the men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem. He tells them that the prophesy of Joel is being fulfilled: This is the first recorded preaching of the apostles after Jesus’ death and resurrection:

[Citing words of the prophet Joel 3:1-5] In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see vision, and our old men shall dream dreams . . .The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. (2:17-21)
He goes on to say that Jesus, whose divine authority was proven to them by deeds of power, was “handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” He was killed “by the hands of those outside the law” (2:23), but he was raised by God, “freed . . .from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power” (2:24).

He goes on to explain that Jesus’ resurrection is fulfillment of the promise God made to David to put one of his descendants on the throne. This Jesus is now “both Lord and Messiah” (2:36).
At this last, the crowd is “cut to the heart” (2:37). They ask what they should do, and Peter tells them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (2:38-39). He urges them to save themselves “from this corrupt generation” (2:40). About 3,000 people are baptized. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (2:42).
People are awed by the many wonders and signs the apostles perform. “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (2:44-47).

Monday, June 18, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Esther 1-2 and Acts 1

Please excuse any weird type-font irregularities - can't seem to get them to go away.

The Book of Esther is part of what are called Writings in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is dated somewhere in the 3rd or 4th century BC and was thought to be a redaction of a text originally written the man Mordecai, who is part of the story. It is a story that explains the background and meaning of the Jewish festival of Purim [Day of Deliverance].


There were Greek additions to the text around the 2nd to 1st century. The Jerusalem Bible version includes these Greek passages, which Jerome placed in an appendix of his Latin [Vulgate] version. A note indicates that they add an “enigmatic and apocalyptic” flavor to the story from the start. The Greek beginning is Mordecai’s dream. Mordecai is a Jew living in Susa, one of the deportees. He is said to be a courtier of Ahasuerus (Artaxerxes) around 480. Scholars think the reference is really to Xerxes even though the exile occurred in the reign of Jeconiah (598 BC).


Chapter 1 – In the days of Ahasuerus [known in Greek at Xerxes – r.486 to 465 BC], when Persia stretched from India to Ethiopia, a land of 127 provinces, the king gave a banquet and celebration of high luxury for all his higher officials. After this he also offers a similar week-long banquet to “all the people in the capital city of Susa, rich and poor alike” (1:5).


His queen, Vashti, gives a similar party for the women of the palace. After seven days of festivities, the king tells seven of his eunuchs to bring the queen to him so he can show her off, but she refuses to come. 


The king consults his lawyers as he wont to do, and then calls in his seven top administrators to consult with them about what he should do. They all basically counsel him that the queen has not only insulted King Ahaseurus, her behavior has offended “every man in the empire” (1:16). “Every woman in the empire will start looking down on her husband as soon as she hears what the queen has done” (1:17).


They say he should banish her forever and “confer her royal dignity on a worthier woman” (1:19). This will let all women know how they should behave. A Jerusalem Bible note here indicates that biblical books with Persian context often refer to “irrevocable decrees” that are promptly overturned—a kind of  “Jewish irony” on the powers inherent in earthly rule.

The king takes this advice. He sends letters out in every language spoken in the empire, so that “Every husband should be the master of his home and speak with final authority” (1:22).

Chapter 2 – The King remembers Vashti after a while and seems to regret having acted so peremptorily toward her. His courtiers suggest he look for a new woman. “You can appoint officials in every province of the empire and have them bring all these beautiful young women to your harem here in Susa. . . Put them in the care of Hegai, the eunuch who is in charge of your women, and let them be given a beauty treatment” (2:3).

In Susa a Jew named Mordecai of the tribe of Benjamin lived. He had been taken into captivity along with King Jehoichin when King Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judah. He had a cousin named Esther [Hadassah in Hebrew] who was a beautiful young woman. He had adopted her and raised her as his own daughter. She was beautiful, and is summoned with many others to the court of the king.

Hegai, the eunuch in charge of all these women, likes Esther. He makes sure she gets the “beauty treatment” of massages and special foods that went on for about a year. She does not reveal her race to anyone on Mordecai’s orders, and Mordecai every day paces up and down in front of the palace where the girls were being kept, anxious about how she is being treated.
In the tenth month, Esther goes before the king, and he likes her better than any of the others. He proclaims her his new queen, and gives a great banquet for everyone.
Meanwhile Mordecai learns that two of the king’s eunuchs, Bigthana and Teresh, two malcontents, are plotting to assassinate the king. Mordecai tells Esther about it, and after a brief investigation, the two are sent to the gallows.

