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.
Saturday, February 20
Matthew 13:18-23: We have already reflected that the Parable of the Sower follows the outline of the Shema. Accordingly, the parable’s interpretation begins with the command, “Hear!” (verse 18) In the Greek wording, in fact, this command carries an emphatic pronoun, unusual with an imperative verb: “You!” This pronoun serves to emphasize the distinction between Jesus’ followers and the “others.”
The first group in this parable, symbolized in the seed sown by the wayside (verse 19), fails in the matter of the “heart” (a detail missing in Mark 4:15). These do not love God with their whole heart, a condition that renders them vulnerable to attack from the Evil One. Their hearts, which have grown dull, have no understanding (verses 14-15).
The second group, symbolized in the rocky ground, is shallow, so the Word cannot take root (verse 20). These will fall away at the first sign of trouble (verse 21). Matthew had already witnessed such trials in his own lifetime (10:18,21-23). Those who thus falter have failed to love God with their whole soul.
The third group, symbolized by the sowing among the thorns, permits the care for wealth and worldly concern to strangle the life from the Gospel (verse 22). They have failed to love God with all their might.
The fourth group, symbolized in the good ground that receives the seed, has the grace of “understanding,” because of which they bring forth fruit (verse 23). They have fruitful lives. They are later symbolized in the two productive servants in the Parable of the Talents (25:16-17).
In Matthew’s version of this parable-interpretation, we note his special emphasis on “understanding” in verses 19 and 23. According to Matthew, a special type of understanding is characteristic of true discipleship. Thus, Matthew omits both references to a failure of understanding on the part of the disciples in Mark 4:10, 13.
And at the end of the parables, in Matthew 13:51, the disciples admit that they do understand what the Lord has been saying. For more evidence of Matthew’s emphasis on understanding as a characteristic of discipleship, one may compare Mark 9:9-13 with Matthew 17:9-13; and Mark 9:30-32 with Matthew 17:22-23.
Sunday, February 21
The First Sunday of Lent: As we begin this sacred season of spiritual striving, it is useful to reflect on the history and meaning of Lent.
Originally the word Lent, now associated exclusively with the observance of the liturgical year, was simply the Anglo-Saxon for “spring” and had no directly religious significance. In English usage, however, its reference was gradually limited to mean the season of preparation for Easter that does, in fact, occur in spring.
In most other languages of Western Christianity the word for Lent is some variant of “forty,” derived from the Latin quadragesima. Traditionally this was a period of 40 days of fasting in imitation of the Lord himself, who observed exactly that length of time in fasting prior to the beginning of his earthly ministry. It was also associated with the 40-day fast of Moses on Mount Sinai and of Elijah as he journeyed to that same mountain.
As early as the second century we already find Easter being the preferred time for the baptism of new Christians. The reasons are rather obvious. It is in the Sacrament of Baptism, after all, that Christians are mystically buried and rise with Christ (cf. Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12).
It may surprise modern Christians, however, to learn how important it was to earlier believers that some period of prayer and fasting, by way of preparation, should precede the ritual of Baptism. Even the Apostle Paul prayed and fasted for three days prior to being baptized (Acts 9:9,11,18).
In The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (Didache), a work from Syria probably to be dated before A.D. 100, there is the prescription that says: “Prior to Baptism, both he who is baptizing and he who is being baptized should fast, along with any others who can. And be sure that the one who is to be baptized fasts for one or two days beforehand” (7.4). One notes in this context that this fasting is a sort of joint or community effort, involving more than the personal devotion of the one being baptized.
That communal aspect of the pre-baptismal fasting is even clearer in a text some half-century or so later. Writing a defense of the Christians to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the Christian apologist Justin described how newcomers to the faith went about getting themselves baptized: “As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their past sins, while we pray and fast with them. Then they are brought by us to where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated” (First Apology 61). Written in Rome, this text also shows that the pre-baptismal fast by Christian congregations was not a practice limited to Syria.
Indeed, within the next half-century we find that discipline referred to in North Africa. In chapter 20 of his treatise On Baptism, the Christian apologist Tertullian remarks: “They who are about to be baptized ought to pray with repeated prayers, fasts, and bending of the knee, and vigils all the night through, along with the confession of all their prior sins.” He does not explicitly say that the fasting period should last 40 days, but he does link it to the 40-day fast of Jesus recorded in the Gospels.
