Friday, March 7
Matthew 17:14-27: Before commenting on this text, it is worth mentioning that verse 21 does appear to belong here. This is not to say that the words are inauthentic, or that Jesus never said them. It means only that this verse seems not to have been part of the original writing of Matthew. I am drawing this conclusion chiefly from the fact that it is missing the two earliest codices of Matthew (the manuscripts Sinaiticus and Vaticanus). It seems to have found its way into the text early, however, being taken over from Mark 9:29.
Whereas Matthew greatly simplifies and shortens Mark’s version of this story in the narrative parts, he actually amplifies the “saying” part of it in verse 20. He does this in two ways: (1) He inserts here the Lord’s reference to faith as a mustard seed, a dominical saying found in quite another context in Luke 17:6. (2) Jesus here speaks of the disciples’ “small faith” (oligopistia). We saw earlier that this New Testament expression, “small faith,” either as a noun (here only) or an adjective, is found almost exclusively in Matthew; cf. 6:6; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8 (otherwise only in Luke 12:28).
Faith, according to Matthew, is understood as trust in the authority (exsousia) of Jesus (8:9-13; 9:2). Miracles are said to be worked by faith (9:20-22, 28f). In three scenes where Mark and Luke do not do so, Matthew portrays Jesus as saying, “as you have believed, so be it done to you” (8:13; 9:29; 15:8).
We may look at some other features of Matthew’s version of this event.
First, when the man approaches Jesus (verse 14), he kneels down–gonypeton, literally “bending the knee”–before Jesus. That is to say, he assumes before Jesus the posture of prayer (contrast Mark 9:14-17). Like Solomon at the dedication of the Temple, he kneels before Jesus in prayer. This is the second time in two consecutive scenes in Matthew where kneeling is the proper posture in the presence of Jesus. In Matthew, then, the scene is one of worship and prayerful petition. And what does the man say to Jesus when he kneels down? Kyrie, eleison! — “Lord, have mercy!”
Like Solomon at the dedication of the Temple, then, the man kneels before Jesus in prayer. Here we have the second of two consecutive scenes in Matthew (the first being the Transfiguration in 17:6) that portray the believers before Jesus on bended knee.
This kneeling down, or prostration, in prayer is not simply a generic act of worship. It is specified by its Christological reference. Indeed, in the former scene, the Transfiguration, the disciples fall into this posture when they hear the voice of the Father identifying Jesus as His Son. Their posture is a theophanic response (cf. Revelation 1:16-17). Here in Matthew (verse 15) bends the knee Avton–“towards Him.”
And in kneeling down he addresses Jesus as “Lord”–Kyrios). We should contrast this with Mark’s account, which addresses Jesus here as “Teacher”–Didaskalos. Matthew, that is to say, uses the full confessional word of the Christian faith (cf. Philippians 2:11; 1 Corinthians 8:6; 12:3).
And just what is wrong with the man’s son? He is “moonstruck”–seleniatai, from the Greek noun selene, which means “moon.” This original sense is preserved in the ancient Latin form of this verse, lunaticus est.
“Lunatic” is the way that the ancients described someone mentally or emotionally unstable, meaning that such a person waxed and waned like the moon, up one day, down the next. Such a person was given to radical changes of mood, like the moon. He changed shapes, as it were, even to the point of disappearing sometimes. Such a person showed the instability of the moon, going through cycles. (The Old Testament’s description of Saul is a useful example to recall.) In the present case the little boy seemed sometimes to attempt to kill himself, flinging himself into fire or water.
If we compare Matthew’s account with that of Mark, we easily see that the latter is longer and much more colorful and dramatic. Matthew’s version is not only shorter; it is greatly simplified. Although the father tells of the boy’s violent behavior, in Matthew this behavior does not take place in Jesus’ presence. In Matthew this is a scene of worship, as we have observed, and the tone is one of serenity, prayer, and divine grace.
The father remarks, however, that Jesus’ disciples were unable to effect a cure–therapevsai, and when Jesus does drive out the demon, Matthew says that the boy was “cured”–etherapevthe.
The second story here (verses 22-27), found only in Matthew, once again shows a special solidarity between Jesus and Peter, inasmuch as the taxes of both are paid by the same coin.
In spite of his being called “Satan” by the Lord, then, Peter did not really fall from the Lord’s favor; the Apostle was warned and reprimanded, not rejected. Indeed, even after those stern words in chapter 16, Peter was still chosen as one of the three disciples who witnessed the Lord’s transfiguration at the beginning of this chapter.
In the present text, as in every other New Testament text that speaks of his fishing, we may wonder about Peter’s skills as a fisherman. In every single gospel account, whenever Peter catches a fish, the event is regarded as a miracle.
This text also serves to instruct on the obligation of believers to pay taxes to the government.
Saturday, March 8
Matthew 18:1-14: Here begin the sayings that form the fourth great dominical discourse in Matthew; this one is devoted to what may be called “rules for the congregation.” It begins by the memorable scene in which Jesus holds up the faith of children as a model for adults. Far from refusing children access to Jesus until they arrive at the explicit and doctrinal faith of adults, Jesus admonishes adults to model their own faith on the more elementary faith of the child. Because children are the most in danger of being scandalized, this topic of children leads naturally into the subject of scandal, and in this connection come the Lord’s statements about millstones and self-mutilation. The latter are certainly to be understood by way of hyperbole.
