Friday, January 2
Matthew 4:12-17: This text from Matthew, found only in Matthew in fact, stands at the beginning of our Lord’s ministry. It is a transitional text, a sort of preamble, as it were, to the Lord’s public ministry. It follows immediately on His baptism and temptation in the wilderness, and it comes immediately before His choosing of the first disciples.
There are three points to be made with respect to this text:
First, this passage sees the ministry of Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy. Indeed, a full half of today’s Gospel reading is taken up with a quotation from the Book of Isaiah, and this quotation is preceded by the words, “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet.”
It is important to look closely at this word “fulfilled” with respect to prophecy: plerothê. That is to say, in Jesus Christ the Old Testament has achieved the fullness of its meaning. No other meaning can be legitimately derived from it except through the interpretive lens of Christ.
I make a point of this interpretive principle because a great deal of American religion ignores it completely. It has become a commonplace in American religion to read biblical prophecy according to norms other than those of its fulfillment in Christ.
Let us be clear on this principle. It will save us from the error of reading biblical prophecy as though it were a set of regulation about contemporary politics, especially geopolitics, and most particularly the politics of the Holy Land. To read the Bible this way is to impose on the Sacred Text a meaning that it does not have. To assert the Bible’s “fulfillment” in Christ is to deny the legitimacy of biblical meanings apart from Christ. It is to make the Bible say what the Bible does not say.
We insist, then, that Christians are to read and understand Holy Scriptures solely through the interpretive lens called Jesus Christ. This principle is taught everywhere in the New Testament.
Second, this is a story about Christ as the “light” to the Gentiles, which ties it to the account of our Lord’s Baptism: “When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan, the worship to the Trinity was made manifest; for the voice of the Father bare witness to Thee, calling Thee His beloved Son; and the Spirit in the form of a dove, confirmed the truthfulness of His word. Wherefore, O Christ, who didst reveal Thyself and hast enlightened the world, glory to Thee.”
This Gospel continues the theme of light to the Gentiles: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, And upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned.”
There is a set of bookends, as it were, that enclose the Gospel of Matthew. He begins with those Gentile Magi coming to worship Emmanuel, which means God with us, and he ends the Gospel with the Lord’s mission to disciple-ize all the nations and His assurance to be with us always even to the end of the world. In other words this continues the theme of Christmas itself.
And what is the way to enlightenment by Christ? Ongoing repentance: metanoeíte. This present imperative does not mean, “repent.” It means “keep on repenting.” Repentance is not something to be done once. It is to be done all the time. Our conversion is a repeated process, finally become a habit of soul. This is how we Gentiles are to receive the light of Christ.
Third, this is a story about Galilee, and it prepares for Jesus’ Galilean mission. In the Gospel of Matthew the public life of Jesus both begins and ends in Galilee. When Jesus gives the Great Commission to the Eleven at the end of Matthew, this takes place on a mountain in Galilee. This emphasis on Galilee is one of Matthew’s most significant traits.
What does Galilee mean for Matthew? Well, today he calls it the “Galilee of the Gentiles: “He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: “ The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, By the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles.”
Galilee was that part of the Holy Land where Jews and Gentiles dwelt together, and this trait is what made it an image and type of the Church. The Church is the place where Jews and Gentiles worship together; it is the place where the dividing wall has been broken down. The Church is the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Israel, the fullness of the People of God.
Saturday, January 3
Matthew 4:18-25: The second pericope (18-22) about the ministry in Galilee, the calling of the first Apostles.
As fishermen, these follow a profession with a playful analogy with the ministry of the Church. That is, they become “fishers of men,” drawing the whole world into the Holy Spirit’s net, which is the Church.
The image of the waterside is very important in the Gospels, because the waterside was spontaneously associated with baptism in early Christian experience. The waterside is the place where believers confessed their faith in Jesus as part of the baptismal rite. Indeed, in the waterside first appears at the Lord’s own baptism. The waterside, then, is the place of faith and conversion, the place of one’s encounter with Christ. It is to the waterside that Jesus summons His disciples, where He teaches them, purges them from demons, and feeds them. Although Christians are to receive the waters of baptism only once (cf. Ephesians 4:5), they are never to stray from the waterside. That is to say, they must strive to spend their lives in the faith and conversion that are the proper disposition of baptism.
In the third Galilean pericope (verses 23-25), the fishing is extended to the larger region of the Decapolis and Syria. The Church’s fishing net is being spread to cover a larger area. This text is a step in preparation of the Great Commission, given in Matthew’s final chapter, about the disciplizing of “all nations.”
The people are gathering here, of course, to hear the Sermon on the Mount, which will fill the next three chapters of Matthew. This is the first of the five great discourses, around which the Gospel of Matthew is structured.
Sunday, January 4
Matthew 5:1–12: The Sermon on the Mount begins with two very solemn verses, as though to allow everyone to sit down and get settled for a long discourse. The Sermon functions in more than one way to serve the structure of Matthew’s entire composition. For example, taking place on a mountain at the very beginning of the Lord’s ministry, it is the initial component of a parallel with the mountain at the end of the Gospel, the mountain from which Jesus sent the Apostles to teach what he had taught (28:20).
Again, the Sermon is the first of the five great discourses—a New Testament Chumash as it were—which are the didactic backbone of Matthew’s Gospel. Functioning thus, it stands in chiastic correspondence to the last of these five discourses, the lengthy sermon on the Last Things (chapters 23–25).
Close readers of Matthew have long observed that this Sermon itself forms a commentary on the Beatitudes with which it begins (verses 2–10). This commentary is also chiastic, meaning that it reverses the order of the Beatitudes. Thus, for example, verses 11–12 form a commentary on verse 10, verses 13–16 are a commentary on verse 9, and so forth.
Compared to the shorter Beatitudes in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain (6:20–22), we observe that, whereas Luke’s version contains only “situations” (poverty, hunger, etc.), Matthew’s version commends ethical norms (mercy, purity of heart, etc.). Luke’s version is entirely kerygma, or proclamation, whereas Matthew’s is also didache, or instruction. It includes a moral code, in addition to the proclamation of the Kingdom and the overthrow of the worldly order.
We observe Matthew’s use of an inclusio, beginning and ending with “the Kingdom of Heaven” (verses 3,10).
Monday, January 5
Matthew 3:1-12: Unlike the gospels of Mark and Luke, Matthew portrays John the Baptist as proclaiming the proximity of the Kingdom (3:2). In thus regarding the preaching of John as the beginning of the Gospel (cf. 11:13), Matthew’s perspective matches that of the earliest apostolic proclamation (cf. Acts 1:22; 10:37).
Even though the Sadducees and Pharisees were two distinct groups, often hostile to one another, Matthew here lumps them together (verse 7) for the first of five times. They are mentioned together because of their common opposition to Jesus. In this text, John is giving them an initial warning to repent.
The tense and mode used in this warning to repent are the aorist imperative, which means “repent” in the sense, not of continuing action, but of decisive action: “Do it!” It is the decisive conversion John has in mind, rather than an attitude or habit.
Even as an act of decision, however, the grace of repentance is not necessarily a once-saved-always-saved sort of thing. This truth is especially borne out in Revelation, where in all four instances the command "Repent!" is spoken to believers themselves, specifically the Christians in the churches at Ephesus, Pergamos, Sardis, and Laodicea (2:5,16; 3:3,19). When Christians start to think and act like unbelievers they, too, must be summoned to repentance, and exactly the same form of the command covers both cases.
As a matter of fact, the theme of repentance appears more frequently in Revelation's letters to the seven churches than anywhere else. Of the 34 times that the New Testament has the verb metanoiein, eight are found in Chapters 2-3 of Revelation, all of them in reference to Christian believers. This is easily the highest concentration of the verb in the New Testament. That is to say, Christians themselves are more often called to repentance than anyone else!
Tuesday, January 6
The Feast of the Epiphany: Matthew 3:13-17: The scene of the Lord’s baptism is the explicit revelation of God as Holy Trinity: The voice of the Father testifies to His Son, and the Holy Spirit, appearing in the form of a dove, confirms the truth of that witness. Jesus’ baptism by John was understood among the early Christians as being the inauguration of His ministry in this world (cf. Acts 1:22; 10:37f; 13:23-25), which closes in Matthew by the great mandate to baptize all nations in the name of the Holy Trinity (28:19).
There are three points to be made about this scene of the Lord’s Baptism:
First, from the perspective of theology it was an initial manifestation of the identity of Jesus. This is obvious in the way the Church celebrates the feast, of course, but it appears that the Gospel writers themselves regarded the event of the Lord’s baptism very much as it was regarded by the Church Fathers and the traditional liturgical texts, namely, as a revelation, not to Jesus, but to those who were present . . . and to the Church.
This interpretation is perhaps clearest in Matthew, where the Father's voice speaks of Jesus in the third person: "This is My beloved Son." In Luke the Holy Spirit's descent on Jesus was visible-He came down "in bodily form (somatiko eidei) like a dove." Finally, in the Fourth Gospel John the Baptist confesses, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.'"
Second, from the perspective of history, this was an important event in the life of Jesus. It was the occasion of a determined resolve on the part of Jesus Himself. This idea, though it suggests an initial problem, points to a solution that touches on the very mystery of Redemption.
The supposed problem is this: Jesus came voluntarily to be baptized by John, even though John's was a baptism of repentance (Acts 19:4). Why would Jesus do this? After all, the entire witness of the New Testament declares that He was the "lamb without blemish and without spot" (1 Peter 1:19), "holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners" (Hebrews 7:26), "the Holy One and the Just" (Acts 3:14), who "knew no sin" (2 Corinthians 5:21). Moreover, Jesus was conscious of being sinless, for He challenged His enemies, "Which of you convicts Me of sin?" (John 8:46) Why, then, did the unoffending Jesus seek a baptism of repentance?
The answer to this question has to do with the very motive of the Incarnation. God's Son, in the assumption of our humanity, took upon Himself a radical solidarity with fallen mankind. Even before His saving Passion, in which "He poured out His soul unto death," we already find Him "numbered with the transgressors" (Isaiah 53:12). The voice from heaven signified God's acceptance of that redemptive resolve.
And this, surely, is why Jesus approached John, seeking his baptism in order "to fulfill all righteousness" (Matthew 3:15). It was not as a private citizen, so to speak, that Jesus came to the waters of the Jordan, but in order to present Himself to the Father as the representative of the human race in this great symbolic act of repentance. Jesus thereby expressed His resolve "to be made like His brethren" (Hebrews 2:17).
Jesus declared in the baptism of repentance His determination that no distance should separate Him from us.
Third, from the perspective of our life in Christ, the Baptism of our Lord is the form and pattern of our own. The solidarity of Jesus with sinful humanity, manifest and expressed in His Baptism by John, is an invitation to all of humanity to share in His Baptism, confessing their sins and receiving the mercy of God.
Once again, this is perhaps clearest in the Gospel of Matthew, which closes with the great commission to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This Trinitarian formula of Baptism, with which the Gospel of Matthew ends, corresponds to the Baptism of Jesus, with which the public life of Jesus begins.
Wednesday, January 7
John 2:1–12: We come now to Cana, the third Galilean town mentioned in John (cf. 1:44–45) and the place where Jesus did “the first of His signs.” In this way “He manifested His glory, and His disciples came to believe in Him.” That is to say, Cana is the place where the Church was first formed, that initial body of believers to whom the Lord revealed His glory.
We observe that His Mother, His relatives, and His disciples were all present (verses 11–12; compare Acts 1:13–14). These gather at Capernaum, the fourth Galilean city named by John (verse 12).
In this story of Cana, John introduces the Mother of Jesus. She appears only here and at the foot of the Cross (19:26–27). Thus, John places Mary at both the beginning and the end of Jesus’ public ministry. These two portrayals, both found only in John among the evangelists, have several things in common.
First, Mary does not appear in John's Gospel outside of these two places. She frames the Lord’s public ministry.
Second, in both places she is called only "the mother of Jesus" and is never named. Uniting John's portrayal of Mary at the wedding at Cana (the beginning of Jesus' earthly ministry) and at the foot of the cross (the end) is what we might call "the theme of the royal mother." John stresses Mary's maternal relationship to Jesus; his use of the term "mother of Jesus" seems to convey a certain reverence, much as it does in Luke's portrayal of the nascent Church gathered in the upper room, waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit.<
Third, in each instance Jesus addresses his mother as "Woman" (gyne). This, too, unites the two stories. Though this bare expression strikes the modern ear as impolite, perhaps even harsh, it was in fact a formal and decorous way for women to be addressed in biblical times (see, for example, Matthew 15:28 [Canaanite woman]; Luke 13:12 [crippled woman in the synagogue]; John 4:21 [Samaritan woman]; 8:10 [woman taken in adultery]; 20:13 [Mary Magdalene]).
Fourth, in both cases a "new family" is formed—in the first scene by the wedding itself, and in the second scene by a kind of adoption in which the beloved disciple "took her to his own home."
John's "mother of Jesus" thus plays an important part near the beginning of his account of the Lord's ministry, in "the first of his signs," wherein he "manifested his glory" at Cana (John 2:11). In the dialogue leading up to this manifestation, Jesus seems at first to bridle at his mother's hint that He should relieve the shortage of wine at the wedding feast. He explains to her, "My hour has not yet come" (2:4).
These words closely tie this scene at Cana to the scene at the cross later on. When the "hour" of the passion does finally come, it will once again be in reference to the manifestation of Jesus' glory: "Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may also glorify you" (John 17:1).
John uses similar language of Jesus' mother, telling us that it was "from that hour the disciple took her to his own home" (19:27). When the hour arrives for the King to be identified upon the throne of the cross (19:19), John is the only one of the evangelists to speak of the King's mother standing beside it (19:26; cf Psalms 45 :9).
This maternal relationship of Mary to Jesus is linked to John's emphasis on Jesus' kingship, particularly in the context of his passion. John goes to some length to stress that Jesus died as a king. Unlike the other evangelists, John shows how Jesus' claim to kingship was made a major component of his trial before Pilate (18:33, 36-37). The Roman soldiers mock Jesus with the words, "Hail, King of the Jews!" (19:2)
At the last it is Jesus' assertion of his kingship that becomes the decisive charge leading directly to his condemnation (19:12-15). Although the other gospels do speak of the sign over Jesus' cross identifying him as "King of the Jews" (Matthew 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38), only in John does this designation become a point of controversy between Pilate and Jesus' accusers (John 19:18-22), thereby drawing more explicit attention to it. In John's account Jesus is even buried in a garden (19:41), like His royal ancestors, the covenanted kings of Judah (2 Kings 21:18, 26). Jesus' cross, then, is inseparable from his kingship.
Now it is in connection with Jesus' kingship on the cross that John speaks of "the mother of Jesus" (19:25). In placing this description of Mary in this context of kingship, John summons to mind the biblical tradition of the queen mother. Biblical kings sometimes had numerous wives, but they had only one mother, and she was a person of considerable prestige and power. Described as wearing a crown (Jeremiah 13:18) in the royal court (22:26; 29:2), the king's mother, the gebirah, was regarded with reverence by his subjects.
Thursday, January 8
Matthew 5:13–20: In verse 11 the address of Jesus shifted from the third to the second person: “Blessed are you.” The addressed party is the Church—or rather, the Christians—inasmuch as the number of the address is plural. That plural, addressed to Christians, is maintained in the verses now under consideration: “You are the salt of the earth,” this section begins, and it ends, “for I say to you (verse 20).
We start with the metaphors of salt and light, both of them referring to Christians. In each case the beneficiary of these two blessings is the earth (ge) or World (kosmos), meaning those who are not Christians (verse 13). Salt and light describe the very people that the world persecutes and maligns (verses 11–12). No amount of persecution justifies the forfeiture of the Christian vocation to be salt and light to the rest of humanity. Neither salt nor light exist for themselves. Should Christians fail in this vocation, they are no longer of any use. They are to be “thrown out,” like the tares (13:40) and the inedible fish (13:48).
