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).
Lazarus Saturday, March 27
John 11:1-46: We come now to Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem, the place of the culminating events effective of our redemption. This chapter, the last in the “book of signs,” narrates the greatest of these signs: the raising of Lazarus. This event, foreshadowing the resurrection of Jesus, was a literal fulfillment of His prophecy in 5:28-29: “The hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth.”
This sickness of Lazarus, Jesus declares, will not finish in death—death will not have the final word—-but in “the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (verse 4). The theme of the divine glory in this chapter (verse 40) ties the raising of Lazarus to the first of Jesus’ Signs, the miracle at Cana (2:11).
The reference in verse 2—“It was Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped His feet with her hair”—is a good example of John’s assumption that his readers were familiar with other events in Jesus’ life that were not recorded in this gospel: “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book” (20:30). It is uncertain whether this anointing is to be identified with other and similar actions recorded in the New Testament.
The implied request from the two sisters (verse 3) is strikingly similar to that of Jesus’ mother in 2:3. In both cases we discern petitions made to Jesus with a quiet deference, but also with a firm faith.
Moreover, Jesus’ reactions in the two cases are strikingly similar: an apparent rejection followed by an effective compliance. As these two instances are the first and last signs in the “book of signs,” their similarity is noteworthy. In both cases the sign is said to manifest Jesus’ glory (verses 4,11; 2:11; cf. 9:3).
In seeking the intervention of Jesus, the sisters of Lazarus simply state the gravity of the situation (verse 3). Their restraint closely resembles that of the Mother of Jesus at Cana (2:3), and just as Jesus at first showed an apparent indifference on that earlier occasion (2:4), so here He delays His response to the sisters’ request (verse 6). The manifestation of the divine glory will not be rushed.
At the same time, the evangelist emphasizes Jesus’ love for this family at Bethany (verse 5), whose fait He is putting to trial (verse 26).
Jesus’ delay in going south is repetitious of the instance in 7:3,10. Rather consistently in John, Jesus maintains a schedule different from—and usually slower than—that of His friends.
The Greek of the verb “loved” in verse 5 (“Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus”) is in the imperfect tense, indicating Jesus’ sustained, habitual affection for this family (egapa; Vulgate diligebat). The wording of verse 6 suggests that the Lord’s delay in going to Bethany was intended to demonstrate (hos oun; Vulgate ut ergo) that love!
The delay of two days (verse 6) puts the reader in mind of the time span in Jesus’ resurrection.
The imperfect tense of “were seeking” (ezetoun—verse 8; Vulgate quaerebant) indicates the constant danger to Jesus in Jerusalem: “Then the Jews took up stones again to stone Him. . . . Therefore they sought again to seize Him” (10:31,39).
Jesus’ pronouncements about the light in verses 9-10 continue a theme introduced in 9:4: “We must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; the night is coming when no one can work.” The conflict between light and darkness is John’s interpretation of the events and confrontations in the several preceding chapters. In the present story Jesus tells the disciples that the time has now arrived for determined action in that conflict. He brings the discussion abruptly back to Lazarus, whom He knows (without explanation) to be dead.
When Jesus at length discloses His resolve to return to Jerusalem (verses 12-13), the disciples, understandably alarmed, remind Him of the dangers to His life (cf. 5:16-18; 7:19,25; 8:59; 10:31,39). Ignoring this concern, Jesus refers to the work yet to be accomplished before the darkness falls (cf. 9:4; 13:30).
Following a pattern pervasive in John (3:4; 4:15,33; 6:52; 8:18,33), the disciples misunderstand the Lord’s reference to the “sleep” of Lazarus (verses 11-13; Mark 5:19; 1 Thessalonians 4:14). The Christian reader will recognize, nonetheless, that their misunde
rstanding expresses as the very thesis of the story, as of the Gospel itself: “If Lazarus has fallen asleep, then he will be saved”—sothesetai.
Jesus views the death of Lazarus as another occasion—like Cana (2:11)—to bring the disciples to faith in Him (verse 15). Such faith is the very purpose for which John writes (20:30-31).