Going through in more detail, we begin with question of which of the disciples is the greatest (verses 1-5). In the parallel text in Mark 9:33-37, the disciples themselves argued which of themselves was the greatest. Matthew not only changes the question, then, he changes also the context of the question. It is no longer a debate among competing apostles; it is a question put to Jesus, as though a point of speculation. The question becomes spiritual and theological; it pertains to the Kingdom of Heaven. When the question is answered in verse 4, it is still about the Kingdom of Heaven.
The “child” held up as a model here is a paidion, roughly meaning someone under the age of twelve, someone who has not yet made the bar mitzvah. That is to say, it is a “kind,” someone not quite taken seriously. Hence, the lesson is one of humility. Elaborating on the point (verses 3-4, for which there are no parallels in the accounts of Mark and Luke), Jesus says that unless one becomes a paidion, he will not even enter the Kingdom, much less be contender for “greatest” ccf. 20:26-27; 23:11-12).
Then Jesus asserts in a positive way (verse 4) what He has just affirmed negatively (verse 3). This disregard for power and social status elaborates what Jesus said about the poor in spirit in 5:3.
At first, verse 5, about receiving the “little one,” seems to have nothing to do with the context. In place of the childlike quality of humility, our attention is drawn to the children themselves and how they are to be treated.
In Mark’s version, in fact, this action and the words of Jesus do not appear, at first sight, even to address the question about which the Apostles have been arguing.
This impression is misleading. In telling the Church how to receive children, Matthew is preparing for the next section, on scandal. Verse 5 sets the positive stage for the coming warning about scandal. Jesus affirms that those who receive children, receive Him. He identifies Himself with children.
And how are we to receive children? From the hand of God. Anytime there is an “unwanted child,” somebody can expect to render an answer at the throne of God. Receptivity is the Christian’s fundamental response to the appearance of children in this world (cf. 10:40; 25:31-46). This is all Jesus has to say on the subject of birth control and family planning.
Then Matthew (but not Mark and Luke) begins the section on scandal (verses 6-9), which follows immediately on the appearance of the child. It begins with a solemn warning not to scandalize the “little believers” (micros pistevon).
Here we have some of the toughest, harshest verses in the New Testament: images of being drowned with a millstone around one’s neck, the cutting off of a hand, the gouging out of an eye—all suggesting the difficulty of getting into the Kingdom of Heaven.
To give scandal, in the biblical sense, does not mean to shock. It means to give spiritual harm, even though shock does sometimes accompany scandal. Scandal means to hurt someone spiritually, to cause to sin, to degrade someone’s conscience. In the present text the word is found six times, whether as a verb or a noun.
In the first instance it refers to the spiritual harm done to a child or young person. The Lord’s mind in this case is the reverse side of His love and preference for children. The punishment that He threatens to those who cause spiritual harm to children is an expression of His own love for children.
Those who would imitate Christ, then, must be protectors of children (born or unborn!); this is not an option for Christians, but the obligation rests more clearly on parents and those with responsibility in loco parentum, such as teachers, and counselors. For this reason, the spiritual protection of children is an essential feature of those with a responsibility of spiritual fatherhood in the Church, namely, bishops and priests. It is bishops and priests, perhaps, who are most threatened with this millstone around the neck.
What, then, is a skandalon? The word means a “trap” or “snare,” a device to trip someone. Therefore it is of the nature of a skandalon that it takes someone by surprise; he is caught before he knows it.
In the case of children, then, a scandal is caused by those whom the child trusts, those whom the child is supposed to trust, those whom the child has been taught to trust. Understood thus, a scandal is the violation of a trust; it preys on the vulnerability of the child. Clearly, in the way that the New Testament speaks of this sin, it is especially heinous. The one who does it will be drowned, says the Sacred Text, en to pelagei tes thalasses. He will sink to the very bottom, because this is the worst of sins.
The parable of the lost sheep, found both here (verses 10-14) and in Luke 15:3-7, carries a very different emphasis in each setting.
In Luke’s setting the parable comes first in a series of thee parables about lost-and-found and serves to illustrate God’s compassion toward sinners and answers the challenge thrown at Jesus in Luke 15:2, “This man receives sinners.” Accordingly, in Luke the parable of the lost sheep is followed by two other parables illustrating the identical theme of the divine compassion, the account of the woman and her lost coin and the story of the father and his lost son. In Matthew the parable tells us directly about Jesus and the mercy of God.
Since Jesus’ compassionate regard for and merciful behavior toward sinners is the root of what theologians call soteriology (“the study of salvation”), the major point and burden of this story of the lost-and-found sheep in Matthew is Christological and soteriological. That is to say, it is directed toward the questions, “Who is Jesus?” and “What does He do?”
In Matthew, on the other hand, the parable of the lost sheep is placed in an ecclesiological setting. It pertains to Matthew’s fourth great discourse, which is concerned with the Church. Bear in mind that in this chapter we have two of the three times that the word “Church” appears in the Gospels.
The link verse in this story is verse 10, a negative command that ties the parable back to the section on scandal (verses 6-9). The “little one” in this context–henos ton micron–can be a child, but it can also include any “little person,” whom we are tempted to overlook, to neglect, perhaps even to despise.
Here is Matthew’s difference from Luke’s version of the parable. In Luke this is story of Jesus’ regard and behavior with respect to the sinner, whereas here in Matthew it is concerned with the attitude and behavior of Christians.