Gradually, however, the Christians did settle on a period of 40 days, and the c
ustom was so firmly in place by the year 325 that the Council of Nicaea, the same council that definitively fixed the canon of the New Testament, also determined that the 40 days preceding Easter should be a special time of prayer and fasting in preparation for the baptisms to be done on that day. Such were the origins of the season of Lent, which Christians from the fourth century onwards were very convinced were rooted in the time and teaching of the apostles themselves.
The fasting observed during this season is not, needless to say, total. Over the centuries it especially came to mean simply a tougher, more disciplined diet, excluding more “substantial” foods like meat and dairy products. Such fasting is accompanied by other practices of restraint, to encourage concentration on the things of God and the health of the soul. For example, many Christians foreswear watching television during this season. These disciplines are normally part of a stricter seasonal regimen, of which an important component is giving more time and attention to the study of Holy Scripture.
Monday, February 22
Matthew 13:24-35: Matthew replaces the parable in Mark 4:21-25 with this parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, which is proper to his own gospel. It is joined to the parables that follow by the common image of growth. So much is this the case that Matthew postpones the explanation of the Wheat and the Weeds until after the parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven.
As we shall see in that delayed explanation, the first of these parables is about judgment, and in cases of judgment there is usually the danger of misjudging. The difficulty of distinguishing the weeds from the wheat is that, in their early stages, they look very much alike. So the Lord commands that both be allowed to grow to maturity, because only in their maturity are they easily distinguished. Thus, the point of the parable is that finality in judgment should be delayed until “all the facts are in.” Indeed, by delaying the explanation of this parable until verses 36-43, Matthew is illustrating its point.
The six parables that follow the Parable of the Sower should be regarded as commentaries on the latter. The first of these, the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, addresses a problem perceived in the seed sown by the wayside (verse 4). That seed, we recall, was snatched away by the Evil One (verse 19). This Evil One reappears in the present parable, where he is identified as the “enemy” and the “Devil” (verses 25,28,39). Those whose hearts are dull (verse 15) are especially under the influence of this “enemy,” even though they live side-by-side with the saints. The difference between the two will be settled at the end of time. (If Matthew intends the Weeds to represent the Jews–a view certainly consonant with this section of his gospel—then his view of salvation history is far less complex than that of Paul—cf. Romans 11:11-36).
The temporary co-existence of the wheat and the weeds will appear later in the co-existence of the good and bad fish (verses 47-50), the wise and foolish maidens (25:1-13), and the sheep and the goats (25:31-46). In all of these parables the separation does not come until the end, the time of the judgment and harvest.
These latter images do convey the sense of delay and the passage of time, exactly as in the Lord’s Final Discourse (24:48; 25:5,19).
Our third parable, that of the Mustard Seed (verses 31-32) is also about growth. Unlike the previous parable, it is found in the other Synoptics (Mark 4:30-32; Luke 13:18-19).
This parable and the one that follows it—the Leaven in verse 33—address the second part of the Parable of the Sower; to wit, the seed that falls on rocky ground (verses 5-6). That rocky ground, we recall, symbolized those shallow folk unable to love God with the whole soul. The seed that fell there, unable to bring forth fruit, is now contrasted with the growth of the mustard seed and the leaven.
The mustard seed is sown, says Matthew, “in his field,” an expression not found in this place in Mark and Luke. It appears that this field represents the world, into which God’s Son entered, along with His missionaries who continue to sow the seed. This image of the field also ties the present parable back to the one before it (verses 24,27).
When the very tiny mustard seed grows, its bush becomes a veritable tree, where birds may live. These birds, in turn, represent those who take shelter in the Church through the apostolic preaching. In his own day Matthew saw this happening.
The theme of growth is sustained in our fourth parable, that of the Leaven (verse 33). This leaven is said to be “concealed,” somewhat as the mustard seed is concealed in the earth. In both parables there is an emphasis on something rather little becoming something rather large.
The Parable of the Leaven is followed by an explanation of why Jesus speaks in this symbolic language (verses 34-35). Matthew finds this explanation in the “fulfillment” (hopos plerothe) of a line of the Psalter (Psalms 77 :2). Such speech is “hidden” (kekrymmena), rather like the leaven was “hidden” (enekrypsen) in the dough.
