Friday, April 1

1 Timothy 4:9—5:2: The word "reading" (anagnosis) in verse 13 refers to the public proclamation of Holy Scripture, a synagogue practice (Luke 4:16-21; Acts 13:14-16) taken over by the Christian Church and continued to the present day. Such reading was followed by "exhortation" (called halachah by the rabbis) and "doctrine" (known to the rabbis as haggadah), that is, a sermon or homily that was both practical and expository (cf. Justin Martyr, First Apology 67). For such ministry was Timothy ordained (verse 14; cf. Acts 6:6; 2 Timothy 1:6).

Pastoring a congregation requires not only didactic discipline and skills, such as those treated in the previous chapter, but also social discipline and skills, because a successful pastorate involves dealing with a considerable variety of people and needs. St. Paul speaks of this variety in the present chapter.

Sometimes a pastor must reprimand, but the Apostle forbids him to do it with violence. Older men and women in particular are to be treated with a special deference (verses 1-2), a deference all the more necessary Timothy’s case, in view of his young age (4:12). Young men and women are to be treated as brothers and sisters. In sum, the Christian congregation is to resemble an extended family, and Timothy is to "conduct [himself] in the house of God" (3:15).

Matthew 22:1-14: Comparing Matthew’s version of this parable with that of Luke (14:15-24), we note striking differences:

The first is the historical setting. In Luke the story comes much earlier—long before Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem—whereas here in Matthew it is contained among the controversy stories that immediately precede the Lord’s sufferings and Death.

The second is the literary setting. In Luke it follows other teaching about sitting at table (“When you are invited by anyone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in the best place, lest one more honorable than you be invited by him”) and inviting the poor to meals (“when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind”). Indeed, the parable of the invited guests is immediately preceded by a verse that reads: “Now when one of those who sat at the table with Him heard these things, he said to Him, ‘Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!’” All this is to say, Luke represents a tradition in which various teachings of Jesus about meals were handed on in a sequence determined by subject.

In Matthew, on the other hand, this parable immediately follows the parable of the servants sent to the vineyard. The link between these two parables is clearly the repeated sending of the servants. There are other similarities between the two parables, as we shall see presently.

The third difference is in the details of the parable. Whereas in Luke this is simply the story of a great supper hosted by “a certain man,” in Matthew it is the wedding celebration of the king’s son. This context, of course, links the parable to the one preceding, which was also concerned with the “son” of the owner of the vineyard.

The present parable, as it appears in Matthew, is tied to the previous parable in other ways. Once again, for example, a series of servants is sent, and in this parable, too, the servants are badly received and ill-treated. The treatment and death of these servants is unique to Matthew’s account and bears the same historical meaning as verses 35-36. These servants are the prophets.

Likewise, Matthew’s version of the parable emphasizes the detailed, meticulous preparations for the festivities (verses 4 and 8, contrasted with Luke 14:18). This thorough, extensive preparation corresponds to the detailed appointments of the vineyard in the previous parable (21:33, contrasted with Luke 20:9).

Similarly, in the present parable the king punishes the offenders and burns down their city (verse 7, contrasted with Luke 14:21), just as the owner of the vineyard punished the offender in the earlier parable (21:41). Both descriptions of the punishment and destruction are prophecies of the downfall of Jerusalem to the Romans in A.D. 70.

Just as the vineyard is given to new vine-growers in the previous parable (21:41), so here the invitation to the marriage feast, declined by the first recipients of it, is extended to new people that are glad to receive it (verses 9-10). In both cases we are dealing with prophecies of the calling of the Gentiles to the Church (28:18-20).

To continue the allegory that is manifest in Matthew’s version of the parable, this final group of “servants” (verse 10) should be identified with the Apostles themselves, who traveled all the highways and byways of the world’s mission field, extending to all nations the King’s invitation to the wedding. Matthew, then, clearly discerned in this parable a narrative of the history of the Church in his own lifetime, the second half of the first century.

But Matthew is, as usual, especially interested in life within the Church, and for this reason he attaches to the present parable a shorter one (verses 1-13), not found in Luke. This is an account of an unworthy recipient of the invitation to the wedding feast, who is found improperly dressed. As the banquet begins, this unworthy person is mixed in with the rest of the guests, like the tares among the wheat (13:36-40), and bad fish among the good (13:47-50)—both parables found only in Matthew. This feature of a “mix” also corresponds to the experience of the Church known to Matthew, which contained, like the Church at all times, “both bad and good” (verse 10, contrasted with Luke 14:23).

