The Canticle of Simeon and the End of an Era

The Song of Simeon (nunc dimittis) lies within St. Luke’s Presentation narrative (2:21-40) in which he recounts that forty days after His birth, Jesus is presented in the Temple as the first-born male and a sacrifice is offered. Simeon, a devout Jew awaiting the “consolation of Israel”, recognizes Jesus as the Messiah as soon as he sees Him, breaking out in a song of praise.

But St. Luke omits something in the narrative:

“When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth” (vs. 39).

Why does St. Luke skip the Magi, Herod, the murder of the Innocents, and the flight to Egypt, all of which occurred before the Holy Family returned to Nazareth? Since Luke was undoubtedly aware of those events, their omission might reflect a specific purpose in his writing. Recall that Luke’s gospel constituted a letter written to a man named Theophilus:

“…I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, Most Excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received” (Luke 1:3-4).

Continue reading “The Canticle of Simeon and the End of an Era”

On the Trail of the Seed of Eve

Reading the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy) as narrative is not just spiritually rewarding but a lot more fun. What I mean by this is to read the text as one would read a novel, experiencing the drama by identifying and connecting broader themes as well as minor ones. Most Old Testament scholars today break the Pentateuch up into diverse source materials which they then analyze individually in light of history and archaeology. In doing this they tend to miss or discount the broader themes that the author of the Pentateuch intended to convey. Tracing the seed of Eve in Genesis is an example of reading the text as narrative.†

In His response to the Fall of Adam and Eve, God charges the serpent with what constitutes, on the one hand, a threat to his “seed”, and on the other, the promise of hope to humankind:

“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; They will strike at your head, while you strike at their heel” (Gen. 3:15).

Note that the references to the offspring (seed) of the serpent are singular and thus directed at Satan himself; he and his seed are one. Who then constitutes the seed of Eve that will crush the head of Satan? While it is left an open question, the author of the Pentateuch carefully traces this seed through various genealogies and narratives.

In the story of Noah we see how God’s promise develops; He judges the world yet preserves the obedient Noah and his family. After leaving the arc Noah builds an altar and sacrifices to God, who then blesses Noah:

“And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth” (Gen. 9:1).

Now the promise concerning Eve’s seed will be preserved through Noah’s descendants.

Nimrod on the Tower of Babel. From John Huston’s film, ‘The Bible’.

But not through his great-grandson Nimrod. In the genealogy of Noah’s descendants in Genesis 10-11 (the Table of Nations), Nimrod receives an extended comment:

“Cush [son of Ham] became the father of Nimrod, who was the first to become a mighty warrior on earth. He was a mighty hunter in the eyes of the LORD; hence the saying, ‘Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter in the eyes of the LORD.’ His kingdom originated in Babylon, Erech and Accad, all of them in the land of Shinar. From that land he went forth to Assyria, where he built Nineveh…” (Genesis 10:8-12).”

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How Did the Disciples React to the First Eucharist?

At the Last Supper, after Jesus consecrated the bread and wine for the first time, is it possible that one or more of the disciples believed upon hearing these words that an actual transformation of the elements of the bread and wine had taken place? I think it’s possible that Judas was probably the only one who didn’t, and for four reasons.

First, at the Last Supper, when Jesus broke the bread and said, “This is my body”, he had said it in Aramaic. Semitic languages do not have words to indicate the verb “to be” in these types of statements. In Hebrew and Aramaic, the verb is implied when a subject and predicate are simply juxtaposed. What Jesus literally said as he held the bread was, “this, the body of me”. The disciples would have understood that the one is precisely identified with the other. Also, there were other expressions Jesus could have used to indicate that the bread was only to be regarded as a symbol.

Secondly, when Jesus said the words of consecration, the disciples would have immediately recalled the incident recorded in the Gospel of John chapter 6. Jesus repeats four times to a large crowd of followers that they would have to eat His flesh and drink His blood in order to have eternal life. They had thought He was referring to cannibalism, and Jesus did nothing to prevent their deserting Him because they had understood Him correctly, but faithlessly. So Jesus doubles down, demonstrating that this whole dialogue was specifically aimed at the twelve disciples:

“What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” (vs. 62).

He puts them in a corner with an obvious dilemma. Let me paraphrase Jesus’ words,

“I just told you that to have eternal life you and anyone must consume my real body and blood. So how will you do that when I’m not here?”

Continue reading “How Did the Disciples React to the First Eucharist?”

Comparing the Two Annunciations (Luke 1:5-38)

Titian, The Annunciation

In reading Luke’s narratives about the birth announcements to Zechariah and Mary, have you ever wondered why Zechariah gets chastised by the angel for his questioning of the notion that a couple their age can conceive, and Mary, who asks a very similar question, does not?

After Gabriel appears and announces the news to Zechariah that Elizabeth will bear a child, he responds:

“How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”

For this he is scolded and struck dumb. Mary responds to the news that she will give birth in much the same way:

“How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”

For this she receives the explanation that her pregnancy will be the work of the Holy Spirit.

