Friday, February 26

Matthew 14:1-12: Matthew now returns to the sequence in Mark 6, to narrate the beheading of John the Baptist, the multiplication of the loaves, the walking on the water, and so on.

He begins with the martyrdom of John. Like the other Evangelists, Matthew clearly expects his readers to be already familiar with the identity of this Herod. Modern readers, however, need to be informed that he was Herod Antipas, whom the Romans had made tetrarch (ruler over a quarter of a Roman province, the province here being Syria) over Galilee and Perea after the death of his father, Herod the Great (cf. Matthew 2). Sharing his father’s insecurity and superstition, Antipas imagines that the slain John has somehow returned in Jesus to haunt him for his crime. It is at this point that Mark and Matthew insert the story of that crime.

Whereas Mark uses the story of Herod’s execution of the John the Baptist as a sort of interlude between the sending out and return of the Twelve (Mark 6:6-31), Matthew has already employed that setting back in Chapter 10. Consequently, his account of the execution of John the Baptist fits into a slightly different sequence. Otherwise, his version of the event is simply a shortened form of Mark’s.

In this story of Herod, attention should be drawn to the king’s similarity to the ancient King Saul, who was likewise tormented by the unforeseen but lamentable consequences of an unwise, incautious oath (cf. 1 Samuel 14:24-30,43-46).

Another Old Testament parallel with this story is perhaps even more obvious. Accordingly, we observe John as a new Elijah, Herod as new Ahab, and Herodias as a new Jezebel.

In placing the arrest and death of John immediately after the rejection Jesus at Nazareth, Matthew augments the sense of tragedy in both events. Each prophet, John and Jesus, is rejected by Israel in a single generation. Jesus will now withdraw from the pubic scene (verse 13).

Saturday, February 27

Matthew 14:13-21: The great significance of the multiplication of the loaves among the early Christians may be discerned from the fact that: (1) outside of the events of Holy Week, it is one of the very few scenes recorded in all four gospels; (2) aspects of it are depicted numerous times in the earliest Christian iconography; (3) normally recorded in language identical to, or at least reminiscent, that of the Last Supper, it is clearly one of the events of Jesus’ life perceived to be weighted with the greatest theological significance. This is clearest in John, where it is accompanied by the lengthy and elaborate Bread of Life discourse.

This miraculous event brought to the minds of those present the expectation that the coming Messiah would renew the events of the Exodus, including the feeding of the people with miraculous bread in the wilderness. This sense of expectation and fulfillment accounts for the considerable emphasis on Messianic themes in early Eucharistic texts of the Christian Church.

Even as Matthew begins this story, we observe a significant way in which he alters the narrative in Mark. Whereas Mark (6:34), describes Jesus as “teaching” the people in the wilderness, Matthew says that Jesus “healed” them (verse 14). This change of perspective is consonant with Matthew’s other indications that Jesus had begun to withdraw from teaching the Jews in public and to concentrate, instead, on the immediate band of His disciples. Nonetheless, Jesus still expresses His messianic compassion through healing and feeding them.

Psalm 55: To pray the psalms as Christians means to pray them with reference to Christ. Just as Jesus was written of by the lawgiver Moses (John 5:46), and the prophet Isaiah (John 12:41), so was He spoken of by the psalmist David (Mark 12:35–37). Thus, when the risen Lord interpreted the Holy Scriptures to His first disciples, He explained to them how “all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me” (Luke 24:44).

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the praying of the psalms will bring us back repeatedly to considerations of the mystery of the Cross and of those deep sufferings by which the Lamb of God took away the sins of the world.

Now of all the things that the Lord endured in what Hebrews 5:7 calls “the days of His flesh,” one of the most grievous seems to have been that betrayal from within the intimacy of the apostolic band. This betrayal by Judas Iscariot was itself a fulfillment of a prophecy given in the Psalter: “He who eats bread with Me has lifted up his heel against Me” (Psalm 41, quoted in John 13:18).

Indeed, references to the Lord’s betrayal appear in several places among the psalms, one of which is today’s Psalm 55 (Greek and Latin 54). Here our Lord prays in the setting of His Passion: “For if an enemy had cursed me, I could have borne it; or if someone who hated me had boasted over me, I could have hidden myself from him. But it was you, a man with whom I was one in soul, my companion and intimate friend, who enjoyed pleasant meals with me; we walked in harmony together in the house of God.”