Let us further observe that this ecclesiological and moral accent in Matthew’s version is muted or even lost in the manuscript tradition by a copyist’s insertion of verse 11, which is missing in the older, more reliable manuscripts of Matthew. Some later copyist evidently borrowed it from Luke’s story of Jesus and the publican Zacchaeus. The insertion of this verse significantly alters the flavor and nuance of the text, changing it into a Christological story rather than an ecclesiological and moral exhortation. The text, then, should be read without verse 11.
Thus read, then, the parable is not about Jesus seeking the sheep that was lost. It is an illustration of the command not to despise one of these little ones. It is an exhortation to the Church to let no one “fall between the cracks.” It is an order to seek and find that which was lost.
Each of these little ones, who (we observe) are no longer just children, has a guardian angel that contemplates the face of God. This is one of the “proof texts” for the Church’s belief in the guardian angels (cf. Acts 12:15.
The Church must exercise, then, a certain stewardship over the sheep, a theme that follows the prophetic criticism (cf. Ezekiel 34:6,15-16 for instance) of the shepherds of Israel, who neglected to go out and bring back the sheep that were lost.
These sheep have not only “strayed”; they have been “led astray” or “deceived” (planao), an expression that Matthew sees as a sign of the last times (cf. 24:5). They have separated themselves from the flock, because they have followed a “deceiver” (24:11). In Matthew’s context, then, to stray means to be led astray for a false teacher (24:24). In these texts it is evident that the danger of straying is great, because the false teachers are described as numerous.
We are not, says our parable, to despise those who have been led astray. They still have their guardian angels, and the Father still loves them. Hence, the people of God are never to despise those that wander and become lost, to treat such persons as negligible and beyond the solicitude of the Church
Nonetheless, Matthew phrases the admonition in such a way as to suggest that the stray sheep may not be found (verse 13). Such searches for the wandering are not invariably successful.
Still, the loss of such a sheep is never God’s will (verse 14). No sheep is predestined to be lost. The Bible knows nothing about predestination to hell; indeed, the very concept is contrary to the mind of the God who wills all men to be saved.
The “wandering” in Matthew, in short has to do with becoming separated from the flock, the Church. There are no insignificant sheep in this flock. There are no “nobodies” in the Church, no unimportant souls for whom Christ died.
In Matthew, then, this is a parable about life in the Church. Reconciliation in Matthew always means reconciliation with the Church. There is no such thing as reconciliation with God apart from the Church. Reconciliation always means restoration to the flock, and the Church is to go after the “stray.”
This parable will be followed by instructions on how to do this—how to bring back the erring brother.
Sunday, March 9
Matthew 18:15-35: This section continues the theme of life in the Church, specifically how to bring back the stray sheep. That is to say, these verses illustrate how Christians are to fulfill the mandate implied in verse 14 — God’s will that no one of the little ones should perish. The burden of these verses is not that we should expose sinners, but that we endeavor to save them. The message, then, is identical to the parable of the lost sheep.
Once again we perceive Matthew’s conviction that the Church is a house of redemption and reconciliation. To be redeemed, for Matthew, and to be reconciled, means to be at peace with the Church.
This message, once again, is obscured by copyist’s insertion of the words “against you” (eis se in verse 15, an insertion that makes the offense appear to be a private matter between two Christians. This insertion, unknown to Origen in the third century and missing in the two oldest codices of the Sacred Text, seems to have been made under the influence of Peter’s question in verse 21, “How often shall my brother sin against me?”
This insertion alters the sense of the passage rather dramatically. If the reading “against you” were original, the sense of the text would indicate a private offense involving only me and my brother. Without that insertion, however, the text refers to any sin that I see my brother committing, any sin that I hear he is committing. In all such cases, he remains my brother, for whom I am responsible, and his sin is my business. I have an obligation in charity to consult with my brother on thee matter.
The case proposed here concerns sins that are not general knowledge, sins not commonly known. If a sin is blatant, open, and public, there is no need for this graduated approach indicated in the Sacred Text. Public sins, by their nature, come directly to the attention of the whole Church (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:1-5; Philippians 4:2). The reprimand of public sins may be just as public as the sin itself.
This is not the case here in Matthew, where clearly the sin that the brother has committed is not public knowledge. In such a case, what is the believer’s charitable obligation toward the erring brother? He is commanded to “reprove” (elegxson).
This would probably not be just any kind of sin. The context suggests, rather, the sort of sin that might affect the life of the congregation itself. That is to say, a serious sin, of the sort that, were it known, might prove harmful and scandalous to the Church. This kind of sin cannot be overlooked.
If in this case the sinning brother accepts the reproof—if he hears the one that corrects him—then the sin goes no further. It is not to be shared with others. The people of God have no “right to know.” If a sin can be dealt with privately, it is supposed to be dealt with privately, and it would be sinful to share such information with others.
There are two words especially to be noted in this passage:
The first word is “brother.” This means that the Church is a family (cf. 12:46-50). The reproof, consequently, takes place in an atmosphere of love and concern, not enmity nor hostility. It is necessarily a kindly reproof, motivated by concerned charity.
The second word is “reprove,” which indicates that the Church is a house of common discipline, not a convention of lone rangers. In the Church it is imperative that no person turn himself into a mere individual. Therefore, where there is an obligation to reprove, there is a corresponding obligation to listen to reproof. Both are acts of charity.