Thomas’s comment—“ “Let us also go, that we may die with Him”—is prompted by the danger awaiting them at Jerusalem. The detail, “die with him,” in which Thomas apparently meant Lazarus, ironically points also to the death of Jesus. Thomas thus gives voice to a fundamental thesis of the Christian faith, according to which we die and rise with Christ (cf. Galatians 2:19-20).
Jesus comes to Bethany, the ancient site of the modern town El-Azariyeh, on the east side of the Mount of Olives, nearly two miles southeast of Jerusalem. This Arabic name, El-Azariyeh, is an obvious corruption of “Lazarus.” Bethany is not to be confused with a city of the same name in 10:40.
John heightens the extraordinary nature of what Jesus does by mentioning that Lazarus has been in the tomb four days (verse 17). Such a long period—-beyond the three days that Jewish lore believed the soul to hover near a corpse—rendered it probable that the body of Lazarus had begun to rot (verse 39).
These four days, combined with the earlier two (verse 6), also evoke the completion of Creation. It is in the raising of Lazarus that the Lord finishes “all His works” (Genesis 2:3).
We recall that the Jews normally devoted one week to mourning a person’s death, a fact that explains the presence of a large crowd at this time (verse 19). The evangelist remarks on this circumstance to set the stage for the very public display of this seventh sign.
Crucial to the understanding of this event is the dialogue that explains it, the discussion in which Jesus tells Martha (verses 21-27) that He is the Resurrection and the life of those who believe in Him. The raising of Lazarus is the demonstration—the revelation event—of that truth.
Does Martha’s expression “even now” (kai nun) convey a request for the Lord to raise her brother right away? I believe it does, but the meaning is subtle and implicit. She does not press Jesus overtly, but her hint opens the dialogue to the experience of immediacy. Jesus fills this immediacy by His claim to be, “even now,” the Resurrection and the life. That is to say, the root of the final resurrection is planted in the here and now of faith (verses 25-26; cf. 6:40).
Martha, invited to confess that faith, gives voice to the answer of the Church with respect to the identity of Jesus: “I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world” (verse 27; cf. 6:69). The dialogue ends with this declaration, and Martha must get busy on the basis of it.
Martha’s summons to her sister (verse 28) is described with a delicacy of detail suggesting an immediate eyewitness. Jesus is identified simply as the didaskalos, “teacher,” doubtless a translation of rabbi.
Evidently to avoid the crowd at the family’s home, Jesus remains on the outskirts of the village, nearer the tomb (verses 29-30). The crowds, nonetheless, follow Mary out, observing that her departure is abrupt (verse 31).
Prostrating herself before the Lord, Mary repeats the view just expressed by her sister, with obvious disappointment and perhaps with a sense of bewilderment that that Jesus had tarried his journey to Bethany. We may wonder if this statement of the sisters—dismayed at Jesus’ delay in coming—may reflect a sentiment of the early Christians, many of whom believed that the Lord would come back quickly: ““How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10; cf. Matthew 24:45—25:28).
Jesus does not even answer Mary, but He is deeply moved by her sorrow. Jesus sees her tears (verse 33). When this verb, “sees,” is ascribed to Jesus in John’s Gospel, it is normally to inaugurate an outpouring of grace. Thus does Jesus see Nathaniel (1:47), the paralytic at the pool (5:6), the hungry multitude in the wilderness (6:5), the woman taken in adultery (8:10), the man born blind (9:1), and His Mother and the Beloved Disciple at the foot of the Cross (19:26).
Jesus’ emotional response in the present case is described as ebrimésato to pnevmati, which I have translated as “groaned in the spirit.” In the LXX, as in classical Greek (cf. also Mark 14:5), this verb normally indicates indignation or anger. If anger is John’s intended meaning here, the evangelist is describing Jesus’ stance toward death.
In Holy Scripture, death is no friend of man. Death is the enemy! It is death that has stolen this brother away for the sisters who loved him. It is death that fills Mary’s heart with sorrow. Death is the enemy that Jesus prepares Himself to confront. He will not deal gently with death. According to the faith of the Church, Jesus “tramples down death by death.”