When the king approaches the offender, He addresses him as “friend” (hetaire — verse 12), the same word used by the employer to address his unjust critics (20:13) and the Savior to address His betrayer (26:50). In all these cases the address is met with silence.

Those charged with expelling this unworthy person should be seen as the angels of judgment (13:49). Only at the end is the judgment expected, separating good from bad (13:30; 25:32).

The “outer darkness” and the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (verse 13) are Matthew’s standard metaphors for eternal damnation (8:12; 13:42,50; 24:51; 25:30).

Matthew’s distinction between “called” and “chosen” (verse 14) suggests that he may be using these terms somewhat differently from the apostles Peter (cf. 2 Peter 1:10) and John (Revelation 17:14).

Saturday, April 2

1 Timothy 5:3-16: A singular care is to be taken for those widows who are wards of the congregation (verse 6; Acts 6:1). This is a reference to consecrated women resolved to live in celibacy, prayer, and Christian service. These, along with consecrated virgins (1 Corinthians 7:32-38), are our earliest examples of Christian nuns, pursuing a special vocation that has been with the Church since the very beginning. Like the pastors and deacons, such consecrated widows should have been married only once (verse 9), and apparently for the same reason. In addition to constant prayer (verse 5; Luke 2:36-37), those women were to work at a variety of useful ministries on behalf of the Church (verse 10). Younger widows, out of fear for their immaturity, were not to receive this consecration (verses 11-14).

While Paul held, as a matter of theory, that a widow did better not to remarry (1 Corinthians 7:40), he made exceptions when it came to practice. Some women are simply not called to celibacy and must be discouraged from deceiving themselves on the point (verses 11-15). Paul knew, probably by experience, the sorts of scandal that could be given when celibacy was undertaken by those who were not divinely called to it. He spoke of such scandal as giving "opportunity to the adversary to speak reproachfully" (verse 14).

The "adversary" here seems to be Satan (verse 15), known to be especially vicious against those devoted in an intense way to the service of God (Job 1:6-12; 2:1-7; Zechariah 3:1-2).

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.

Sunday, April 3

1 Timothy 5:17-25: The presbyteroi of verses 17-19 are identical to the episkopoi of 3:1-7. The congregation is to recompense them for their ministry (verse 18), and Timothy is to be slow to accept an accusation against them (verse 19). With respect to a man’s qualifications for ordained ministry, only time will tell (verses 24-25). So Timothy is not to take the step of ordaining them hastily. If Timothy ordains an unworthy pastor, he will partake of that pastor’s sins (verse 22).

Finally, Timothy must take better care of his own health (verse 23). Here we gain a genuine insight into the young man’s character. This verse informs us, first, that Timothy, throughout his many labors, also suffered from a poor constitution. It also indicates that Timothy was an ascetical man, whose self-denial and mortification were sufficiently austere to raise the concerns of even so disciplined an ascetic as Paul. Timothy, in short, lived a life of mortified habits and self-control, even to the point of endangering his health.

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.

Monday, April 4

1 Timothy 6:1-10: Besides those social relations created by the structure of the Church itself, there were specific social relations that were brought into the Church from outside. One of these was the relationship between slave and master, a relationship potentially problematic and sufficiently complex to be addressed several times in the New Testament (verses 1-2; 1 Corinthians 7:21-22; Ephesians 6:5-8; Colossians 3:22-25; Titus, 2:9-10; Philemon, passim; 1 Peter 2:18-21).

In the present text, verse 1 deals with Christian slaves under pagan masters, and verse 2 treats of Christian slaves under Christian masters. We cannot fail to note that Paul is not offended by the social inequalities inherent in slavery. Indeed, he takes these inequalities for granted, because the Gospel contains no mandate to dissolve all the political and social inequalities in the world.

Paul endeavors, rather, to apply the principles of the Gospel to the world as he finds it, not as a social reformer might want it to be. Although Paul affirmed that "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female" (Galatians 3:28), he showed not the slightest democratic impulse. Although he insisted that "you are all one in Christ Jesus," this truth never posed itself to his mind as a basis for an egalitarian political or social system.

