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(1) We now approach the practical portion of the Epistle. The first point on which the Thessalonians need instruction is in the matter of social purity (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8).
Furthermore hardly expresses the original. St. Paul is not adding a further injunction, for he has as yet given none. It is literally, For the rest, then; and serves to introduce the conclusion of the letter.
Beseech.—The marginal request is better, the word being one of calm and friendly asking, implying that the person so addressed will recognise the propriety of complying.
Exhort is correct, though “encourage” suits the context a little better, as assuming that they are already so acting, but not with enough heart.
By the Lord.—Better, in the Lord. It is not an adjuration, as in Romans 12:1, but states the authoritative ground of his request. “We encourage you, on the strength of our union in the Lord Jesus.” (Comp. 1 Thessalonians 1:1.)
How ye ought to walk.—Literally, the how. It indicates that part of the apostolic tradition was a systematic moral code, almost as if it were the title of a well-known book. “We gave you the ‘How ye ought to walk, so as to please God.’“ The best texts add immediately after, “even as also ye walk.”
Abound more and more.—Or, still more. “You did receive of us the rules of a holy life; you are living by them, and that to a very large degree; but we beg you and encourage you, on the faith of Christians, to be still more lavish in your self-denial.”
(2) For ye know.—He calls on the Thessalonians’ memory to support his statement, “ye received;” at the same time awakening their interest to catch the special point next to come, by laying stress on “what commandments.”
By the Lord Jesus.—Not as if the Lord were the person who took the commandments from St. Paul to the Thessalonians, but the person by means of whose inspiration St. Paul was enabled to give such commandments.
(3) For.—The word further enforces the appeal to their memory: “Ye know what commandments . . . for this (you will recollect) is what God wants;” “a commandment given through the Lord Jesus,” being, of course, identical with “God’s will.”
Your sanctification.—In apposition to the word this. The mere conversion, justification, salvation of us are not the aim of God: He would have us holy. The general idea of sanctification passes however here, as the following clauses show, into the more limited sense of purification.
Fornication.—The word is often used in late Greek for any kind of impurity, as, e.g., 1 Corinthians 5:1, of incest; but here it must be understood in its strict sense. To the Gentile mind, while the wickedness of adultery or incest was fully recognised, it was a novelty to be told that fornication was a “deadly sin;” hence the strange connection in which it stands in the Synodal letter to the Gentile churches (Acts 15:20; Acts 15:29; Acts 21:25). This consideration also makes it easier to understand how St. Paul can praise these Gentile Thessalonians so heartily, although they need earnest correction on this vital point. It is a true instance of the sacerdotal metriopathy (or, compassionate consideration) towards the ignorant and deceived. (See Hebrews 5:1-2.)
(4) Should know.—The clause is simply parallel to the last, and, with it, explains the word “sanctification.” The Bulgarian Father, Theophylact, says pointedly in reference to the word “to know” or “understand,” “He indicates that chastity is a matter that requires self-discipline and study.” (Comp. Ephesians 5:17.)
