Apr 6, 2022: Wednesday of the Fifth Week of Lent

1st Reading – Daniel 3:14-20, 91-92, 95

King Nebuchadnezzar said:
“Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego,
that you will not serve my god,
or worship the golden statue that I set up?
Be ready now to fall down and worship the statue I had made,
whenever you hear the sound of the trumpet,
flute, lyre, harp, psaltery, bagpipe,
and all the other musical instruments;
otherwise, you shall be instantly cast into the white-hot furnace;
and who is the God who can deliver you out of my hands?”
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered King Nebuchadnezzar,
“There is no need for us to defend ourselves before you
in this matter.
If our God, whom we serve,
can save us from the white-hot furnace
and from your hands, O king, may he save us!
But even if he will not, know, O king,
that we will not serve your god
or worship the golden statue that you set up.”

King Nebuchadnezzar’s face became livid with utter rage
against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
He ordered the furnace to be heated seven times more than usual
and had some of the strongest men in his army
bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego
and cast them into the white-hot furnace.

Nebuchadnezzar rose in haste and asked his nobles,
“Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?”
“Assuredly, O king,” they answered.
“But,” he replied, “I see four men unfettered and unhurt,
walking in the fire, and the fourth looks like a son of God.”
Nebuchadnezzar exclaimed,
“Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego,
who sent his angel to deliver the servants who trusted in him;
they disobeyed the royal command and yielded their bodies
rather than serve or worship any god
except their own God.”

Daniel was a prophet to the Israelites in the midst of their exile in Babylon. Although the book that bears his name tells us virtually all that we know about Daniel, the author is unknown.

Today’s reading is a story about Daniel’s three closest companions, who are fellow Jews in exile. Because they refuse to adore a golden statue erected by the king, they are thrown into a fiery furnace, where they sing canticles of praise to the Lord without coming to any harm.

The whole episode bears out the truth of what God told Israel in Isaiah 43:2: “When you walk through fire you shall not be burned.”

King Nebuchadnezzar said: “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you will not serve my god, or worship the golden statue that I set up?

The verses just before this passage describe how “certain Chaldeans came forward and maliciously accused the Jews” of defying the king’s edict.

Be ready now to fall down and worship the statue I had made, whenever you hear the sound of the trumpet, flute, lyre, harp, psaltery, bagpipe, and all the other musical instruments; otherwise, you shall be instantly cast into the white-hot furnace;

The king’s decree was that everyone, without exception, should fall down and worship this golden image at the prompting of musical instruments. The penalty of refusal was death in a furnace.

and who is the God who can deliver you out of my hands?”

This story counterposes the absolutism of imperial power (which wants to impose its pagan religious agenda) and the faithfulness of these young Jewish men to their God.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered King Nebuchadnezzar, “There is no need for us to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If our God, whom we serve, can save us from the white-hot furnace and from your hands, O king, may he save us! But even if he will not, know, O king, that we will not serve your god or worship the golden statue that you set up.”

The young men’s answer is a model of what people’s attitude to God should be when tragedy strikes and particularly when martyrdom beckons: they should hope that God will come to their rescue, but even if he takes no action, they should stay true to him.

They do not seek to “compel” God to save them; they want to show that they obey his will, not the king’s.

This was the attitude Jesus had when his passion loomed: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).

King Nebuchadnezzar’s face became livid with utter rage against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He ordered the furnace to be heated seven times more than usual and had some of the strongest men in his army bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and cast them into the white-hot furnace.

Nebuchadnezzar’s reaction of heating the furnace seven times more than usual was designed to signify that the king looked upon their crime as seven times more heinous than the crimes of others, therefore making their death more ignominious.

Nebuchadnezzar rose in haste and asked his nobles, “Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?”

Today’s reading omits Azariah’s prayer from within the furnace, the arrival of the angel of the Lord to protect the young men from the flames, and the magnificent hymn of praise they since in response to their rescue.

The Greek translations introduce the king’s realization that the men are alive by saying that the king heard them singing in the fiery furnace; the Aramaic simply states that he was astonished they were alive.

“Assuredly, O king,” they answered. “But,” he replied, “I see four men unfettered and unhurt, walking in the fire, and the fourth looks like a son of God.”

The king and his courtiers are able to look down into the furnace and see that the men are safe.

They also see a mysterious fourth figure in the flames. The Church Fathers saw this fourth person who looked “like a son of God” as Christ.

Nebuchadnezzar exclaimed, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who sent his angel to deliver the servants who trusted in him; they disobeyed the royal command and yielded their bodies rather than serve or worship any god except their own God.”

There is more than a little irony in the depiction of the king’s reaction: he praises the very fact that the young men disobeyed his orders, risking their lives in the process. The text will go on to describe how he rewards them for having done so.

The young men’s heroism (their readiness to accept martyrdom) and their miraculous deliverance have completely changed the attitude of the powerful king.

Responsorial Psalm – Daniel 3:52-56

R. Glory and praise for ever!

Today’s responsorial psalm is part of the hymn of praise sung by Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from within the fiery furnace, in thanksgiving for their deliverance.

Blessed are you, O Lord, the God of our fathers, praiseworthy and exalted above all forever; and blessed is your holy and glorious name, praiseworthy and exalted above all for all ages.

In prayers of praise, God is often called “God of our fathers,” a way of acknowledging all the great things that God did in the past on behalf of his people.