Both are also difficult. Hardly anyone relishes receiving a reproof. Likewise, we are disposed to avoid giving reproof, because these things are awkward and uncomfortable. It is only charity that compels us to give and receive reproof.
If this reproof fails, and only if it fails, we go to the second stage, in which one or two others are brought into the conversation (verse 16; cf. Deuteronomy 19:15). Once again, the accent is on charitable solicitude for the erring brother. From rabbinical literature we also know that the progressive procedure of fraternal correction elaborated here in Matthew was common in the synagogues of that day. We also find a specific application of it in 1 Timothy 5:19.
Finally, if forced to it, the situation arrives at the third stage, in which the sin is brought to the attention of the Church. In this case the sinner is facing no longer a quiet, pastoral reprimand, but the discipline of an institution authorized to speak for God and address consciences. The sanction imposed for not listening to the Church is excommunication (cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15; 2 John 10). Earlier in Matthew (16:19), Peter had received this authority, as representing the Church.
In the verses that follow this instruction (verses 19-20), the literary context, determined by the instruction itself (verses 15-18) is still largely “juridical,” in the sense of having to do with the judgment of the Church. However, two new elements are introduced: common petitionary prayer and the presence of Christ.
The mention of petitionary prayer seems to indicate the context in which the disciplinary decisions of the Church are to be reached.
With respect to the presence of Christ in the midst of His people, this theme is found at both the beginning (1:23) and the end (28:20) of Matthew. It is reminiscent of a saying in the Mishnah (’Aboth 3.2): “If the words of the Torah pass between two sitting together, the Cloud of the Presence [the Shekinah] abides between them.”
The foregoing theme of forgiveness by the Church now introduces the subject of personal forgiveness by members within the Church (verses 21-35). This latter aspect is introduced by Peter’s use of the word “brother.” The question still has to do with family relationships in the Holy Spirit. The Church, then, is still the context.
This passage also has to do with real offenses, such theft, cheating, or lying. Peter does not ask, “How many times must I permit my brother to annoy me or get on my nerves.” Some more serious offense is envisioned in this mandate to forgive.
The response of Jesus can be translated as either “seventy-seven” or seventy times seven.” The point of the mandate is not the precise number, whether 77 or 490. It means, rather, that there must be no limits to our forgiveness. Forgiveness cannot be allowed to become a quantitative commodity in limited supply.
After all, how does God forgive? He does not limit His mercy to our first seven offenses. He forgives us at our repentance, no matter how often we fall. We too, then, are called to forgive in the same measure. Such abundance of mercy will become the burden of the parable that follows (verses 23-35).
Jesus’ response to Peter alludes to Genesis 4:24—“ If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold,/ Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” This line from Lamech is a sort of culmination of the growing violence that followed man’s fall in the Garden. That fall led immediately to the murder of Abel (4:8), which led immediately to the prospect of vengeance (4:14) and then greater vengeance (4:15), leading in Lamech’s case to the equivalent of total warfare. Jesus’ response to Peter indicates that the Gospel must go in the opposite direction, placing no limits on forgiveness.
The parable that follows, which is proper to Matthew, does not exactly illustrate the mandate to forgive without limits. It indicates, rather, that we are to forgive in the measure that our heavenly Father forgives us. Thus, the parable advances the Lord’s argument with a new consideration—the massive disproportion between the debt that one man may owe to another and the incomparable debt that every man owes to God. This ridiculous disproportion is the basis of the parable’s irony.
The debt that the servant owes to the master is calculated at ten thousand talents, a figure that would amount to billions of dollars in today’s money. Consequently, the payment of the debt was beyond the servant’s ability to repay; the debtor would be in debtors’ prison forever. This is an image of eternal loss.
The proposed selling of the wife and children is a metaphor. This could not happen in Jewish Law in Jesus’ time. Even if it could, the sale price would not pay the debt. Hence, the servant’s resolve to pay the whole debt (verse 26) was futile on its face.
In this parable, then, we discern two aspects of God. The first is His mercy, His compassion for man’s distress. God forgives the repentant. The debt is absolved because of the master’s compassion (splangchnistheis–verse 27).
The second aspect is God’s anger (orgistheis–verse 34), prompted by man’s refusal to copy the divine compassion. The servant is condemned for not imitating his master’s mercy. Instead he declines to forgive the piddling liability of a fellow servant.
In this parable Matthew returns to the message already contained in the Lord’s Prayer and the Sermon on the Mount (6:14-15).
It is important likewise to observe the intervention of the “fellow servants,” an act that continues this chapter’s theme of the Church. We remark that the master reacts to the situation at the behest of the Church, the two or three fellow servants who are gathered in his name. Indeed, the irony of the story is disclosed by the intervention of the Church. The master in the parable listens to the case made by the Church. What was retained on earth was retained in heaven.
The wicked servant’s condemnation to torture (basanisais–verse 34) is eternal, because his debt is beyond payment. No one can pay it. This is an image of eternal damnation (cf. 25:41,46).
In short, it should be easy for a Christian to forgive seventy times seven times, knowing that God has forgiven him so much more.
Monday, March 10
Matthew 19:1-15: At this point Matthew rejoins the narrative sequence in Mark, which he will follow for the rest of the book. However, as this section begins with Jesus’ move from Galilee, in the north, to Judea, in the south, Matthew and Luke begin to follow separate sequences, Luke inserting many stories that have no parallel in the other gospels (cf. Luke 9:51—18:14).