To possess his vessel.—The word rendered “to possess” should rather be translated, to procure, win, gain possession of. The word “vessel” here has been interpreted in two ways: (1) “his wife;” (2) “his body.” In favour of (1) it is argued that (while “gaining possession of one’s own body” is unintelligible), “acquiring a wife of one’s own” is an ordinary Greek expression; that in this context, “a vessel,” or “instrument,” is an expressive and natural metaphor; that the word was familiar to Hebrew speakers in that sense (e.g., Ahasuerus says of Vashti, in one of the Targums, “My vessel which I use is neither Median nor Persian, but Chaldee”); that St. Peter (1 Peter 3:7) uses the word of the wife. But it may be answered that this interpretation does not suit our context; first, because it would be laying an emphatic and binding veto upon celibacy, if “each one” is “to acquire a wife of his own;” secondly, because of the verb “to know,” it certainly being no part of a religious man’s duty “to know how to procure a wife;” thirdly, because the Greek cannot be translated “a vessel (or wife) of his own,” but “his own vessel” (or wife)—literally, the vessel of himself—and to speak of “procuring” the wife who is already one’s own seems unmeaning. Furthermore, although the quotations from the Targums are certainly to the point, that from St. Peter distinctly points the other way, inasmuch as the wife is called “the weaker vessel of the two,” evidently meaning that the husband is also “a vessel.” Thus we are driven to suppose that (2) the “vessel” is the man’s own self. This usage also is well supported. In 1 Samuel 21:5, it is used in precisely this sense, and in the same context, as well as in 1 Peter 3:7. The passages, however, usually quoted in support of this interpretation from 2 Corinthians 4:7, Philo, Barnabas, Lucretius, &c, do not seem quite parallel; for there the word signifies a “vessel,” in the sense of a receptacle for containing something; here it is rather “an instrument” or “implement “for doing something. Hence it approaches more nearly to the use in such phrases as Acts 9:15, “a vessel of choice,” or even (though the Greek word is different) to Romans 6:13. “The vessel of himself” (the “himself” being in the Greek strongly emphasised) means, not “the vessel which is his own,” but “the vessel or instrument which consists of himself.” Thus the body, which of course is chiefly meant here, is not dissociated from the man’s personality, as in the fanciful Platonism of Philo, but almost identified with it: the Incarnation has taught us the true dignity of the body. Thus it becomes easy to understand what is meant by “knowing how to gain possession of” such an instrument as the body with its many faculties, rescuing it from its vile prostitution, and wielding it wisely for its proper uses. So the same Greek verb is used, and mistranslated in our version, in Luke 21:19, “In your patience possess ye your souls.”
In sanctification and honour.—The circumstances in which—almost the means by which—the man may acquire and keep this skilful power over his instrument:—“in a course of self-purification and of self-reverence.” The reverence due to the instrument is brought out in a passage of St. Peter evidently modelled upon this (1 Peter 3:7). (Comp. also 2 Timothy 2:21, “an instrument for honourable purposes, and to be honourably treated, consecrated, and handy for its owner’s use.”)
(5) Not in the lust of concupiscence, for such a method of using one’s faculties, such an attempt to acquire mastery of vital powers, is really to abandon them altogether to others. This notion is involved in the very word here translated “lust,” which is more often rendered “passion,” and implies something which befalls a man, something done to him: “Not in the helpless passivity of concupiscence” or uncontrolled desire.
The Gentiles which know not God.—Mind the punctuation. The readers of the letter were “Gentiles which knew God.” Their brother Thessalonians. are held up to them as melancholy examples of men who are trying in the wrong way to show their power over themselves. Remark that this is not one of the crimes which he alleges against Jews.
(6) That no man.—The form of the Greek shows that this is not exactly parallel with the preceding clauses, as if it ran, “this is God’s will, your sanctification, for you to abstain, for you to know how to possess, for you not to go beyond,” &c. It is a final clause, expressing the purpose of such continence as has just been described. Men are to be chaste and self-possessed, not only for their own salvation’s sake, but in justice to their brethren. In 1 Thessalonians 3:12-13, they were to love for the sake of becoming holy; here they are to be holy for the sake of charity—a blessed action and reaction.
Defraud his brother.—The original word implies a rapacious dishonesty, of which any person is guilty who gives the rein to his lusts, especially the adulterer. The substantive formed from it is usually translated covetousness, and is generally thought to be used in this special sense in Ephesians 5:3; Colossians 3:5. When all men are brethren the sin becomes worse.
In any matter should undoubtedly be in the matter. St. Paul chooses the phrase for delicacy’s sake, both here and in 2 Corinthians 7:11.
Because that the Lord.—Again an anticipation of the Advent, for the vengeance meant is that of the Judgment Day, not the natural retribution which carnal sin brings with it. The “Lord,” therefore, in this context probably means more particularly the Incarnate Son, who has a special claim upon men’s bodies (1 Corinthians 6:13).
Have forewarned.—Rather, did forewarn. It was part of the Apostles’ original teaching at Thessalonica.
(7) For God.—This gives the reason for stating that the Lord will take vengeance on such sins; because they are not part of the terms on which His Father called us. It should be “did not call.” These 1 Thessalonians 4:7-8, sum up the little disquisition, returning to the principle announced in 1 Thessalonians 4:3.
