Friday, April 3
Matthew 25:31-46: The story of the Last Judgment, which closes Matthew’s fifth great discourse and comes immediately before the account of the Lord’s Passion, was chosen by the Orthodox Church to be read immediately before the start of Lent each year. This custom places the Last Judgment as the context for repentance.
This parable makes it very clear, if we needed further clarity, that "a man is justified by works, not be faith alone" and that "faith without works is dead" (James 2:24,26).
It is imperative to observe that the last activity ascribed to Christ in the Nicene Creed is that "He will come again in glory to judge." This is Matthew’s fourth straight parable about the parousia of the Son of Man for the purpose of judgment. He had introduced this theme of final judgment much earlier, among the parables of the Kingdom (13:41), and in the coming trial before the Sanhedrin in the next chapter the Lord will speak very solemnly on this subject by way of warning to Israel’s official leaders: “I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven” (26:64).
Let us also observe that the Son of Man does not return to earth alone; He is accompanied by the angels, who have a distinct function in the coming trial (verse 31; 13:41,49; 16:27; cf. Zechariah 14:5; 1 Thessalonians 3:13).
The Son of Man will sit in judgment over “all the nations”–panta ta ethne (verse 32; 24:14; 28:19). Israel is numbered among these nations. As in any trial, a verdict will be given, leading to a division, the latter symbolized by the sheep and the goats.
The Son of Man is identified as the King (verses 34;40), an image that goes back to the beginning of Matthew’s narrative (1:1,20; 2:2,13-14) and will appear again at the Lord’s trial and crucifixion (27:11,29,37,42).
The elect are addressed as the “blessed of My Father” (verse 24). The inherited Kingdom has been planned and prepared since the beginning of Creation; it had been in the divine mind all along.
Then comes the criterion of the judgment, in which we recognize the components of Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan (10:29-37).
Especially to be noted in this parable is Jesus’ association with all mankind, especially the poor, the destitute, and the neglected. To serve the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the sick, and the imprisoned is to serve Jesus, who identifies Himself with them. This is the basis for all Christian service to suffering humanity. This is not a negligible aspect of the Gospel; it pertains to the very subject matter of the final judgment.
The dominant idea of this parable, in fact, is the divine judgment. God really does judge. He really does discriminate. He will not confuse a just man and an unjust man. He discerns the difference, and that difference means a great deal to Him. He does not take difference lightly. He assigns eternal destinies to men on the basis of that difference.
This is what we see in the present parable: sheep and goats are spread asunder, just as wise and unwise maidens are separated one from another, and wheat is distinguished from chaff. In this world the generous and the mean have existed side by side, but at the Judgment it will be so no more.
How can we know where we stand with respect to that Judgment? In a sense, we cannot know. In a sense, it is not important that we know. We might become complacent. God will not have a Christian feel so secure that he neglects his duties in this world.
In the present parable the just are not preoccupied with themselves. They are preoccupied with the needs of the poor. Their lives are spent addressing those needs. They have neither the leisure nor the inclination to think about themselves, even about their “eternal security.” They are too busy doing God’s will with respect to their fellow men.
Thus, at the final judgment, they arrive unaware that they have ever served Christ at all. They imagined all along that they were taking care of the poor, simply because the poor needed to be cared for. At the judgment, then, the righteous are even surprised that they have been serving Christ all along. Their thoughts have been solely for the crying needs of their fellow men. They have had neither time nor opportunity to think about themselves.
As for the unrighteous, they are condemned to “eternal fire” (verses 41,46), this image apparently identical to the “fires of Gehenna” in 5:22. This fire, which also appeared in the parables of the Kingdom (13:30,40,42,50), was not intended for human beings but was “prepared for the devil and his angels.” In this respect, heaven and hell are very different, because heaven was “prepared for you from the foundation of the earth (verse 34). It was never God’s intention that men should be damned; He predestined no soul to hell. Men choose that fate for themselves when they join themselves to “the devil and his angels.”