The context of this psalm, then, is the Lord’s betrayal by someone with whom He had shared many a meal, even the miraculous loaves and fishes and, more recently, the Passover Seder, on the night before He died. We may see in this psalm, then, the Lord’s sentiments in the agony at Gethsemane, as He awaited the arrival of the treacherous friend who would betray Him with a kiss and hand Him over to His enemies. Judas was a “companion” in the strict sense of someone with whom He had shared bread (panis).

The Gospels suggest that this experience of treachery from a special friend was among the deepest sufferings sustained by the One who became like unto His brethren in all things save sin. If the story of Judas is narrated in all four canonical Gospels, as well as Acts, the earliest Christians must have thought it singularly important.

In each of the Gospels, moreover, Judas is identified as the betrayer precisely during the Last Supper—that is to say, in a context recognized to be eucharistic. Nor is it incidental that the first occasion at which our Lord spoke of the coming betrayal was at the end of His own lengthy discourse about eating His body and drinking His blood (John 6:70, 71).

In addition, early, extremely early, some mention of the Lord’s betrayal became part of the standard wording of the eucharistic liturgy. When St. Paul, during the eighteen months he spent at Corinth from late 49 to mid-51, had taught those Christians how to celebrate the Eucharist, the recognized formula already contained a reference to the betrayal: “For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread . . .” (1 Cor. 11:23). Likewise, in our earliest extant full eucharistic formulary, the Apostolic Tradition (4.8) of Hippolytus of Rome (about A.D. 210), we find the same wording, as we do in both eucharistic liturgies of the Byzantine tradition.

It is not difficult to detect the reason for remembering the treachery of Judas in the context of the Holy Eucharist. It serves as a distinct warning—right at the Lord’s own Table—of the extreme peril of sharing that most holy Meal without “discerning the Lord’s body” (1 Cor. 11:29). Treachery, we are reminded, was already active at the first celebration of the Eucharist.

Sunday, February 28

Matthew 14:22-36: We know from John (6:14-15) that considerable messianic expectation among the crowd followed on the miracle of the loaves. Jesus, knowing the spiritual weakness and worldly ambition of His disciples, immediately sent them away by boat, so that they would not succumb to this dangerous enthusiasm on the part of the crowd (verses 22-23). Meanwhile Jesus himself went off to pray alone.

It had already been late in the day when the mira
cle of the loaves took place (verse 15), and it was well into the night when Jesus finished praying. The apostles were out in the middle of the lake, rowing against the wind (verse 24). Sometime between three and six o’clock in the morning (verse 25), while it was still quite dark, they suddenly beheld Jesus walking to them on the water. Indeed, he was “strolling” (peripaton)! The disciples took Jesus for a ghost or mirage (phantasma) and reacted accordingly (verse 26).

Although Mark (6:45-52) and (John 6:16-21) record this story, only Matthew includes the detail of Simon Peter’s semi-successful efforts to do the same. Reassured by Jesus (verse 27), he stepped off the boat and placed his foot solidly on a wave. His attempt was brought abruptly to finish when, taking his eyes off of Jesus, the apostle did what no Christian should ever do: he looked down! (Peter’s name means “rock,” and it has been remarked that this is the only scene in the gospels where we see him displaying a truly rock-like quality; he sank.) After attempting this “stroll” (peripatesan–verse 29), Peter found himself reprimanded for his inadequate faith (verse 31).

At the end, those “in the boat” confess Jesus as “truly the Son of God,” the defining confession of the Christian faith (see also Matthew 1:27; 16:16; 24:36; 26:63f, and, of course, 28:19). Like the Magi and so many other characters in Matthew’s gospel, they adore Him (14:33).

The boat eventually found land at Gennesaret, on the northwest of the Sea of Galilee, between Capernaum to the north, and Tiberias to the south (cf. John 6:23-24).

As we saw in verse 14, we notice once again that Jesus then healed the people (verse 36); He did not teach them (Contrast Mark 6:55-56).

Monday, March 1

Matthew 15:1-20: When Jesus finished the Sermon on the Mount, it was remarked that “He taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” It did not take long for the scribes to take note of this, so there soon began a series of debates about Jesus’ interpretation of the Torah (9:10-15; 12:1-4). The series continues here.

This material is largely taken from Mark 7:1-23, but Matthew does not share Mark’s perceived need to explain Jewish purification rituals to his readers. Matthew’s readers, apparently having much closer social ties to Judaism, do not need such information. Consequently, this section of Matthew is much less detailed than the corresponding text in Mark 7.

The use of the expression “this people” to designate the Jewish opponents of Jesus reflects the actual situation at the time that Matthew wrote. Along among the four Evangelists, Matthew habitually refers to “their synagogues” (43:23 9:35; 10:17; 12:9, 13:54), a usage that testifies to the situation after the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. After that date, the Jewish Christians, expelled from the synagogues controlled by the Pharisees, were obliged to establish synagogues of their own. It is striking that the only time James uses the word “synagogue” (in 2:2), he is referring to a Christian gathering.

The question about washing hands before eating bread (verse 2), we observe, follows closely on the story of the miraculous bread (14:13-21). In addition, it is soon followed by Jesus’ reference to the “children’s bread” (verse 26), a second account of miraculous loaves (verses 29-37), and another discussion about bread (16:5-12).

Whereas the scribes and Pharisees accuse the disciples of violating “the
traditions of the elders” (verse 2), Jesus’ counter-question goes much further, indicting the accusers of violating the Law of God. This indictment elevates the seriousness of the debate. Indeed, Jesus sets that “tradition” in opposition to God’s commandment, and by reason of this opposition He calls the accusers “hypocrites” (verse 7, citing Isaiah (29:13 LXX) to enforce the point.

In making this argument, Matthew has recourse to prophecy as a means to interpret the Torah. It seems likely that this approach characterized the early Church’s polemic against Pharisaic Judaism.

Addressing those who heard this debate, Jesus summons them to “understand” (syniete–verse 10). We recall that “understanding” is the essential requirement for a profitable hearing of the Word (13:13,15,19,23,51).

Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and scribes left unanswered the question of the washing of hands before eating. It is now taken up (verse 11), as it is a question of importance to Matthew’s Jewish Christians. The dominical principle is clear: Real purity is an internal reality, not a ritual compliance.

Although the reference to “blind guides” is also found in Luke 6:39, the context of this metaphor in Matthew 15:12-15 is proper to Matthew alone. The reference to their blindness will also appear in 23:16 (cf. 7:5), when the Lord once again takes up His case against the scribes and Pharisees at greater length. The irony of the metaphor has to do with the habit of the rabbis to regard the Jews, because of their possession of the Torah, as the “leaders” of the blinded human race (cf. also John 9:40f; Romans 2:19).

Once again the disciples, observing the offense given by the teaching of Jesus (verse 12), need further instruction (verse 15). Are they, too, without understanding (asynetoi–verse 16)? Are they as blind as the Pharisees (verse 14)?

The problem, of course, lies in the condition of the heart. An evil heart, the radical source of all evil in man (verse 19), is the reason the disciples do not yet understand God’s Word (13:15,19). An evil heart is recognized by it infidelity to the Torah, of which the second tablet of the Decalogue receives special attention here (verse 19).

Tuesday, March 2

Matthew 15:21-31: Jesus now turns from the Jewish unbelievers to a Gentile whose faith will bring about the healing of her daughter. It is significant that in both Mark and Matthew this story follows the discussion about ritual uncleanness, a preoccupation of the Jews.

Matthew began his gospel by drawing attention to Jesus as “the son of David” (1:1). It was the name by which he was invoked by the blind men (9:27). Now it is by this title that the Canaanite woman addresses him (verse 22). Later on, this messianic designation will come more into evidence. It is the title by which He will be greeted in Jericho (20:29) and Jerusalem (21:9). The Lord’s acceptance of this title will rankle His enemies (21:15; 22:41-45). If it is striking to find “son of David” on the tongue of a Gentile, we should bear in mind Matthew’s earlier citation from Isaiah with respect to that Galilean border with Phoenicia (4:13-15; Isaiah 9:15).

In Matthew’s version of this story, the accent lies on faith: “Great is your faith” (verse 28; contrast Mark 7:9). The woman’s “great faith” is reminiscent of the earlier Gentiles in Matthew, such as the Magi and, more explicitly, the centurion in 8:10. This woman thus becomes a kind of first-fruits of Jesus’ final Great Commission to “all nations.”

Indeed, like the Magi at the beginning of this gospel and the disciples at the end of it (2:11; 28:17), this woman is said to adore Jesus (proskynein–15:25).

The symbolism of the future universal calling is also foreshadowed in verse 30, where the “great multitudes” come to the Lord with their various needs and distresses. This detail, too, is proper to Matthew. (Compare 10:1; 12:15; 14:13-14).

Wednesday, March 3

Jeremiah 27: This chapter continues the theme of the growing antagonism between Jeremiah and the false prophets; this is the theme that joins it to chapter 26.

The vocabulary and style of this chapter, however, link it even more closely to chapters 28-29. Indeed, it is possible that these three chapters at one time represented a literary unit, eventually incorporated into the full prophetic corpus edited by Baruch.

The “situation” in chapters 27-29 was an assembly of international diplomats, gathered at Jerusalem, sometime in 594-593. These representatives came from neighboring nations for the purpose of persuading King Zedekiah to join a general revolt against Babylon. This is the meaning of the symbol of the yoke. Jeremiah warns Zedekiah and the others against false hope, in contrast to the false prophets (such as Hananiah in chapter 28), who were encouraging rebellion against Babylon.

Matthew 15:32-37: Like Mark, Matthew has a second account of the multiplication of the loaves. This account is often called “the multiplication for the Gentiles,” because of several elements in the story suggesting its transmission in a largely Gentile setting. For example, the Lord’s reluctance to send the people away suggests that that have come “from afar” (as indeed Mark 6:3 explicitly says), a common way in which the early Christians spoke of the calling of the Gentiles. Thus, Jesus is here portrayed as multiplying for the Gentiles the “crumbs” that the Gentile woman begged for in Matthew 15:27.

This bread is food for a journey—“on the way,” en te hodo–verse 32). The Lord feeds His people “in the wilderness” (en eremia–verse 33), as He did after their deliverance from Egypt. This bread, then, is the equivalent of the Manna that fell from heaven.

We also observe that this food—which He “takes” and “breaks” with “thanksgiving” (evcharistesas)—Jesus “gives” to His disciples, that they may feed the multitude (verse 36; cf. 26:26). This format of activity is a paradigm of the Eucharistic rite of the Church, in which we perceive the importance of the apostolic ministry and mediation.

Thursday, March 4

Matthew 16:1-12: The tension between Jesus and His antagonists rises to a new height in chapter 16, beginning with their renewed demand for a sign (verses 1-4; cf. 12:8). This demand is the occasion of the Lord’s criticism of them (verses 5-12) and the first prophecy of their role in the Passion (verse 21). In demanding this sign, these enemies copy the example of the devil (4:2,6). In contrast to the faith of the recent Canaanite woman (15:28), this demand indicates unbelief.

We likewise note here Matthew’s inclusion of the Sadducees among the enemies of Jesus (verses 1,6,11,12). Once again Matthew’s text here reflects certain concerns that arose in Judaism (and consequently among Jewish Christians) after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Foremost among the Jewish groups who lost credibility in the aftermath of that event was the party of the Sadducees. This group, it was generally believed, had been excessively compliant with the Roman powers for over a century, too compromising, too little disposed to speak up for the people as the Pharisees had done. Consequently, after the year 70 the Sadducees came into bad odor among rank-and-file Jews.

Moreover, this party was bound to lose power, because their power had been concentrated in the temple priesthood, which was put out of business by the destruction of the temple. In Matthew we observe (three times in these verses, and elsewhere in 3:7; 22:34) explicit criticisms of the Sadducees not found in the other gospels. Mark (12:18) and Luke (20:27) mention the Sadducees only once each.

The present encounter of Jesus and His enemies introduces a brief dominical discourse about bread (verses 5-12). This discourse summarizes the two occasions when Jesus multiplied the loaves. >

It also contains some criticism of the Apostles, who are described as “of little faith” (verse 8), in spite of having witnessed two miraculous provisions of bread (verses 9-10). These disciples of the Lord do not yet “understand” (verse 8) the implications of those miracles in the wilderness. The Lord’s reproach brings them to some level of understanding (verse 12). At least in some measure, the sown seed is beginning to fall on good ground. Nonetheless, this will not be the Lord’s last reproach against the apostles in the present chapter (cf. verse 23).

Friday, March 5

Matthew 16:13-20: This text presents the definitive answer to one of the major questions of this gospel, the true identity of Jesus: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Because this confession of faith was (and still is) regarded as the foundation stone of the Christian Church, the nickname “Rock” (perhaps closer to “Rocky” in English) was given to the man who made it, Simon Bar Jonah (or, in English, “Simon Johnson”). It was in Simon’s fishing boat that Jesus was earlier confessed to be “truly the Son of God” (14:33), so that his boat becomes in the gospels a great symbol of the Church. The great prominence of this “Rocky Johnson”(Kephas in Aramaic and Petros in Greek) among the Twelve Apostles is indicated by the fact that his name appears first in every single New Testament list of the Twelve. Those early churches most closely associated with the Apostles Peter and Paul enjoyed a singular eminence and spiritual authority among all the early Christians. Chief among them were the churches at Antioch and Rome.

As we see by comparing this account to Mark 8:27-30, the early preaching and narrative tradition of the Church “fixed” this event at Caesarea Philippi. It is rare in the Gospels for an individual event to become so fixed in this way.

Caesarea Philippi is situated on the southern slope of Mount Hermon, which is the highest peak in Palestine. Near it are the pools of Benaias, one of the chief sources of the Jordan River. The name Benaias is derived from the god Pan, and the name of the city, Panion, was changed to Caesarea when Herod’s son, Philip, rebuilt it and dedicated it to Caesar Augustus. The name Caesarea Philippi thus refers to both men, Caesar and Philip.

The reader observes that the question of Jesus—“Who do you say that I am?”—is differently phrased among the three Synoptic Gospels. In Matthew the question is also a matter of auto-identification; there is the presumption that Jesus is the Son of Man.

Such is the determining inquiry—the true identity of Jesus of Nazareth—the proper determination of the Who that poses the question itself. The history of the seven Ecumenical Councils of the Christian Church illustrates that all other doctrinal questions are reducible to this one question: Just who is Jesus?

Earlier, Matthew had touched on the suspicion that Jesus was really John the Baptist returned to life (cf. 14:1-2). He returns to it now (verse 14). We should find it significant that some of the Lord’s contemporaries resorted to prophetic history as a way of explaining Jesus. He resembled the prophets more than anyone else they could think of. Elijah, after all, had never really died, and his return was still expected (cf. Malachi 3:1,23).

Matthew also includes Jeremiah, whom he regarded as a “type” of Christ. Besides here, Jeremiah is mentioned by name two other times in Matthew (cf. 2:17; 27:9). In addition, Matthew several times alludes to Jeremiah, who is clearly one of his favorites.

When Jesus addresses the view of the disciples themselves (verse 15), it becomes clear that what is sought is the identity of Jesus Himself. The “you” in this question is plural and emphatic. That is to say, the disciples are being contrasted with everyone else. The distinguishing mark of true discipleship is the perception of who Jesus is.

Although all the disciples are addressed, it is Simon who answers (verse 16), as the spokesman for all the apostles. Throughout the Gospels he is the only one who ever serves in this way.

Peter’s confession itself is far more ample, precise, and developed here than in Mark and Luke, and it corresponds more closely to the full Christological confession of the Christian Church. It confesses a great deal more than Jewish Messianism (Compare 21:37-38; Hebrews 1:1-2).

To appreciate the Matthean expansion (verse 17), it is useful to compare it to the Markan sequence. In Mark’s version, Peter’s confession leads directly, without interruption, to Jesus’ reprimand of Peter. In Matthew this sequence is completely abandoned, and Jesus first blesses Peter. What Peter confesses cannot be humanly known; it transcends “flesh and blood” (cf. 11:25-27—observing the same verb, “reveal”). What we have here is a description of the faith of the Church (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:6).