Unto uncleanness, but unto holiness.—The preposition translated “unto” has the same force in Galatians 5:13, “Called unto liberty,” and Ephesians 2:10, “Created unto good works.” It implies not so much the definite end to which we are invited, as the terms on which the invitation will still stand; for the call is not yet accomplished. (See Note on 1 Thessalonians 2:12.) The second “unto” in the Greek is simply “in,” used in the same sense as in 1 Thessalonians 4:4. Paraphrase, “For God did not call us on the understanding that we might be unclean, but by the way of sanctification.”
Holiness is a mistranslation for sanctification. The process, not the quality, is meant.
(8) “So you see that to act contumeliously in the matter is to act contumeliously not only towards your neighbour, but towards God Himself, and that, too, after He has given you a gift which should have preserved you from these corruptions.”
He . . . that despiseth.—The verb means to treat as insignificant either persons or things. Here the object is not supplied in the first instance, in order to heighten the effect of the second clause. If we were to supply it, it would include all the rights which the unclean liver spurns, “the commandments which we (mere men as you thought us) gave you,” the “brother” whose domestic happiness has been invaded, the unfortunate victim herself, and, finally, the “honour” due to the sinner’s own body. Since it was God who ordered the relations in which we all stand to one another, contempt for these relations is contempt for Him.
Who hath also given.—Mistranslated for “who also gave.” St. Paul is looking back to the day when he confirmed them; for the right reading is not “unto us,” but “unto you,” or more correctly “into you”—i.e., “to enter into you, and dwell there” (John 14:17, and many other places). The word “holy” in the original is very emphatically put:” Who also gave His Spirit—His Holy Spirit—to enter you,” thus bringing out the startling contrast between such foul lives and the holiness which befitted and was possible (Romans 6:14; Romans 8:3-4) for men in whom the Holy Ghost, communicated by the laying on of hands, vouchsafed to dwell.
(9) But . . .—This forms the second subject of instruction, following naturally on the first. “We are very glad to hear of so strong a Christian feeling of brotherhood among you, and think it almost unnecessary to say anything more to you about it; still your charity is hardly catholic enough, nor have you exercised it with sufficient sobriety and thrift.”
Brotherly love.—Not love of men at large, but of Christians in particular: in fact, pretty nearly what we call “Church feeling.” It is the natural affection of those who feel that they are children of the same Father and the same mother (Galatians 4:26), members of the same “household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). In itself, it is not the most exalted of graces, being to some extent the outcome of community of interests; therefore St. Peter exhorts his readers to make it a means of obtaining the higher grace of charity (1 Peter 1:22; 2 Peter 1:7). St. Paul in this place does mean the sentiment rather than the practice, but has specially in view the exercise of liberality towards fellow-Christians. The feeling of community can only be known by acts that prove it.
Ye need not.—A sweet rhetorical figure, by which men are encouraged to the performance of a duty in which they are not perfect, by the praising of their imperfect attempts: a specimen of that “courtesy” which is a part of “brotherly love.” (See 1 Peter 3:8.) “I” should be we, or any.
Ye yourselves.—It seems as if St. Paul had intended at first to say, “For ye yourselves know without any instruction,” but suddenly inserts the source of their knowledge instead:” For ye yourselves are divinely taught already.” This seems more natural to the context (though grammatically less easy) than to understand:” For ye yourselves (as well as we) are taught of God.” (Comp., however, the references.) God’s teaching here comes (though perhaps other modes are not excluded) by the direct contact with the indwelling Spirit. (See 1 John 2:27.)
To love.—In the Greek this is not the simple infinitive after “taught;” it expresses rather the result and issue of God’s teaching: “have been so schooled by God as to love one another.” This love is not actually contrasted with the “brotherly kindness” above, but means more.
(10) And indeed ye do it—i.e., “love one another;” but the words seem to imply a very practical form of love. This fact justifies St. Paul in saying that the Thessalonians were so taught of God.
Toward.—Rather, even unto; as far as unto. The Thessalonians’ charity has travelled already a long way from its starting-point at home, extending over all northern Greece. As Thessalonica had been the centre of evangelisation (1 Thessalonians 1:8), so also of the maintenance of the Churches. The words need not necessarily (though they do probably) imply a number of missionary stations besides the three places where the Apostles had preached.