Matthew introduces his own narrative by mentioning the end (etelesen–verse 1) of Jesus’ previous discourse—namely, the preceding chapter on life in the Church. Each of Jesus’ five large discourses in ended in the same way (cf. 7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 26:1).
Jesus, moving south, goes somewhat eastward across the Jordan, avoiding a trip through Samaria. He is followed by “large” crowds (contrast with Mark 10:1), “to follow” being the normal word for discipleship.
In Mark’s parallel account (10:1), it is said that Jesus taught these crowds, whereas Matthew says that He “healed” them (etherapeusen–verse 2). The significance of this change is to be found in the light it sheds on the teaching that immediately follows. The following section deals with matters that we may call “domestic,” in the sense of having to do with the home (domus in Latin). This subject will include sex, children, and money, and on these matters Jesus will “heal” the people of common but fallacious opinions. These subjects—sex, child-raising, and finances—are the ones on which the views of the world are likely to be sick and in want of healing.
Each of these three subjects is introduced by certain individuals that approach Jesus: the Pharisees, the mothers bringing their children, the wealthy inquirer. It would seem that Matthew has arranged this material in a sequence that was usual in the catechetical practice of the
Christian Church. In fact, these three subjects are likewise treated together likewise by St. Paul (cf. Ephesians 5:22—6:9; Colossians 3:18-25). The similarity of order between Matthew and Paul suggests these dominical sayings have been organized according to a standard and recognizable format.
There immediately follows, then, a teaching about sex, which includes marriage, divorce, and celibacy (verses 3-12), for which there is a partial parallel section in Mark 10:2-12.
The treatment of marriage and divorce comes in response to the question that the Pharisees put to Jesus, which question Matthew (alone) says was meant to “try” Him (peirazontes–verse 3). The context of the teaching, that is to say, was one of controversy. It is well known that the various rabbinical schools were distinguished from one another by what restrictions they place on divorce, some stricter, some not so strict. Jesus as being invited to enter that controversy.
Instead, He went straight to the creation account in Genesis, using it to forbid all divorce (cf. also 5:32). Jesus mentions no exceptions. Even the expression “not including fornication” (me epi porneia), which is often taken as a reason for divorce, is no exception to the rule. It simply means, “I am not talking about fornication.” That is to say, the prohibition against divorce applies only to a true marriage, not cases where a man and woman are living together in sin.
What is most striking about Jesus’ prohibition is that our Lord thereby abrogates the application of Deuteronomy 24:1, which did provide for divorce. Jesus would have none of it. Divorce for the purpose of remarriage with someone else is adultery.
It is unfortunate that many readers find in this text only another species of legalism with respect to marriage. In fact, this biblical passage has as much to say on the subject of Christology as of marriage. However, when this page is “consulted,” some question about marriage is usually the reason for the consultation, so the important Christological weight of the text is simply overlooked. Inspected more carefully, however, the Christological significance of the passage would hardly be weightier. Jesus, boldly abrogating a concession given in the Mosaic Law, laid claim to immense authority—truly, “all authority”–pasa exsousia, as He will say at the end of Matthew (28:18). This authority is nothing less than divine, and it is in recognition of this total authority that we find so many people in Matthew’s stories falling prostrate before Jesus.
It is curious to observe, nonetheless, that it was not His enemies that objected to this prohibition given by Jesus. It was the disciples themselves who wondered, if divorce was not permitted, whether remaining celibate might not be a more attractive option (verse 10). (We wonder why the prospect of a happy marriage did not cross their minds!)
Perhaps to their surprise, Jesus agreed with them, not because of the indissolubility of marriage, but as a superior expression of the Kingdom of Heaven (verse 12). Nonetheless, Jesus declared, celibacy is a gift from God, a grace not accorded to all men (verse 11).
Most Christians recognize that in this passage the reference to self-castration is a metaphor of irony, akin to the amputation of a hand or the gouging out of an eye mentioned in the previous chapter.
This section on celibacy is proper to Matthew, but its content is consonant with the general New Testament thesis of the superiority of consecrated celibacy over marriage (cf. Luke 14:20; 18:29; 1 Corinthians 7:25-35).
From a discussion about marriage Jesus passes to the subject of children (verses 13-15), in which He repeats the injunction indicated in 18:1-4.
The subject arises when children are brought to Jesus to receive His blessing (verse 13), a scene found in all the Synoptics (Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17). All of them likewise include the objection of the disciples against what they evidently regarded as an unwarranted intrusion on the Lord’s time and attention.
It has been suggested that the early (pre-Scriptural) Church preserved the memory of this scene because it answered a practical pastoral question abut infant baptism. Read in this way, Jesus is affirming the practice of infant baptism: “Let the little children come to Me.” Indeed, the verb that Matthew uses here, koluein, “forbid them not,” is identical with the expression used with respect to the baptisms of the Ethiopian eunuch and the friends of Cornelius (Acts 8:36; 10:37; 11:17).
I do not think this interpretation of the passage to be likely, because there is simply no evidence in the New Testament that infant baptism was a problem. On the contrary, as the Christian replacement for circumcision, the reader should presume that baptism was available to infants, just as circumcision was. In each case it was admission to the covenant. It would be strange indeed, if Jewish children could belong to the Mosaic covenant, while Christian children could not partake of the Christian covenant.
