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 not in 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 shifs 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).
Lazarus Saturday, March 15
With the raising of Lazarus, we now enter fully into the drama of Holy Week. It begins with this massive assertion of the Lord’s power over death, even as He faces His own death within a few days. The week ends with His descent into the realm of death, to assert His victory over it.
Although the entire life of Jesus Christ on earth–along with His descent into the nether world and His entrance into the heavenly sanctuary–pertained to our redemption, very early it became the custom of the Christian Church to speak most especially of His Passion and death in respect to this redemption. The whole Christian Gospel was condensed in the expression, "the word of the Cross" (1 Corinthians 1:18).
Thus, when Paul came to preach the Gospel to the Corinthians, he told them, "I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2). "God forbid," he said, "that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Galatians 6:14). In Paul’s preaching the message of the Cross was placed in the middle and up front. He addressed his hearers as those "before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified" (Galatians 3:1).
Inasmuch as man’s redemption was effected by the entire "event" of Jesus Christ , why all this emphasis on the cross, which symbolizes the humiliation, the sufferings, and the death of Jesus? Why not say, "I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him risen"? That would have corresponded to the truth, would it not? Why not call the Gospel "the word of the Resurrection"? That would certainly be an accurate account of the matter. Why, then, did Paul so emphasize the most horrible, least attractive aspect of our redemption–namely, the cross (Romans 6:6; 1 Corinthians 1:17; Galatians 5:11; 6:12,20; Ephesians 2:16; Philippians 2:8; 3:18; Colossians 1:20; 2:14)? Why did he choose to lay so much accent on the shedding of Christ’s blood (Romans 3:25; 5:9; Ephesians 1:7; 2:13; Colossians 1:14,20)?
The reason for this emphasis is not difficult to discern. The sufferings and death of Jesus were—if the expression be allowed—the hard part. These constituted the costly elements of our redemption, that arduous expense of which Paul twice said to the Corinthians, "you were bought with a price" (1 Corinthians 6:20; 7:23).
This is why the Apostle Peter wrote of our redemption by "the precious blood of Christ" (1 Peter 1:19). Peter’s adjective here, timios, means "costly." Again, according to John, Jesus redeemed us to God by His blood (Revelation 5:9) and washed us from our sins in His blood (Revelation 1:5; 7:14; 12:11). Jesus’ blood was, in short, the price for our redemption.
Although Christians have always known that Jesus was "raised for our justification," their warmer sentiments have traditionally been directed, rather, to the fact that He "was delivered up for our offenses" (Romans 4:25). From the very beginning, that is to say, they have been disposed to dwell in imagination, distress, and deep empathy on the thought of what Jesus endured on their behalf. Poignant and sensitive thought on the Lord’s sufferings has always been an important part of inherited Christian piety. The sacred wounds on His very flesh have ever been treasured in the Christian heart, because He "Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sin, might live for righteousness-by whose stripes you were healed" (1 Peter 2:24).
Devout believers, starting with the authors of the Bible, have ever felt this way. To limit ourselves, for now, to just one example of this piety, let us recall an early reaction of Christians to the public reading of the biblical prophecies of the Lord’s Passion and the fulfillment of those prophecies in the Gospel accounts. This reaction was described by the nun Egeria, who recorded her experience of the Good Friday services in Jerusalem in the late fourth century. It is worth citing at some length:
"The entire time from the sixth to the ninth hour is occupied by public readings. They all concern the things that Jesus suffered; first they have the psalms on this theme, then the Apostolic Epistles and Acts which deal with it, and finally the passages from the Gospels. In this way they read the prophecies about what the Lord was to suffer, and then the Gospels about what He did suffer. Thus do they continue the readings and hymns from the sixth to the ninth hour, showing to all the people by the witness of the Gospels and the writings of the Apostles that the Lord actually suffered everything the prophets had foretold. They teach the people, then, for these three hours, that nothing which took place had not been foretold, and all that was foretold was completely fulfilled. Dispersed among these readings are prayers, all fitting to the day. It is impressive to see the way all the people are moved by these readings, and how they mourn. You could hardly believe how every single one of them weeps during those three hours, old and young together, because of the way the Lord suffered for us" (The Travels of Egeria 37.5-7).
Palm Sunday, March 16
Matthew 21:1-11: The enthusiasm shown at our Lord’s entry into Jerusalem is partly to be explained, as a matter of history, as the people’s response to the raising of Lazarus, an event not recorded in the Synoptic Gospels.
Comparing the three Synoptics, we observe that Matthew explicitly interprets the Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem through the eyes of the prophet Zechariah, whom he quotes in verse 5: "Tell the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your King is coming to you, lowly and seated on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey’" (Zechariah 9:9).
This recourse to prophecy, which must have been obvious to others besides Matthew, guarantees that the event is not regarded as an isolated occurrence, because vision of prophecy places it into a larger, more panoramic historical perspective. Prophecy permits the event to be regarded as manifesting God’s purpose.
Prophecy reveals at once two things about what happened on the first Palm Sunday: first, the inner meaning of the event as God sees it, and second, the connection of the event with earlier biblical history.
The second of these points requires further elaboration. In the mind of Matthew, the biblical background or foreshadowing of this event was the story in 2 Samuel 15—17, where King David is portrayed fleeing from the rebellion of Absalom. Crossing the Kidron valley eastwards and ascending the Mount of Olives, David is the king rejected of his people, while a usurper is in full revolt. The King leaves the city in disgrace, riding on a donkey, the poor animal of the humble peasant. David is the very image of meekness in the face of defeat. In his heart is no bitterness; he bears all with patience and plans no revenge.