Increase more and more.—A little too emphatic: abound (or, overflow) still more. The words are identical with those in 1 Thessalonians 4:1. The brotherly kindness of the Thessalonians did not spread over a wide enough area in merely traversing Macedonia, nor was it so unostentatious as true love should be.
(11)And that ye study to be quiet.—The word means more than “study;” “and that ye make it your ambition to keep quiet”—their ambition having formerly been to make a stir among the Churches. It is a strong use of the rhetorical figure called oxymoron, or combining words of contrary meaning in order to give force and point to the style. The warnings in this verse are not directed against defiance of the law of brotherly love, but against a thoroughly wrong mode of showing that love: the unquietness, meddlesomeness, desultoriness with which it was accompanied are not so much instances of unkindness to the brotherhood as scandals to the heathen. Hence the conjunction at the beginning of the verse has something of an adversative force: “We beg you to be even more abundantly liberal, and (yet) at the same time to agitate for perfect calmness about it.” It is commonly supposed (but proof is impossible) that the unsettlement arose from belief in the nearness of the Advent.
Do your own business.—Not merely was each individual to do his own work, but the whole Church was to refrain from interfering ostentatiously with other Churches. In all languages, “to mind one’s own business” signifies rather the negative idea of ceasing to meddle than the positive idea of industry.
Work with your own hands.—Apparently the Thessalonians had been so busy in organising away from home that they had had no time to see to their own industry, and so (see end of next verse) were beginning to fall into difficulties. The words “with your own hands” are supposed to indicate that most of the Thessalonian Christians were of the artisan class.
(12) Honestly.—Not in our modern sense of the word, but “honourably,” “creditably.”
Toward—i.e., ”in reference to,” “in your connection with.” The heathen were certain to be watching the conduct of the members of the new religion, and it would bring down political suspicion if they were seen to be acting more like agitators for a secret society than honest citizens who worked at their handicraft and calling.
Of nothing.—Right: the marginal version is hardly consistent with the Greek. Two purposes will be fulfilled by their industry: (1) to allay heathen suspicion; (2) to be well supplied themselves. It seems as if they had been reduced to begging of other Churches in return for their own expensive charities.
(13) But.—We pass to the third clearly marked point: the share of the Christian dead in the Coming of Christ. Possibly an association of ideas may have caused St. Paul to join these two subjects, of quietude and the Advent, so closely (see Note on 1 Thessalonians 4:11). “You need have no distress about your dead: when Christ comes, they will be there too; they will come with Him, and we shall be caught up to meet them.”
I would not have you to be ignorant.—The right reading is we. St. Paul is still speaking in the name of his companions as well as his own. The phrase is very weighty, and marks how lamentable such a piece of ignorance would be. (See references in the margin.)
Which are asleep.—The best reading is rather, which fall asleep; the grief renewed itself over each successive death-bed. The image of sleep is a mere metaphor, drawn from the outward phenomena of death, and is used as an euphemism for death; therefore no doctrine can be deduced with precision from it. It cannot be said (for instance; on the strength of such passages alone, that only the body sleeps, and not the soul; or, again, that the soul sleeps while the body remains in the grave. That the soul, or at any rate the spirit, still retains consciousness after dissolution is clear from other places; but when the metaphor of sleep is used, it is used of the whole man (e.g., John 11:11, “Lazarus”—not” Lazarus’ body”—“sleepeth”), the explanation being either that stated above—i.e., that the word is simply picturesque, describing the peaceful appearance of the dead—or that the reference is to rest from labour (Revelation 14:13). At the same time, the metaphor suggests (otherwise it would be misleading, and St. Paul would not have used it) a continued (even if partly unconscious) existence, and the possibility of a reawakening: Again, for the same reason—i.e., because the word is metaphorical, not doctrinal—it cannot be limited to the Christian dead: when the writers need to mark specially the departed Christians they annex qualifying words, as in 1 Thessalonians 4:14. Of course, on the mention of “the dead,” the Thessalonians will at once think of their own brethren departed, so that there is no ambiguity.
That ye sorrow not.—The words express St. Paul’s object in wishing them to know the truth. He wants them not to sorrow at all over the dead; sorrow is only fit for Gentiles who have no hope. He does not mean that they are not to sorrow to the same degree as those outside the Church, but that to Christians, who have a hope, and such a hope, death ought to have no sorrows. The Office of Burial in the Prayer-book is as joyous as the Eucharistic Office itself.