Tuesday, February 23
Matthew 13:36-42: Matthew 13:36-43: Like the parable that it explains, this explanation is proper to Matthew. As in the case of the Parable of the Sower (verse 10), the explanation of the Wheat and the Weeds is given to the disciples in private—“in the house,” eis ten oikian. As an interpretation of history, it pertains to the divine mysteries; therefore, it is not shared outside the household of God. It is strictly “in house.”
This distinctive feature of “the mysteries of the Kingdom of heaven” (verse 11) points to an important distinction of Christian theology, a distinction readily detected in the New Testament. Certain aspects of the Gospel are shared with the world at large, because they pertain to the kerygma, the message of God to the world, in order to bring the world to faith. These include the Lordship of Jesus, repentance from sin, justification by faith, Baptism and the rites pertinent to it, the return of Christ at the end of history, and the final judgment.
We find a synopsis of these Gospel teachings in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.” Hebrews refers to these things as “the foundation,” themelion,. They are the “elementary principles of Christ” (ton tes arches tou Christou logon–6:1-2). The “doctrine of baptisms,” for example, explained the difference between John’s baptism and the Christian Sacrament (cf. Acts 18:25-26; 19:3-5); one joined the Church through the Christian Sacrament, not John’s baptism.
Because they are apologetic, introductory, and initiatory, we find all these elementary components of the Gospel throughout the sermons in the Acts of the Apostles, inasmuch as those sermons were chiefly directed to non-Christians.
The Epistle to the Hebrews goes on to speak, however, of other Gospel truths, which are described as “perfection” (eis ten teleioteta). These Gospel truths are intended only for the ears of those who have repented, are converted, and are now members of the Church through Baptism. Indeed, Baptism itself is the point of transition from the unconverted to the converted.
In the sermons of the Acts of the Apostles we rarely find mention of these deeper “in house” doctrines (Acts 20:18-35 represents an exception, this sermon being addressed to bishops and presbyters), but they are found in many places in the apostolic epistles. These include the doctrines of the Most Holy Trinity (1 Thessalonians 1:3-10; 2 Corinthians 13:13), the Holy Eucharist (1 Corinthians 10:16-17; 11:23-26), the dialectical structure of salvation history (Romans 11:11-32), and
the life in Christ (passim throughout Paul, Peter, John, James, and so forth). These subjects are properly addressed only to repentant, converted, and initiated Christians, not to those who still live and understand according to the flesh.
Although the field in this parable is identified with the world (kosmos–verse 38), the weeds are said to be taken away, not from the world, but from the Kingdom (verse 41). So which is it? The ambiguity here led to a line of interpretation chiefly associated with St. Augustine; namely, the Church was seen to contain both faithful Christians and those who were Christians in hardly more than name. Indeed, the latter seemed to have been placed in the Church by the devil chiefly for the purpose of making life difficult for the Church. Indeed, even an apostle can be called “Satan”! (16:21)
According to this Augustinian interpretation, the present parable is about life in the Church. It serves as a warning to Christians not to be overly eager to separate the two groups—the sinners and the righteous—who are found together in the life of the Church. Although the New Testament certainly authorizes proper excommunication from the body of believers (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:1-5), the explanation of this parable suggests a certain measure of caution in its application. Sometimes, we are warned, the good may perish with the evil in such a case, because a high degree of discernment is required for the proper application of the principle. At the final judgment (cf. 25:32), however, there will be no mistaking the separation of good from evil.
Wednesday, February 24
Matthew 13:44-52: This remaining section of the Parables of the Kingdom is completely proper to Matthew. It contains three parables: the Hidden Treasure (verse 44), the Pearl (verses 45-46), and the Dragnet (verses 47-50). These are followed by a brief exchange between Jesus and the disciples with respect to their understanding of the parables (verses 51-52).
The parables of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl pertain to the third seed sown in the Parable of the Sower—the seed sown among thorns (verse 7). That seed, we recall, was strangled by “the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches” (verse 22). This preoccupation with wealth is addressed in the parables of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl; in each case the man who finds the treasure or pearl gives up all that he has in order to obtain the desired prize. Following the outline of the Shema, such a one loves God with all his strength.
