Friday, March 13

Proverbs 22: The shared humanity of the rich and the poor (verse 2) is the basis of our moral obligation to care for the poor (verses 9,22; cf. 29:13), and the Lord is the avenger of their neglect (verse 16; 23:1-11). This chapter’s subsequent exhortation not to oppress the poor resonates with the voices of the prophets (cf. Isaiah 5:8-9; Jeremiah 22:13-19; Micah 2:1-5; Habakkuk 2:6-17).

At verse 17 a new collection of maxims begins, in which the independent and impersonal couplets are replaced by a return to personal address, “my son.” The section, which continues through 24:22, commences with an exhorting call to wisdom (verses 17-18). A man must begin the quest of wisdom by putting his trust in God (verse 19) and the remembrance that there is no wisdom apart from truth (verses 20-21).

A good reason for not associating with an angry man is that one may start to imitate him (verses 24-25), but one can think of other reasons as well.

The warning against imprudent economic entanglements (verses 26-27) is an echo of several passages in Proverbs (6:1; 11:15; 17:18; 20:16).

Verse 28 is the classic principle of conservative philosophy, which will be repeated in the next chapter (23:10).

Saturday, March 14

Proverbs 23: The greatest conceit a man can cultivate is a trust in “his own” wisdom (verse 4), because true wisdom is the shared inheritance of human experience. Therefore, it is no proper goal of education that a student should be taught “to think for himself.” Any idiot can learn that on his own. (The Greek word for “his own” is idios.) It is a proper goal of education, rather, that a student should learn to think the thoughts of Plato, of Aristotle, of Amen-em-Opet, of Ahikar, of Confucius, of the other great minds whose ideas have fed and sustained entire civilizations. A true education, an introduction to wisdom, comes from hearing the instruction of those who are truly wise (verse 12). Idiosyncratic isolation is arguably the greatest enemy to the acquisition of wisdom.

Verses 15 to 28 take up again some of the motifs of the first part of Proverbs, encouraging the fear of the Lord (verse 17), custody of the heart (verse 19), sobriety and self-restraint (verses 20-21), respect for tradition (verses 22,24-25), and chastity (verses 27-28). This chapter closes with a colorful and amusing description of drunkenness (verses 29-35).

Sunday, March 15

Proverbs 24: Material prosperity and the blessings of a stable life are founded on, and in some measure guaranteed by, the quest of wisdom (verses 3-4). Prudent choices and circumspect behavior, most especially in the time of youth when prudence and circumspection are not yet solid habits, will determine a man’s course for many years, perhaps even for his whole lifetime (verse 27). The failure at such application also brings about its own results (verses 30-34).

A first step toward wisdom is to turn away from evil. It is a matter of elementary experience that the evil-doer seems sometimes to prosper more than the just man. Whereas in the Book of Job the observation of this latter phenomenon spawns a philosophical discussion about its cause, here in Proverbs it represents only a distracting temptation. Instead of wondering how to interpret the prosperity of the wicked, the young man in Proverbs is simply warned against becoming deceived by it through envy (verses 1-2,8-9,19-20; 3:31; 23:17). Also to be eschewed, as a distraction at best, is the pursuit of revenge (verse 29). The wise man must avoid such temptations and get on with life.

True righteousness, however, is not a matter of looking good to men, nor is true prosperity attained simply by being regarded by other men as prosperous. God sees and judges the heart. In particular, God recognizes the difference between brave and cowardly hearts. He knows whether or not a man is inwardly acquiescing in evil and oppression (verse 11-12). God is not impartial. He takes the side of the righteous man (verses 15-16). This is the thesis put to trial in the Book of Job.

God’s reading of the heart also discerns the smug gloating one feels at the failure of an enemy (verse 17-18). God does not respect the self-righteousness contained in such sentiments. Justice on the earth has nothing to do with smug emotions.

Monday, March 16

Proverbs 25: The eighth century scribes of King Hezechiah, evidently as part of the general spiritual renewal associated with that godly monarch (cf. 2 Kings 18-20; 2 Chronicles 29-32), compiled the collection of maxims that begins here (Chapters 25-29). It has been observed that this collection contains 126 maxims, the very number indicated by the numerical value of the Hebrew letters in Hezechiah’s name. Given the courtly context of this collection, it is scarcely surprising that it begins with certain considerations of kingship (verse 1-7). We recognize that verse 7 is repeated in Luke 14:7-11.

Various maxims indicate the value of good and intelligent speech (verse 11-13,15,25), while others exhort to moderation even in good things (verses 16,27). The counsel for how to deal with one’s enemies (verses 21-22) is taken up by St. Paul in Romans 12:20-21 as an important component of practical Christian ethics.