Others.—The Greek word is “the others, those who have no hope,” and includes all who were not members of the Church: “That ye mourn not like the rest, which have no hope.” The having no hope does not mean that there is no hope for them, but that they are not cheered by hope.
(14) For if . . .—A reason for thinking that if the Thessalonians knew and believed the truth, they ought not to be so miserable. The “if” implies no doubt: “if we believe (as we do), then,” &c.—merely clearing the ground for a logical deduction. The writer does not care to prove so well-known a fact as the resurrection of Christ; he only argues from the clear faith of the Thessalonians with regard to it.
Jesus died and rose again.—Notice the human name; for though it is true that as God He raised Himself (John 10:18), as man He was no less dependent upon the Father than we are (Acts 17:31): therefore His resurrection is a real argument for ours. And the two verbs are put together because of their contrariety—“really died a human death, and yet rose again.”
Even so.—The structure of the clauses is not quite regular. We should have expected either the omission of “we believe that” in the first, or the insertion of it in the second: it makes the statement of the second, however, more direct or authoritative.
Which sleep in Jesus.—Rather, which were laid to sleep through Jesus. The meaning of the preposition, however, is not widely different from “in.” The simpler words in Revelation 14:13 mean “dying in full communion still with Him.” Our present phrase makes Him, as it were, the way, or door, by which they journeyed to death: He surrounded them as they sank to rest (Comp. John 10:9.) Additional sweetness is imparted to the phrase by the use of the metaphor of sleep; but it is, perhaps, too much to say, as Dean Alford does, that “falling asleep” is here contrasted with “dying,” in this sense:—“Who through the power of Jesus fell asleep instead of dying”—for the word is even used of a judicial punishment of death in 1 Corinthians 11:30.
Will God bring with him—i.e., with Jesus. In the Greek the word God stands in an unemphatic position—“Even so will God bring,” implying that it was God also who had raised Jesus from the dead. But St. Paul is not content with saying, “Even so will God raise those who passed through Christ to death.” The thought of the Advent is so supreme with him that he passes at once to a moment beyond resurrection. If the question be asked from whence God will bring the dead along with Christ, it must be answered, from Paradise, and the persons brought must be the disembodied spirits; for in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 this coming of the Lord with the saints is the signal for the dead—i.e., the bodies—to rise. It must be owned, however, that this manner of speaking is unusual. Jesus is no longer in Paradise, for the spirits to be brought thence with Him; and one would have expected something more like “bringing up” (Hebrews 13:20), as it is always considered a descent into “hell” or Paradise. Because of this difficulty (which however is more in form than reality), some take the words to mean, “God will lead them by the same path with Christ”—i.e., will make their whole career (including resurrection) conform with His, comparing the same verb in Romans 8:14; Hebrews 2:10.
(15) By the word of the Lord.—Literally, in. A most direct claim to plenary inspiration (see references). It does not mean “According to certain words which Christ spoke,” nor yet “By means of a revelation from the Lord to me,” but “By way of a divine revelation:” “I tell you this as a message straight from God.” In what way apostles and prophets became conscious of supernatural inspiration we cannot tell; but elsewhere also St. Paul speaks of possessing the consciousness sometimes and not at others. (See 1 Corinthians 7:10; 1 Corinthians 7:12; 1 Corinthians 7:25; 1 Corinthians 7:40.) He means this declaration here to hold good of the details, which are such as no one would invent and teach with such solemnity; at the same time it must be remembered, with regard to the details, that it is the very idiom of prophecy (which St. Paul here uses) to express by material imagery spiritual facts.
We which are alive and remain.—Literally, We, (that is) the quick, those who are left over. There is not the least necessity for supposing from these words that St. Paul confidently expected the Advent before his death. Very likely he did, but it cannot be proved from this passage. Had the “we” stood alone, without the explanatory participles, it might have amounted to a proof, but not so now. His converts are strongly under the impression that they will be alive at the Coming, and that it will be the worse for the departed: therefore, St. Paul (becoming all things to all men) identifies himself with them—assumes that it will be as they expected—and proves the more vividly the fallacy of the Thessalonians’ fears. It would have been impossible, on the contrary, for St. Paul to have said “we which are dead” without definitely abandoning the hope of seeing the Return. Besides which, St. Paul is only picturing to imagination the scene of the Advent; and for any man it is far easier to imagine himself among the quick than among the dead at that moment.