In the present instance Paul was concerned that the Christian slave not bring the Church into disrepute by disrespecting his pagan master, and that the Christian slave not use his standing in the Church as an excuse for disrespecting his Christian master.

Zechariah 1: This chapter contains two dated revelations, the first (verses 1-6) in October/November of 520 B.C., and the second (verses 7-17) in January/February of 519. The first oracle is a general call to repentance based on a serious acceptance of God’s prophetic word. It affirms, as all godly exhortation should affirm, that God will turn to us when we turn to Him (verse 3).

The second oracle (verses 7-17) is connected with a vision that the prophet has in a myrtle grove, where he sees various messengers of God seated on red and partly-red horses. These messengers report that the world is now peaceful. From a certain perspective, of course, this is good news.

The Persian Empire had just been racked by two years of civil war resultant of the rebellion of Gaumata in 521. The Emperor Cambyses apparently committed suicide in response to the rebellion, and it took two years for the new emperor, Darius I, to put down the rebellion and secure the empire. In the midst of all this agitation and ferment, nonetheless, Jerusalem was no better off. In spite of the return of some Jews to the Holy Land, beginning in 538, life there was not yet sufficiently stable and productive for the great masses of the Jews to return from the Babylonian Captivity.

Consequently, the message of peace, delivered by God’s mounted observers of the earth, is a mixed message, because it has created an atmosphere of well-being that dulls the moral sense in the face of evil (verse 15). This Persian peace will not last forever, of course. Indeed, Persia’s defeat at the Battle of Marathon lies less than thirty years in the future.

Tuesday, April 5

1 Timothy 6:11-21: The epistle closes with a rousing pastoral exhortation, of the sort useful for ordination services. The expression "man of God" places Timothy in an impressive line that included Moses (Deuteronomy 33:1) and other prophets (1 Samuel 2:27; 1 Kings 12:22; 13:1). He must remember the profession (homologia) that he made at his baptism (verse 12), a profession related to the homologia that Jesus made in the presence of Pontius Pilate (verse 13).

This profession (cf. Hebrews 3:1; 4:14; 10:23) is our first explicit reference to the recitation of a creedal formula at the time of baptism. From the closing verses of Matthew we know that the earliest baptismal creed (like all the later ones that followed it) was Trinitarian in structure and content.

Verses 15-16 seem to be borrowed from an early Christian hymn (cf. also 1:7; 3:16; 2 Timothy 2:11-13).

Timothy’s task as a pastor was essentially conservative. He was to hand on, intact and carefully guarded, the "deposit" (paratheke) that he had received. He was, therefore, to eschew, not only "profane and idle babblings," but also the subtleties of argumentative dialectics (antitheseis) that were only a pretence of knowledge (verse 20). Paul manifestly saw the truth of the Gospel in danger of being lost by pastors who replaced it with the workings of their own minds (verse 21).

Matthew 22:41-46: While the Pharisees are still gathered in Jesus’ presence, He poses for them an additional exegetical problem: To whom was David referring when he spoke of his “Lord” in Psalm 110 (Greek and Latin 109)? If it was the Messiah, who must be David’s own son, how could he be David’s “Lord”? Jesus thus teases the mind to ask a deeper question of the Psalm, just as He earlier (verse 32) indicated a concealed meaning in Exodus 3. In each case this deeper meaning is verified and validated in His person.

As Christians grasped the point of Jesus’ question here, this psalm became ever more important in the development of early Christology (cf. Mark 16:19; Acts 2:34-35; 1 Corinthians 15:25; Hebrews 1:3; 8:1; 10:12).

Wednesday, April 6

Matthew 23:1-12: Although individual verses of this chapter correspond to verses in the other gospels, this chapter’s construction as a whole and its setting in the last week of Jesus’ life are peculiar to Matthew. It fittingly follows the long series of altercations between Jesus and His enemies in the two previous chapters.

The present chapter commences with a warning that the Lord’s disciples are not to imitate the hypocritical, self-absorbed religion of the Pharisees (verses 1-10). It is instructive to observe that this censure is not extended to the chief priests, the Sadducees, the Herodians, and the elders. Only the scribes and Pharisees are criticized here.