Blessed are you in the temple of your holy glory, praiseworthy and exalted above all forever. Blessed are you on the throne of your kingdom, praiseworthy and exalted above all forever.

Since the temple in Jerusalem had already been destroyed by this time, the reference here is generally understood to be to God’s heavenly temple. Or perhaps it expresses the hope of a faithful Jew for the temple to one day be restored.

Blessed are you who look into the depths from your throne upon the cherubim; praiseworthy and exalted above all forever. Blessed are you in the firmament of heaven, praiseworthy and glorious forever.

The references to God’s “throne upon the cherubim,” “in the firmament of heaven,” look definitively beyond the temple of Jerusalem to heaven itself, the dwelling-place of God.

Gospel – John 8:31-42

Jesus said to those Jews who believed in him,
“If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples,
and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham
and have never been enslaved to anyone.
How can you say, ‘You will become free’?”
Jesus answered them, “Amen, amen, I say to you,
everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin.
A slave does not remain in a household forever,
but a son always remains.
So if the Son frees you, then you will truly be free.
I know that you are descendants of Abraham.
But you are trying to kill me,
because my word has no room among you.
I tell you what I have seen in the Father’s presence;
then do what you have heard from the Father.”

They answered and said to him, “Our father is Abraham.”
Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children,
you would be doing the works of Abraham.
But now you are trying to kill me,
a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God;
Abraham did not do this.
You are doing the works of your father!”
So they said to him, “We were not born of fornication.
We have one Father, God.”
Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me,
for I came from God and am here;
I did not come on my own, but he sent me.”

We continue our journey in John’s gospel, picking up from where we left off yesterday. Jesus continues to reveal his identity to the Jewish people.

Jesus said to those Jews who believed in him, “If you remain in my word,  you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

Of the Jews who do believe in Jesus, he asks much more than a shallow faith resulting from superficial enthusiasm: they should be true disciples. Jesus’ words should imbue their whole life.

That kind of authentic faith will bring them to know the truth and to become really free.

Knowing truth is, in the final analysis, knowing Christ himself, God became man to save us.

They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How can you say, ‘You will become free’?”

For centuries the people of Israel were ruled by other nations (Egypt, Babylon, Persia) and now they were under the dominion of Rome. They think Jesus is referring to political bondage or dominion, which in fact they experienced but never accepted.

In addition, since they belong to the people chosen by God, they regard themselves as free of the moral errors and aberrations of Gentile nations. They think freedom is a matter of belonging to the chosen people.

Jesus answered them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin.

Jesus replies that it is not enough to belong to the line of Abraham: true freedom consists in not being slaves of sin.

Both Jews and Gentiles were subject to the slaver of original sin and personal sin (Romans 5:12, 6:20, 8:2). Only Christ, the Son of God, can liberate man from that sorry state (Galatians 4:21-31), but these Jews do not understand the redemptive work which Christ is doing and which will reach its climax in his death and resurrection.

“The Savior is here explaining that we will not be freed from overlords, but from the devil; not from captivity of the body but from malice of soul” (Saint Augustine, Sermons, 48).

A slave does not remain in a household forever, but a son always remains.

This calls to mind the two sons of Abraham: Ishmael, born of the slave woman Hagar, who would be given no part of the inheritance; and Isaac, son of the free woman Sarah, who would be the heir to God’s promises (Genesis 21:10-12; Galatians 4:28-31).

So if the Son frees you, then you will truly be free.

Physical descent from Abraham is not enough for inheriting God’s promises and attaining salvation: by faith and charity, one must identify oneself with Jesus Christ, the true and only Son of the Father, the only one who can make us sons of God and thereby bring us true freedom (Romans 8:21; Galatians 4:31).

I know that you are descendants of Abraham. But you are trying to kill me, because my word has no room among you. I tell you what I have seen in the Father’s presence; then do what you have heard from the Father.”

The Jews indeed are Abraham’s children, but only in a natural sense, according to the flesh. That no longer matters; what matters now is acceptance of Jesus as the One sent by the Father.

They answered and said to him, “Our father is Abraham.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works of Abraham. But now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God; Abraham did not do this.

Jesus’ questioners are spiritually very far from being true children of Abraham: Abraham rejoiced to see the Messiah (John 8:56); through his faith he was deemed righteous (Romans 4), and his faith led him to act consequentially (James 2:21-24). This was how he attained the joy of eternal blessedness (Matthew 8:11; Luke 16:24).

Those who live by faith are the true sons of Abraham, and like him they will be blessed by God (Galatians 3:7-9).

The false sense of security Jews felt in being descended from Abraham has its parallel in a Christian who is content with being baptized and with a few religious observances, but does not live up to the requirements of faith in Christ.

You are doing the works of your father!”

This is a veiled accusation that they are children of the devil, which is made more clear in verse 44, just after this passage ends.

So they said to him, “We were not born of fornication. We have one Father, God.” Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and am here; I did not come on my own, but he sent me.”

In claiming to be children of God, the Jews appeal to statements in the Old Testament (Exodus 4:22; Deuteronomy 32:6; Isaiah 63:16; Jeremiah 3:4, 31:9; Malachi 1:6). However, the attitude they adopt towards Jesus is in contradiction with this condition of being children of God, for that would lead them to accept Jesus, since he is the One sent by the Father.

Because they reject the Only-Begotten Son they are acting like sons of God’s enemy, the devil. The devil, because he opposes Christ, who is the Truth, is the father of lies: by lying he seduced our first parents and he deceives all those  who yield to his temptations.

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