Friday, March 19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 20

Matthew 22:23-33: The last three controversy stories in this series are concerned with correct interpretation of Holy Scripture. The first of these has to do with a passage in Exodus (3:6,15-16), the next (verses 34-40) with a text in Deuteronomy (6:5), and the last (verses 41-46) with a line from the Psalms (110 [109]:1). Jesus, as He is about to fulfill all of the Hebrew Scriptures over the next few days, shows His enemies things in the Bible that they had either not noticed or seriously misunderstood.

Jesus’ reading of Exodus 3 is arguably the most striking of all (verse 32). He finds, buried and concealed in the story of the Burning Bush, plain evidence of the doctrine of the Resurrection. In doing this, He demonstrates that the true meaning of Holy Scripture is not always on the surface. Would we otherwise have guessed that the doctrine of the Resurrection was proclaimed from the Burning Bush? This style of reading of Holy Scripture, which uncovers deeper meaning concealed in the Sacred Text and in the event narrated there, is the “teaching” (didache–verse 33) of Jesus, and it has always flourished in the theology of the Christian Church.

In this section Matthew adds the Sadducees to the growing list of conspirators, which includes the chief priests (21;2,45), the elders (21:33), the Herodians (verse 16), and the Pharisees (verse 15; 21:15).

As for the Sadducees, they did not believe in a doctrine of the resurrection. It was the Pharisees’ adherence to such a doctrine that rendered the latter party closer and more receptive to the Gospel (cf. Acts 23:6-9). The Sadducees’ disbelief in a resurrection, which is reflected in today’s reading from Matthew, came in part from their rejection of all the Hebrew scriptures except the Pentateuch. The explicit doctrine of the Resurrection, which commences in the prophetic writings, was thus lost on them.

We may remark that Matthew shows considerable animosity toward the Sadducees, mentioning them in contexts where they are not mentioned by the other gospel writers, and always unfavorably (cf. Matthew 3:7; 16:1,6,11,12; 22:34).

The policy of the Sadducees to side with the Roman overlords (which the Pharisees did not) had rendered them comparatively unpopular with the people. Alone among the gospel writers, Matthew tells of the crowd’s delight at their discomfiting by Jesus (verse 33).

After Jerusalem’s destruction at the hand of the Romans in A.D. 70, the prestige of the Sadducees disappeared completely. Because they were a priestly party, their services were no longer required after the loss of the temple.

We may also remark that the “case” posed by the Sadducees actually is recorded in the story of Sarah contained in Tobit 3:8; 6:14. She really did outlive seven husbands!

It is further instructive to observe that the theme of the Resurrection is introduced by the Lord’s own enemies, by way of denying it. It is the doctrine of the Resurrection that Jesus will prove within just a few days, to the consternation of these enemies.

Sunday, March 21

Matthew 25:14-30: In the third story, about the three stewards who receive "talents" from their Master, once again the passage of time is integral to their testing. "After a long time," says our Lord, "the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them" (25:19). There is no instant salvation in the Christian life, that is to say.

The point of comp
arison with the rest of Matthew’s context is found in the Master’s return to settle accounts. This is a reference to the parousia of the Son of Man, the subject of all the parables in this series. Once again, and for the third time (24:48; 25:5), the parousia is delayed (verse 19; contrast Luke 19:15).

Everything has to do with the ability to persevere through the passage of time. After all, we do not remain the same through the passage of time. Time changes things, and we must cope. Events affect our thoughts and sentiments. This coping with the passing of time is an integral part of our testing before God.

A "talent" was a unit of money in Roman times. It was something to be invested, in order to make a profit. The metaphorical sense of "talent," meaning a natural gift with which a human being has been endowed, comes entirely from this parable. Indeed, the metaphorical use of this word has become so common that we do not realize that this usage was originally a metaphor.

The Master makes an investment in His servants. They work for Him. The talents belong to the Master, not the servants. Their responsibility is what is known as stewardship, and proper stewardship is the subject matter of the judgment that follows the Master’s return.

This parable is in great part an allegory. The master who departs is Christ our Lord, who has gone into heaven but will return in due course. The talents are the resources that He leaves to the stewardship of His servants, so that they may increase the yield thereof. His return is the end of history, and His calling to account is the final judgment.

The differences among the five, two, and one talents, however, are probably not meant to be interpreted allegorically. The differences simply mean that some of God’s servants are given more responsibilities than others. The essential moral concern is that each steward is to work with what he has been given. He is not responsible for what he has not been given.

Two of the servants are good stewards and justify the Master’s confidence in them (verses 16-17). They receive “the joy of your Lord” (verses 21,23), which is eternal life. It is the equivalent of the marriage celebration of the last parable (verse 10) and the “Kingdom” of the next (verse 34). It is encouraging to observe the terms in which these parables describe the reward of the righteous. The faithful man is called "blessed" (24:46; 25:34). He becomes a guest at the wedding (25:10) and enters into the Lord’s joy (25:21,23). He becomes a "ruler" (24:47; 25:21,23). He inherits a kingdom (25:34).