Moreover, the baptism of entire households in the New Testament (Acts 11:14; 16:15,31-33) indicates that it was normal to baptize infants in Christian families. Although the pastoral practice of the Christian Church varied in this matter, the “validity” of infant baptisms was not challenged for well over a thousand years. Consequently, to see a reference to a “controversy” about infant baptism in these lines of Matthew seems to me an unlikely interpretation.
Tuesday, March 11
Matthew 19:16-30: The third subject in this chapter, money, is introduced by a man that comes to our Lord, seeking counsel on how to attain eternal life (verse 16). This scene is paralleled in Mark 10:17-22 and Luke 18:18-23.
If we are to look for another link between this section and the preceding theme of children, perhaps we find it in the fact that the question is asked by a “young person” (neaniskos). Indeed, this feature is unique to Matthew. Both Mark and Luke suggest, in fact, that the man may not be young, because he claims to have kept all the commandments “from my youth,” an expression that Matthew’s account does not contain.
In authentic Deuteronomic style the man is told to “keep the commandments” (less explicit in Mark and Luke) if he wishes to enter into life (verse 17; Deuteronomy 4:10; 30:6). This hypothetical clause is proper to Matthew, as is the next hypothesis, “if you would be perfect” (verse 21).
From this hypothesis regarding perfection, the Church in due course came to distinguish the monastic vocation from the vocation of other Christians. This was a reasonable inference drawn from the Sacred Text. Just as not everyone is called to consecrated celibacy (verses 11-12), not everyone is called to consecrated poverty, and these two things have always been recognized as pertaining to the monastic dedication.
The literary and theological relationship between these two passages in Matthew was noted back in the 4th century by St. John Chrysostom, On Repentance 6.3.12-13. While neither celibacy nor poverty is commanded to all Christians, their double consecration indicates a special calling extended to some Christians whose charismatic way of life will stand as a prophetic witness to the Church and to the world.
As a point of history, therefore, it is no exaggeration to say that this chapter of Matthew is one of the biblical texts most responsible for the institution of Christian monasticism. It was on hearing this text read in his parish church in Egypt back in the 3rd century that young Anthony, determined not to follow in the footsteps of the rich man, sold all his possessions and went into the desert to spend the rest of his life in celibacy, poverty, and prayer.
As for the man who declined the Lord’s invitation to be “perfect,” he left himself vulnerable, nonetheless, to a great deal of sadness (verse 22). His failure to accept the Lord’s challenge now leads to a series of teachings on the dangers of wealth (verses 23-29).
Let alone not attaining perfection, says Jesus, it is only with great difficulty that a rich man can even enter the Kingdom of Heaven (verse 23). Thus begins this section of Matthew (verses 23-30), paralleled in Mark 10:23-31 and Luke 18:24-30.
Over the centuries of Old Testament history we can discern a deep transformation in Israel’s thinking about wealth. The ancient Wisdom tradition had associated the accumulation of wealth with the virtuous life, as we see in Proverbs. That earlier literature, while not unaware of the spiritual dangers associated with wealth, had spend little space expounding on those dangers. It was Israel’s prophetic voice, rather, beginning with Elijah’s denunciation of Ahab in the 9th century, that began to elaborate the theme of the dangers posed by too much preoccupation with wealth. This was a major theme, of course, in the great social prophets of the 8th century. Gradually it found its way more explicitly in the Wisdom literature as well, Sirach 31:3-5 being one of its more eloquent expressions. Jesus’ approach to the subject in the present text is of a piece with what we find in Sirach.
Matthew omits the initial wonderment of the disciples mentioned by Mark (10:24), but he does include the Lord’s elaboration of the theme in the hyperbole of the camel and the eye of the needle.
As an image of “great difficulty,” this seems an unlikely hyperbole. It strikes the reader, rather, as a simple metaphor for impossibility. Indeed, there is a clear parallel to it in rabbinical literature, which speaks of the impossibility of passing an elephant through the eye of a needle (Babylonian Talmud, Berakoth 55b). Does Jesus mean, then, “”very difficult” or “utterly inconceivable”?
Since there appear to be no circumstances in which it is humanly possible for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, various fanciful interpretations have been advanced to explain away the toughness of the text. One of these, manifestly invented by someone who had no idea what he was talking about, refers to a small gate in the wall of Jerusalem. There is not the faintest evidence of such a gate.
On the other hand, since the Lord’s hyperbole contains a bit of metaphor-mixing, others have tried their hand at “correcting” Him. After all, why would anyone try to pass a camel, to say nothing of an elephant, through the eye of a needle? What purpose would it serve? You can’t sew with an elephant. It was apparently to address this difficulty that a tenth century copyist devised a very slight textual change in Luke’s version of the parable. He altered kamelos (camel) to kamilos (rope). A rope, after all, has an obvious affinity to a thread, whereas camel clearly does not.
This reading of “rope” for “camel,” first found in a manuscript penned in A.D. 949 and copied into a few other manuscripts, is rather clever, even ingenious, but it is also too late to be taken seriously. One should be very cautious about biblical interpretations, much less biblical readings, that don’t appear in the first thousand years of Christian history!
What, then, about the impossibility implied in the Lord’s saying? The subsequent verse, in fact, confirms it. Yes, says Jesus, the salvation of the rich man is humanly impossible. This does not mean, however, that there is an impossibility on God’s side. God can pass a camel through the eye of the needle (verse 26). Let the rich man take care, however. Let him reflect that he is asking God for a miracle.
