Friday, April 15

Philippians 4:10-23: Right from the beginning Paul had experienced the generosity of the Macedonian Christians (verses 15-16; 2 Corinthians 8:1-5), and now, once again, a further opportunity being provided, they have not failed him (verses 10,18).

For his part, Paul has learned to be content with whatever circumstances the Lord sees fit to provide for him (verses 11-12), confident that he can do all things in Christ who strengthens him (verse 13; 2 Corinthians 12:10; 2 Timothy 4:17; Acts 18:9-10). This is not self-sufficiency but an ongoing dependence on Christ, a difference that separates Christian contentment from Stoic contentment.

We observe that Paul employs the language of sacrifice to describe the generous gift of the Philippians (verse 18; Ephesians 5:28; Romans 12:1).

Following the doxology that could form an appropriate ending to the epistle (verse 20), there is added a series of personal salutations, which we are probably correct in suspecting to have been written in Paul’s own hand (verses 21-23). This interpretation corresponds to what we know to have been Paul’s practice (cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:17; Galatians 6:11; 1 Corinthians 16:21; Philemon 9).

The reference to “Caesar’s house” (Kaisaros oikia—verse 22) means those who work for the Roman government. (The expression “house of” with the name of a king normally carries this meaning in Holy Scripture, as it does throughout the ancient literature of the Middle East.) Ephesus, as the regional capital of Asia, was the site of a great deal of Roman officialdom (Acts 19:38), and Paul’s mention of “saints” inside it shows that some Christians were already finding their place in the Roman government. This is ironical, of course, for this was the same government that was keeping Paul imprisoned. Indeed, it may have been Paul’s own example that led to the conversion of these people (1:13).

Matthew 25:31-46: The story of the Last Judgment, which closes Matthew’s fifth great discourse and comes immediately before the account of the Lord’s Passion, was chosen by the Orthodox Church to be read immediately before the start of Lent each year. This custom places the Last Judgment as the context for repentance.

This parable makes it very clear, if we needed further clarity, that "a man is justified by works, not be faith alone" and that "faith without works is dead" (James 2:24,26).

It is imperative to observe that the last activity ascribed to Christ in the Nicene Creed is that "He will come again in glory to judge." This is Matthew’s fourth straight parable about the parousia of the Son of Man for the purpose of judgment. He had introduced this theme of final judgment much earlier, among the parables of the Kingdom (13:41), and in the coming trial before the Sanhedrin in the next chapter the Lord will speak very solemnly on this subject by way of warning to Israel’s official leaders: “I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven” (26:64).

Let us also observe that the Son of Man does not return to earth alone; He is accompanied by the angels, who have a distinct function in the coming trial (verse 31; 13:41,49; 16:27; cf. Zechariah 14:5; 1 Thessalonians 3:13).

The Son of Man will sit in judgment over “all the nations”–panta ta ethne (verse 32; 24:14; 28:19). Israel is numbered among these nations. As in any trial, a verdict will be given, leading to a division, the latter symbolized by the sheep and the goats.

The Son of Man is identified as the King (verses 34;40), an image that goes back to the beginning of Matthew’s narrative (1:1,20; 2:2,13-14) and will appear again at the Lord’s trial and crucifixion (27:11,29,37,42).

The elect are addressed as the “blessed of My Father” (verse 24). The inherited Kingdom has been planned and prepared since the beginning of Creation; it had been in the divine mind all along.

Then comes the criterion of the judgment, in which we recognize the components of Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan (10:29-37).

Especially to be noted in this parable is Jesus’ association with all mankind, especially the poor, the destitute, and the neglected. To serve the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the sick, and the imprisoned is to serve Jesus, who identifies Himself with them. This is the basis for all Christian service to suffering humanity. This is not a negligible aspect of the Gospel; it pertains to the very subject matter of the Final Judgment. The dominant idea of this parable, in fact, is the divine judgment. God really does judge. He really does discriminate. He will not confuse a just man and an unjust man. He discerns the difference, and that difference means a great deal to Him. He does not take difference lightly. He assigns eternal destinies to men on the basis of that difference.

This is what we see in the present parable: sheep and goats are spread asunder, just as wise and unwise maidens are separated one from another, and wheat is distinguished from chaff. In this world the generous and the mean have existed side by side, but at the Judgment it will be so no more.

How can we know where we stand with respect to that Judgment? In a sense, we cannot know. Nor is it important that we know. We might become complacent. God will not have a Christian feel so secure that he neglects his duties in this world.

In the present parable the just are not preoccupied with themselves. They are preoccupied with the needs of the poor. Their lives are spent addressing those needs. They have neither the leisure nor the inclination to think about themselves, even about their “eternal security.” They are too busy doing God’s will with respect to their fellow men.