The bystanders, perceiving Jesus’ emotional response to the moment, remark on his affection for Lazarus (verse 34-35). Others in the crowd, nonetheless, express the same bewilderment as the two sisters (verses 36-37).
John briefly describes the tomb (verse 38), and Jesus directs it to be opened (verse 39). This command, delivered without explanation, is the Lord’s usual modus operandi throughout this gospel:
John 2:7-8—“Fill the pots with water. . . . Draw some out now, and take it to the master of the feast.”
John 5:8—“ Rise, take up your bed and walk.”
John 6:10— “Make the people sit down.”
John 9:7— “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.”
The obedience required by Jesus is not based on human reasoning, but on trust in Him. That is to say, Jesus does not appeal to empirical evidence or rational deductions, but on our personal relationship to Him and the knowledge of His love for us.
Martha, ever the practical one, raises an objection. This objection is, of course, quite opposed to her earlier profession of faith (verse 27). The command given by Jesus is based on that profession, and Jesus makes this point (verse 40).
Jesus’ brief prayer before the tomb is not a petition, but a confession of thanks, following a standard Hebrew formula of benediction (verse 41). The Father has already heard Him!
Palm Sunday, March 28
Matthew 21:1-11: The enthusiasm shown at our Lord’s entry into Jerusalem is partly to be explained, as a matter of history, as the people’s response to the raising of Lazarus, an event not recorded in the Synoptic Gospels.
Comparing the three Synoptics, we observe that Matthew explicitly interprets the Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem through the eyes of the prophet Zechariah, whom he quotes in verse 5: "Tell the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your King is coming to you, lowly and seated on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey’" (Zechariah 9:9).
This recourse to prophecy, which must have been obvious to others besides Matthew, guarantees that the event is not regarded as an isolated occurrence, because vision of prophecy places it into a larger, more panoramic historical perspective. Prophecy permits the event to be regarded as manifesting God’s purpose.
Prophecy reveals at once two things about what happened on the first Palm Sunday: first, the inner meaning of the event as God sees it, and second, the connection of the event with earlier biblical history.
The second of these points requires further elaboration. In the mind of Matthew, the biblical background or foreshadowing of this event was the story in 2 Samuel 15—17, where King David is portrayed fleeing from the rebellion of Absalom. Crossing the Kidron valley eastwards and ascending the Mount of Olives, David is the king rejected of his people, while a usurper is in full revolt. The King leaves the city in disgrace, riding on a donkey, the poor animal of the humble peasant. David is the very image of meekness in the face of defeat. In his heart is no bitterness; he bears all with patience and plans no revenge.
As he goes, David suffers further humiliation and deception from those who take advantage of his plight. One of his most trusted counselors, Ahitophel, betrays him to his enemies; another citizen curses and scorns him in his flight.
Moreover, in the description of David fleeing from Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, there is a striking contrast with the victorious Absalom, the usurper, who is driving "a chariot and horses with fifty men to run before him" (2 Samuel 15:1). Absalom represents worldly power and worldly wisdom, contrasted with the humility and meekness of the King.
Incorporating this image of David as a mystic prefiguration of the Messiah yet-to-come, the post-exilic prophet Zechariah foretold the triumphal entry of the Messiah into Zion, the story narrated by the Evangelists. The Savior arrives in Jerusalem by the very path that David used to flee from the Holy City. Riding the donkey, our Lord comes down westward from the Mount of Olives, crosses the Kidron Valley, and finally enters Jerusalem. He thus begins the week of His meekly-borne sufferings, including betrayal by a friend and rejection by His people.
Monday, March 29
Matthew 21:12-27: One of the Bible’s most shocking pronouncements is, I think, “Neither do I tell you by what authority I do these things” (Matthew 21:27; Mark 11:33; Luke 20:8). Those words are truly shocking, because they declared a virtual sentence of damnation on those to whom they were addressed. In effect, Jesus was refusing to discuss with them the source of His own authority—God. To appreciate the gravity of His refusal, we may look more closely at its context.
In all three Synoptic Gospels, immediately after His purging of the Temple, Jesus was queried by the Temple leaders, by what authority He did it. Instead of answering them, Jesus proposed a counter-question, which at first seemed to have nothing to do with their inquiry: “I also will ask you one thing, which if you tell Me, I likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things: Where was the baptism of John from? From heaven or from men?”