A very weighty concern in the pursuit of wisdom is the acceptance of limitations. “The sky is the limit” is the philosophy of someone with no sense of personal identity. Identity, after all, is a defining notion, and definition is always a matter of limitation (“this, and not that”). A larger ego is not necessarily more a blessing than a larger nose. To refuse to recognize limitations is a marker along the path to loss of identity. Consequently, this practical chapter ends with the absolute necessity of self-control, which is one of the most practical applications of the acceptance of limitation (verse 28). King Hezechiah himself, who witnessed the downfall of the Northern Kingdom to the Assyrians 722B.C., was well adjusted to this acceptance and was obliged, in his own pursuit of wisdom, to bear it in mind continually. Had he not done so, he would not likely have survived the very taxing geopolitical circumstances in which history placed him.

Tuesday, March 17

Proverbs 26: A major problem of being a fool is that one does not normally know he is a fool. Indeed, among the conspicuous characteristics of the fool is his inability to reflect on his own intellectual and moral shortcomings, which, left unattended over the years, tend to become progressively shorter. The fool is usually a proud, sullen, independent man, recalcitrant to instruction and correction from the outside, so that he is hardly in a position to help himself very much from the inside (verses 1-12; 28:26).

(Nowhere in Proverbs do we find compassion for a fool, we may note in passing. This is not to say that the fool should not be pitied, and other parts of Holy Scripture, such as the Sermon on the Mount, would surely prompt us to pity him. Proverbs, however, is rather short on compassion, on the whole, restricting that blessing pretty much to those who are poor for reasons besides their own fault. If one wants to be instructed on the ways of compassion, Proverbs is probably not the book to start with.)

Rather early in his career, the fool discouraged those who tried to help him, and such discouragement reinforced the negative aspects of his social relationships. Leaving aside the particulars of physical appearance, we may recognize the biblical fool in the character of Bentley Drummle in Great Expectations, of whom Charles Dickens tells us that he, “who was so sulky a fellow that he even took up a book as if its writer had done him an injury, did not take up an acquaintance in a more agreeable spirit. Heavy in figure, movement, and comprehension—in the sluggish complexion of his face, and in the large awkward tongue that seemed to loll about in his mouth as he himself lolled abou
t in a room—he was idle, proud, niggardly, reserved, and suspicious. He came of rich people down in Somersetshire, who had nursed this combination of qualities until they made the discovery that it was just of age and a blockhead. Thus, Bentley Drummle came to Mr. Pocket when he was a head taller than that gentleman, and half a dozen heads thicker than most gentlemen.”

Not far from being fools are the merely lazy (verses 13-16), the habitually contentious (verses 17-22; 28:25), and the flattering (verses 23-26; 28:23; 29:5; cf. Sirach 27:25-28).

Wednesday, March 18

Proverbs 27: Nothings is more burdensome than anger (verse 3). As the human soul (according to Aristotle) possesses no passion that is directly contrary to the passion of anger, we have nothing emotional in our constitution that directly counterbalances anger. We can only control it rationally, with no help from the other passions. Hence, anger is the passion most likely to get out of hand; it is also the passion that tends most to become unbalanced. Fortunately, unless deliberately cultivated, anger also tends to diminish over time. Otherwise, it would crush our spirits.

But suppose a state of constant anger, an eternal wrath, an ire without end. Suppose an anger that will not dissipate with time, for the simple reason that time is no more. Such would seem to be the quality of eternal damnation, the state in which a man is perpetually and without end crushed by his anger. He teeth will forever continue to grind and gnash in the endless darkness (cf. Matthew 8:12; 13:42,50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30). The anger of the fool, described in verse 3, is a sort of calisthenics preparatory for his coming state.

Verse 19 uses the metaphor of a visual reflection to describe the sensation of the heart finding itself mirrored in another heart. This experience accompanies certain intense friendships, such as that in which “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18:1).

The chapter ends with maxims respecting the industrious and sustained stewardship of one’s resources (verses 23-27). The possession of family property, guaranteed by the provisions of the Mosaic Law, is regarded in Holy Scripture as a medium of tradition, binding each generation to those both before and after it. Property is supposed to be handed down in the family along with sound counsel for how to preserve and enhance it.

Thursday, March 19

Proverbs 28: Among the characteristics of the righteous man is one not often mentioned in Proverbs, perhaps because it is too obvious—bravery (verse 1). The bravery mentioned here is the fruit of a righteous life, not the mere exertions of a strong will. Such bravery will be manifest in a variety of actions, not the least of which is the refusal to approve of wickedness or those who practice it (verses 4,21). Indeed, even the ability to recognize the difference between good and evil comes from being good; this distinction is lost on those who are not (verse 5).