The condemnation of the unjust—“Depart from Me”—is the direct antithesis of the invitation offered to everyone through the Gospel: “Come to Me” (11:28).
Each of the four parables of the last judgment (24:45—25:46) ends with an emphasis on condemnation. The negligent servant is condemned after the faithful servant is rewarded (24:46-48). The five foolish maidens are condemned after the five prudent ones have been rewarded (25:10-12). The slothful steward is condemned after the industrious stewards have been rewarded (25:21-26). The goats are condemned after the sheep have been rewarded (25:40-41).
Two things are to be inferred from this sequence. First, it shows that the parables serve chiefly as warnings. The promised reward is spoken of first, in order to set up the warning. Second, it suggests that God’s punishment is an afterthought, as I have already suggested. It was not part of His original plan, so to speak. Punishment was not part of God’s original plan for mankind.
The same adjective, aionion (“eternal” or “everlasting”), is used to describe both heaven and hell. This parallel points to the confusion of those who deny the eternity of hell. One cannot logically deny the eternity of hell without denying the eternity of heaven.
Lazarus Saturday, April 4
John 11:1-44: We come now to Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem, the place of the culminating events effective of our redemption. This chapter, the last in the “book of signs,” narrates the greatest of these signs: the raising of Lazarus. This event, foreshadowing the resurrection of Jesus, was a literal fulfillment of His prophecy in 5:28-29: “The hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth.”
Bethany was the ancient site of the modern town El-Azariyeh, on the east side of the Mount of Olives, nearly two miles southeast of Jerusalem. This Arabic name, El-Azariyeh, is an obvious corruption of “Lazarus.” Bethany is not to be confused with a city of the same name in 10:40.
The reference in verse 2—“It was Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped His feet with her hair”—is a good example of John’s assumption that his readers were familiar with other events in Jesus’ life that were not recorded in this gospel: “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book” (20:30). It is uncertain whether this anointing is to be identified with other and similar actions recorded in the New Testament.
The implied request from the two sisters (verse 3) is strikingly similar to that of Jesus’ mother in 2:3. In both cases we discern petitions made to Jesus with a quiet deference, but also with a firm faith.
Moreover, Jesus’ reactions in the two cases are strikingly similar: an apparent rejection followed by an effective compliance. As these two instances are the first and last signs in the “book of signs,” their similarity is noteworthy. In both cases the sign is said to manifest Jesus’ glory (verses 4,11; 2:11; cf. 9:3).
The meaning of verse 4 is, “Glory, not death, is the final chapter of this sickness.”
Jesus’ delay in going to Jerusalem, is repetitious of the instance in 7:3,10. Rather consistently in John, Jesus maintains a schedule different from—and usually slower than—that of His friends.
The Greek of the verb “loved” in verse 5 (“Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus”) is in the imperfect tense, indicating Jesus’ sustained, habitual affection for this family (egapa; Vulgate diligebat). The wording of verse 6 suggests that the Lord’s delay in going to Bethany was intended to demonstrate (hos oun; Vulgate ut ergo) that love!
The delay of two days (verse 6) puts the reader in mind of the time span in Jesus’ resurrection.
The imperfect tense of “were seeking” (ezetoun—verse 8; Vulgate quaerebant) indicates the constant danger to Jesus in Jerusalem: “Then the Jews took up stones again to stone Him. . . . Therefore they sought again to seize Him” (10:31,39).
Jesus’ pronouncements about the light in verses 9-10 continue a theme introduced in 9:4: “We must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; the night is coming when no one can work.” The conflict between light and darkness is John’s interpretation of the events and confrontations in the several preceding chapters. In the present story Jesus tells the disciples that the time has now arrived for determined action in that conflict. He brings the discussion abruptly back to Lazarus, whom He knows (without explanation) to be dead.