The third servant describes himself as “afraid.” Because he refused even to try, the Master calls him “lazy.” Obviously they assess his character quite differently. Self-approval does not count for much with God.

The third servant “buried his talent,” an expression that is still common (verse 18). We observe that he blamed the Master for his own failure (verse 25). The Master’s response, in the second part of verse 26, should be read as a question: “You knew, did you . . . .?”

Rejected at the judgment (verses 27,30), this lazy, wicked servant is like the five improvident maidens in the preceding parable (verse 12) and the goats in the next parable (verse 41).

St. Gregory the Great does see an allegorical meaning in the one steward’s hiding his talent "in the earth." He writes, "To hide one’s talent in the earth is to occupy our God-given intelligence in purely earthly matters, not to seek spiritual profit, never to lift our heart above earthly considerations. For there are some who received the gift of understanding, but who nonetheless understand only the flesh."

The rejection of the reprobate comes as the conclusion of each of the parables in this series (24:50-51; 25:12,30,41-45). Each parable could have ended with the approval of those who were faithful, but in no case is this what we find. Each parable ends on a note of harshness, in a series that reinforces the sense of seriousness with respect to the divine judgment. One cannot read this section of Matthew carefully and feel disposed to adopt a frivolous attitude about the return of the Son of Man.

Alas, some early Christians, as we know from the Thessalonian epistles, made the imminent expectation of the parousia an excuse for laziness.

Monday, March 22

Psalm 35: The meaning of Psalm 35 (Greek and Latin 34) is not difficult to discern, because it is one of those psalms for which the New Testament explicitly provides the proper “voice” and setting. The voice speaking in Psalm 35 is the voice of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and the psalm’s theological context is the drama of His Passion and death.

Among the many truths that the Lord taught the fledgling Church on the night of His betrayal was the very sobering truth that believers would suffer persecution just as He did: “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you” (John 15:18). Thus began that night’s prediction of the coming sufferings of the Church for His sake. The Lord went on to say: “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (15:20).

The Passion of the Lord and the subsequent suffering of His Church are not mere historical phenomena, He told us; they are rooted, rather, in a point of theology—man’s deliberate ignorance of, even his resolved hatred of, God: “But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know Him who sent Me. . . . He who hates Me hates My Father also. . . . but now they have seen and also hated both Me and My Father” (John 15:21, 23, 24).

At this place in His discourse our Lord explicitly appealed to our psalm, Psalm 35, to show that this hatred and this persecution by the world are a realization of prophecy: “But this happened that the word might be fulfilled which is written in their law, ‘They hated Me without a cause’” (15:25). Thus Jesus Himself gave us His own interpretation of our psalm. Indeed, He here indicated the proper meaning of several psalms, because the reference to His being “hated without cause” appears two other times in the Psalter (69:4; 109:4).

These, then, are psalms in which the praying voice is that of Christ Himself, and, by reason of her sharing in the sufferings of Christ, the Church prays these psalms in His Person. Psalm 35 is a prayer of the Lord’s Passion and death, and it is therefore the prayer of anyone who in truth can say: “Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith: that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:8–11).

Psalm 35, a prayer descriptive of this spiritual struggle, is much concerned that the ignorance and hatred of God not ultimately prevail. In line after line it is a prayer for vindication: “Let them be put to shame and dishonor who seek after my life! Let them be turned back and confounded who devise evil against me!” In all such lines it is important to remember that it is the voice of Christ. It is Christ who prays, “Let them be like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the Lord driving them on! Let their way be dark and slippery, with the angel of the Lord pursuing them!” The prayer of Christ here is a battle prayer, for He wages war on the forces of sin, darkness, and destruction: “Let ruin come upon them unawares.”

The vindication sought by this psalm is not some sort of petty revenge. This is the prayer of Christ doing battle with the forces of sin
and death, looking forward to the hour of His victory, when His very body, brought down to the grave, will rise again in the paschal victory: “And my soul shall be joyful in the Lord; it shall rejoice in His salvation. All my bones shall say, ‘Lord, who is like You, delivering the poor from him who is too strong for him.’”

Salvation, as understood by Christians, is attained by God’s vindication of His own righteousness in the Resurrection of Christ, “who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification” (Rom. 4:25). This truth is the key to our psalm. It is the prayer of those, in Christ, still struggling as they fill up in their flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ (Col. 1:24). In Christ theirs is this prayer for victory over sinful ignorance, hatred, and death: “Do not keep silence. O Lord, do not be far from me. Stir up Yourself, and awake to my vindication, to my cause, my God and my Lord. . . . And my tongue shall speak of Your righteousness and of Your praise all the day long.”