As he goes, David suffers further humiliation and deception from those who take advantage of his plight. One of his most trusted counselors, Ahitophel, betrays him to his enemies; another citizen curses and scorns him in his flight.
Moreover, in the description of David fleeing from Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, there is a striking contrast with the victorious Absalom, the usurper, who is driving "a chariot and horses with fifty men to run before him" (2 Samuel 15:1). Absalom represents worldly power and worldly wisdom, contrasted with the humility and meekness of the King.
Incorporating this image of David as a mystic prefiguration of the Messiah yet to come, the post-exilic prophet Zechariah foretold the triumphal entry of the Messiah into Zion, the story narrated by the Evangelists. The Savior arrives in Jerusalem by the very path that David used to flee from the Holy City. Riding the donkey, our Lord comes down westward from the Mount of Olives, crosses the Kidron Valley, and finally enters Jerusalem. He thus begins the week of His meekly borne sufferings, including betrayal by a friend and rejection by His people.
Monday, March 17
The Book of Lamentations: This very sorrowful book describes Israel’s darkest hour: the invasion of the merciless Babylonians, the sacking of the city and the massacre of the innocent, the deliberate destruction of the Temple and the plundering of its sacred vessels, the forced deportation of its citizens to a foreign country, the particular difficulties that this placed on women, children, and old people, and so forth. It corresponds perfectly to what Jesus described as “your hour and the power of darkness.”
Throughout the centuries Lamentations has been a consistent biblical choice during Holy Week and forms the major reading in the traditional Western liturgical service called Tenebrae Matins.
Matthew 21:12-27: The purging of the Temple is found in all four Gospels, but with significant differences in the narrative order. The most obvious of these differences is between John, where this story appears fairly early in the narrative (John 2:13-17), right after Jesus’ first miracle (2:11), and the Synoptics, all of whom place the story in the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. There are further, less significant differences among the Synoptics. For example, whereas in Matthew the purging of the Temple immediately follows the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and apparently takes place on Palm Sunday itself, in Mark it is preceded by the cursing of the fig tree and takes place on Monday. In Luke the triumphal entry and the purging of the Temple are separated by Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem.
I propose to examine this story by considering it at three historical levels. First, we will reflect on the meaning of the event when it happened. Second, we will look at the meaning of the event in the narrative tradition of the early Church. Third, we will examine the features of the story that are particular to Matthew.
First, let us reflect on our Lord’s action in the Temple in its own immediate context. What significance did it have for those who were witnesses to its original setting?
We should begin by recalling that the coming Messiah was expected to purge the Temple. Earlier suggestions of this idea include Isaiah 56:7, which is quoted by the Gospels as a prophecy fulfilled on this occasion: “Even them I will bring to My holy mountain, /And make them joyful in My house of prayer. /Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices /Will be accepted on My altar; /For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.” In this text the Temple is “purged” in the sense of being rebuilt after its destruction by the defiling Babylonians. Our Lord also indicates His fulfillment of prophecy on this occasion by justifying His action with a reference to Jeremiah 7:11: “‘Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of thieves in your eyes? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,’ says the Lord.”
Perhaps even more to the purpose, however, were the words of Malachi, referring to the Messiah’s coming to the Temple in order to purge it: “‘Behold, I send My messenger, /And he will prepare the way before Me. /And the Lord, whom you seek, /Will suddenly come to His temple, /Even the Messenger of the covenant, /In whom you delight. /Behold, He is coming,’ /Says the Lord of hosts. /‘But who can endure the day of His coming? /And who can stand when He appears? /For He is like a refiner’s fire /And like launderers’ soap. /He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver; /He will purify the sons of Levi, /And purge them as gold and silver, /That they may offer to the Lord /An offering in righteousness. /Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem /Will be pleasant to the Lord, /As in the days of old, /As in former years” (Malachi 3:1-4). The context of this purging foreseen by Malachi was the sad state of Israel’s worship, to which he was witness (1:6-10,12-14).
The Temple’s expected “purging” by the Messiah had mainly to do with ritual and moral defilements, much as those Judas Maccabaeus had cleansed from the Lord’s house after its defilement by Antiochus Epiphanes IV. This purging was completed with the Temple’s rededication on December 14, 164 B. C. (1 Maccabees 4:52).
As described in the New Testament, however, the “defilement” does not appear to have been so severe. It apparently consisted of the noise and distractions occasioned by the buying and selling of sacrificial animals necessary for the Temple’s ritual sacrifice. John describes the scene in greater detail: “And He found in the temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers doing business. When He had made a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen, and poured out the changers’ money and overturned the tables” (John 2:14-15).
To grasp this context we should bear in mind that the greater part of the people in the Temple during the major feasts (and all the Evangelists place this incident near Passover) came from great distances. Naturally they brought no sacrificial animals with them, reasonably expecting that local vendors on the scene would meet their needs. These vendors brought the necessary herds and kept them in the immediate vicinity of the Temple. Indeed, without their mercantile provision, the ritual sacrifices of the Temple would have been rendered impossible. The activity associated with this arrangement was considered part of the normal business of the Temple, much as the sale of Bibles, prayer books, icons, and rosaries in the shops near St. Peter’s in Rome. The action of Jesus, then, was not directed against ritual and moral pollutions but against the normal business of the Temple.
Hence, what the Lord did in this respect was more symbolic than practical. There is no evidence that this action of Jesus amounted to more than a slight disturbance in the daily activity of the Temple, nor does Jesus seem to have persisted in it. He intended, rather, to enact a prophecy, much in line with sundry similar actions by the Old Testament prophets. Those who were witnesses to the event discerned this significance, recognizing it as a “Messianic sign.” This recognition explains the menacing reaction of the Lord’s enemies (Mark 11:18; Luke 19:47).