When His adversaries declined to answer this counter-question, Jesus replied, “Neither do I tell you by what authority I do these things.” It would be easy to regard the Lord’s words here as a ploy, a smooth way of eluding a sensitive matter that He was not disposed to discuss. This is not the case. Jesus was not the least bashful about addressing the source of His authority. His refusal to take up their question, rather, recognized their final closing of a massive moral door: He was declaring that His questioners could not be taken seriously, and He would not again address their consciences. There was nothing more to say. They would, in short, perish in their sin.
Truly, the Almighty does not close the door of the conscience. He simply sees that the door of the conscience has finally been locked from the inside, and He recognizes the futility of continuing to knock on it.
To understand this recognition, we should observe the discussion of the Lord’s adversaries among themselves with respect to the origin of John’s baptism: “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men,’ we fear the multitude, for all count John as a prophet.” What is remarkable about this discussion is that the correct answer to the Lord’s question—“where was the baptism of John from? From heaven or from men?”—was of not the slightest interest to these men. Indeed, their sole concern was to avoid considering the question!
Their discussion on the point, therefore, did not deal with the truth of the question, but only with the dilemma of a double hypothesis. They reasoned: “If we say A, then B. If we say C, then D. But since the inferences B and D are alike distasteful to us, we shall refrain from affirming either A or C. Rather, we shall plead ignorance.” And this is, in effect, what they did. They answered Jesus, “We do not know.”
Their affectation of ignorance, therefore, was more than an artful ruse to avoid answering the question about John’s baptism. In fact, they had not the slightest concern about John’s baptism, because quite simply they were not the least bit interested in the truth. Truth meant nothing to them. Their professed agnosticism was but a cover for their moral failure to consider the claims of truth. St. Augustine commented on this scene, “They closed themselves in, by denying they knew what they knew”—negando se scire quod noverant.
St. John tells us that, before sending the Light of His eternal Word into the world, the Father first sent forth a man named John, to bear witness to the Light. This is one of the senses in which John was a “forerunner”: He addressed the human conscience with prophetic testimony to the Light. How men received John was to be the first test of their reception to the Light, when that Light should appear. Those unable to take seriously the testimony of John the Baptist would never be ready to consider the claims of the Light. By refusing to assess the message of John, they proved their incapacity to receive the Light.
“Fearful of stoning,” wrote Augustine, “but more fearful of confessing the truth, they answered the truth with a lie” (Tractatus in Joannem 2.9). And this was the burden of Jesus’ response to them: “Neither do I tell you by what authority I do these things.” That is to say, “If you pretend ignorance to cover your contempt for the truth, why should I bother to tell you the truth? Remain where you are. I really have nothing further to tell you.”
Tuesday, March 30
Matthew 25:1-13: This story continues the theme of the delay of the parousia, begun in the final parable of chapter 24; it is the story of the ten maidens awaiting the arrival of the Bridegroom.
Everything is going just fine in the account, except for the delay involved: "But while the Bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept" (25:5). That is to say, they were not cautious about the warning, "Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect" (24:44).
The coming of the Bridegroom in this parable is identical to the parousia of the Son of Man mentioned several times in the preceding chapter (24:39,44,50).
The ten maidens are divided between those who are “foolish” (morai) and those who are wise, prudent, or thoughtful. However we are to translate this latter adjective, phronimoi, it has just been used to describe the faithful servant that awaits his master’s return (24:45). Matthew is fond of this adjective, which he uses seven times. He uses the adjective moros six times, the only Synoptic evangelist to do so.
In addition, the distinction between moros and phronimos comes in the final parable of the Sermon on the Mount: “Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a phronimos who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a moros who built his house on the sand” (7:24-26).
The difference between the five foolish maidens and the five prudent maidens is that the latter have prepared themselves to deal with the prolonged passage of time. Not considering the possibility of delay, the foolish maidens have not provided oil for their lamps. They are unable to "go the distance" with God.