This restriction of the censure indicates the setting in which Matthew wrote, some time after the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, at which point the priests, Sadducees, and Herodians were no longer part of the Jewish leadership. The Judaism with which Matthew was dealing was that of the Pharisees and the scribes, the only ones left with the moral authority to lead the Jewish people. Those other social and religious elements, though powerful at an earlier period, were not of immediate concern to Matthew. Although the priestly class are Jesus’ chief enemies in the story of the Passion, they do not figure here in chapter 23, because Matthew has in mind his own contemporary circumstance, in which the priestly class is no longer significant.

This discourse is directed to Jesus’ disciples, who are warned not to follow the example of the scribes and Pharisees (verses 1-3). The “seat of Moses” is a metaphor for the teaching authority of these men. We observe that Matthew regards these men as still having authority, very much as we find the Apostle Paul recognizing the authority of the high priest and the Sanhedrin. This authority, says the Sacred Text, is to be respected. It is the men that hold that authority who are not to be imitated!

In what respect are they not to be imitated? They lay heavy burdens on men’s backs. In context these are the burdens of legalism, a weight that makes the service of God onerous and unbearable (verse 4). This is a form of religious oppression. These “heavy burdens,” which contrast with the “light burden” of the Gospel (11:30), consisted of the numerous rules, regulations, and rubrics that governed the lives of their fellow Jews. Matthew is at one with Paul that these myriad matters were no longer essential.

It is worth mentioning, in this context, that legalism tends to return to the Christian Church from time to time, though no longer associated with the Mosaic Law. We are seldom short of Christians who like to oppress their brethren with an endless recitation of rules and rubrics. This sort of mentality renders the service of God a dreadful burden. It constitutes a scandal in the strict sense of turning men from the love and service of God.

The real motive of the Pharisees, however, was nothing but unsubtle self-aggrandizement (verses 5-7). A phylactery is a small leather box containing passages from Holy Scripture. These were worn strapped to the forehead and the arm during morning prayers, a rather literal interpretation of Exodus 13:1-16; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; and 11:13-22. The rabbis referred to these as tefillin. The fringes are the tassels that adorn the prayer shawl, in accord with Numbers 15:38-39; Deuteronomy 22:12.

By implication Matthew encourages Christians to avoid this sort of preoccupation, and he explicitly rejects the use of certain honorific titles (verses 8-10). With respect to the title of “Rabbi” (“my lord”), it is worth noting that in Matthew’s Gospel only Judas addresses Jesus by this title (26:25,49).

For Christians, who are to serve one another humbly as members of the same family, these displays are negative examples.

Thursday, April 7

Psalms 69 (Greek and Latin 68): From the very beginning the Christian reading of this psalm has uniformly interpreted this prayer in the context of the Lord’s suffering and death. “Save me, O God, for the waters have come even unto my soul. . . . I have come to the depths of the sea, and the flood has submerged me,” prays the Man of Sorrows who describes His approaching Passion as the baptism with which He must be baptized (cf. Mark 10:38; Luke 12:50; Rom. 6:3).

This same Sufferer goes on to pray: “Zeal for Your house has consumed me,” a verse explicitly cited in the New Testament with respect to the Lord’s purging of the temple (John 2:17). In the context this consuming of the Lord was a reference to His coming Passion; He went on to say to those who were plotting to kill Him: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” In saying this, the Evangelist noted, “He was speaking of the temple of His body” (vv. 19, 21).

The very next line says: “The reproaches of those who reproached You have fallen on me,” a verse later cited in Romans as bearing on the sufferings of the Lord. The apostle’s lapidary and understated comment was that “even Christ did not please Himself” (15:3). In this passage St. Paul could obviously presume a common Christian understanding of Psalm 68, even in a congregation he had not yet visited.

Still later in our psalm stands the line: “Let their dwelling be deserted, and let no one live in their tabernacles.” Even prior to the Pentecostal outpouring, the Church knew this verse as a reference to Judas Iscariot (cf. Acts 1:20), that dark and tragic figure who guided the enemies of Jesus and betrayed his Lord with a kiss.