This metaphor of the camel and the needle, therefore, is something of a parallel with the moving of mountains. Both parables have to do with the power of faith in the God. Salvation is ever a gift of God, not a human achievement.
Peter’s response to this teaching (verse 27) may seem somewhat to exaggerate the size of his own abnegation. Just how successful was the fishing business that he gave up. After all, every time he catches a fish in the New Testament, the event is regarded as a miracle. “Giving up everything” in Peter’s case may not appear, at first, to involve all that much.
Looks are deceptive, however. Peter’s commitment to our Lord would eventually lead him to witness the martyrdom of his wife (cf. Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 7.11.63) and then be crucified upside down on Vatican Hill (cf. Tertullian, Scorpiace 15.3).
Moreover, the Lord Himself honored what Peter had to say, and He promised to reward Peter’s self-sacrifice (verse28). He extends this promise to all the Twelve.
This is an important text in the ecclesiology of Matthew. The Apostles here, the institutional Twelve, become the new patriarchs, as it were, of the People of God. Their foundational role in the Church was so important that the Church took care to preserve even the exact number after the defection of Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:15-26).
The Lord’s promise of recompense is then extended to all those who, in imitation of the Twelve, would devote their lives to the closer following of Christ and the ministry of the Gospel along the road of self-abnegation (verse 29). These too will attain eternal life, the quest about which the rich man recently inquired (verse 16).
More than Mark, Matthew emphasizes the rewards of the world to come, omitting Mark’s inclusion of the rewards promised during the present age (cf. Mark 10:30).
The final verse in this chapter (verse 30), which is easily detachable from the present context, is apparently placed here because it prolongs the theme of reversal found in the previous verse—as the poor become rich, so the last become first, and the first last. This theme of reversal, in fact, appears to account for Matthew’s insertion of the next parable at this point. In that parable, as we shall see, the theme of reversal appears again (20:8).
Wednesday, March 12
Matthew 20:1-16: The parable about the day-workers is probably found in this place because it does tell a narrative about the last called being the first paid, thus illustrating, as it were, the final verse of Chapter 19: “But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” The parable ends with the repetition of the theme of reversal (verse 16).
It is obvious, nonetheless, that this parable, found only in Matthew, is easily separable from that verse, and it touches only one aspect of the parable—namely the reversed order in which the payment to the workers is made. In fact, the parable itself is just as comprehensible without that theme.
The parable of the day workers was doubtless remembered among the early Christian because it did, in fact, address one of their early theological questions — How to regard the Gentiles who were “late-comers” to the Church. The earlier comers to the field are all given a work contract, which may be interpreted as God’s established covenant with His people. Those that come last, however, work without a contract; that is to say, they have been promised nothing specific. They are outside the ancient covenant (Ephesians 2:12).
But God’s generosity rewards them anyway, and this parable is more descriptive of the Owner of the vineyard than of the workers. The Owner, of course, is God, who is described as merciful and generous with those who work for Him, as well as firm with those contemn His generosity. The vineyard is, of course, the People of God (cf. Isaiah 5:1-7; Jeremiah 12:10).
The grumblers, who are reprimanded at the end of the parable, are not rebuked for dissatisfaction with what they have received, but for their dissatisfaction with what the other people received. These grumblers may also become the enemies who have already commenced plotting against the Son of the field’s Owner (21:33-46).
The workers themselves are day laborers, the sort especially needed at the harvest. This feature suggests the eschatological import of the story. These are the “last times,” and everything is settled “in the evening” (verse 8).
Thursday, March 13
The First Epistle to the Corinthians: This letter of the Apostle Paul was written from Ephesus in the spring. Indeed, it contains an unmistakable indication that, at the very time of its composition, Christians were already observing this new Christian Passover feast: “Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us. Therefore, let us keep the feast” (5:7f.). The next feast, Pentecost (50 days after Passover), would soon be upon them, and Paul planned to stay at Ephesus until then (16:8). If the reader keeps this seasonal timetable in mind, Paul’s special emphasis on the Resurrection in chapter 15 will seem perfectly consonant with a specific historical setting. From other chronological considerations derived from the New Testament, it further seems that the year was probably 55. If so, this Epistle was written near the end of the three years that Paul spent in that Asian city (Acts 20:31).
Paul had started the mission in Corinth in the winter of 49–50 and was to remain in the city for 18 months (Acts 18:11). He had come to Corinth from Athens, and his spirit was still trying to recover from his experience in that other city. In his final sermon to the philosophers on Mars Hill near the center of Athens, he had managed to preach for 10 verses without once mentioning the Cross or even the name of Jesus (17:22–31); very few had been converted by that effort (17:34). By the time he reached Corinth, Paul was deeply discouraged; perhaps he wondered if he had treated the gospel as a kind of philosophy. Had he gone too far in accommodating his sermon to those worldly philosophers on Mars Hill? He wondered. He was upset. He later described his feelings as those of being “in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:3). He resolved that there would be no more of what had occurred at Athens. No more concessions to philosophy; no more worldly wisdom; no more “excellency of speech.” Among the Corinthians, he would “know nothing but Jesus and him crucified” (2:1f.).
That was Paul’s resolve when he began the Corinthian mission, and it quickly bore fruit. Within 18 months he was able to leave the pastoral task to others, while he headed back eastward (Acts 18:18f.). Shortly after his departure, supervision of the pastorate at Corinth was taken over by quite another kind of preacher, a man named Apollos (Acts 19:1), “an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures” (18:24). Apollos was a native of Alexandria, one of the great intellectual centers of the ancient world.
Now it is a matter of constant experience among Christians that different preachers seem to appeal to different sorts of people, so it was no wonder that Apollos was able to bring to conversion many individuals that Paul himself had never been able to reach. So the church at Corinth continued to grow. Alas, however, as it grew, it also began to divide along lines of a displaced loyalty to the individual preachers. Before long, there were those who thought of themselves as Paul’s people, others as Apollos’s people, and then a third group who had somewhere along the line been converted by Cephas (Simon Peter). These last, accordingly, thought of themselves as Cephas’s people. By the spring of 55, none of those three preachers was any longer at Corinth, but now the Corinthian Christians found themselves divided into perhaps four groups, the last one apparently calling themselves Christ’s people! (1 Corinthians 1:12). It was not a good situation.
In the spring of 55, then, the leadership at Corinth sent a delegation to Ephesus to seek help from the founder of their congregation, the Apostle Paul. He himself was disposed to send Apollos back to Corinth to straighten things out, but Apollos, probably embarrassed by the scandalous situation, did not feel “up to” the task (1 Corinthians 16:12). Paul himself was not yet ready to leave Ephesus, so he decided to send our present Epistle, First Corinthians, by way of dealing with the strained relationships among the believers at Corinth.
From internal evidence, it appears that all together Paul wrote at least three, and probably four, epistles to the Corinthians, so deep were the problems in that congregation. Indeed, it took a long time to bring them to proper order. Even as late as the year 96, the third bishop of Rome, Clement, was to write the Corinthians yet another epistle, trying to settle problems relative to the peace and pastoral governing of that recalcitrant congregation. Somehow they muddled through.
More than a hundred years after Paul preached there, the Corinthian church was pastored by one of the most outstanding bishops and writers of the second century, Dionysius of Corinth. Others among its bishops, during the fourth and fifth centuries, were to take part in the great councils that wrote the Creed and established the canon of the New Testament. In spite of the many vicissitudes of life in Greece through the centuries, the church at Corinth is still there today, an unbroken continuity of nearly two millennia. Since we know that Paul, Apollos, and Cephas all pastured the congregation at Corinth, it is somewhat ironical that the church there now is called “St. John’s.”
Friday, March 14
Matthew 20:29—21:1a: This story, found also in Mark 10:46-52 and Luke 18:35-43, is linked to the city of Jericho, though in not exactly the same way in each gospel. In Mark’s account Jesus has entered and is the course of leaving the city when the blind man invokes Him. In Luke’s version this event occurs as Jesus is approaching Jericho. Indeed, in the Lukan story Jesus, on leaving Jericho, encounters the publican Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), a narrative not found in the other gospels. Here in Matthew, on the other hand, the meeting with the blind men occurs when Jesus is leaving Jericho. What is to be said about this threefold discrepancy?
First, it presents no problem from the perspective of history. The site of Jericho shifted about somewhat over the centuries, as archeologists have demonstrated. One of these shiftings took place during the very period under consideration, when Herod the Great constructed a winter palace near the ancient site of Jericho, and a new settlement rose around it. That is to say, it was possible to be both entering and leaving Jericho simultaneously.
Second, there appears to be no theological or literary significance to the differences among the three Evangelists on this point. If there is such a significance, the present writer has failed to discover it.
It appears that in Matthew’s two accounts of blind men (here and in 9:27-31), both stories, as they were narrated in the Church’s preaching prior to the written Gospels, came to be told in much the same way. This would account for the similarities between them, such as the identical use of certain expressions: passing through (paragein), touching (hapto), and following (akoluo). We observe, for instance, that the first of these two verbs are not found in the parallel accounts in Mark and Luke.
The major difference of Matthew from Mark and Luke here is, of course, that Matthew has two blind men instead of one. This is surely another instance of Matthew combining two accounts of the healing of blind men from Mark (8:22-26; 10:46-52) into a single story. Why does Matthew do this? Well, his construction effectively juxtaposes these two men with the two sons of Zebedee, who are symbolically healed of their spiritual blindness with respect to the mystery of the Cross. Thus healed, says the text, “they followed “him” (20:34). They become part of the congregation that will accompany Israel’s true King into Jerusalem to accomplish the mystery of Redemption.
To “follow” Christ means to live by the pattern of the Cross, to pursue the implications of Baptism and the Holy Eucharist, the one a mystic identification with His death and resurrection, the other a proclaiming of His death “until He comes.” These two men have accepted the challenge just made to James and John.
These blind men, calling on Jesus with the Messianic title, “Son of David,” ask for the opening of their eyes, an expression which in prophetic literature is associated with the Messianic times (cf. Isaiah 29:18; 35:5).
In fact, one notes in Matthew a disposition to call Jesus the “Son of David” (a title introduced in the very first verse of this Gospel), when He miraculously heals. We observe this in both healings of the blind men (here and in 9:30), the blind and mute demoniac (12:22-24), and the Canaanite woman’s daughter (15:21-28). These healings are signs of the coming of the Messiah, foretold by the prophets (cf. 4:23; 9:35; 10:1).