Chapter 3 – After this all, the king promotes a man named Haman from the land of Agag to be his “prime minister” or chief official. This unknown country takes the name of the king of the Amalakites, whom Saul conquered—Mordecai like Saul is of the line of Kish. The king demands that all officials of his court bow down and prostrate themselves before this new appointee, but Mordecai refuses. Everyone tries to convince him he should just DO IT, but Mordecai insists he is a Jew. He cannot bow to Haman (3:4).

Haman becomes so angry with Mordecai, he determines to kill him, and not only him but all Jews. Haman casts a lot (called “pur” in Babylonian) to determine the most propitious day to begin the extermination—it falls on the 13th day of the 12th month [Adar]. He justifies it to the king in these words: “There is a certain unassimilated nation scattered among the other nations throughout the provinces of your realm; their laws are different from those of all the other nations and they ignore the royal edicts; hence it is not in the king’s interests to tolerate them” (3:8). He also says it will bring in 375 tons of silver into the kings coffers.

The orders go out and the king and Haman sit down and have a “drink while the city of Susa was thrown into confusion” (3:15).

The Jerusalem Bible introduction to Acts says that until 150 AD, when the books were separated, Luke and Acts were presented as one work. Both are addressed to someone named Theophilus. Ancient tradition holds that Luke was a Syrian from Antioch, a doctor of pagan origin. He was close to Paul and was with him during his two periods of captivity in Rome. It has been dated to somewhere between 64 and 70 AD.

Luke tells us in the first chapter that there are many, many sources of stories about Jesus, and his gospel reveals this. Despite his redaction, the difference in source material is apparent. There are variations in style from really good Greek – in the sections that concern his own travel – to awkward sections where he is trying to stick close to Aramaic course material.

Acts 1 – Introducing what appears to be a second book to Theophilus, the author of Luke says that before Jesus left them and was “taken up to heaven,” he “presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs,” and told “them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father” (1:4).
When they came together and they asked Jesus, just before he left them, if he now was going to come and “restore the kingdom” to Israel, he told them  “it is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:7-8). Then he was “lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (1:9).

Then two men in white robes appear, and they ask them why they are staring up toward heaven, that Jesus will come back to them in the same way at some point in time (1:11). In the Book of Daniel, chapter 7:13, clouds bring the one who is like a Son of Man.

They return to Jerusalem and go to an upstairs room where they stayed and prayed—Peter, John, James, Andrew, Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, Judas the son of James and certain women, including his mother and his brothers too. Peter stands up among a crowd of about 120 and addresses them. The tenor of his address is that the betrayal of Jesus by Judas was a fulfillment of Scripture. As an aside he relates that Judas ended badly in the field he had bought with the dirty money he got for his betrayal. Psalms made reference to here are 69 and 109, both Davidic psalms reflecting cries by David for divine justice against enemies that have plagued him. So they want a replacement for him, someone who can witness to everything Jesus did from his baptism to his ascension. Joseph, Barsabbas, (or Justus) and Matthias are proposed. They pray and ask the Lord for guidance. They cast lots and Matthias is picked (1:26). They don’t know that the Lord has plans to recruit Paul as a replacement “apostle.”

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Tobit 13-14 and Luke 24

Tobit 13 – A song of praise to God:

                                    Blessed be God who lives forever,
            for his reign endures throughout all ages!
            By turns he punishes and pardons;
            he sends men down to the depths of the underworld
            and draws them up from supreme destruction;
            no one can escape his hand.
            Declare his praise before the nations,
            you who are the sons of Israel!
            For if he has scattered you among them.
            there too he has shown you his greatness.
            Extol him before all the living;
            He is our Master
            and he is our God
            and he is our Father
            and he is God for ever and ever. (13:1-4)

                                    The gates of Jerusalem shall be built
                                    of sapphire and of emerald,
                                    and all your walls of precious stone;
                                    the towers of Jerusalem shall be built of gold
                                    and their battlements of pure gold.
                                    The streets of Jerusalem shall be paved
                                    with ruby and with stones from Ophir;
                                    the gates of Jerusalem will resound
                                    with songs of exultation. (13: 21)

Tobit 14 – Tobit dies in peace at the age of 112 and is buried in Nineveh. At his death, he tells Tobias to go to Media because he believes in the prophesy of Jonah. He believes that the words of the prophets will be fulfilled. Jerusalem shall, for a time, be laid waste; but the time will come when it will be rebuilt. “And all the people of the whole earth will be converted and will fear God with all sincerity” (14:6).