The metaphor of light on a lamp stand is transformed into a city seated on an acropolis, where it is visible to everyone (verse 14). Neither can Christians be concealed if they do the “good works” (ta kala erga) that their heavenly Father expects of them (verse 16). Those who see these good works belong to the same “earth” or “world” that persecutes the Christians. The world is to be enlightened by the very people it persecutes.
What Matthew has in mind here is the Christian vocation to holiness, by which the world is instructed in the ways of God. This holiness, according to the present passage, pertains to the missionary mandate of the Church. It is the way the Church shares the Gospel with “all nations” (28:19–20). This is the light that shines on those sitting in darkness (4:16).
The connecting link of verses 13–16 with the rest of the Sermon on the Mount is “your Father in heaven” (verse 16). This reference will become a leitmotif in the following chapter.
The rest of chapter five, starting with the present verses, is concerned with Jesus’ relationship to the Old Testament Law. This theme is related to the metaphors of salt and light through the continuity linking the Church to ancient Israel, the legitimate continuation of God’s redeemed people. It is the Church that continues Israel’s vocation to “salt” and illumine the world. For this reason it is imperative to speak of the Church’s relationship to the Torah, and this relationship is the subject of the rest of the present chapter.
Matthew has already begun to say a great deal about Jesus’ fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Now he starts to speak of Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law. Indeed, the word “prophets” in the present passage (verse 17) does not refer to the fulfillment of biblical prophecies in the Old Testament. It refers, rather, to the prophets in their role as interpreters of the Law—the prophets as moral teachers. The sense of this verse, then, is that Jesus completes, or brings to fulfillment, the moral doctrine of the Law and its continuation in the Prophets. Throughout the rest of this chapter, therefore, Matthew speaks simply of the Law, not mentioning the Prophets again.
Verses 17–20 enunciate the principle of Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law. Then, in the rest of the chapter, Matthew expands this principle in a series of five instructions—a new Chumash, or “five-fifths” of the Torah—in each of which Jesus explains how He brings the ancient Law to perfection.
The burden of the rest of this chapter is to address a single question: Of what significance is the Torah to the moral guidance of Christians? And Matthew answers: the Torah serves as a moral guide for Christians if it is regarded through the interpretive lens of the teaching of Jesus. The Torah does not guide Christians exactly the way it guides Jews. It guides Christians through Jesus’ “fulfilled” interpretation of it. Regarded as Jesus regards it, the Torah assumes a new and fulfilled quality.
Because Christian obedience to the Law has to do with the primacy of love (22:37–50; Romans 13:7–10), not the slightest detail of the Law can be neglected.
This latter precaution, addressed to all Christians, is especially addressed to Christian teachers, those who “so teach men” (verse 19). Fai
ling to take this precaution seriously, these teachers will defile the consciences of those they teach.
In this respect Christian teachers are distinguished from the official teachers in Judaism, who hand on an inferior and “unfulfilled” understanding of the Torah (verse 20). This distinction becomes the basis for five contrasts, or antitheses, which fill the rest of this chapter. In this sense, verses 21–48 serve as a commentary or illustration of verse 20.
Christians are to observe the Torah “to excess”—perissevse—not in the sense of a greater rigidity, but in the sense of a more abundant intensity regarding the moral purpose of the Law. Their righteousness is to “exceed” the minimalist interpretation of those who do not see the Law through the lens of Christ. Five examples of this moral intensity now follow.
Friday, January 9
Matthew 5:21–32: The first of Matthew’s five contrasts has to do with the Lord’s understanding of the Torah’s prohibition, “Thou shalt do no murder” (verse 21). Here, as in the next examples, Jesus responds, “but I say to you,” a formula indicating that His own understanding of the Law is superior even to that of Moses.