Second, with respect to the later historical context of the first century, let us consider the circumstances in which this story was conveyed in the preaching of the Church prior to finding a place in the canonical Gospels. In this context it is reasonable to suppose that the Christians related this event of the Temple’s purging to that definitive “purging” of the Lord’s house when Titus destroyed it in A.D. 70. In fact, in the Synoptic accounts this story of the Lord’s action is placed near His predictions of that later catastrophe. If what Jesus did on that day did not actually disrupt the daily routine of ritual sacrifice, the later action of the Romans most certainly did. Jesus’ prophetic act, therefore, foreshadowed the Temple’s destruction and the cessation of Israel’s sacrificial cultus, which has never been restored.
Third, let us consider the components of this story that are proper to Matthew and peculiar to his interpretation of it. These consist chiefly in appeals to two Old Testament texts that Matthew perceives to be “fulfilled” in what the Lord did in the Temple.
In the first of these instances, Matthew says, “Then the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them” (verse 14). Matthew alone includes this striking detail, which is full of theological significance and advances the Messianic theme that dominates his version of the story. The background of this detail is 2 Samuel 5, which tells the story of David’s taking of Jerusalem from the Jebusites in 992 B.C. When the king and his army laid siege to the city, the Jebusites taunted David that their blind and lame would suffice to defend it (2 Samuel 5:6). This taunt led to David’s enemies being metaphorically referred to as “the blind and the lame,” and this metaphor in turn led to a popular proverb, “the blind and lame must stay outside.” More literally, the proverb ran, “the blind and the lame may not come into the house.”
The Septuagint augmented this proverb by a single word, Kyriou, so that it ran, “the blind and the lame shall not come into the house of the Lord.” It is possible that the LXX’s version of the proverb reflects a later rule against begging inside the Temple, so as not to disturb the people who went there to pray. Many of the mendicants, if not most, were either blind or lame, and such a rule would have obliged them to stay outside the Temple gates in order to do their begging (cf. Acts 3:12).
Matthew’s account, therefore, is seen to reverse this exclusion of the blind and the lame. The blind and the lame, once the symbols of David’s enemies, are now received in the Temple by David’s Son, who heals them. This detail is an ironical Messianic sign. The Messiah, having entered His Temple and purged it, brings in those who had been excluded, and this too is an ironic fulfillment of Holy Scripture.
In the second instance of biblical fulfillment, Matthew’s Gospel refers to Psalm 8, which is seen to be fulfilled in the shouting of the children at the Lord’s entry into the city (verses 15-16). Jesus cites this psalm in reference to Himself, a point on which He is followed by the authors of the New Testament (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:27; Hebrews 2:6-8).
In short, Matthew’s account of the purging of the Temple lays special emphasis on the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures.
When Jesus drove the moneychangers from the temple, an event recorded in all four canonical Gospels, it was the most eschatological of actions. Jesus thereby affirmed that the temple really is a precinct separated from an "outside," where are found "dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and whoever loves and practices a lie" (Revelation 22:15). Thus, the Bible’s final book does not portray an afterlife of universal reconciliation, but an everlasting separation of wheat and chaff.
Jesus, upon entering Jerusalem, immediately began to behave as though the place belonged to Him. Right after His triumphal entry into the city with the acclamations of the crowd, He proceeded to purge the Temple and then curse the fig tree. All of this was an exercise of “authority” (exsousia).
His enemies, who have already shown themselves nervous about these events, now approach Him in the Temple to challenge the “authority” implicitly claimed in what has happened. The reader already knows, of course, the source of Jesus’ authority, so the Gospel writers do not tell this story in order to inform the reader on this point. The story is told to show, rather, the Lord’s complete control of the situation, especially His deft discomfiting of these hypocritical enemies. We earlier considered the Lord’s reference to this hypocrisy with respect to their relations to both Himself and John the Baptist (11:16-19).
The question, then, has to do with Jesus’ “authority” (exsousia), a word that appears four times in this story, twice in the first verse. This is an important idea in Matthew’s Christology; it appears among the last words of Jesus in this Gospel (28:18). The presence of this term in the parallel accounts of Mark and Luke, however, indicate that this was a word commonly used of the ministry and person of Jesus.
Nonetheless, in the versions of Matthew and Luke there is a detail that adds a special nuance to Jesus’ authority; namely, Jesus is portrayed as “teaching” in the Temple. Indeed, a few days later the Lord will refer to this fact at the time of His arrest (26:55; Luke 22:53). That is to say, it is specifically as the Teacher in the Temple that Jesus is challenged.
Jesus’ exsousia has to do with His ministry as a Teacher. It was earlier observed that “He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (7:29). We should see in this Matthew’s ongoing polemic against the rabbinical teachers of his own day.
The purpose of the hostile question makes it what is sometimes called “a lawyer’s question,” indicating a question asked for the purpose of making the respondent say too much, a question asked in order to find something recriminating to be used later in a courtroom.
Knowing this, of course, Jesus is not disposed to answer. He responds, rather, with a question of His own, along with a pledge to answer the first question if His opponents will answer the second (verse 24). This recourse to the counter-question is common in rabbinic style, and Jesus seems often to have used it.
The priests and elders immediately perceive their dilemma (verses 25-26). They are unwilling to express themselves honestly about the baptism of John, which is a symbol of John’s entire ministry. They are being asked, with respect to John, exactly the question they had posed with respect to Jesus. They had never been obliged to deal with that problem before, because Herod had taken care of it for them. Now they are put on the spot.