Thus, at the Final Judgment, they arrive unaware that they have ever served Christ at all. They imagined all along that they were taking care of the poor, simply because the poor needed to be cared for. At the Judgment, then, the righteous are even surprised that they have been serving Christ all along. Their thoughts have been solely for the crying needs of their fellow men; they have had neither time nor opportunity to think about themselves.

As for the unrighteous, they are condemned to “eternal fire” (verses 41,46), this image apparently identical to the “fires of Gehenna” in 5:22. This fire, which also appears in the parables of the Kingdom (13:30,40,42,50), was not intended for human beings but was “prepared for the devil and his angels.” In this respect, heaven and hell are very different, because heaven was “prepared for you from the foundation of the earth (verse 34). It was never God’s intention that men should be damned; He predestined no soul to hell. Men choose that fate for themselves when they join themselves to “the devil and his angels.”

The condemnation of the unjust—“Depart from Me”—is the direct antithesis of the invitation offered to everyone through the Gospel: “Come to Me” (11:28).

Each of the four parables of the last judgment (24:45—25:46) ends with an emphasis on condemnation. The negligent servant is condemned after the faithful servant is rewarded (24:46-48). The five foolish maidens are condemned after the five prudent ones have been rewarded (25:10-12). The slothful steward is condemned after the industrious stewards have been rewarded (25:21-26). The goats are condemned after the sheep have been rewarded (25:40-41).

Two things are to be inferred from this sequence. First, it shows that the parables serve chiefly as warnings. The promised reward is spoken of first, in order to set up the warning. Second, it suggests that God’s punishment is an afterthought, as I have already suggested. It was not part of His original plan, so to speak. Punishment was not part of God’s original plan for mankind.

The same adjective, aionion (“eternal” or “everlasting”), is used to describe both heaven and hell. This parallel points to the confusion of those who deny the eternity of hell. One cannot logically deny the eternity of hell without denying the eternity of heaven.

Lazarus Saturday, April 16

John 11:1—12:11: 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 faith 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 misunderstanding expresses 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 to 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, April 17

Matthew 21:1-11: The enthusiasm shown at our Lord’s entry into Jerusalem is partly to be explained, historically, 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 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, April 18

Matthew 21:12-27: Perhaps among the least appreciated, and seldom thought on, descriptions of Jesus our Lord is the one given by John the Baptist: "His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (Matthew 3:12).

Threshing is a violent activity, which consists in pounding the harvested grain repeatedly on a stone floor with a shovel or a flail, in order to separate it from the husks which enclose it. The discarded husks are called chaff. When the grain has been beaten, the thresher uses his shovel to throw it into the air, so that the wind will carry away the light and useless chaff, leaving the heavier kernels to fall once more to the threshing floor. This latter action is called winnowing.

Yes, threshing and winnowing are violent activities; they are likewise, if one may say so, very judgmental activities. Threshing and winnowing are emphatic, even ferocious, ways of asserting "this, and not that." If wheat and chaff are ultimately the same thing, then human choice is a mirage, human history only a theatrical production, and the death and Resurrection of Christ ultimately meaningless. For this reason, Jesus as Savior must not be disconnected from Jesus as Thresher.

Just where in the Gospels, however, do we detect Jesus acting as Thresher? In answering that question, most readers of the Bible would probably refer to our Lord’s driving the money changers from the temple, the Gospel text that we read today, and they would surely be correct in that reference.

When Jesus drove the money changers from the temple, an event recorded in all four canonical Gospels, it was the most eschatological of actions. Jesus thereby affirmed that the temple really is a precinct separated from an "outside," where are found "dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and whoever loves and practices a lie" (Revelation 22:15). Thus, the Bible’s final book does not portray an afterlife of universal reconciliation, but an everlasting separation of wheat and chaff.

Even that earthly temple purged by Jesus was constructed on a threshing floor (2 Chronicles 3:1), Arauna’s ancient rock, where David’s soul, for his final sin, was flailed by the angel of judgment (2 Samuel 24:15–25). Indeed, the place of worship, where man meets God and places himself under the divine gaze, is ever the hard surface of his purging. Prayer itself is a pounding of the soul, that the wheat may be beaten free of the chaff. Hence, in this world the true temple is necessarily constructed on a threshing floor. There, before the face of God, the heart is afflicted in repentance, the contrite and broken heart that God will not despise; indeed, this very breaking of the heart is the sacrifice that God requires (Psalm 51[50]:17). Such is the authentic worship of God in the soul’s true temple, the prayer of repentant sinners who never cease to beat their breasts and plead for the divine mercy (Luke 18:13; 23:48).

We next come to the first of five controversy stories (verses 22-27) in which Jesus is confronted by various of His enemies. Matthew has inherited this series from Mark.