In context, then, the prudence required is a kind of thoughtfulness, the developed habit of critical reflection, a cultivated ability to think in terms of the passage of time, a sensitivity to the movement of history. These wise maidens are not creatures of the moment. Consequently, they carry along their little jugs of oil, to make sure that their lamps will not be extinguished. They are able to “go the distance,” because they have thoughtfully made provision.
Time is the test of all these women, because the Bridegroom is “delayed”–chronizontos tou Nymphiou. This is the same verb, chronizo, previously used of the wicked servant: “My master is delayed”–chronizei mou ho Kyrios (24:48).
The prudent, thoughtful maidens enter into the wedding festivities, and the door is closed (verse 10). This closing of the door represents the end of history; the deed represents finality. In an earlier parable Matthew had narrated the exclusion of a man from a wedding festival because of his failure to take it seriously (22:11-14).
Like the parable that comes before it and the two that will follow, this is a study in contrasts. It portrays the antithesis between those who think wisely and those who don’t think at all. This contrast indicates an essential component of the life in Christ, because wise reflection is necessary to “gong the distance.” Critical, reflective thought is not opt
ional in the Christian life; it is a moral imperative.
It is important to observe that all ten of these maidens are Christians. Some will be saved, and some will not. The difference between them is somewhat analogous to the difference between the wheat and the tares in Matthew 13:24-30,36-43. It is bracing to consider that some will be reprobate: "Amen, I say to you, I never knew you" (verse 12). These are very harsh words to be directed to Christians who had been waiting for their Lord’s return. They waited, but they did not do so wisely, and everything had to do with vigilance through the passage of time: "Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming" (verse 13). Five of these Christians failed the test of perseverance.
Spy Wednesday, March 31
Matthew 26:1-16: We now come to Wednesday of Holy Week. There are four brief scenes in these sixteen verses. These scenes alternate back and forth between Jesus’ friends and Jesus’ enemies.
The first verse of this chapter indicates that Jesus has now finished “all” five of the great discourses in Matthew (Compare 7:28; 11;1; 13:53; 19:1). Matthew’s wording here (“when Jesus had finished all these sayings”) puts the reader in mind of the end of the five books (Chumash) of Moses: “When Moses finished speaking all these words” (Deuteronomy 32:45).
This first section (verses 1-2), unlike the other gospels, includes a fourth prophecy of the Passion, specifying that it will happen “after two days” (verse 2). Since our Lord has already prophesied the Passion on three earlier occasions (16:21; 17:22-23; 20:18-19), He can preface this fourth prophecy with, “You know.” This is the only prophecy of our Lord that links His Passion with the Passover.
In the second scene (verses 3-5) the action shifts to a conspiracy of Jesus’ enemies assembled in the courtyard of the high priest (verse 3)–the very place where Peter will soon deny knowing Jesus (verse 69). Caiaphas was the high priest from A.D. 18 to 36. His whole family was involved in opposition to Jesus and the Church (Acts 4:6).
In spite of their decision to wait until after the Passover before arresting Jesus (verse 5), the Lord’s enemies will take advantage of an opportunity provided for them by Judas Iscariot (verses 14-16). Matthew and Mark demonstrate how the betrayal of Judas was associated with an event, which both evangelists next proceed to describe; this is the third scene, Jesus’ anointing at Bethany (verses 6-13; Mark 14:3-9; cf. John 12:1-8).
In the story of the anointing in Bethany, it is clear that our Lord’s disciples were not completely “with” Him. Failing to grasp the implications of this most recent prophecy of the coming Passion, they are unable to grasp the dramatic significance of what transpires at Bethany (verses 8-12).
Currently abiding at Bethany, about two miles east of Jerusalem, Jesus is invited to dine in the home of Simon, whom He had apparently cured of leprosy (verse 6). The dinner itself was sponsored by the family of Lazarus (John 12:2), whom Jesus had just raised from the dead. One speculates that the meal was moved to the home of Simon, who could provide a larger and more convenient setting for the guests.
Neither Mark nor Matthew identifies the woman who pours out the precious myrrh on the flesh of Jesus, but John (12:3) tells us it was Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus.
John speaks of the feet of Jesus being anointed, while Matthew and Mark say the myrrh was poured on Jesus’ head. There is no need to decide the question, because Mary could easily have anointed both. The detail is not important to any of the evangelists.