Caught thus on the horns of a dilemma, they plead ignorance, and the Lord responds by declining to answer the question they had put to Him. They are thus effectively foiled in the presence of those gathered to hear Jesus in the Temple.
An important matter of theology is contained in this story. All through the Gospel Jesus has presented men with a choice, a decision–a yes-or-no–but His enemies have everywhere resorted to evasion and hostility. They have never inquired with sincerity, and the time for them has now run out. There is no more place for discourse, and certainly no more place for lawyers’ questions. These men are not seekers of the truth; their hearts are hard. They have already ascribed to Satan those generous, benevolent deeds by which Jesus showered His blessings on the blind, the lame, the suffering. Never have they responded positively to so many manifestations of the power of God in the ministry of Jesus. They have made no effort to humble their minds to understanding.
And now they meet complete silence on the part of Jesus: “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” Why bother? They will not hear Him. They do not genuinely want to know. He will not answer them. They have never bothered truly to attend to Him. Now He will trouble them no more. This is a picture of the final retribution. There comes a point in the career of the unrepentant sinner when God says, “Forget about it. I have said enough. You will not hear from Me again,” and there ensues the vast silence of the God who is weary of speaking to deaf ears and hard hearts.
Tuesday, March 18
Matthew 25:1-13: Following a theme begun in 24:48, Matthew tells another story of the delay of the parousia; it is the story of the ten maidens awaiting the arrival of the Bridegroom. Everything is going just fine in the account, except for the delay involved: "But while the Bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept" ( verse 5). That is to say, they were not cautious about the warning, "Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect" (24:44; cf. 25:19).
The coming of the Bridegroom in this parable is identical to the parousia of the Son of Man mentioned several times in the preceding chapter (24:39,44,50).
The ten maidens are divided between those who are “foolish” (morai) and those who are wise, prudent, or thoughtful. However we are to translate this latter adjective, phronimoi, it has just been used to describe the faithful servant that awaits his master’s return (24:45). Matthew is fond of this adjective, which he uses seven times. He uses the adjective moros six times, the only Synoptic evangelist to do so.
In addition, the distinction between moros and phronimos comes in the final parable of the Sermon on the Mount: “Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a phronimos who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a moros who built his house on the sand” (7:24-26).
The difference between the five foolish maidens and the five prudent maidens is that the latter have prepared themselves to deal with the prolonged passage of time. Not considering the possibility of delay, the foolish maidens have not provided oil for their lamps. They are unable to "go the distance" with God.
In context, then, the prudence required is a kind of thoughtfulness, the habit of critical reflection, a cultivated ability to think in terms of the passage of time, a sensitivity to the movement of history. These wise maidens are not creatures of the moment. Consequently, they carry along their little jugs of oil, to make sure that their lamps will not be extinguished. They are able to “go the distance,” because they have thoughtfully made provision.
Time is the test of all these women, because the Bridegroom is “delayed”–chronizontos tou Nymphiou. This is the same verb, chronizo, previously used of the wicked servant: “My master is delayed”–chronizei mou ho Kyrios (24:48).
We also observe that the prudent maidens are unable to help the foolish (verse 9). They are not being cruel or insensitive in this refusal. They are simply recognizing the limitations that come with responsibility. It is a plain fact that there are some things that one Christian cannot do for another. This limitation pertains to the structure of reality, and the foolish maidens have brought their problem upon themselves.
The prudent, thoughtful maidens enter into the wedding festivities, and the door is closed (verse 10). This closing of the door represents the end of history; the deed represents finality. In an earlier parable Matthew had narrated the exclusion of a man from a wedding festival because of his failure to take it seriously (22:11-14).
This parable ends with an exhortation to vigilance (verse 13). John Calvin captured the spirit of this parable when he wrote, “the Lord would have us keep in constant watch for Him in such a way as not to limit Him in any way to a particular time” (On Second Thessalonians 2.2).
Like the parable that comes before it and the two that will follow, this is a study in contrasts. It portrays the antithesis between those who think wisely and those who don’t think at all. This contrast indicates an essential component of the life in Christ, because wise reflection is necessary to “gong the distance.” Critical, reflective thought is not optional in the Christian life; it is a moral imperative.
It is important to observe that all ten of these maidens are Christians. Some will be saved, and some will not. The difference between them is somewhat analogous to the difference between the wheat and the tares in Matthew 13:24-30,36-43. It is bracing to consider that some will be reprobate: "Amen, I say to you, I never knew you" (verse 12). These are very harsh words to be directed to Christians who had been waiting for their Lord’s return. They waited, but they did not do so wisely, and everything had to do with vigilance through the passage of time: "Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming" (verse 13). Five of these Christians failed the test of perseverance.
St. Gregory the Dialoguist interprets the sleep of the ten maidens as death. The cry, "Behold, the Bridegroom is coming," he interprets as the angelic voice that announces the end and judgment of the world. The five foolish maidens are those who died without preparing, through their lifetime, the oil necessary to accompany the Bridegroom. When they are aroused from the sleep of death, they have nothing to offer. Their resurrection from the dead, therefore, is not a resurrection unto life, but unto judgment (John 5:29).
Spy Wednesday, March 19
Matthew 26:1-16: We now come to Wednesday of Holy Week. There are four brief scenes in these sixteen verses. These scenes alternate back and forth between Jesus’ friends and Jesus’ enemies.
The first verse of this chapter indicates that Jesus has now finished “all” five of the great discourses in Matthew (Compare 7:28; 11;1; 13:53; 19:1). Matthew’s wording here (“when Jesus had finished all these sayings”) puts the reader in mind of the end of the five books (Chumash) of Moses: “When Moses finished speaking all these words” (Deuteronomy 32:45).
This first section (verses 1-2), unlike the other gospels, includes a fourth prophecy of the Passion, specifying that it will happen “after two days” (verse 2). Since our Lord has already prophesied the Passion on three earlier occasions (16:21; 17:22-23; 20:18-19), He can preface this fourth prophecy with, “You know.” This is the only prophecy of our Lord that links His Passion with the Passover.
In the second scene (verses 3-5) the action shifts to a conspiracy of Jesus’ enemies assembled in the courtyard of the high priest (verse 3)–the very place where Peter will soon deny knowing Jesus (verse 69). Caiaphas was the high priest from A.D. 18 to 36. His whole family was involved in opposition to Jesus and the Church (Acts 4:6).
In spite of their decision to wait until after the Passover before arresting Jesus (verse 5), the Lord’s enemies will take advantage of an opportunity provided for them by Judas Iscariot (verses 14-16). Matthew and Mark demonstrate how the betrayal of Judas was associated with an event, which both evangelists next proceed to describe; this is the third scene, Jesus’ anointing at Bethany (verses 6-13; Mark 14:3-9; cf. John 12:1-8).
In the story of the anointing in Bethany, it is clear that our Lord’s disciples were not completely “with” Him. Failing to grasp the implications of this most recent prophecy of the coming Passion, they are unable to grasp the dramatic significance of what transpires at Bethany (verses 8-12).
Currently abiding at Bethany, about two miles east of Jerusalem, Jesus is invited to dine in the home of Simon, whom He had apparently cured of leprosy (verse 6). The dinner itself was sponsored by the family of Lazarus (John 12:2), whom Jesus had just raised from the dead. One speculates that the meal was moved to the home of Simon, who could provide a larger and more convenient setting for the guests.
Neither Mark nor Matthew identifies the woman who pours out the precious myrrh on the flesh of Jesus, but John (12:3) tells us it was Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus.
John speaks of the feet of Jesus being anointed, while Matthew and Mark say the myrrh was poured on Jesus’ head. There is no need to decide the question, because Mary could easily have anointed both. The detail is not important to any of the evangelists.
They draw our attention, rather, to the negative reactions of Jesus’ disciples (verses 8-9). These, especially Judas Iscariot (John 12:4-6), are indignant at what they regard as a waste of resources. Clearly they are insensitive to the drama unfolding before their eyes. For them the Gospel has been reduced to a social ministry aimed at caring for the poor. It is obvious that the person of Jesus—Jesus Himself–is not central to their view of things. They are anxious to serve Christ in the poor, evidently in response to the final parable of the previous chapter—the parable of the Last Judgment—but they forget about the more immediate Christ right in front of them. They separate the message of Jesus from the person of Jesus.
Consequently, in His response to the disciples, Jesus makes the matter “personal”: “She has done a beautiful thing for Me . . . You do not always have Me.” Jesus “knows” (gnous–verse 10) what these men are made of; He is aware of the weakness of their loyalty to Him.
Jesus then explains the meaning of what has just transpired: This woman has done a prophetic thing—she had prepared His body for burial (verse 12). It is worth noting that Matthew, thus understanding the event at Bethany, will later omit mention of the anointing of Jesus’ body in the tomb (Contrast 28:1 with Mark 16:1).
This deed pertains to the “Gospel,” says Jesus (verse 13). The Gospel, after all, is about Jesus; it is not about social concerns separable from His own person. The woman in this story is concentrated on Jesus, and such concentration pertains to the essence of the Gospel.
Judas, at least, seems to understand this, and in the fourth scene he makes his move (verses 14-16). He has stayed with Jesus as long as it has been to his advantage (cf. John 12:6). Judas is very sensitive to his own advantage. His surname, “Iscariot,” means “man (’ish of Kerioth–cf. Joshua 15:25). Those early Gospel readers familiar with Latin may have noticed the name’s similarity to the noun sicarius–literally “knifeman,” or assassin. Perhaps having heard of the plot of Jesus’ enemies, Judas goes and makes them an offer (verse 15).
Alone among the New Testament writers, Matthew names the actual price of the transaction: thirty silver pieces, the price of a slave (Exodus 21:32), the low wages of the shepherd in Zechariah 11:12 (cf. Matthew 27:3-10).
This deal, says Matthew, was a turning point (verse 16). There was now a traitor among the disciples, waiting for his opportunity. It would come on the following night.
This section of Matthew is a story of irony and contrasts. The irony, worked out in four short scenes, consists in the antithesis between the intention of Jesus’ enemies and what they actually accomplished. Not wanting to provoke a riot by arresting Jesus during the Passover, they set in motion a train of events that would in due course lead to the destruction of their Holy City. Hoping to dispose of a troublesome religious teacher, they unwittingly implemented a divine determination to supplant their own religious authority. Judas, complaining of the loss of 300 coins from his purse, sells Jesus for one-tenth of that number.
The chief contrast in the story is between the gracious anointer on the one hand and all the cruel, or insensitive, or treacherous individuals on the other.
Maundy Thursday, March 20
Matthew 26:17-56: We come now to Holy Thursday and the evening of the Last Supper. The traditions behind the four gospels attach several stories to the narrative of the Last Supper. These include the story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, a saying of Jesus relative to His coming betrayal, a prophecy of Peter’s threefold denial, various exhortations and admonitions by Jesus, and a description of the institution of the Holy Eucharist.
There are considerable differences among the four evangelists with respect to their inclusion of these components. Thus, only John describes the foot-washing, though Luke 22:24-30 includes a dominical admonition which would readily fit such a context. With respect to the actual teachings and exhortations of Jesus during the supper, John’s account is by far the longest, stretching over several chapters.