Zechariah was a priest and “…righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly” (vs. 6). But asking how he would “know” reflected doubt, and comes across as a demand for evidence. But he had no reason to doubt; he would have recalled that God made the same promise to Abraham and can make barren women conceive. Gabriel charged, “you did not believe my words”. Continue reading “Comparing the Two Annunciations (Luke 1:5-38)”

Mary’s Search for the Son of God

In a homily a few years back Pope Francis expounded on Luke 2:41-52, the familiar story of finding the 12-year old Jesus in the temple. He adds a detail, however, which he thinks is clearly implied in the text:

“Instead of returning home with his family, he stayed in Jerusalem, in the Temple, causing great distress to Mary and Joseph who were unable to find him. For this little ‘escapade’, Jesus probably had to beg forgiveness of his parents. The Gospel doesn’t say this, but I believe that we can presume it. Mary’s question, moreover, contains a certain reproach, revealing the concern and anguish which she and Joseph felt.” (Link)

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Pope Francis, Scripture, and Universal Brotherhood

When I read the Pope’s homilies (I’ve read hundreds) I noticed that he will carefully draw out spiritual applications from that day’s readings that are simple and usually (not always) consistent with the given passage’s meaning. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said regarding many of his other writings and particularly the encyclicals where he cites biblical passages to support his specific instruction.

In the following examples the Pope appears to be manipulating scripture to deemphasize Christian brotherhood and elevate universal brotherhood.

The context of the following is a lesson that spiritual formation of a Catholic is not solely based on doctrinal instruction. But notice how Francis commingles the love commandments:

“…It has to do with ‘observing’ all that the Lord has shown us as the way of responding to his love. Along with the virtues, this means above all the new commandment, the first and the greatest of the commandments, and the one that best identifies us as Christ’s disciples: ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you’ (Jn 15:12). Clearly, whenever the New Testament authors want to present the heart of the Christian moral message, they present the essential requirement of love for one’s neighbour: ‘The one who loves his neighbour has fulfilled the whole law… therefore love of neighbour is the fulfilling of the law'” (Rom 13:8, 10) (Evangelii Gaudium, 161).

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A Costly Misinterpretation of Scripture

While numerous passages in the Bible are ambiguous in meaning and can be validly interpreted in multiple ways, certain passages are so clear one would have to try very hard to get them wrong. One of those is Matthew 25:31-46, the separation of the sheep from the goats and Christ’s judgment upon His return. The ethical imperatives that will form the basis of that judgment are the treatment of those people he regards as His “brothers”. Identifying Jesus’ brothers is the key to understanding the passage:

“‘When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me’” (vv. 37-40).

Throughout Church history the “brothers” were primarily interpreted as referring to Christ’s followers. More recently however, the modern concepts of social justice and universal brotherhood have influenced the way this text is read and most interpreters wrongly identify “brothers” as anyone who suffers hunger, thirst, etc. But that isn’t what Matthew wrote or intended. Continue reading “A Costly Misinterpretation of Scripture”

The Causal Connection of the Love Commandments

It is impossible to overstate the magnitude of Jesus’ response to the Pharisees when they tested him on which is the greatest commandment:

”Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:34-40).

The Pharisees responded with silence because Jesus answered correctly. That the entire Law can be summarized in those same few lines can be found in the Rabbinic literature of the first-century. Continue reading “The Causal Connection of the Love Commandments”

An Ancient Law Written on the Heart

When I studied Akkadian, the language of Mesopotamia, we would occasionally spend class time reading ancient legal texts. It often provoked discussion because laws reveal much about a society’s concerns. While laws regarding homosexuality in the Near Eastern codes are relatively rare, Tablet A, 19-20 of the Middle Assyrian Law Code (ca. 1400 BC) describes the punishment for falsely accusing someone of engaging in a homosexual act as well as the penalty for the act itself:

“If a man has secretly started a rumor about his neighbor saying, ‘He has allowed men to have sex with him,’ or in a quarrel has told him in the presence of others, ‘Men have sex with you,’ and then, ‘I will bring charges against you myself,’ but is then unable to substantiate the charge, and cannot prove it, that man is to be caned (fifty blows), be sentenced to a month’s hard labor for the king, be cut off [hair], and pay one talent of lead.”

The very next law establishes the penalty if the accusation is proven in court:

“If a man lay with his neighbor, when they have prosecuted him [and] convicted him, they shall lie with him [and] turn him into a eunuch.”

Continue reading “An Ancient Law Written on the Heart”

The Meaning of Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain

“You shall not invoke the name of the LORD, your God, in vain. For the LORD will not leave unpunished anyone who invokes his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7).

The first thing that the second commandment brings to mind is using God’s name inappropriately or in an otherwise disrespectful manner, like coupling “God” with an expletive. Evangelical theologian John Piper sees it this way and goes further by focusing on the word “vain”, suggesting that the Hebrew word refers to an “emptying”:

“So it doesn’t just refer to a certain tone of voice or a certain use of the word. It’s dealing with God and speaking of God in a way that empties him of his significance.” (link)

This interpretation, however, is too superficial and fails to take into account both the literary and historical context of the biblical text.

code1
The Code of Hammurabi

In the Ancient Near East invoking the name of a deity in testimony was at the heart of its juridical system. It was how intent was disproven. Note the following laws from the Code of Hammurabi (ca. 1790 BC):

“If a merchant entrust money to an agent (broker) for some investment, and the broker suffer a loss in the place to which he goes, he shall make good the capital to the merchant. If, while on the journey, an enemy take away from him anything that he had, the broker shall swear by God and be free of obligation” (101-102).

“If any one hire an ox, and God strike it that it die, the man who hired it shall swear by God and be considered guiltless” (249).

Penalties for various crimes could be extremely severe and often involved physical mutilation or death. Swearing on the name of God that you are innocent, or didn’t know the specific act was a crime, or that you didn’t intend for it to happen, could get you out of trouble. Consider this law, also from Hammurabi:

“If any one who has not lost his goods state that they have been lost, and make false claims: if he claim his goods and amount of injury before God, even though he has not lost them, he shall be fully compensated for all his loss claimed” (126).

Continue reading “The Meaning of Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain”