Friday, February 12
Matthew 12:9-14: Among the conflict stories in Matthew, the present incident must have been the most exasperating to Jesus’ enemies. Now that He already declared Himself “Lord of the Sabbath,” they are watching Him closely as He enters the synagogue. Jesus has already asserted His supreme authority, not only in regard to the Jewish calendar (fast days and the Sabbath), buy also with respect to sin itself.
In this story there is no pronounced interest in the Sabbath-question as such (unlike verses 1-8). Everything has to do, rather, with Jesus’ authority. His enemies have come to accuse Him, but in the end it is Jesus who does the accusing. He heals the man with the withered hand, but without any outward word or gesture. That is to say, He cannot be accused of violating the Sabbath! The crippled man simply extends his hand and is instantly healed.
Although Jesus gives them no evidence by which they can accuse Him, the critics are not deterred. They promptly conspire to “destroy” Him. This story, thus, prepares for the account of the Lord’s Passion.
One of the psalms appointed for today—Friday, the day of the Cross—goes directly to the Lord’s Passion. Psalm 88 (Greek and Latin 87) is possibly the most difficult of the psalms. In any case, it is arguably the darkest. It even stands among the most somber compositions in all of Holy Writ, comparable to the overcast pages of Job and Ecclesiastes.
It not being readily apparent, perhaps, how to reconcile such tenebrous tones with evangelical hope, some may even judge the sentiments of this psalm too dismal for it to serve as Christian prayer at all. Psalm 88 is not only darksome in its every line; almost alone among the psalms, it even ends on a dark note. Its final line says: “My friend and confrere have You kept afar from me; and my neighbors, because of my distress.” Now, how can that sort of sentiment be the “last word” in a Christian prayer?
But then, on closer inspection, we may observe certain subtler features softening this impression of our psalm. For all its gloom and shadow, for example, is it without significance that Psalm 87 begins by thus addressing the Almighty: “O Lord, the God of my salvation”? The intimacy and quiet hope of this address put one in mind of Psalm 22, in which the crucified Jesus, asking why God has forsaken Him, nonetheless continues to call Him “my God, my God.”
Three further comments seem appropriate regarding this umbrageous aspect of Psalm 87. First, one must bear in mind that, like all of the Bible, it comes to us from the Holy Spirit. If death is portrayed in this psalm as a very bad thing, then the Holy Spirit wants us to regard death as a very bad thing. One occasionally meets pagans and unbelievers who avow that they are not afraid to die. Well, this psalm suggests that maybe they should be. In line after line of Psalm 88, a writer under the guidance and impulse of the Holy Spirit says, in the sharpest terms, that death is a most terrifying prospect.
Second, bearing in mind that our fear of death is a reaction of the fleshly man, the “old Adam,” still active within us, we should be mightily consoled to think that the Holy Spirit, in this psalm, has made such generous provision for this fleshly side of ourselves. The Holy Spirit, that is to say, gives our fleshly fear its due. If we yet feel this fear of death, the Holy Spirit is careful for this fear to find expression in prayer. Here is the tender condescension of God, that He provides even that our fallen nature may voice itself to Him in supplication and the lowly fealty of our very fear.
Third, the fear of death expressed in this psalm is certainly a fear that Jesus felt. If, in addition, as Holy Scripture indicates in so many places, death is but the outward expression of sin and our alienation from God, then a deeper understanding of sin must surely imply a more profound understanding of death. And who understood sin more than Jesus? Likewise was His perception of death vastly more ample and accurate than our own. And, as He knew more about the power of death than any of the rest of us, there is every reason to believe that He felt this fear of death more than the rest of us possibly could.
Saturday, February 13
Jeremiah 9: Most of the Book of Jeremiah—and certainly today’s chapter, probably to be dated at Josiah’s death in 609—-was composed under the grim, gathering cloud that stormed forth at last in 587, when the Babylonian invader came to destroy Jerusalem and its temple. The inevitability of that coming destruction had been foretold by Huldah the prophetess in 622 (cf. 2 Kings 22:16–17), and the keenly perceptive
Jeremiah discerned its taking shape in the politics and cultural life of his day.
Interpreting that approaching doom was the very substance of Jeremiah’s ministry, and his prayer was integral to that interpretation. The Lord was on the point of destroying the very institutions that He had for centuries cultivated and sustained, and in the heart of Jeremiah the city’s looming destruction assumed metaphysical dimensions. It suggested to his mind both the overthrow of nature and the dissolution of history.
Thus, it was Jeremiah’s destiny to assume the impending tragedy of Israel into the fabric of his own heart, an experience that filled him with a deep feeling of radical alienation from God. He struggled in the darkness: “O the Hope of Israel, his Savior in time of trouble, / Why should You be like a stranger in the land, / And like a traveler who turns aside to tarry for a night?” (14:8) . . . “Will you surely be to me like an unreliable stream, / As waters that fail?” (15:18) . . . “Do not be a terror to me; / You are my hope in the day of doom” (17:17). Jeremiah’s prayer today was shaped by the contours of Israel’s tragedy, already prefigured in the loss of Josiah: “Oh, that my head were waters, / And my eyes a fountain of
tears, / That I might weep day and night / For the slain of the daughter
of my people!”
Because the shape of his own soul was formed by his internal identification with the tragic history of his people, there was a special efficacy in Jeremiah’s prayer for them. So much was this the case that on three occasions the Lord felt obliged, as it were, to order Jeremiah to stop praying! (7:16; 11:14; 14:11). It was as though the prophet’s intercession was so persuasive and effective that God Himself would be unable to resist. It was largely as an intercessor that Israel later thought of Jeremiah, described in the dream of Judas Maccabaeus as “a lover of the brethren, who prays much for the people, and for the holy city” (2 Maccabees 15:14).
Sunday, February 14
Matthew 12:22-30: The Lord’s work of driving out of demons is once again (cf. 9:32-34) the object of controversy, as His enemies allege that this power comes from Jesus’ collusion with the dark forces themselves.
Among the Synoptic accounts of this controversy (cf. Mark 3:2030; Luke 11:14-23) only Matthew records a healing from blindness in the context. This liberation of a man from satanic darkness is contrasted by the example of those who remain steadfast in their own blindness of heart. Having made up their minds to destroy Jesus, they become ever more inveterate in their sins. Hence, this story leads immediately to the theme of the unforgiven sin, the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
Psalm 149: A verse in the Greek version of Blessed Hannah’s canticle reads: “The Lord has ascended into heaven and has thundered forth. He will judge the ends of the earth. And He will give strength to our kings and shall exalt the horns of His Christ” (1 Sam. 2:10). Eusebius of Caesarea saw in this line a reference to the Ascension of our Lord and the consequent proclamation of the Gospel throughout the world:
“The Lord who descended from heaven, the very Word of God, again ascended to heaven and, ascending, He thundered forth with His divine power the evangelical message (to evangelikon kerygma), so that it might be heard throughout the whole world. He Himself will judge the ends of the earth and those who live therein, as He has received all judgment from the Father. But He has also given power to His disciples—even the Apostles and the prophets—that is to say, our kings, and He has exalted the horns of His Christ, that is, of His people so named because of their participation in Christ” (Fragments from the Prophetic Selections 1.18).
This exaltation of the saints in the victory of Christ, their evangelical struggle for the Gospel, and the ultimate judgment of the world thereby are the themes of Psalm 149. This is a psalm of triumph in warfare, specifically that warfare described in Ephesians 6, the battle “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (6:12). As we have had occasion to observe so often in the psalms, combat and invocation, battle and blessing, are inseparable in the evangelical life. Therefore, we may take this same sixth chapter of Ephesians, a true warfare passage, to help us penetrate the meaning of Psalm 149.
To pray this psalm properly, we must be numbered among those warriors that it thus portrays: “The saints shall exult in glory; they will rejoice in their quarters. The exaltations of God are in their throats, and two-edged swords in their hands.” The latter blade so described is, of course, “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:17). It is part of that “whole armor (panoplia) of God” which the Apostle Paul tells us to put on that we “may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil, . . . [to] be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand” (6:11,13).
This double-edged sword of God’s Word will be of scant use to us, nonetheless, if we are not further girded and more amply fortified. Thus, to guard the affections of our hearts, lest they wax wanton, we wear the breastplate of righteousness; to protect the reflections of our minds, lest they be distracted, we don the helmet of salvation; to be defended against the fiery shafts of satanic assault, lest we fall victim to their deceptions, we bear the shield of faith; and since our psalm summons us forth to “wreak vengeance among the nations and to reprove among the peoples, . . . to pass on them the judgment decreed,” we shoe our feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace (6:14–17).
Above everything we continue “always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints” (6:18), because our prayer is never to be separated from the general struggle of the Gospel in this world. The saints are the one group of people on this earth who speak the final, decisive truth to its inhabitants through their perseverance in the evangelical life, testifying to the final exaltation of the meek and thereby rendering judgment on what the world fancies important. “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?” St. Paul asked the saints at Corinth (1 Cor. 6:2).
Meanwhile, assured of the final outcome of the combat, and confident even now that “this will be the glory of all His saints,” their song is a glorification of God for His ever-renewed wonders in the struggle: “Sing to the Lord a new song! Let His praise be sung in the church of His saints. Let Israel be glad in her Maker, and the sons of Zion exult in their King. Let them praise His name with dancing; and sing to Him with the timbrel and harp. For the Lord takes pleasure in His people, and will exalt the meek in salvation.” All this dancing of the meek, all this music of the saints—what is it but a foretaste of the day when they “shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads”? (Rev. 22:4)
Monday, February 15
Matthew 12: 31-42: Both examples given here—the Ninevites and the queen from southern Arabia—are Gentiles, those of whom Matthew has just been speaking in 12:18-21. The figures of Jonah and Solomon should also be understood here as representing the prophetic and sapiential traditions of Holy Scripture.
Jesus is the “greater than Jonah,” whose earlier ministry foreshadowed the Lord’s death and Resurrection and also the conversion of the Gentiles. The Lord’s appeal to Jonah in this text speaks also of Jonah as a type or symbol of the Resurrection. The men of Nineveh, who repented and believed, are contrasted with the unrepentant Jewish leaders who refuse to believe in the Resurrection (cf. 28:13-15). Matthew will return to the sign of Jonah in 16:2. Jesus is also the “greater than Solomon,” who was founder of Israel’s wisdom literature and the builder of the Temple.
This reference to the Ninevites, who fasted for forty days at the preaching of Jonah, prepares our minds for the beginning of the Lenten fast tomorrow.
The Queen of the South was related to Solomon as the Ninevites were related to Jonah—as Gentiles who met the God of Israel through His manifestation in the personal lives of particular Israelites. Both here in Matthew and Luke (11:31) this royal Gentile becomes a type of the true seeker and believer. In both places she is contrasted with the Lord’s enemies, the unbelievers who refuse to recognize that “a greater than Solomon is here.”
Accordingly, Sheba’s magnificent lady is made a figure of Mother Church, standing rapturously in the presence of the wiser Solomon. We make our own her praise and proclamation before the throne of Christ: “Happy are your men and happy are these your servants, who stand continually before you and hear your wisdom! Blessed be the Lord your God, who delighted in you, setting you on the throne of Israel!” (1 Kings 10:8–9)
It is a point of consolation to observe that in neither case—whether Solomon or Jonah—were these Israelites free from personal faults!
Psalm 25: In the original Hebrew text, this psalm (Greek and Latin 24) is an alphabetical psalm; that is to say, each verse begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It is the second such in the Book of Psalms. “To You, O Lord,” it says, “I lift up my soul; in You, my God, I put my trust.” Truly, the rest of this psalm, concerned entirely with prayerful trust, may be read simply as commentary on the first verse.
At each Eucharistic service of the Church, going back at least to the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus or Rome near the beginning of the third century, when the celebrant commences the central eucharistic benediction (corresponding to the Hebrew berakah), he turns to the congregation to exhort them to intensify their prayer: “Let us lift up our hearts!” (Ano skomen tas kardias is the lovely Greek original.) In the ancient Latin version, this exhortation becomes more succinct: Sursum corda, “Hearts up!” A congregation of elevated hearts is the proper context for that great act known simply as “The Thanksgiving,” Eucharistia (the priest’s next line being “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God!”).
Psalm 25 begins with such a “lifting up” of our inner being to God, and it is significant that in the Orthodox East this psalm is prayed right before the beginning of the morning work, at the Third Hour (Tierce). We commence our labor each day, that is to say, by raising our hearts and mind to God. If we want to “pray always,” as Holy Scripture tells us to do, it is important to raise our souls to God right away as we face the day’s labor. Otherwise, there is great likelihood that our occupations will involve us in endless distractions that blind us to the thought of God’s presence.
But this is also a prayer for the Lord’s guidance throughout the rest of the day: “Show me Your ways, O Lord, and teach me Your paths. Lead me by Your truth.” And also a prayer for deliverance during the day: “My eyes are ever turned unto the Lord, for He will snatch my feet from the snare.” And for protection against the many enemies that afflict the soul: “Behold how many are my enemies, and with an unjust hatred have they hated me. Guard my soul and deliver me, that I may not be put to shame, for in You have I placed my hope.”
Tuesday, February 16
Matthew 12:43-50: [As best we can determine from manuscript evidence, verse 47 should be omitted from this passage. It seems to have come from the hand of a later copyist.]
If we compare this story with the account in Mark 3:31-35, several features are found to be particular to Matthew: (1) Matthew omits the view of Jesus’ relatives that He had lost His mind (Mark 3:21); (2) Only Matthew uses the word “disciples” here; this is a text, then, about the “disciplizing” which He will command in the Great Commission; (3) Instead of “God” here, Matthew speaks of “my Father in heaven.”
In short, Matthew portrays our relationship to Jesus as a new set of family relationships, under the Fatherhood of God; these new relationships transcend those relationships established by blood. In due course, however, we do find the fleshly relatives of Jesus within the body of the believers (cf. Acts 1:14).
Ecclesiastes 5:1-9: Our author is no cynic, and he takes very seriously his relationship to the Most High. Here he speaks of the circumspection require of the man who would approach God. Such a one must search his heart for any signs of an impure and selfish motive. He must guard his steps and, especially, his lips.
Since this man must make no rash promise to God, he must be careful what he says in the divine presence. He must “listen,” an expression which, in this context, implies a promptness to obey.
In worship such a man must avoid what Wayne H. Peterson calls “mechanical apathy.” In this directive, where we detect our author’s affinity to the eighth century prophets, we are given sound counsel as we prepare our hearts for Lent.
Wednesday, February 17
Ash Wednesday: Originally the Lenten fast began on a Monday, as is still the case in the East. Later, however, the fasting was discontinued on Sundays, not only to restore physical strength, but also from the feeling that Sunday was simply too festive a day for such rigor. Thus, the Western churches would be fasting six days a week for six weeks, making a total of 36 days. So, in order to bring that number up to the biblical model of 40, the preceding four days were added, thus making Wednesday the first day of the season. Western Christians marked this day with special signs of repentance, one of which was, like the Ninevites of old, to put ashes on top of their heads as a particular sign of turning away from worldliness and renewed devotion to God. Thus the name Ash Wednesday.
Psalm 32: This psalm (Greek and Latin 31) is the second of the traditional “penitential psalms,” which express the themes of sin, repentance, mercy and forgiveness. It is supremely appropriate to be prayed at the beginning of the Lenten observance.
The correct interpretation of certain psalms comes more readily than others, and the task is rendered easier still if a psalm’s meaning has already been made plain in the New Testament. The New Testament is, after all, the key to the full (that is to say, Christian) understanding of the Old. When the New Testament tells us the meaning of some passage in the Old Testament, then the matter of authentic interpretation, for us Christians, is settled.
Such is certainly the case with Psalm 32, which begins: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity.” Saint Paul explicitly quotes these lines near the beginning of Romans 4 to illustrate “the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works” (v. 6). The apostle’s thesis here, as in Romans generally, is that we believers are not justified before God by our own merits, by the effort of our “works”— by a correct and meticulous observance of the Mosaic Law—but by receiving, in faith, God’s gracious justification of us for the sake of Christ our Redeemer.
Psalm 32, then, is the prayer of those who, standing at the foot of the Cross and forswearing all righteousness of their own, commit their lives and entrust their destinies entirely to God’s forgiving mercy richly and abundantly poured out in the saving, sacrificial blood of His Son, because “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them” (2 Cor. 5:19).
Such is the key to the proper understanding of Psalm 32; such is the correct context for praying the rest of the psalm: “I acknowledge my sin to You, and my iniquity I have not hidden. I said: ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and You forgave the iniquity of my sin.”
Our justification by God is no contrivance, no legal fiction. It truly renders us holy, even glorious, in His sight: “whom he justified, these He also glorified” (Rom. 8:30). Thus, Psalm 32 speaks of the justified as “blessed,” “godly,” “righteous,” and “upright in heart.”
This forgiveness of God has ongoing implications for how we are to live. Inasmuch as we have been “bought at a price” (1 Cor. 6:20), we may no longer live as though we belonged to ourselves: “Do you not know that . . . you are not your own?” (6:19); “He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again” (2 Cor. 5:15).
Those who are justified in Christ will live quite differently, for Christ is our Lord and Teacher as well as our Savior: “God did not call us to uncleanness, but in holiness” (1 Thess. 4:7). Thus this psalm continues: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will guide you with My eye.” How we walk in Christ is of critical importance. We are no
t to take this responsibility lightly, says Psalm 31: “Be not like the horse or like the mule, which have no understanding, which must be harnessed with bit and bridle, else they will not come near you.”
Above all, the forgiveness that God grants us for Christ’s sake is the source of our ongoing confidence, for this same God will never abandon us: “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32). Our psalm thus speaks of the constant refuge we have in this God of mercy, no matter the trials that face us: “For this cause everyone who is godly shall pray to You in a time when You may be found; surely in a flood of great waters they shall not come near him. You are my hiding place; You shall preserve me from trouble; You shall surround me with songs of deliverance. . . . Many sorrows shall be to the wicked; but he who trusts in the Lord, mercy shall surround him.”