They draw our attention, rather, to the negative reactions of Jesus’ disciples (verses 8-9). These, especially Judas Iscariot (John 12:4-6), are indignant at what they regard as a waste of resources. Clearly they are insensitive to the drama unfolding before their eyes. For them the Gospel has been reduced to a social ministry aimed at caring for the poor. It is obvious that the person of Jesus—Jesus Himself–is not central to their view of things. They are anxious to serve Christ in the poor, evidently in response to the final parable of the previous chapter—the parable of the Last Judgment—but they forget about the more immediate Christ right in front of them. They separate the message of Jesus from the person of Jesus.
Consequently, in His response to the disciples, Jesus makes the matter “personal”: “She has done a beautiful thing for Me . . . You do not always have Me.” Jesus “knows” (gnous–verse 10) what these men are made of; He is aware of the weakness of their loyalty to Him.
Jesus then explains the meaning of what has just transpired: This woman has done a prophetic thing—she had prepared His body for burial (verse 12). It is worth noting that Matthew, thus understanding the event at Bethany, will later omit mention of the anointing of Jesus’ body in the tomb (Contrast 28:1 with Mark 16:1).
This deed pertains to the “Gospel,” says Jesus (verse 13). The Gospel, after all, is about Jesus; it is not about social concerns separable from His own person. The woman in this story is concentrated on Jesus, and such concentration pertains to the essence of the Gospel.
Judas, at least, seems to understand this, and in the fourth scene he makes his move (verses 14-16). He has stayed with Jesus as long as it has been to his advantage (cf. John 12:6). Judas is very sensitive to his own advantage. His surname, “Iscariot,” means “man (’ish of Kerioth–cf. Joshua 15:25). Those early Gospel readers familiar with Latin may have noticed the name’s similarity to the noun sicarius–literally “knifeman,” or assassin. Perhaps having heard of the plot of Jesus’ enemies, Judas goes and makes them an offer (verse 15).
Alone among the New Testament writers, Matthew names the actual price of the transaction: thirty silver pieces, the price of a slave (Exodus 21:32), the low wages of the shepherd in Zechariah 11:12 (cf. Matthew 27:3-10).
This deal, says Matthew, was a turning point (verse 16). There was now a traitor among the disciples, waiting for his opportunity. It would come on the following night.
This section of Matthew is a story of irony and contrasts. The irony, worked out in four short scenes, consists in the antithesis between the intention of Jesus’ enemies and what they actually accomplished. Not wanting to provoke a riot by arresting Jesus during the Passover, they set in motion a train of events that would in due course lead to the destruction of their Holy City. Hoping to dispose of a troublesome religious teacher, they unwittingly implemented a divine determination to supplant their own religious authority. Judas, complaining of the loss of 300 coins from his purse, sells Jesus for one-tenth of that number.
The chief contrast in the story is between the gracious anointer on the one hand and all the cruel, or insensitive, or treacherous individuals on the other.
Maundy Thursday, April 1
Matthew 26:17-56: The reader knows that, while Jesus shares the Seder with His disciples, final preparations for his impending arrest are being conducted at the house of Caiaphas. The arresting party arms itself and waits the return of Judas Iscariot, who will lead them to where Jesus will be. Judas leaves the Seder early: “Having received the piece of bread, he then went out immediately. And it was night” (John 13:30).
While the plot is in progress, Jesus comes to that part of the Seder where the Berakah, the blessing of God, is prayed at the breaking of the unleavened loaf. Jesus, after praying the traditional Berakah, breaks the loaf and mysteriously identifies it as His body: “Take, eat; this is My body” (verse 26).
Because the Greek noun for “body,” soma, has no adequate equivalent in A
ramaic or Hebrew, we presume that Jesus used the noun basar (sarxs in Greek), which means “flesh.” Indeed, this is the noun we find all through John’s Bread of Life discourse (6:51-56). In the traditions inherited by St. Paul and the Synoptic Gospels, the noun had been changed to “body.”