Although prosperity is the expected fruit of a good, wise, and industrious life (verse 19), this is not invariably the case. Ultimately, it is not prosperity that is essential, but the righteousness that would deserve prosperity if life in this world were perfect (verses 6,11). Indeed, Proverbs warns against the inordinate desire for prosperity (verse 22), and no man may seek prosperity to the neglect of the poor (verse 27; 29:7).

The worst fate that can befall a nation is to be ruled by a fool (verses 2,15-16; 29:2), and the biblical histories of Judah and Israel prove the point.

Matthew 22:1-14: Comparing Matthew’s version of this parable with that of Luke (14:15-24), we note striking differences.

The first is the historical setting. In Luke the story comes much earlier—long before Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem—whereas here in Matthew it is contained among the controversy stories that immediately precede the Lord’s sufferings and Death.

The second is the literary setting. In Luke it follows other teaching sitting at table (“When you are invited by anyone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in the best place, lest one more honorable than you be invited by him”) and inviting the poor to meals (“when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind”). Indeed, the parable of the invited guests is immediately preceded by a verse that reads: “Now when one of those who sat at the table with Him heard these things, he said to Him, ‘Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!’” All this is to say, Luke represents a tradition in which various teachings of Jesus about meals were handed on in a sequence determined by subject.

In Matthew, on the other hand, this parable immediately follows the parable of the servants sent to the vineyard. The link between these two parables is clearly the repeated sending of the servants. There are other similarities between the two parables, as we shall see presently.

The third difference is in the details of the parable. Whereas in Luke this is simply the story of a great supper hosted by “a certain man,” in Matthew it is the wedding celebration of the king’s son. This context, of course, links the parable to the one preceding, which was also concerned with the “son” of the owner of the vineyard.

The present parable, as it appears in Matthew, is tied to the previous parable in other ways. Once again, for example, a series of servants is sent, and in this parable, too, the servants are badly received and ill-treated. The treatment and death of these servants is unique to Matthew’s account and bears the same historical meaning as verses 35-36. These servants are the prophets.

Likewise, Matthew’s version of the parable emphasizes the detailed, meticulous preparations for the festivities (verses 4 and 8, contrasted with Luke 14:18). This thorough, extensive preparation corresponds to the detailed appointments of the vineyard in the previous parable (21:33, contrasted with Luke 20:9).

Similarly, in the present parable the king punishes the offenders and burns down their city (verse 7, contrasted with Luke 14:21), just as the owner of the vineyard punished the offender in the earlier parable (21:41). Both descriptions of the punishment and destruction are prophecies of the downfall of Jerusalem to the Romans in A.D. 70.

Just as the vineyard is given to new vine-growers in the previous parable (21:41), so here the invitation to the marriage feast, declined by the first recipients of it, is extended to new people that are glad to receive it (verses 9-10). In both cases we are dealing with prophecies of the calling of the Gentiles to the Church (28:18-20).

To continue the allegory that is manifest in Matthew’s version of the parable, this final group of “servants” (verse 10) should be identified with the Apostles themselves, who traveled all the highways and byways of the world’s mission field, extending to all nations the King’s invitation to the wedding. Matthew, then, clearly discerned in this parable a narrative of the history of the Church in his own lifetime, the second half of the first century.

But Matthew is, as usual, especially interested in life within the Church, and for this reason he attaches to the present parable a shorter one (verses 1-13), not found in Luke. This is an account of an unworthy recipient of the invitation to the wedding feast, who is found improperly dressed. As the banquet begins, this unworthy person is mixed in with the rest of the guests, like the tares among the wheat (13:36-40), a bad fish among the good (13:47-50), both parables found only in Matthew. This feature of a “mix” also corresponds to the experience of the Church known to Matthew, which contained, like the Church at all times, “both bad and good” (verse 10, contrasted with Luke 14:23).

When the king approaches the offender, He addresses him as “friend” (hetaire — verse 12
), the same word used by the employer to address his unjust critics (20:13) and the Savior to address His betrayer (26:50). In all these cases the address is met with silence.

Those charged with expelling this unworthy person should be seen as the angels of judgment (13:49). Only at the end is the judgment expected, separating good from bad (13:30; 25:32).

The “outer darkness” and the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (verse 13) are Matthew’s standard metaphors for eternal damnation (8:12; 13:42,50; 24:51; 25:30).

Matthew’s distinction between “called” and “chosen” (verse 14) suggests that he may be using these terms somewhat differently from the apostles Peter (cf. 2 Peter 1:10) and John (Revelation 17:14).