Psalm 32 is likewise a call to gladness. Joy is not just an option for the Christian; it is an imperative. As well as a gift of God, joy is a sentiment that the believer is commanded to engage. From the bleakness of his prison cell Paul sent forth this order: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4). Thus our psalm, a canticle celebrating the divine forgiveness of our sins, closes on the theme of godly exultation: “Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, you righteous; and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!
Thursday, February 18
Matthew 13:1-9: Jesus begins this sermon by sitting down (verse 1)—the posture of the teacher—just as when He began the Sermon on the Mount (5:1; cf. 24:3). A close reading of this text discloses a striking parallel with Revelation 7:9-12, where a great multitude stands before God seated on the throne beside the sea (4:6).
This first parable, in which most of the sown seed is lost, summarizes Jesus’ own experience, as narrated in the previous chapter. So little of the Gospel, it seems, has fallen on fertile ground. As directed to the Church, this parable urges a sense of modesty about “success” in fruitful preaching. A great deal of the sown Word will simply be wasted.
This first parable also provides the foundation for the other six; it is the fountain out of which they flow. Thus, the second parable (wheat and tares in verses 24-30), is concerned with the wasted seed that falls by the wayside and is eaten by birds. The “enemy” that sowed the tares in verse 24 is identical with the “wicked one” in verse 19. Similarly, the third parable (mustard seed in verses 31-32) and the fourth (leaven in verse 33) deal with the seed that is sown on stony ground. Parables five (hidden treasure in verse 44) and six (pearl in verses 45-46) are concerned with the seed sown among thorns, while the seventh parable (dragnet in verses 47-50) parallels the seed sown on fertile ground and bringing forth much fruit.
The seed sown by the wayside (verse 4) is the Word preached to the unworthy heart, an interpretation introduced by the quotation from Isaiah in verse 15: “Lest they should understand with their hearts.” The key is an understanding heart (verse 23). The failure in this case has to do with the first imperative of the Shema: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart.”
The seed fallen on rocky ground (verses 5-6) is the Word preached to a shallow soul, which is unprepared for the trials that the reception of the Word will bring. The failure in this case pertains to the second imperative of the Shema: to love God with the whole soul.
The seed sown among thorns (verse 7) is the Word preached to the worldly, who are concerned with wealth and the strength that comes with wealth. In this case the failure is related to the Shema’s command to love God with all one’s strength.
The seed fallen on good ground (verse 8) is the Word preached to someone with an understanding heart. Such a man is described in Psalm 1: the man who “brings forth his fruit in its season.” This is the man who fulfills all the imperatives of the Shema.
Friday, February 19
Matthew 13:10-17: In the Gospel dialogue that immediately follows the parable of the sown seed, only Matthew quotes at length the long text from Isaiah found in verses 14-15. This text well fits the pattern of growing obstinacy on the part of Jesus’ enemies, a theme that has been growing steadily since 11:16. The argument the Lord uses in these verses is obscure, for the plain reason that hardness of heart is an obscure and mysterious subject.
If the workings of divine grace are difficult to comprehend, even more difficult to grasp is man’s willful refusal of that grace. Because a choice is both an effect and a cause, there is a tautology in human choice, and like all tautologies it can only be expressed by what seems a circular argument. That is to say, we choose because we choose. This is what is meant by “free” choice.
Mysteriously, then, the refusal to believe is also the punishment for the refusal to believe. These verses are also a sort of explanation of the following section, particularly verses 19 and 23, which contrast the “understanding” and “non-understanding” of God’s Word.
In this respect the disciples of Jesus are distinguished from the others who hear the parables. The “to you” is contrasted with the “to them” (verse 11). The “whoever has” is distinguished from the “whoever has not” (verse 12). There is an antithesis between those that see (verse 16) and those that do not see (verse 13).
Matthew thus introduces the historico-theological themes of grace and rejection. To those who have, more will be given, while from those who have nothing, even that will be taken away (verse 12). Matthew will return to this irony in the Parable of the Talents (25:29). The judgment aspect of this antithesis will be illustrated in the suicide of Judas (273-10).
Inasmuch as these things cannot be understood, they are called “mysteries” (verse 11—contrasted with the “mystery” in Mark 4:11), indicating God’s free and mysterious (and mysterious because free!) interventions in history through grace and rejection. Matthew, in his own lifetime, was watching the fulfillment of these words of Jesus in the very painful relations between the Church and the Jews.