Only two of the stories are told in all four gospels. First, there is some reference by Jesus to His betrayal. In Matthew and Mark this comes before the institution of the Holy Eucharist; in Luke it comes afterwards, in John it immediately follows the foot-washing. Only in Matthew and John is Judas actually identified by Jesus. Luke and John ascribe the betrayal to the influence of Satan.
Second, all four gospels include a prophecy of Peter’s threefold denial. All of them, likewise, narrate the fulfillment of that prophecy.
The Church chiefly remembers the Last Supper, however, as the occasion of the instituting of the Holy Eucharist, and it seems a point of irony that this story does not appear in John. Perhaps he felt that this important subject had been adequately treated in the Bread of Life discourse in chapter 6.
To the three Synoptic accounts of the Holy Eucharist we must add that in 1 Corinthians 11, which is at least a decade older than the earliest of the four gospels. Indeed, this narrative recorded by St. Paul links the institution of the Eucharist explicitly to the betrayal by Judas: “I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the night in which He was betrayed took bread . . .” This text provides clear evidence that the traditional narrative contained in the Eucharistic prayer, as it was already known to Paul when he founded the Corinthian church about A.D. 50, made mention of Judas’s betrayal. That same formula or its equivalent—“on the night He was betrayed”–is found in both the liturgies of St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom.
The Church’s testimony on this point is remarkable. It is as though some deep impulse discourages Christians from celebrating the Holy Communion without some reference to the betrayal by Judas. This reference serves to remind Christians of the terrible judgment that surrounds the Mystery of the Altar: “Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body” (1 Corinthians 11:27-29).
In spite of their manifest shortcomings in discipleship, the Twelve obey Jesus, making the necessary preparations for the Seder (verses 17-19), as they had earlier prepared for His triumphal entry in Jerusalem (21:2-7). In this brief dialogue we observe that the Passover and the Unleavened Bread are fused together, as they were in practice. On the day of the Seder (Thursday of Holy Week), all leavened bread was thrown out, so that only unleavened bread would be in the house that evening. Like Mark (14:12), Matthew refers to that Thursday as “the first day of unleavened bread” (verses 17; Mark 14:1).
In this same dialogue Matthew introduces another view of the “timing” of this event. Jesus has His own “time”–kairos (verse 18). This kairos of Jesus has to do with God’s plan, though its implementation subsumes the “opportunity” (eukaria) of the Lord’s enemies (verse 16). This kairos of Matthew (missing in Mark 14:14) is identical with the “hour” in John (2:4; 7:30; 8:20; 12:23,27; 13:1; 16:21,32; 17:1). Both terms are references to God’s control of history—Divine Providence as it pertained to Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is obviously quite conscious of this.
Whereas in Luke (22:19-23) the Lord’s mention of the betrayer comes after the Holy Eucharist, in Mark (14:19-21) and Matthew (verses 21-25), it comes first in the Supper narrative. The Lord’s knowledge of the kairos is of a piece with His knowledge of the betrayer. He is able to read both times and hearts. The scene in the Upper Room grows dramatically tense as Jesus announces what is to transpire that night.
When the Apostles question Jesus on this announcement, they address Him as “Lord”–Kyrios (verse 22). Only Judas fails to do so (verse 25). Upon His betrayer Jesus pronounces a “woe” (verse 24), prophetic of what will transpire in 27:1-10. We recall the series of seven “woes” pronounced against the scribes and Pharisees in chapter 23.
There is a particular poignancy in the setting of Judas’s betrayal: the Passover meal, the Seder. Judas has just passed from the ranks of Israel to the service of Pharaoh. Our Lord’s identification of the betrayer (verse 25), missing in Mark and Luke, is also found in John (13:26-27).
In the Greek text Judas’s question to the Lord is worded so as to expect a negative reply: “Surely not I, Rabbi?” Judas is, among other things, a hypocrite, and as such he receives a “woe” appropriate for hypocrites (cf. 23:13,14,15,23,25,27,29). Jesus’ answer to him—“You have said it”—is identical to His reply to Caiaphas (verse 64) and Pilate (27:11).
The reader knows that, while Jesus shares the Seder with His disciples, final preparations for his impending arrest are being conducted at the house of Caiaphas. The arresting party arms itself and waits the return of Judas Iscariot, who will lead them to where Jesus will be. Judas leaves the Seder early: “Having received the piece of bread, he then went out immediately. And it was night” (John 13:30).
While the plot is in progress, Jesus comes to that part of the Seder where the Berakah, the blessing of God, is prayed at the breaking of the unleavened loaf. Jesus, after praying the traditional Berakah, breaks the loaf and mysteriously identifies it as His body: ““Take, eat; this is My body” (verse 26).
Because the Greek noun for “body,” soma, has no adequate equivalent in Aramaic or Hebrew, we presume that Jesus used the noun basar (sarxs in Greek), which means “flesh.” Indeed, this is the noun we find all through John’s Bread of Life discourse (6:51-56). In the traditions inherited by St. Paul and the Synoptic Gospels, the noun had been changed to “body.”
Then, when Jesus comes to the blessing to be prayed at the drinking of the cup of wine, He further identifies the cup: ““Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (verses 27:28). Although Matthew uses the verb “blessed” (evlogesas) with respect to the bread, he shifts to its equivalent “gave thanks” (evcharistesas) with reference to the chalice. We find both terms used interchangeably in early Eucharistic vocabulary.
Jesus identifies the wine in the chalice as His covenant blood. It is the blood of atonement and sanctification, originally modeled in the blood of Exodus 24:8—“And Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you according to all these words’” (cf. Hebrews 13:20; 1 Peter 1:2). Matthew alone includes the words from Isaiah 53:12: “which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (verse 28; cf. the entire context in Isaiah 53:13—53:12). We recall Matthew lays great stress on the forgiveness of sins (cf. 1:21; 5:23-24; 6:12,14,15; 9:6; 18:21-35).