Such is Jesus’ assessment of the answer Peter gives to His question, “Who do you say that I am?” The orthodox answer to this question is the matter of divine revelation. The confession follows the vision. The Church testifies to what She knows.

When Peter identifies Jesus, Jesus identifies Peter (verse 18). This identification is very important, because it has to do with the foundation of the Church. We have already learned in Matthew (10:2) that Simon’s nickname was Kephas, meaning “rock.” This nickname comes into play as the foundation stone of the Church. Indeed, this is the first of only three times—all of them in Matthew—that the word “Church” is found in the Gospels. What Jesus says is, “You are the Rock, and on this Rock I will build My Church.” What does this mean?

First, the pronouncement is related to Peter’s Christological confession. The rock on which the Church is built is, first of all, the confession of Jesus’ true identity as Son of the Living God. The Lord’s pronouncement to Peter, therefore, must not be separated from Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Son of God. That confession is the foundation stone on which the Church is built. This was, it would seem, a common metaphor. Indeed, this is how St. Peter himself interpreted the Lord’s words here; cf. 1 Peter 2:4-8 (also 1 Corinthians 3:11).

The first meaning of the Rock, then, on which the Church is to be built, is Christological. It is the confession of Jesus as the Christ and the Son of God.

In addition to this meaning, does the identification of Simon as the rock of the Church have some reference to his specific ministry in the Church? Perhaps it does. While the first meaning of the rock has to do with Christology, the New Testament knows a secondary and dependent meaning—the apostolic and prophetic ministries (cf. Ephesians 2:19-22). We also observe an “apostolic” meaning for the image of the rock in Revelation 21:14. This is later reflected in the Creed’s description of the Church as “apostolic.”

This secondary meaning, if it is (as I believe) intended here, is inseparable from the Christological meaning. That is to say, the Apostles are the rock of the Church in the sense that they are the authoritative witnesses to, and proclaimers of, the true identity of Jesus.

This is the reason why some of the Church Fathers understood Peter, in this text, to represent the bishops of the Church, because the bishops were (and still are) regarded as the legitimate successors of the Apostles. It is well known that this was the interpretation of St. Cyprian, the 3rd century bishop of Carthage, for instance.

Even if we do not follow Cyprian’s lead in this interpretation, it is important to stress (because Matthew does) the ecclesiastical—the institutional—aspect of this verse. Peter’s confession is not an individual taking Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior. Peter here is the spokesman for the Church and makes the Church’s profession of faith.

The words that follow (verses 18-19) indica
te that this authority is not given to Peter solely. As St. Cyprian of Carthage observed with respect to this text, Peter speaks as the representative all of the apostles, so that what Jesus says to Peter He says to all of them. Likewise, the authority here conferred on Peter is conferred on all the Apostles. This is why, as Cyprian also observed, what is said here to Peter in the singular is later said to all the Apostles in the plural (18:18,27).

What, then, are the keys given to Peter? They are the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, which is to say that Jesus Himself shares with the Apostles His own authority to bind and loose (cf. 9:8). This statement of Jesus indicates a very “high” view of ecclesiology and a very “high” view of apostolic authority.

The metaphor of the key comes from Isaiah 22:20-25, which describes the installation of Eliakim over David’s royal house. These words apply to the Apostles in God’s house, and the authority thus conferred indicates a wide discretion; making rules (canons) and making exceptions to them, imposing and absolving from excommunications, forgiving and not forgiving sins (cf. John 20:23). We observe an example of the exercise of such authority in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, a case involving elementary Church discipline. We note that Paul speaks with the serene sense of authority to bind and loose. This text in Matthew means, then, that the Lord will support and back up the authority exercised in His name in the Church.

Since this promise to Peter is not found in Mark and Luke, it is worth inquiring where it was preserved, so as to end up in the Gospel according to Matthew. It is interesting that these words of Jesus do not appear in Mark, which was the specifically Roman Gospel, reflecting the preaching of Peter at Rome. The promise appears, rather, in Matthew, associated with the Church in Syria, and perhaps more specifically with Antioch, where Peter was important in the founding of the local Church. If the promise to Peter is to be understood as applicable to one local church in particular, that church would seem to be the one at Antioch.