These two parables, concerned with the cost of discipleship, are a corrective against any notion that, because grace is absolutely free and undeserved, grace makes no demands on us. The divine irony is that what is free may, in fact, cost us everything. In both cases, in fact, the discoverer sacrifices “whatever he has,” or “all that he has”; this is the cost of discipleship (cf. 18:21,27).
The discovered treasure (verse 44), like the leaven and the seed, is described as “hidden” (keykrymmeno). The discoverer then “hides” (ekrypsen) the treasure again. Clearly these parables appreciate the hidden quality of what is worth having! This metaphor of the treasure, like the pearl, is found all through Israel’s Wisdom literature (Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Baruch, The Wisdom of Solomon) with reference to the Torah, Wisdom, and the Word of God.
Because of this hidden quality of the Kingdom of Heaven, not everyone recognizes its worth. Those that do, however, must be prepared to sacrifice everything else in order to attain it. They will not allow the “the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches,” like thorns, to choke off the growth of the sown seed. They will love God with all their strength.
The seventh and last parable, the dragnet (verse 47-50), is the story of the Last Judgment. It occupies in this dominical discourse the same place occupied by the Parable of the Sheep and Goats in the Lord’s final discourse (25:31-46). Here in verse 49, as in 24:31 and 25:31, the ministers of the final judgment are the angels.
As long as the net is concealed under the water, the bad and good fish are mixed together, like the wheat and the weeds, and the sheep and the goats. The day of judgment comes, however, when the net is dragged up onto the shore, and its contents are made perfectly clear.
These parables are followed by one final parable, having to do with the “understanding” of those scribes who have been “disciplized” (13:52 — the same verb as in the Great Commission in 28:29). These are the authorized preachers of the Gospel, whose authority comes through those men who received it from the Lord in that scene described at the end of Matthew. On the transmission of this authority, see 2 Timothy 2:2.
Thursday, February 25
Matthew 13:53-58: Nazareth’s negative response to Jesus indicates a new level of resistance among the Jews with respect to the Gospel. We will see this resistance intensify through chapters 14-16.
This section begins with the normal formula that ends each of the five dominical discourses in Matthew (verse 53; cf. 7:28; 11:1; 19:1; 26:1): “When Jesus had ended these sayings . .”
The reaction of the Nazarenes is expressed by their wonder at Jesus’ unexpected authority. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount the wonder of the people expressed a positive tone (7:28-29), but now it becomes an expression of skepticism (verse 56), scandal (verse 57), and unbelief (verse 58). They do not even refer to Jesus by name but speak contemptuously of “this man” (verses 54,56). Commenting on this verse, Father Augustine Stock remarked, “Jesus, the final prophet of God, experiences the definitive rejection of Israel; thus does he recapitulate the rejection of all of the persecuted prophets before him.”
As the ancient Fathers of the Christian Church were careful to remark—along with the entire Roman and Eastern traditions, as well as Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and all of the major 16th century Protestant Reformers without exception—the reference to Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” is no evidence that these persons were children of Mary. Because neither Hebrew nor Aramaic (the language spoken by Jesus and the apostles) has a special word for “cousin” or a generic word for blood relative, the words “brother” and “sister” do not necessarily mean what we would mean by these words in English. Indeed, most of the time, in the Bible, they do not.
In fact, because individuals usually have more cousins and other relatives than they do actual brothers and sisters, these words in Hebrew and Aramaic do not even normally mean what we would mean by them in English. Unless there is clear evidence to the contrary, the expressions “brother and sister” in Hebrew and Aramaic only rarely mean what these terms men in English.
In addition, that idiomatic feature of Hebrew and Aramaic also influences the Greek text of Holy Scripture, including the New Testament. (Those of us today who have friends from the Middle East and North Africa know that this characteristic of their native Arabic has also permeated their use of English. Someone from Egypt or the Sudan, when he speaks of his “brother” or “sister” almost never means what we native English-speakers mean by those terms.)
It should not be a matter of wonder, consequently, that the Lord, as He was about to die, entrusted the care of His mother to someone outside of His immediate family (John 19:27), for there is no evidence that He had any other immediate family.
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).