Then, when Jesus comes to the blessing to be prayed at the drinking of the cup of wine, He further identifies the cup: “Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (verses 27:28). Although Matthew uses the verb “blessed” (evlogesas) with respect to the bread, he shifts to its equivalent “gave thanks” (evcharistesas) with reference to the chalice. We find both terms used interchangeably in early Eucharistic vocabulary.
Jesus identifies the wine in the chalice as His covenant blood. It is the blood of atonement and sanctification, originally modeled in the blood of Exodus 24:8—“And Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you according to all these words’” (cf. Hebrews 13:20; 1 Peter 1:2). Matthew alone includes the words from Isaiah 53:12: “which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (verse 28; cf. the entire context in Isaiah 53:13—53:12). We recall Matthew lays great stress on the forgiveness of sins (cf. 1:21; 5:23-24; 6:12,14,15; 9:6; 18:21-35).
In biblical thought the soul, or life, is contained in the blood. Thus, those who share this chalice of the Lord’s blood participate in the very soul, the life, of Christ.
There are four verbs associated with the Lord’s action with the bread: taking, blessing, breaking, and giving. These four verbs, which are part of the narrative itself, provided the early Church with a structural outline for the Eucharistic service. This outline has been maintained to the present day. Each verb indicates a part of the Eucharistic service. To wit:
First, the “taking” of the bread became a distinct part of the service. Just past the middle of the second century, Justin Martyr wrote, “Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought” (First Apology 67). It is not surprising that this bringing of the Eucharistic elements to the table was elaborated into a procession, called the Offertory Procession in the West and the Great Entrance in the East.
Second, the “blessing” (evlogia) or “thanksgiving” (evcharistia) gave its name to the service as a whole. This long prayer always included a summary of God’s wondrous works in salvation history, coming to a climax in the recited narrative of the Lord’s Supper itself, as we see in 1 Corinthians 11. The Liturgy of St. Basil is an excellent example of this.
This long prayer, commonly called the Anaphora, came to include an invocation of the Holy Spirit over the bread and wine, an invocation born from the clear sense that only God can do what we believe to be done on the Eucharistic altar.
Third, the “breaking” of the bread, which symbolizes the Lord’s Passion, was early joined to a recitation of the Our Father, probably because of its petition to be given the “supersubstantial bread” (arton epiousion in 6:11). The loaf was traditionally broken at the end of the Our Father, and the reception of Holy Communion followed immediately. In recent times the mixing of the Holy Communion in the chalice causes a bit of a delay in this process, and some other prayers and chants have been added in the interval.
Fourth, the Holy Communion is “given.” After that, the service ends rather quickly—almost abruptly.
In these four verbs, then, the Christian Church received the outline of its Eucharistic worship.
This meal is also a foreshadowing of the eternal banquet of heaven: “But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom” (verse 29). There is an “until” component in the Holy Eucharist, as well as a past: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).
After the Seder, Jesus and the apostles “sang a hymn” (hymnesantes–verse 30). This final song of the Seder is the Hallel, that portion of the Psalter where each psalm begins with Hallelujah—Psalms 113-118. One of those psalms contains the line, “What shall I render to the Lord / For all His benefits toward me? / I will take up the cup of salvation, / And call upon the name of the Lord” (Psalms 116:12-13). This “cup of salvation” is manifold. It is the cup of the Lord’s blood that He has just shared with the apostles, but it is also the cup of which He will soon pray, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me” (verse 39).
As they walk eastward from the Upper Room to the Mount of Olives, Jesus continues to instruct the apostles. He tells them three things:
First, He says, in spite of all their protestations of loyalty to Him, they will very soon abandon Him in the face of danger (verse 31). Second, Simon Peter, the most vehement in his profession of loyalty, will go even further in his infidelity by denying three times that He even knows Jesus (verses 33-35). Third, when this is all over, says Jesus, I will meet you in Galilee (verse 32). This last element is the most striking of all. As in the earlier predictions of His coming Passion (16:21; 17:23; 20:19), He once again prophecies His Resurrection. He even names the place of the rendezvous! The angel of the Resurrection will later remind the Myrrhbearers of this prophecy (28:7).