In biblical thought the soul, or life, is contained in the blood. Thus, those who share this chalice of the Lord’s blood participate in the very soul, the life, of Christ.
There are four verbs associated with the Lord’s action with the bread: taking, blessing, breaking, and giving. These four verbs, which are part of the narrative itself, provided the early Church with a structural outline for the Eucharistic service. This outline has been maintained to the present day. Each verb indicates a part of the Eucharistic service. To wit:
First, the “taking” of the bread became a distinct part of the service. Just past the middle of the second century, Justin Martyr wrote, “Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought” (First Apology 67). It is not surprising that this bringing of the Eucharistic elements to the table was elaborated into a procession, called the Offertory Procession in the West and the Great Entrance in the East.
Second, the “blessing” (evlogia) or “thanksgiving” (evcharistia) gave its name to the service as a whole. This long prayer always included a summary of God’s wondrous works in salvation history, coming to a climax in the recited narrative of the Lord’s Supper itself, as we see in 1 Corinthians 11. The Liturgy of St. Basil is an excellent example of this.
This long prayer, commonly called the Anaphora, came to include an invocation of the Holy Spirit over the bread and wine, an invocation born from the clear sense that only God can do what we believe to be done on the Eucharistic altar.
Third, the “breaking” of the bread, which symbolizes the Lord’s Passion, was early joined to a recitation of the Our Father, probably because of its petition to be given the “supersubstantial bread” (arton epiousion in 6:11). The loaf was traditionally broken at the end of the Our Father, and the reception of Holy Communion followed immediately. In recent times the mixing of the Holy Communion in the chalice causes a bit of a delay in this process, and some other prayers and chants have been added in the interval.
Fourth, the Holy Communion is “given.” After that, the service ends rather quickly, almost abruptly.
In these four verbs, then, the Christian Church received the outline of its Eucharistic worship.
This meal is also a foreshadowing of the eternal banquet of heaven: “But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom” (verse 29). There is an “until” component in the Holy Eucharist, as well as a past: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).
After the Seder, Jesus and the apostles “sang a hymn” (hymnesantes–verse 30). This final song of the Seder is the Hallel, that portion of the Psalter where each psalm begins with Hallelujah—Psalms 113-118. One of those psalms contains the line, “What shall I render to the Lord/ For all His benefits toward me?/ I will take up the cup of salvation,/ And call upon the name of the Lord” (Psalms 116:12-13). This “cup of salvation” is manifold. It is the cup of the Lord’s blood that He has just shared with the apostles, but it is also the cup of which He will soon pray, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me” (verse 39).
As they walk eastward from the Upper Room to the Mount of Olives, Jesus continues to instruct the apostles. He tells them three things:
First, He says, in spite of all their protestations of loyalty to Him, they will very soon abandon Him in the face of danger (verse 31). Second, Simon Peter, the most vehement in his profession of loyalty, will go even further in his infidelity by denying three times that He even knows Jesus (verses 33-35). Third, when this is all over, says Jesus, I will meet you in Galilee (verse 32). This last element is the most striking of all. As in the earlier predictions of His coming Passion (16:21; 17:23; 20:19), He once again prophecies His Resurrection. He even names the place of the rendezvous! The angel of the Resurrection will later remind the Myrrhbearers of this prophecy (28:7).
The apostles will all flee this night, but even this is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy (verse 31). Once again Matthew quotes the Book of Zechariah (13:7), which is something of a textbook of the Passion in this gospel (cf. 21:5; 27:9-10).
Jesus will once again be a source of “scandal” to His disciples (skandalisthesthe–verse 31; cf. verse 33). This has been noted before (cf. 11:5; 13:52; 15:12).
We have already seen Peter’s negative reaction to the “word of the Cross” (16:21-23). In his present protestation (verse 33), he rather overdoes it, contrasting himself with the others. This story is found in all four gospels, where it serves as a warning to self-assured believers. The last word of the would-be saint is “I can handle it.”
Jesus is content, however, to leave Peter with the last word in this discussion. Evidently there comes a time when God does not argue with us anymore. He leaves us in our pride and stupidity, not insisting on getting in the last word in His argument. God is not interested in winning arguments with us.
Then begins Matthew’s account of the Agony in the Garden (verses 36-46). Gethsemani, the very name of this place (Mark 14:22; Matthew 26:36), means "olive press," abbreviated to simply "a garden" by John (18:1).
This garden of Jesus’ trial was, first of all, a place of sadness, the sorrow of death itself. "My soul is exceedingly sorrowful," said He, "even unto death" (Mark 14:34; Matthew 26:38). This sorrow unto death is common to the two gardens of man’s trial.
In the garden of disobedience, the Lord spoke to Adam of his coming death, whereby he would return to the dust from which he was taken. Adam’s curse introduces man’s sadness unto death. Thus, in the Septuagint version of this story the Lord tells Eve, "I will greatly multiply your sorrows (lypas)," and "in sorrows (en lypais) you will bear your children." And to her husband the Lord declares, "Cursed is the ground for your sake; in sorrows (en lypais) you shall eat of it all the days of your life (Genesis 3:16,17,19).
Significantly, the Gospel accounts of the Lord’s obedience in the garden emphasize His sadness more than His fear. Jesus said in the garden, "My soul is exceedingly sorrowful (perilypos), even unto death." The context of this assertion indicates that Jesus assumed the primeval curse of our sorrow unto death, in order to reverse the disobedience of Adam. In the garden Jesus took our grief upon Himself, praying "with vehement cries and tears" (Hebrews 5:7). In the garden He bore our sadness unto death, becoming the "Man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief" (Isaiah 53:4).