Friday, March 20

Proverbs 29: Here are more maxims about the blessings of wise government (verses 2,4,8,14) and the curse of its opposite (verse12), along with warnings about unnecessary contentions (verses 9,22). As we know from the wrangling of partisan politics, these two concerns are not unrelated (verse 8). A wise society requires not only righteous citizens, but also prophetic visionaries (verse 18; cf. Hosea 12:11; Isaiah 29:7) and wise and righteous rulers. These latter, it is hoped, will come from the ranks of truly humble men (verse 23), self-controlled individuals who know exactly how long to hold their tongues (verses 11,20; James 1:19). Alas, we are forewarned, they will not be respected by the wicked (verse 27).

These latter are described as having stiff necks (verse 1), a metaphor for the stubbornness of the scofflaw (Exodus 32:9; 33:3,5; Deuteronomy 9:3). Stiff necks, however, may get themselves broken. There is no parity between the fear of God and the fear of man (verse 24). The latter leads to compromise and infidelity. The only way to avoid this fear of men is to cultivate the fear of God.

Matthew 22:15-22: From a purely material perspective, this series of conflict stories, all of them placed during the final week of our Lord’s earthly life, is nearly identical in the three Synoptic Gospels. This fact offers strong testimony that the final chapters in these three Gospels reflect the preaching of the early Church, which apparently knew a standard narrative structure respecting the last week of Jesus’ life on earth.

Matthew follows this structure. In this series of conflict stories he has already begun to introduce those persons who will play an active hand in the drama of the Crucifixion. Already he has introduced the chief priests, the elders, and the Pharisees (21:23,45). Now he introduces the Pharisees again, the Herodians, and the Roman government, the latter symbolized in the coin of taxation.

In the story that follows this one he will introduce the Sadducees, the party of the priesthood (verse 23). Throughout these stories, then, Matthew is bringing back once again that confluence of enemies that were intent on killing “the King of the Jews” at the beginning of this Gospel (2:3-4).

The evil intent of the Pharisees’ question is noted at the beginning of the story (verse 15). This question is part of a “plot” (symboulion). His enemies want to “trap” Jesus (padigevo, a verb that appears only here in the New Testament). Pharisees and Herodians have no use for one another, but their common hatred of Jesus unites their efforts to spring a trap on Him.

This conspiracy of God’s enemies made a deep impression on the early Christians. Indeed, they saw it as the fulfillment of a prophecy in Psalm 2 (cf. Acts 4:23-30).

The Lord’s enemies commence with manifest flattery, evidently to put Jesus off His guard before springing their loaded question (verse 16). All three of the Synoptics mention this detail.

The payment of the head tax to the Roman government was a source of resentment and occasional rebellion among the Jews, both because it was a sign of their subjection to Rome and because they disliked handling the graven image of the emperor on the coin. To this question, then, either a yes or no answer could provide the basis for a political accusation against Jesus, or at least could gain Him new enemies. If Jesus forbade the paying of this tax, He would offend the Herodians. If He approved of it, He would further offend the Pharisees. Either way, He would give offense.

Reading their hearts (verse 18; 9:4) and reprimanding their hypocrisy, the Lord obliges them to produce the coin in question, thereby making it clear that they all do, in fact, have the coin and do pay the tax (verse 19).

That point established, He then obliged them to identify the head and name on the coin, namely, Tiberius Caesar (A.D. 14-37). Obviously the coin belonged to the emperor, so they could continue doing what they have always done—pay the tax. Caesar minted and distributed the coin. It was his.

Separated from its literary context, this story answers a practical question for Christians, and it has always served that purpose. Considered thus, it is consonant with the general teaching about taxation that we find elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. Romans 13:7; 1 Peter 2:13-19).

But then Jesus goes on. The concern of Jesus, however, is not identical with that of His enemies. He is not concerned about what is owed to Caesar, but what is owed to God. This, too, must be paid, and Jesus is about to pay it. Rendering unto God the things of God refers to our Lord’s approaching sufferings and death. Thus, what began as a mundane political question is transformed into a theological matter of great moment, leaving them all amazed (verse 22).

It is important, however, to keep this story in the context where the Gospels place it, the context of the Lord’s impending death. The question posed to Jesus is not a theoretical question. Indeed, it is not even a practical question. It is a loaded question—a question with an evil ulterior motive. It is a sword aimed at the Lord’s life.

And this is the sense in which we should understand Jesus’ response. Understood in this way, the Lord’s directive is full of irony. He tells His enemies to give back to God that which belongs to Him. And, in context, just what is that? It is Jesus Himself, whose life they will steal, and in their act of murder that which belongs to God will be rendered unto God.