As happens so often in this gospel, what Jesus says is misunderstood (verses 12-13). Yet, their misunderstanding is ironically expressed as the very thesis of the story: “If Lazarus has fallen asleep, then he will be saved”—sothesetai.
Because of what is about to ensue, Jesus is confident that His disciples will come to faith (pistevsete—verse 15,; cf. 2:11). Such faith is the very purpose for which John writes (20:30-31).
Thomas’s comment—“Let us also go, that we may die with Him”—was prompted by the danger awaiting them at Jerusalem. The detail, “die with him,” in which Thomas apparently meant Lazarus, ironically points also to the death of Jesus. Thomas thus gives voice to a fundamental thesis of the Christian faith, according to which we die and rise with Christ (cf. Galatians 2:19-20).
Palm Sunday, April 5
Zechariah 9: These latter chapters of the Book of Zechariah are so different
in tone from the chronologically dated prophecies of the first eight chapters that some historians express doubt that this final part of the book even comes from the hand of Zechariah. They speak of this section as “Second Zechariah.”
Thus, this critical question about the Book of Zechariah is parallel to the question of the literary unity of the Book of Isaiah. Beginning with Chapter 40 of the Book of Isaiah, the author’s literary style and evident historical circumstances are so profoundly changed that some historians of the text speak of “Second Isaiah.”
It is foreign to the intent of these notes to investigate those critical questions. However they are to be answered, it is a fact that the books of Isaiah and Zechariah have come down to us as unified works, whatever the historical background of the material they contain. Consequently, each of these books is interpreted in these notes within the context of its own literary integrity. Rather than dissecting either book on the basis of literary perceptions that may be massively subjective, it seems more useful to interpret each part of each book within the context of that book’s integrity, just as the Sacred Text has come down to us.
That procedure declared, it is worth observing that this latter part of the Book of Zechariah, like the second part of the Book of Isaiah, contains more explicit prophecies of the Passion of our Lord, a circumstance indicating the propriety of reading these texts during Holy Week.
Today’s passage is such a text. Verse 9 declares, “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,’” a passage that the Gospel according to Matthew understands as prophetic of the Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem (21:5). The background of this passage is 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 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, Zechariah prophesied the messianic entry of Jesus into Zion. The Savior arrives 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, April 6
The Prophecy of Habakkuk: Although its opening verse provides no evidence by which to date the Book of Habakkuk, its canonical position between Nahum and Zephaniah apparently represents an ancient persuasion that Habakkuk prophesied during the same period. Moreover, Habakkuk’s reference to the Neo-Babylonians (1:6) confirms that persuasion. We do well to date him, then, in the late seventh century before Christ, a period of great trial and turmoil in Judah.
Indeed, any reader of Habakkuk can see that he was dealing with considerable trial and turmoil. Within that period, furthermore, the death of King Josiah in 609 was easily the most devastating event in the life of Judah, the crisis evoking Jeremiah’s great temple sermon (chapters 7 and 26). The salutary words of Habakkuk may fit that context better than any other.
After Josiah’s passing in 609, and until Jerusalem’s fall in 587, the throne at Jerusalem was occupied by a series of men whose political incompetence was surpassed only by their shocking moral shortcomings. Scandal was everywhere, and to many it seemed that the entire moral order was falling to pieces. The minds of thoughtful men were asking: Is the Lord a just God? Does the world that He made truly stand on a vindicating principle of righteousness? Such, too, were the queries addressed by Habakkuk.
The ministry of Habakkuk followed shortly after those two other prophets who had dealt with themes germane to the question of ultimate justice: Zephaniah with his apocalyptic imagery of “the Day of the Lord” as the day of judgment, and Nahum with his assessment of the downfall of Nineveh as a manifestation of the righteous judgment of God. Both men—each in his own way—proclaimed: “He will come again in glory to judge.”
Yet, in a certain respect Habakkuk’s vocation was not like theirs.