Shall not prevent—i.e., “be before,” “get the start of.” If it were not for these words, we might have fancied that the Thessalonians had not been taught to believe in a resurrection at all; which would have been a strange departure from the usual apostolic gospel (1 Corinthians 15:1, et seq.). We here learn what was the exact nature of the Thessalonians’ anxiety concerning the dead. They were full of excited hopes of the coming of that kingdom which had formed so prominent a part of the Apostles’ preaching there (Acts 17:7); and were afraid that the highest glories in that kingdom would be engrossed by those who were alive to receive them; and that the dead, not being to rise till afterwards, would have less blessed privileges. This would make them not only sorry for their dead friends, but also reluctant to die themselves. The negative in this clause is very emphatic in the Greek, and throws all its force upon the verb: “We shall certainly not get the start of them that sleep;” i.e., “if anything, we shall be behind them; they will rise first.”
(16) For.—A justification of the statement that we shall certainly not prevent the dead; therefore, the words as far as “trump of God” are logically parenthetical; and the proof only begins at “They shall rise first: then we shall be caught up.”
With a shout.—The Greek word means a shout of command or encouragement, such as a captain gives to his soldiers, or a boatswain to his crew. It is not necessary to inquire what the command may be, or to whom issued, inasmuch as the word does not always imply any particular orders; nor who is represented as uttering it: the intention is only to convey the notion of the stirring noise, in the midst of which (for the original has “in,” not “with”) the Lord will descend. It is, however, somewhat particularised by what follows: two notes amid those sounds of mystery strike the ear—the archangel’s voice, and the trump of God. Probably, therefore, the “shout of command” is uttered by the “leader of the angels;” and the trump (called “the trump of God” because used for God’s purposes) is blown to summon the mustering hosts. In favour of supposing the Lord Himself to utter the cry, may be adduced John 5:25; but, on the other hand, it suits the dignity of the scene better to imagine the loud sound to come rather from one of the heralds of the great army. The preposition “in” is more effective than “with:” it calls attention to the long blast. (Comp. Exodus 19:19.)
Shall rise first.—Not as meaning “shall be the first to rise,” as contrasted with non-members of the Church who are to rise later; though that is a scriptural thought (Revelation 20:5-6), the Greek here refuses to be so explained. Rather, “the first thing will be the rising of the dead in Christ,” contrasted with what follows—“then, and not till then, shall we be caught up.” The same order is carefully observed in 1 Corinthians 15:52.
(17) Shall be caught up.—“Our Assumption,” as Bishop Ellicott well calls it. The spiritualising of our natural bodies without death, as described in 1 Corinthians 15:50, et seq., will enable us to be “caught up” equally well with, and in company with (both of which thoughts are included in “together with”), the resurgent dead. “Clouds” and “air” will be support enough for material so immaterial. Theodoret says, “He showeth the greatness of the honour: as the Master Himself was taken up upon a shining cloud, so also they that have believed in Him.” The absolute equality, then, of quick and dead is proved.
To meet the Lord in the air.—St. Chrysostom says:” When the King cometh into a city, they that are honourable proceed forth to meet him, but the guilty await their judge within.” The phrase “in the air” certainly does not mean “heaven.” The word “air”) in itself properly signifies the lower, denser, grosser atmosphere, in which the powers of darkness reign (Ephesians 2:2); but here it is only used in contrast with the ground, and means “on the way from Heaven whence He comes,” of course not to dwell there, but to accompany Him to His Judgment-seat on the earth.
And so.—Now that St. Paul has settled the question of disparity between the dead and the living, he does not think it necessary to describe what is immediately to follow; that, the Thessalonians were sure to know (see Hebrews 6:2): it only remains to say that having once rejoined the Lord, they would never be parted from Him.
(18) Comfort one another.—Here is a balm for the “sorrow” of 1 Thessalonians 4:13. Bather, “in these words” than “with;” “Repeat these very words to one another, and you will find the comfort.” What bereaved Christian has not found this true?
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 12 / Ordinary 17