As we have seen, Jesus, upon entering Jerusalem, immediately began to behave as though the place belonged to Him. Right after His triumphal entry into the city with the acclamations of the crowd, He proceeded to purge the Temple and then curse the fig tree. All of this was an exercise of “authority” (exsousia).

His enemies, who have already shown themselves nervous about these events, now approach Him in the Temple to challenge this “authority” implicitly claimed in what has happened. The reader already knows, of course, the source of Jesus’ authority, so the Gospel writers do not tell this story in order to inform the reader on this point. The story is told to show, rather, the Lord’s complete control of the situation, especially His deft discomfiting of these hypocritical enemies. We earlier considered the Lord’s reference to this hypocrisy with respect to their relations to both Himself and John the Baptist (11:16-19).

The question, then, has to do with Jesus’ “authority” (exsousia), a word that appears four times in this story, twice in the first verse. This is an important idea in Matthew’s Christology; it appears among the last words of Jesus in this Gospel (28:18). The presence of this term in the parallel accounts of Mark and Luke, however, indicate that this was a word commonly used of the ministry and person of Jesus.

Nonetheless, in the versions of Matthew and Luke there is a detail that adds a special nuance to Jesus’ authority; namely, Jesus is portrayed as “teaching” in the Temple. Indeed, a few days later the Lord will refer to this fact at the time of His arrest (26:55; Luke 22:53). That is to say, it is specifically as the Teacher in the Temple that Jesus is challenged.

Jesus’ exsousia has to do with His ministry as a Teacher. It was earlier observed that “He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (7:29). We should see in this Matthew’s ongoing polemic against the rabbinical teachers of his own day.

The purpose of the hostile question makes it what is sometimes called “a lawyer’s question,” indicating a question asked for the purpose of making the respondent say too much, a question asked in order to find something recriminating to be used later in a courtroom.

Knowing this, of course, Jesus is not disposed to answer the question. He responds, rather, with a question of His own, along with a pledge to answer the first question if His opponents will answer the second (verse 24). This recourse to the counter-question is common in rabbinic style, and Jesus seems often to have used it.

The priests and elders immediately perceive their dilemma (verses 25-26). They are unwilling to express themselves honestly about the baptism of John, which is a symbol of John’s entire ministry. They are being asked, with respect to John, exactly the question they had posed with respect to Jesus. They had never been obliged to deal with that problem before, because Herod had taken care of it for them. Now they are put on the spot.

Caught thus on the horns of a dilemma, they plead ignorance, and the Lord responds by declining to answer the question they had put to Him. They are thus effectively foiled in the presence of those gathered to hear Jesus in the Temple.

There is an important matter of theology contained in this story. All through the Gospel Jesus has presented men with a choice, a decision, a yes-or-no, but His enemies have everywhere resorted to evasion and hostility. They have never inquired with sincerity, and the time for them has now run out. There is no more place for discourse, and certainly no more place for lawyers’ questions. These men are not seekers of the truth; their hearts are hard. They have already ascribed to Satan those generous, benevolent deeds by which Jesus showered His blessings on the blind, the lame, the suffering. Never have they responded positively to so many manifestations of the power of God in the ministry of Jesus. They have made no effort to humble their minds to understanding.

And now they meet complete silence on the part of Jesus: “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” Why bother? They will not hear Him. They do not genuinely want to know. He will not answer them. They have never bothered truly to attend to Him. Now He will trouble them no more. This is a picture of the final retribution. There comes a point in the career of the unrepentant sinner when God says, “Forget about it. I have said enough. You will not hear from Me again,” and there ensues the vast silence of the God who is weary of speaking to deaf ears and hard hearts.

Bridegroom Tuesday, April 19

Matthew 25:1-13: A second story continues the theme of the delay of the parousia; 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, a 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).

We also observe that the prudent maidens are unable to help the foolish (verse 9). They are not being cruel or insensitive in this refusal. They are simply recognizing the limitations that come with responsibility. It is a plain fact that there are some things that one Christian cannot do for another. This limitation pertains to the structure of reality, and the foolish maidens have brought their problem upon themselves.

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).

This parable ends with an exhortation to vigilance (verse 13). John Calvin captured the spirit of this parable when he wrote, “the Lord would have us keep in constant watch for Him in such a way as not to limit Him in any way to a particular time” (On Second Thessalonians 2.2).

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 “going the distance.” Critical, reflective thought is not optional 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 have 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.

St. Gregory the Dialoguist interprets the sleep of the ten maidens as death. The cry, "Behold, the Bridegroom is coming," he interprets as the angelic voice that announces the end and judgment of the world. The five foolish maidens are those who die without preparing, through their lifetime, the oil necessary to accompany the Bridegroom. When they are aroused from the sleep of death, they have nothing to offer. Their resurrection from the dead, therefore, is not a resurrection unto life, but unto judgment (John 5:29).