After Zephaniah and Nahum had spoken to their countrymen in the name of God, Habakkuk was charged to speak to God in the name of his countrymen. Whereas most of the biblical prophets proclaimed to men the messages and mandates of the Almighty, Habakkuk addressed to the Almighty those problems most plaguing the minds of men. Thus, St. Jerome called Habakkuk a “wrestler with God,” because he touches themes that appear in Ecclesiastes and some of the Psalms. Habakkuk also resembles, in this respect, the Book of Job.
It is very significant that the early compilers of Holy Scripture placed
Habakkuk among the prophets, because they thereby acknowledged that the Holy Spirit may speak to man, not only through the external word that he cannot help but hear, but also through the internal word that he cannot help but speak. In that magnificent dialogue that is the first chapter of Habakkuk, it is not only the answers of God that are divinely inspired, but also the questions of Habakkuk himself. It is God who places those very questions in his questing mind. They too are revelatory.
We would utterly fail to understand Habakkuk, however, if we saw in him only a philosophical questioner. He is essentially a man of faith, rather, whose questions invariably take the form of prayer. It is God that he queries, not simply his own thoughts: “O Lord, how long shall
I cry, / And You will not hear? . . . Are You not from everlasting, / O Lord my God, my Holy One? . . . Why do You make men like fish of the sea, / Like creeping things that have no ruler over them?” (Habakkuk
1:2,12,14). All of Habakkuk’s message is structured in the form of conversation with God in prayer.
God’s answer is, of course, the line so beloved in the New Testament: “The just shall live by faith” (2:4; Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11).
This is the principle that Habakkuk is told to write out in large letters on a billboard, as it were, in script so tall and plain that the runner (or jogger) passing by is not obliged to slow down in order to read it:
“Though it tarries, wait for it; / Because it will surely come, / It will not tarry” (Habakkuk 2:3; Hebrews 10:37–38). This is the faith exemplified in Habakkuk himself, when the fig tree no longer blossoms, nor is fruit found on the vine, and the labor of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food, when the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls.
What does God’s wrestler say then? “Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, / I will joy in the God of my salvation” (3:17–18). The full dimension of Habakkuk’s faith was best appreciated by St. Jerome, who translated that last clause into Latin as: Exultabo in Deo Jesu meo.
Bridegroom Tuesday, April 7
Matthew 25:1-13: A second story continues the theme 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" (25:5). 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).
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 “going 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 have 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 Great 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 die 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, April 8
Zechariah 11: Another passage from Zechariah invoked by Matthew in connection with the Lord’s Passion is Zechariah 11:13: “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the value of Him who was priced, whom they of the children of Israel priced, and gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me” (Matthew 27:9f). Matthew cited this text as a prophecy fulfilled by Judas Iscariot in his betrayal of the Lord for 30 pieces of silver, the prescribed price of a slave (Exodus 21:32).
There is a curious confusion of words in this text of Zechariah, however, apparently seen by Matthew as pointing to a deeper layer of meaning. In the traditional Hebrew reading, the Lord tells the prophet: "Cast it to the potter (el-hayoser)." Zechariah goes on to say, "So I cast it, in the house of the Lord, to the potter," a reading reflected in several modern translations. With the change of only one letter, however, the Hebrew text would read: "Cast it into the treasury (el-hahoser)" and "So I cast it, in the house of the Lord, into the treasury." This latter reading is followed by other translations.
Rather than choose between these two possible readings, however, the Gospel of Matthew conflates them, maintaining both the Temple treasury and the potter. Thus, Judas Iscariot, realizing the gravity of his betrayal but despairing of God's mercy, returns to the Temple and throws in the 30 shekels. The clinking of those silver coins, bouncing and rolling across the stone floor of the Temple, has been resounding in the ears of the Church for the past 2000 years, summoning every sinful soul back from the perils of final despair.