After the death of Tobit, Tobias goes to Media, lives with Sarah’s parents to the age of 117. He will witness the ruin of Nineveh.

Luke 24 – On Sunday, “at early dawn,” the women (unnamed) come to the tomb and find the stone rolled away.  There is no body but “two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them”  (24:4) who said to them “Why do you look for the living among the dead? Here is not here, but has risen” (24:5). They are reminded of the words he spoke to them about rising and they run back and tell the others. Then the women are named—Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the other women with them” (24:10). The disciples do not believe, but Peter runs back to the tome, finds the linen cloths and goes home amazed (24:12).
Then we hear about the two men on their way to a village called Emmaus. There are two men also mentioned in Mark but there the story about them there is not developed. They are talking about everything when “Jesus himself came near and went with them” (24:15). Their “eyes were kept from recognizing him” (24:16). He asks them what they are discussing, and they tell him everything—that Jesus “was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, . . . how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified. . .” and how they “had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (24:19-21). They also tell him about what the women had reported that morning.  At this point he addresses them directly: “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! . . .Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (24:25-27). They still do not recognize him.  They urge him to eat with them. “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scripture to us?” (24:32).

They hurry back to Jerusalem and tell everyone what happened; but by that time the Lord had appeared to Simon Peter as well, but they told them “how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread” (24:35). While they speak, Jesus himself returns to them and says, “Peace be with you” (24:36). They are terrified and doubtful, but Jesus reassures them.  He lets them touch him and shows them the wounds in his hands and feet.  He eats in their presence. Then he says, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about him in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled. Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (24:44-48).

He tells them to remain in the city until they have “been clothed with power from on high” (24:49). Then they go to Bethany where he “withdraws from them and was carried up into heaven” (24:51). They worship him and return to Jerusalem “with great joy.”  For me these are some of the most important verses in all of scripture.  They tell us that we come to know Jesus’ presence:
-           by the burning in our hearts as we come to understand him and encounter him in scripture
-           and in the breaking of the Eucharistic bread that is consecrated in his church.

Such a great story – the things I mostly get from it are the following: Jesus is changed in his resurrection from what he was before.  His disciples simply do not recognize him when they first see him, not only here, but in John’s telling of his appearance to Mary Magdalene where she takes him for the “gardener.” So the first thing I identify with is this – that one cannot see Jesus unless one’s eyes are changed.  Jesus helps the two men to “see” him by teaching them to see him in the context of the scriptures. 

His person only takes on the depth it must be seen in when it is placed in the scriptural framework.  He saw himself in this way; his disciples had to learn to see him this way; the church got its start teaching who he was in this way.  Today you often hear homilists speaking about how scripture was the way people saw him when they had no other frame of reference within which to place him, but that this frame of reference is mostly just a curiosity today.  I don’t think so – big mistake.  You hear Friends everywhere talking about just coming to recognize “the light within” – not enough!!! We can “live in Christ,” and “live in the Light” only when we come to SEE HIM in the context of the biblical narrative.
The eating of the bread represents our being joined into Christ.  Only as we are joined into him can we see him for who he is.  I also identify so much with the comment of the two men that their hearts burned within them when Jesus explained the scripture to them.  This is exactly what I feel when I see Christ in the context of the narrative and history that brought him to us in a way that could be seen, heard and proclaimed.    

Jesus reappears in the midst of his disciples and even eats with them, emphasizing that his appearance is not merely a spiritual presence, but a flesh and blood reality.  Again the main thing Jesus focuses on is his place in the scripture narrative.  “He opened their minds to the understanding of the Scriptures.” No wonder the early church searched the scriptures for insight about him.  No wonder we cannot really know him outside the framework of the scriptures.