The apostles will all flee this night, but even this is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy (verse 31). Once again Matthew quotes the Book of Zechariah (13:7), which is something of a textbook of the Passion in this gospel (cf. 21:5; 27:9-10).
Jesus will once again be a source of “scandal” to His disciples (skandalisthesthe–verse 31; cf. verse 33). This has been noted before (cf. 11:5; 13:52; 15:12).
We have already seen Peter’s negative reaction to the “word of the Cross” (16:21-23). In his present protestation (verse 33), he rather overdoes it, contrasting himself with the others. This story is found in all four gospels, where it serves as a warning to self-assured believers. The last word of the would-be saint is “I can handle it.”
Jesus is content, however, to leave Peter with the last word in this discussion. Evidently there comes a time when God does not argue with us anymore. He leaves us in our pride and stupidity, not insisting on getting in the last word in His argument. God is not interested in winning arguments with us.
Good Friday, April 2
John 18:1—19:42: The description of the Lord's death in the Gospel of John shows every sign of conveying the word of an eyewitness. Indeed, the Sacred Text itself calls attention to the first-hand reliability of this testimony: "And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you may believe" (John 19:35). Two details in John's testimony seem worthy of special examination.
First, in its description of the Lord's death, John's very suggestive wording is unique among the Four Evangelists: paredoken to pnevma (John 19:30). Generally, alas, that uniqueness is obscured in the standard English translations. They usually run something like this: "And bowing his head, he gave up his spirit" (NKJV). I confess that I have not found an English translation that substantially differs from this.
Leaving aside the tender detail about the bowing of the Lord's head in death, nonetheless, such a translation is seriously inadequate. Paredoken to pnevma, wrote John. To translate this as "he gave u
p His spirit" deprives the sentence of more than half of its meaning. Taken literally (which is surely the proper way to take him), John affirms that He "handed over the Spirit."
That is to say, the very breath, pnevma, with which the Lord expired on the Cross becomes for John the symbol and transmission of the Holy Spirit that the Lord confers on His Church gathered beneath. Support for this interpretation is found in the risen Lord's action and words to the apostles in the upper room in John 20:22, "He breathed on them, and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit (labete pnevma hagion).'"
Consequently, John's description of the death of Jesus-"He handed over the Spirit"-portrays the Holy Spirit as being transmitted from the body of the Lord hanging in sacrifice on the altar of the Cross. It is John's way of affirming that the mission of the Holy Spirit is intimately and inseparably connected with the event the Cross.
This interpretation, besides being faithful to the verb's literal sense, is consonant with John's theology as a whole. It was the Cross and Resurrection of the Lord-what John calls His glorification-that permitted the Holy Spirit to be poured out on the Church. John told us earlier that "the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified" (7:39).
Second, John records another detail of the scene not mentioned by the other Evangelists: "But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out" (19:34 NKJV).
Taken together, then, John records three things as issuing forth from the immolated body of Jesus: the Spirit, the water, and the blood. These have to do with the gathering of the Church at the foot of the Cross, because this is the place where the Lord's identity is known: "When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I AM" (8:28 my translation).
These components appear also in the covering letter for John's Gospel as the "three witnesses" of the Christian mystery: "And there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three are one" (1 John 5:8 my translation).
Speaking of the gathering of the Church, the Lord had declared, "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." John went on to comment, "He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die" (John 12:32-33 ESV). It is the gathered Church, then, that receives the witness of the Spirit, the water, and the blood at the foot of the Cross, thereby knowing the Son of Man's identity as "I AM". This is the revelation given in the testimony.
This threefold "witness" to Jesus has particular reference to the Sacraments of Initiation, those mystic rites by which believers are gathered into the Church: the water of Baptism, the Holy Spirit conferred in the seal of Chrismation, and the Blood consumed in the Holy Communion. These three things are theologically inseparable; that is to say, "these three are one."
In this threefold initiation into the mystery of the Cross believers are "once enlightened" in Baptism, become "partakers of the Holy Spirit" in Chrismation, and "taste the heavenly gift" in the Eucharist (Hebrews 6:4).
This threefold benediction is inseparable from its source, which is the Son of Man's body hanging in sacrifice. Each component of this grace derives from that same font.