The Temple officials collect the coins. Their first thought is to put them into the Temple treasury (hahoser), but they are
afflicted by a hypocritical scruple about such a use of blood-money. Instead, they take the coins and purchase the "field of the potter (hayoser)." The double disposition of these coins of Judas, the inspired Evangelist saw clearly, was a fulfillment of a prophetic word spoken centuries earlier in that mystic text of Zechariah.
This "field of the potter," perhaps so named because of broken shards lying about in it, came to be known as the "field of blood," says Matthew, because it was purchased with blood-money. As such this field is a very rich symbol of Redemption. This obscure piece of real estate, bought with the price of the blood of Christ, became a sort of down payment on that ultimate Redemption by which "the Lord's is the earth and the fullness thereof." By the price of His blood, Christ became the "Landlord," the Lord of the earth. All this Matthew saw in the prophecy of Zechariah.
Maundy Thursday, April 9
Matthew 26:14-56: 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 (verses 26-35). 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.
Hitherto in Matthew, Jesus has been forced to confront His enemies. On occasion He has been obliged also to confront His disciples. In the present scene He must confront Himself. In the story of Gethsemani the Gospel writers portray the mystery of the Lord’s perfect obedience to God (verses 36-46).
Jesus goes to a garden in order to be tempted, just as earlier He had retired to the desert in order to be tempted. In that earlier account the obedience of Jesus had reversed Israel’s repeated disobedience in the desert. In the present account the obedience of Jesus reverses the disobedience of Adam in the garden (Romans 5:12-21; Philippians 2:5-10). In both cases Jesus brings to human history the healing balm of His obedience.
The west side of the Mount of Olives was covered with the olive orchards that gave the place its name. Near the base of it, just up from the Brook Kidron (John 18:1), was an oil press, a geth-semani. It was in the neighborhood of this oil press, a “garden” according to John, that Jesus and the disciples sometimes camped out during the pilgrimage season, when more adequate lodgings in the city were both scarce and more expensive. Judas knew where Jesus could be found. It will happen “this night” (verses 312,34).
The Lord goes into this orchard to pray and prepare His soul for what would begin on this night, the beginning of the last day of His earthly life (verse 36). Three disciples He takes with Him, the same three who had witnessed the Transfiguration
(verse 37). These three disciples are also portrayed as particularly resistant to the Word of the Cross (16:22; 20:2-28). It was from these three disciples that we have the account of what Jesus did and said on this night (cf. Hebrews 5:7-8).
Mark and Matthew especially stress the sadness of Jesus. 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" (verse 38; Mark 14:34). This sorrow unto death is common to the two gardens of man's trial. What is this “sadness unto death?
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 He bore our sadness unto death, becoming the "Man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief" (Isaiah 53:4).
Jesus falls on His face in prayer (contrast Mark and Luke). One observes several points of similarity between this prayer and the Lord’s Prayer given us in the Sermon on the Mount: the address of God as “Father,” the prayer for the doing of the Father’s will, the deliverance from temptation (verse 41). In His sufferings, then, Jesus “models” the Lord’s Prayer, giving Christians a good idea how to pray it.
Jesus speaks of the “cup” of His sufferings, thus taking up a standard biblical image of trial (cf. Psalm 11;6; Isaiah 51:17,22; Jeremiah 49:12; Lamentations 4:21; Ezekiel 23:31-34).
In the Lord’s question to the disciples (verse 40), the words “with Me” are proper to Matthew. These three men, who imagine they are able to handle whatever the night brings, are not capable of staying awake a single hour! The trial has not even begun, and they are already failing it.
The words “sleep on now and take your rest” are either interrogative or ironical (verse 45).
The “Son of Man” is being handed over (verse 45). This eschatological title appears, we recall, in all four of Matthew’s prophecies of the Passion. The verb “hand over” (paradidomi occurs ten times in this chapter. Judas arrives right on schedule (verse 46).
Seamlessly the gospels go from the Lord’s agony in the garden to his arrest (verses 47-56). Jesus is still speaking when his enemies arrive (verse 47), This company comes armed and in force, apparently prepared to meet a stern resistance. Some of them, at least, are the very people whom Jesus taught daily in the temple (verse 55). The gospels indicate that Jesus never trusted these crowds who came to hear Him teach, any more than He trusted Judas, identified here by all the Synoptics as “one of the Twelve.”
Although there is a full moon—and John (18:3) says that the soldiers are carrying torches and lanterns—it is still sufficiently dark to make a mistake in the arrest. Consequently, Judas has given his company a sign to help them recognize Jesus: He will greet Jesus with a kiss (verse 48). A kiss on the hand is a customary way for a disciple to greet a religious teacher. Thus, a sign of affection and respect is turned into a deed of hostility and deception (verse 49).
Jesus addresses Judas as “friend” (verse 50). He does not react to the betrayal in anger or accusation. He is completely aware why Judas has come (verse 46), but He nonetheless inquires on this point. Jesus’ question “Why have you come?” is not intended to elicit information but to prompt Judas, even now, to consider the gravity of what he does. Judas, even in his treachery, is the object of Jesus’ concern; He calls him “friend.” Matthew alone narrates this detail, as well as the question.
Meanwhile the disciples, outnumbered and knowing physical resistance is futile, are at first uncertain what to do. The exception among them, according to John (18:10), is Peter, who is not named here by the Synoptics. Acting on the same impulse that prompted him to declare that he would never deny Jesus (verse 35), Peter takes hold of a sword concealed in his garments (Luke 22:38) and begins swinging it at the crowd (verse 51). Apparently on a back stroke, his sword catches the right ear protruding from a helmet worn by a man named Malchus, who has attempted to duck under the blow. Luke (22:51) alone mentions that Jesus heals the man’s wound.
The other three gospels record that Jesus puts a stop to the violence, and Matthew’s account contains an exhortation in which the Lord reminds the disciples that He is willingly submitting to the arrest (verses 52-54). Even after extensive instruction on the significance of what is about to transpire, the disciples still react without understanding: “Do you think?” asks Jesus (verse 53).
Our Lord makes three points in what He now says to the disciples. First, He once again exhorts them not to return evil for evil, and not to resist evil done to themselves (verse 52; Revelation 13:10). This is no time to forget the Sermon on the Mount (5:38-44; 7:1-2,12).
Second, says Jesus, if He wished it, these twelve disciples could be replaced by twelve legions of angelic warriors (verse 53). But our Lord knows that the Father does not will it. This is the same Father, of whom Jesus spoke so often in the Sermon on the Mount, the sermon that will now guide Him through the Passion.
Third, all of this is happening in fulfillment of biblical prophecy (verse 54). This theme, of course, has been constant throughout Matthew, and another example is given immediately (verse 56).
Having exhorted His disciples, Jesus next turns to the crowd come to arrest Him (verses 55-56). Even though He refused to resist with violence, our Lord objects to the injustice of what is transpiring. His teaching these men have heard (cf. 21:23), and they know he does not deserve to be treated like a brigand.
At this point, the disciples flee. Jesus, who arrived in the garden with His friends, will now leave it with His enemies.
Good Friday, April 10
Zechariah 13: Maintaining his emphasis on the Lord’s Passion and Death, the prophet goes on to speak of the striking of the Shepherd and the consequent dispersal of His disciples (verse 7), a text interpreted for us in Matthew 26:31 (cf. Mark 14:27; John 16:31).
This is the event by which the false gods are defeated (verse 1). These are the demonic forces brought to naught by the death of the First Born. Questioned about the marks of the wounds in His flesh, the Lord responds, “These wounds I received in the house of My friends” (verse 6).
Cyril of Alexandria wrote in the fifth century: “when the Only Begotten Word of God ascended into the heavens in the flesh to which He was united, there was something new to be seen in the heavens. The multitude of holy angels was astounded, seeing the King of glory and the Lord of hosts being made in a form like ourselves. . . . Then the angels asked this, ‘What are these wounds in Your hands?’ And He said to them, ‘These wounds I received in the house of My friends.’” These are the wounds that He will show to His disciples after His resurrection. He bears these wounds in his glorified flesh forever, as He stands before the Father, “as though slain,” being the one Mediator between God and Man (Revelation 5:6).
Matthew 25:57—26:61: Since the story of Pilate's wife is found only in the Gospel of Matthew (27:19), it seems reasonable to examine it specifically through the perspective of Matthew. What function is served by that very short narrative in that particular Gospel?
Commentators have remarked that Pilate's wife, a Gentile woman who pleads the innocence of Jesus ("that just man") serves as a literary foil to the Jewish leaders who clamor for his crucifixion (27:23). This comment is surely accurate, but it does not indicate a larger context nor an intention specific to Matthew.
Indeed, this is the sort of story we might more readily have expected in Luke. The latter, after all, is rather preoccupied with showing that the Roman authorities regarded Jesus as innocent (Luke 23:4,14-15,20,47), and among the four evangelist he is certainly the one that writes most often about women, whether in Jesus’ parables or in actual associates of our Lord.
It seems, then, that a closer examination of Matthew 27:19 is required. The text says that while Pilate "was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent to him, saying, 'Have n
othing to do with that just Man, for I have suffered many things today in a dream because of Him.'"
This woman is portrayed, not only as resistant to the official plot to murder Jesus, but as having "suffered many things today in a dream because of Him." The most striking item here, I suggest, is her dream. The dream, then, is the place to start.
This Gentile's dream near the end of Matthew clearly forms a literary inclusion with the dream of certain other Gentiles near that Gospel's beginning. There we are told, with respect to the Magi, that "being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way" (2:12). That is the last appearance of the Magi.
The contexts of these two dreams are strikingly similar. In each case the dream takes place in connection with an official plot to kill Jesus. In the instance of the Magi this plot includes the official representative of the Roman government, King Herod, who has "gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together" (2:4). In the instance of Pilate's wife, the murderous plot involves "all the chief priests and elders of the people" (27:1,12,20; the scribes are included in 27:41). In both cases the dreams of the Gentiles are contrasted with the plots of Jesus' enemies. Pilate's wife near the end of Matthew stands parallel to the Magi near its beginning.
In each case, moreover, the plot to murder Jesus has to do with His kingship, His status as the Messiah. In the example of the Magi, these come from the East "to Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?'" (2:1-2). The usurping Herod, threatened by the suspected appearance of Israel's true king, takes all the necessary precautions, including the murder of "all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under" (2:16).
The expression "King of the Jews" does not appear in Matthew again until the final plot against Jesus. It is while Pilate officiates in his judgment seat, and just before receiving the message from his wife, that he inquires, "Are You the King of the Jews?" (27:11). The source of Pilate's question here is indicated in the next verse, which tells us that "He was being accused by the chief priests and elders" (27:12). These chief priests and others correspond to the group that Herod summoned earlier when he made his own inquiry about the King of the Jews.
Matthew tells us that Pilate "knew that they had handed Him over because of envy." Indeed, he mentions this in the verse immediately preceding the message from his wife (27:18-19). This envy of Jesus' enemies readily puts the reader in mind of the earlier envy of Herod, when he too was confronted with the real King of the Jews.
There is a special irony, then, to the title by which Pilate's soldiers address Jesus in their mockery: "Hail, King of the Jews" (27:29). Pilate, moreover, apparently with a view to mocking the Jews themselves, attaches to the cross the official accusation against Jesus: "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews" (27:39). At last is answered that question first put by the Magi, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?" (2:2:2) He is on the cross, the just Man dying for the sins of the world.
Thus, the dream of Pilate's wife, which had revealed Jesus to be a just Man, completes the earlier dream of the Magi. The testimony from the East is matched by the testimony from the West, both cases representing those regarding whom Jesus commanded His Church, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (28:19.