Thus, St. Ambrose of Milan, commenting on the agony in the garden, says of Jesus: "Nowhere do I wonder more at His piety and majesty, because it would have profited me less if He had not assumed my own feelings (nisi meum suscepisset affectum). Therefore, the One that had no reason to sorrow for Himself sorrowed for me, and leaving aside the enjoyment of His eternal divinity He is afflicted with the weariness of my infirmity. He assumed my sadness (suscepit tristitiam meam), in order to confer on me His joy, and in our footsteps He descended even to the sorrow of death (ad mortis aerumnam), in order to recall us to life in His own footsteps."
In the garden Jesus returns to the very place of Adam’s fall, taking on Himself Adam’s sorrow unto death. Thus, Ambrose regards Christ’s assumption of man’s sadness in the garden as integral to the Incarnation itself. He comments, "Therefore, I confidently use the word ‘sadness,’ because I preach the Cross, because He did not assume the appearance of the Incarnation, but its truth. Consequently, He had to take on grief (dolorem suscipere), in order to overcome sadness (tristitiam), not to exclude it. The praise of fortitude does not belong to those who bear the numbness, but rather the pain, of wounds" (Homiliae in Lucam 10.56).
The commiserating Christ bears in the garden the very sorrow incurred by fallen mankind. In this garden scene St. Cyril of Alexandria places on the lips of Jesus the following explanation of His grief: "What vinedresser, when his vineyard is desolate and laid waste, will feel no anguish for it? What shepherd would be so harsh and stern as to suffer nothing on account of his perishing flock? These are the causes of My grief. For these things am I sorrowful" (Homiliae in Lucam 146).
Good Friday, March 21
The Suffering Servant: When did the early Christians go to the Old Testament, and specifically, to the Book of Isaiah, to interpret and understand the significance of Jesus’ sufferings and death?
Although St. Peter’s sermon on the first Pentecost affirmed that Jesus had been delivered to His enemies "by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God" (Acts 2:23), he did not cite any specific Scriptures to demonstrate this purpose and foreknowledge. This fact seems particularly worthy of note, because Peter did on that occasion cite biblical prophecy with respect to our Lord’s resurrection (2:25-36).
Not until Philip do we find our earliest recorded example of recourse to the Old Testament to interpret the theology of Jesus’ sufferings and death (8:28-35). Surely this was not Philip’s own idea.
Jesus Himself had dropped more than one hint on the subject. He avowed, for example, that He suffered in fulfillment of Holy Scripture (Matthew 26:54), a declaration later prompting His disciples to search the Old Testament under that perspective.
Moreover, Jesus also spoke of the soteriological significance of His death by declaring that His blood was "shed for many for the remission of sins" (Matthew 26:28), thus introducing the Old Testament liturgical category of the "sin offering" to interpret what He accomplished on the cross.
Finally, Jesus described Himself as a servant, who came to give His "life as a ransom for many" (20:28). The Old Testament source for this assertion left no room for doubt. Jesus was clearly identifying Himself as the Servant of the Lord portrayed in the Book of Isaiah, that Servant who "poured out His soul unto death," who "bore the sin of many,/ and made intercession for the transgressors." In the suffering Jesus believers would recognize the One who "was led as a lamb to the slaughter," who was "wounded for our transgressions, . . . bruised for our iniquities," who "has borne our griefs/ and carried our sorrows."
The early Christians, employing the event of the Cross as the interpretive key of the Holy Scriptures, recognized in these and other lines of Isaiah the earliest account of the Lord’s sufferings and death. They beheld portrayed on the very pages of the Old Testament what they themselves had witnessed on Good Friday. It was as though the prophet had beheld the entire drama as vividly as they had. It was as though Isaiah had stood in the courtyard of Caiaphas on the night of the Lord’s trial, had gone in the morning to the judgment hall of Pilate, had followed along the way of the Cross, and had taken his place with the holy women on Golgotha to see that "it pleased the Lord to bruise Him."
Furthermore, in the Book of Isaiah these Christians found, not only a graphic depiction of the Lord’s sufferings, but also the true theological significance of those sufferings. They not only discovered there an account of Jesus’ scourging at the pillar, but also the assertion that "by His stripes we are healed." Not only did the ancient prophet describe the wounds that the Savior endured, but he also affirmed that He was "wounded for our transgressions." When the Roman soldiers mocked and beat Jesus, these Christians learned from Isaiah that "the Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all." When Jesus died, according to such texts, it was because God made "His soul an offering for sin."
Centuries before the four Evangelists told the moving story of Jesus’ sufferings and death, then, the Book of Isaiah had already provided, not only an earlier account of that event, but also the first theological treatise on its meaning. Long before the Apostle Paul went forth to preach Christ and Him crucified, the Old Testament prophet had done the same in the mystic light of prophetic vision.
Indeed, one might imagine that Isaiah’s prophetic vision had beheld the Lord’s passion even more vividly than did the witnesses cited by the Evangelists. The prophet’s description is certainly more vivid and detailed. Whereas the four Gospels are fairly restrained in their accounts of the Lord’s sufferings, not so the Book of Isaiah, where every bruise on the sacred flesh of "the Man of sorrows" is noted, every stripe of His scourging is recorded. The description of Isaiah lingers in loving contemplation on each wound that Jesus endured "for us men and for our salvation." It is a fact that in all of Holy Scripture no writer surpasses Isaiah in the vividness of his account of what our Lord suffered, and why.