Tuesday, March 23

Matthew 21:33-46: In Matthew, as well as in Mark (12:1-12) and Luke (20:9-19), the parable of the Wicked Vinedressers comes as a climax to a series of controversy stories involving Jesus and His enemies just a few days before His arrest, and each account ends with the comment that this parable is what determined the purpose of the Lord’s enemies to kill him. It is obvious to them that in this parable Jesus is giving His own interpretation of the entire history of the Chosen People, culminating in their rejection of Him and their resolve to put Him to death.

Jesus here identifies himself as the Son, and, as Son, the Heir. The outline of this parable is followed very closely in the opening lines of the Epistle to the Hebrews: "God, who at sundry times and in divers manners, hath spoken in times past to the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by a Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things."

This parable is also one of the Gospel accounts where it is possible to discern the Lord’s original, spoken Aramaic clearly shining through the inspired Greek text. He calls himself "Son" rejected by the vinedressers and then goes on immediately to speak of himself as the "stone" rejected by the builders. Actually this was a play on words, the Aramaic word for "son" being ben, and the word for "stone" being eben. The drama of that moment is still preserved in this striking detail.

In Matthew’s version, this parable bears yet another resemblance to the Epistle to the Hebrews, by including the detail that the Son was murdered outside of the vineyard (verse 39, contrasted with Mark 12:8). That is to say, outside of Jerusalem. The Epistle to the Hebrews makes the same point and then draws a moral lesson from it. Speaking of the Mosaic ordinance requiring that the bodies of the animals sacrificed as sin offerings be burned outside of the camp, the author of Hebrews comments: "Therefore, Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore, let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach" (Hebrews 13:12-13).

We may remark, regarding this section, that the preferable manuscripts omit verse 44, which appears to have been borrowed from Luke 20:18.

Wednesday, March 24

Matthew 20:17-28: Matthew’s version of the story (20:20–23) differs from Mark’s in presenting Zebedee’s wife as the one who approached the Lord in order to request a favor on behalf of her two sons. Nothing would be easier, of course, than to regard the wife of Zebedee as simply the unscrupulous promoter of her sons’ selfish aspirations. Scenes of ambitious mothers endeavoring to promote the political fortunes of their sons are absolutely commonplace in ancient history, with examples from Assyria (Sammurammat, mother of Adad-Nerari III), Macedonia (Olympias, mother of Alexander), Rome (Agrippina the Younger, mother of Nero), and so forth. The Bible’s memorable instance is the mother of Solomon, Bathsheba, in 1 Kings 1:11f.

For all that, patristic and medieval comments on the incident tend to “go easy” on Zebedee’s wife, excusing her request as a weakness born of excessive maternal affection (Gregory Nazianzen), pardonable anxiety (Ambrowse), “womanly error” (Paul the Deacon),” “simplicity and inexperience” (Origen), or “female enthusiasm” (Haymo of Halberstadt). Indeed, does not Mark’s very omission of the detail indicate that the fault lay rather with the sons than with their mother? Surely the whole idea was theirs, not their mother’s, it was argued (by Paschasius Radbertus). Her two sons had prevailed upon her (Eric of Auxerre)), thinking thereby more easily to prevail upon the Lord (John Chrysostom).

Whatever the merits of these suggestions, I believe they do less than full justice to a certain subtlety in Matthew’s account, for he is surely implicating the mother in her sons’ failure to understand the message of the cross. This woman, elsewhere known as Salome, Matthew calls simply “the mother of Zebedee’s sons.” The detail is certainly significant, inasmuch as this designation, “mother of Zebedee’s sons,” appears only twice in the entire New Testament, both times in Matthew: here in 20:20 and later, in 27:56, at the foot of the cross.

In the first of these instances Zebedee’s wife is portrayed as an enterprising and somewhat ambitious worldling who fails to grasp the message of the cross, while in the later scene we find her standing vigil as her Lord dies, now a model of the converted and enlightened Christian who follows Jesus to the very end. This marvelous correspondence between the two scenes—a before and after—is proper to Matthew and points to a delicate nuance of his thought.

Thursday, March 25

Hebrews 2:1-118: In these verses we find our earliest extant Christian commentary on Psalm 8, which is a treatise on the Incarnation. The question under consideration is “What is man?” or, if the translator is sensitive to feminist concern, “What is a human being?” That is to say, in some recent translations of the Psalms, this question introduces considerations of anthropology.

According to the author of Hebrews, however, the reliable way to a correct anthropology—the accurate response to the question, “What is a human being?”—depends on the answer to a prior theological question: “What do you think of the Christ? Whose son in He?” In other words, the proper address to anthropology is through the gate of Christology.