There is an irreducible claim in these sustained assertions—namely, that Jesus, being the very Lawgiver of Mount Sinai, has the authority to speak for the Law’s intention. This claim is based on the standard legal principle: “the meaning of a law is determined by the intention of the lawgiver.” Moses, after all, was only the promulgator of the Torah, not its author. Jesus implicitly makes the latter claim for Himself, which is the reason He is speaking from the mountain (verse 1).
Thus, Jesus understands the prohibition against murder not simply as an injunction against taking someone’s life, but as an interdiction excluding all acts of anger and violence, including speech and even thought (verse 22). This teaching is given in detail and at some length, as Matthew portrays Jesus as the Teacher of the Church. He teaches with authority (7:29).
In the present case—dealing with anger—the teaching of Jesus is consistent with standard Old Testament moral doctrine, especially in the Wisdom literature (Proverbs 6:14, 34; 14:17, 29; 15:1, 18; 16:14, 32; 19:19; 27:4; cf. James 1:19–20).
The context of this prohibition against anger and violence is the Christian Church, a point indicated by the references to the “brother” (verses 22, 23, 24). Indeed, these admonitions are set within the context of the Church’s Eucharistic worship (verse 24). This is clearer, perhaps, in the Didache, a work from northern Syria roughly contemporary with Matthew: “But every Lord's day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one who is at odds with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned” (Didache 14). In short, love is superior to sacrifice (12:7; Mark 12:33–34).
Reconciliation must be made “quickly” (verse 25), so that the conflict does not grow out of hand. The “imprisonment” in this section refers to the divine judgment, as it does in the parable of the unforgiving servant (18:34–35).
The teaching of these verses implicitly contrasts contention with love. For Jesus and the New Testament, love is the true fulfillment of the Torah (22:40). For this reason, it is important to understand what is meant by love and not to be confused by its counterfeits. This consideration forms the sequence to the next contrast.
The second contrast between Gospel righteousness and that of the scribes and Pharisees takes up the subject of adultery, which is treated in four logia, or sayings, of Jesus (verses 27-32).
Following the antithesis about murder, this contrast about adultery preserves the sequence of the Decalogue. It contains two parts, each devoted to a particular way in which Gospel righteousness, as it pertains to adultery, “exceeds” the earlier scribal reading of the Torah.
In the first part the prohibition of adultery is extended to include sins of the eyes, mind, and heart (verse 28). The mention of lust of the eyes invites the addition of the dominical logion about the eye becoming the occasion of sin (verse 29). To this latter saying of the Lord is logically attached the warning about the hand’s becoming an occasion of sin (verse 30). Thus, these three sayings of the Lord constitute a powerful admonition about the gravity of sexual sins and the radical nature of the Christian commitment to sexual morality.
The first of these three sayings (“anyone who looks at a woman with lust”) does not much extend the moral understanding of the Old Testament, which also proscribed lustful desires (cf. Deuteronomy 5:21; Job 31:1). Rabbinic teaching likewise followed suit in this respect.
However, the next two logia (verses 29-30), with their hyperbolic commands to gouge out an eye and cut off a hand, add a formal quality to the whole antithesis, a warning against any danger of compromise with respect to sex.
As in the antithesis about murder (verse 22), the threatened retribution is hell fire, here called “Gehenna,” named for the Valley of Hinnom, adjacent to Jerusalem, the valley where garbage was burned (verses 29,30; cf. 3:12; 13:30,42,50; 25:41).
The second half of the present antithesis relates adultery to the practice of divorce (verses 31-32). With respect to this latter, Jesus clearly goes beyond the obvious letter of the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 24:1) by forbidding divorce altogether. Later in the Gospel, Jesus will describe the Old Testament rule on divorce as a concession allowed by Moses (19:8).
Efforts to find in verse 32 an exception to the Lord’s prohibition of divorce are unfounded. The expression “except sexual immorality” (ektos logou porneias) does not refer to violations of the marriage vow. It simply means that the Lord is forbidding the dissolution of a true marriage, not the break-up of an illicit sexual liaison. It may be paraphrased: “Whoever divorces his wife — not his mistress — causes her to commit adultery.”