Psalm 69 is the prayer of Him “who, in the days of His flesh . . . offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death” (Heb. 5:7). The Christian Church has ever been persuaded that this psalm expresses the sentiments of that soul “exceedingly sorrowful, even to death” (Matt. 26:38). In Psalm 69 we are given a vision into the very heart of Christ in the circumstances of His Passion: “Deliver me from those that hate me, and from the depths of the waters. Let not the flood of water submerge me, nor the depth swallow me down, nor the mouth of the pit close over me.”

This is the Christ who, in dereliction, sought the human companionship of His closest friends during the vigil prior to His arrest: “What? Could you not watch with Me one hour?” (Matt. 26:40). Psalm 69 speaks of this disappointment as well: “My heart waited for contempt and misery; I hoped for someone to share my sorrow, but there was no one; someone to console me, but I found none.”

According to all four Gospels, the dying Christ was offered some sort of bitter beverage—oxsos, a sour wine or vinegar—as He hung on the Cross. This is the very word used at the end of the following verse of Psalm 69: “And for my food they laid out gall, and for my drink they gave me vinegar.”

But there is another dimension to the Passion of the Lord—the resolve of His victory. Even as He was being arrested, His enemies were unable to stand upright in His presence (cf. John 18:6). This was the Christ, “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb. 12:2). No man takes the Lord’s life from Him, for He has power to lay it down and to take it up again (cf. John 10:18). This is the Christ whom death could not hold, who descended a very conqueror into hell to loose the bonds of them that sat in darkness, and who “went and preached to the spirits in prison” (1 Pet. 3:19).

This sense of Christ’s victory also dominates the final lines of Psalm 69: “I am poor and distressed, but the salvation of Your face, O God, has upheld me. I will praise the name of God with song; and I will magnify Him with praise.”

The victory of Christ is the foundation of the Church, those described when our psalm says, “Let the poor see and rejoice. Seek God, and your soul will live. . . . For the Lord will save Zion, and the cities of Judah will be built, and they shall dwell there and hold it by inheritance, and the seed of His servants will possess it.”

Friday, April 8

Matthew 23:23-28: Much of the material in this section corresponds to Luke 11:37-52, though it is differently structured.

The seven (or eight) “woes” in this, the Lord’s last discourse in Matthew, are to be contrasted with the seven (or eight) “blesseds” with which the first discourse began (5:3-12).

The scribes and Pharisees are censured for neglecting the weightier matters of the Torah while concentrating on small particulars of lesser moment (verse 23). The comparison of the camel and the gnat (verse 24) is reminiscent of the camel and the needle’s eye (19:24).

The burden of the Lord’s judgment falls on the failure of these hypocrites to go deeper than the mere surface letter of observance—deeper in the Torah, deeper into their own hearts, where all is corruption and death (verse 27). They clean the outside, but the neglected inside is in sorry shape (verse 25). They stay away from an interior transformation that would render valuable the observance of the Torah: judgment, mercy, and faith. This criticism, with its accent on interiority, is an echo and summary of what Israel’s prophets taught over the centuries.

Hence, these leaders deserve the same “woe” the prophets spoke against earlier infidelities (just to limit ourselves to the 8th century, cf. Amos 5:18-20; 6:1-7; Isaiah, 5 passim; 19:1-3; 28:1-4,15; 30:1-3; 31:1-4; Micah 2:1-4).

Zechariah 5: In this chapter, which also uses dialogue to interpret what is seen, there are two visions: In the first (verses 1-4), the prophet sees a flying scroll considerably larger than one would expect; indeed, it is the same size as the portico in Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6:3). This scroll contains the curses attendant on those who violate the terms of God’s covenant (cf. Deuteronomy 29:18-20). This scroll represents a permanent warning of the dangers of infidelity.

In the second vision (verses 5-11), the prophet sees “Wickedness” portrayed as a woman carried in a basket. Unlike the very large scroll in the first vision, the present vision gives us a very small basket. It holds only an ephah, yet this woman can fit into it. She must be a pretty insignificant woman—this Wickedness—and the angelic figures contemptuously shove her down into the basket and enclose it with a leaden lid. Representing the power of Babylon, which the Bible holds in contempt, the woman and her basket are deposited in the Babylonian plain (verse 11; cf. Genesis 11:2). This is the same woman, by the way, who looks so much larger and more impressive in Revelation 17.