The most correct wording of the dogma of the Incarnation is the one to which we are accustomed: “He became man.” This translation, which leaves the implied article undetermined, means Christ is the archetype of man, bearing all of humanity in Himself. “It was for the new man that human nature was established from the beginning,” wrote St. Nicholas Kavasilas; “the old Adam was not the model of the new, it was the new Adam that was the model of the old.” Christ is how the author of Hebrews approaches the subject of human beings.

This approach to anthropology, taken from Holy Scripture, is normative in Christian thought. According to the Christian faith, when God gave our forefather Adam dominion over the earth and its fullness, that act was a prophecy of the universal subjection of creation to the reign of Christ. Such is the true meaning of Psalm 8: “You have made Him to have dominion over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under His feet.”

According to this perspective, Christ is no divine afterthought; He is the original meaning of humanity. Christ is what God had in mind when He reached down and formed that first lump of mud into a man. Again in the words of St Nicholas Kavasilas: “It was towards Christ that man’s mind and desire were oriented. We were given
a mind that we might know Christ, and desire, that we might run to Him; and memory, that we might remember Him, because even at the time of creation it was He who was the archetype.”

According to this interpretation of Psalm 8, “we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.” That is to say, God's Son assumed our flesh in order obediently to die in that flesh, and this is how the human race was redeemed.

In the second century, Irenaeus of Lyons followed the same theological line as the author of Hebrews, but he adorned it by introducing the Pauline contrast between Christ and Adam. According to Irenaeus the Word's assumption of the flesh was required for our salvation because Adam's sin had been committed in the flesh. Sin in the flesh required salvation in the flesh. He explained, "So the Word was made flesh in order that sin, destroyed by means of that same flesh through which it had gained mastery and taken hold and lorded it, should no longer be in us," and "that so He might join battle on behalf of our forefathers and vanquish through Adam what had stricken us through Adam" (Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 31).

Friday, March 26

Matthew 20:29-34: This story, found also in Mark 10:46-52 and Luke 18:35-43, is linked to the city of Jericho, though not in exactly the same way in each gospel. In Mark’s account Jesus has entered and is the course of leaving the city when the blind man invokes Him. In Luke’s version this event occurs as Jesus is approaching Jericho. Indeed, in the Lukan story Jesus, on leaving Jericho, encounters the publican Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), a narrative not found in the other gospels. Here in Matthew, on the other hand, the meeting with the blind men occurs when Jesus is leaving Jericho. What is to be said about this threefold discrepancy?

First, it presents no problem from the perspective of history. The site of Jericho shifted about somewhat over the centuries, as archeologists have demonstrated. One of these shifts took place during the very period under consideration, when Herod the Great constructed a winter palace near the ancient site of Jericho, and a new settlement rose around it. That is to say, it was possible to be both entering and leaving Jericho simultaneously.

Second, there appears to be no theological or literary significance to the differences among the three Evangelists on this point. If there is such a significance, the present writer has failed to discover it.

It appears that in Matthew’s two accounts of blind men (here and in 9:27-31), both stories, as they were narrated in the Church’s preaching prior to the written Gospels, came to be told in much the same way. This would account for the similarities between them, such as the identical use of certain expressions: passing through (paragein), touching (hapto), and following (akoluo). We observe, for instance, that the first of these two verbs are not found in the parallel accounts in Mark and Luke.

The major difference of Matthew from Mark and Luke here is, of course, that Matthew has two blind men instead of one. This is surely another instance of Matthew combining two accounts of the healing of blind men from Mark (8:22-26; 10:46-52) into a single story. Why does Matthew do this? Well, his construction effectively juxtaposes these two men with the two sons of Zebedee, who are symbolically healed of their spiritual blindness with respect to the mystery of the Cross. Thus healed, says the text, “they followed “him” (20:34). They become part of the congregation that will accompany Israel’s true King into Jerusalem to accomplish the mystery of Redemption.

To “follow” Christ means to live by the pattern of the Cross, to pursue the implications of Baptism and the Holy Eucharist, the one a mystic identification with His death and resurrection, the other a proclaiming of His death “until He comes.” These two men have accepted the challenge just made to James and John.

These blind men, calling on Jesus with the Messianic title, “Son of David,” ask for the opening of their eyes, an expression which in prophetic literature is associated with the Messianic times (cf. Isaiah 29:18; 35:5).

In fact, one notes in Matthew a disposition to call Jesus the “Son of David” (a title introduced in the very first verse of this Gospel), when He miraculously heals. We observe this in both healings of the blind men (here and in 9:30), the blind and mute demoniac (12:22-24), and the Canaanite woman’s daughter (15:21-28). These healings are signs of the coming of the Messiah, foretold by the prophets (cf. 4:23; 9:35; 10:1).