Spy Wednesday, April 20

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 has 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 21

The narrative tradition of the early Church—preserved especially in her liturgical practice—fixed the Savior’s sufferings and death in a determined sequence that became standard. This explains why all four Gospels are in substantial harmony regarding that sequence. The fixing of the narrative tradition also explains why all the Evangelists begin the Passion story on “the night he was betrayed” (1 Corinthians 11:23).

In each of the gospels except John, the description of Judas’s betrayal is preceded by an account of Jesus’ agonizing prayer in the Garden (Matthew 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46). This scene is also described in Hebrews 5:7-8.

The scene of Jesus praying in the Garden, on the night before his death, is among the most disturbing presentations among the Gospel narratives. Specifically, Jesus’ immense sadness and personal distress seem much out of character with what the Gospel stories—up to this point—would lead the reader to expect. What has become of the serenity and self-assurance that tells the leper, “I will it; be cleansed” (Matthew 8:3)? Where now is the confidence that announces to the centurion, “I will come and heal him” (8:7), or commands the wind and sea, “Peace, be still” (Mark 4:39)? In short, the image of Jesus in the Garden stands in stark contrast to the picture we have of him from all prior scenes in his life.

From very early times, pagans themselves were quick to notice in the Agony what they took to be an inconsistency with Christian belief in the divinity of Christ. Late in the second century, when the critic, Celsus, wrote the first formal treatise against the Christian faith, he cited Jesus’ fear and discomposure in the Garden as evidence against the doctrine of his divinity. Celsus inquired, “Why does [Jesus] shriek and lament and pray to escape the fear of destruction, speaking thus: ‘Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me’?” In truth, reasoned Celsus, if Jesus so “lamented” his coming death, he does not appear to have been especially brave, much less divine!

The Christian apologist, Origen, refuting Celsus in the following century, responded that the Gospel’s critic failed to appreciate Jesus’ complete acceptance of the Father’s will in his coming death. His petition for deliverance—as desperate as it seemed to be—was immediately followed by the words, “Nevertheless, not my will, but Yours be done.” This sentiment, Origen went on, demonstrated Jesus’ “piety and greatness of soul,” his “firmness,” and his “willingness to suffer” (Origen, Contra Celsum 2.24).

Needless to say, all Christians are at one with Origen’s response to the objections of Celsus.

Christians should also consider, nonetheless, the force of that pagan’s argument. Although the “malice” (kakourgon) of Celsus denied him access to the true and deeper meaning of the Agony, we must give him credit for discerning in it the full measure of Jesus’ humanity. Even as we reject that critic’s conclusion, we are obliged to recognize its force.

That is to say, the fullness of Jesus’ humanity was most manifest in the event described in the Epistle to the Hebrews as “the days of his flesh” (5:7). In the Savior’s agony, believers perceive the most profound and disturbing inferences of the doctrine of the Incarnation—the “enfleshing” of God’s Son.

More than anywhere else in the New Testament, the Garden scene presents us with the phenomenon of frailty and conflict in the mind and heart, as Jesus struggles with the trauma of his impending Passion. Indeed, he speaks of this conflict in terms of spirit and flesh. It is during—and with respect to—his experience in the Garden that he declares, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:38). To be in the flesh is to feel weak. He knew whereof he spoke!

Whether the conflict is portrayed in terms of sorrow (Matthew and Mark) or of fear (Luke and Hebrews), the New Testament sources agree that Jesus did not want to suffer and die this painful and most ignominious death, and he prayed to be delivered from it. Here, above all, we are presented with the profound mystery of self-emptying that the Apostle Paul called “the weakness of God.” Each account of the Agony likewise demonstrates, nonetheless, how “the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25).

Good Friday, April 22

Zechariah 13: Maintaining his emphasis on the Lord’s Passion and Death, the prophet goes on to speak of the striking of the Shepherd and the consequent dispersal of His disciples (verse 7), a text interpreted for us in Matthew 26:31 (cf. Mark 14:27; John 16:31).

This is the event by which the false gods are defeated (verse 1). These are the demonic forces brought to naught by the death of the First Born. Questioned about the marks of the wounds in His flesh, the Lord responds, “These wounds I received in the house of My friends” (verse 6).

Cyril of Alexandria wrote in the fifth century: “when the Only Begotten Word of God ascended into the heavens in the flesh to which He was united, there was something new to be seen in the heavens. The multitude of holy angels was astounded, seeing the King of glory and the Lord of hosts being made in a form like ourselves. . . . Then the angels asked this, ‘What are these wounds in Your hands?’ And He said to them, ‘These wounds I received in the house of My friends.’” These are the wounds that He will show to His disciples after His resurrection. He bears these wounds in his glorified flesh forever, as He stands before the Father, “as though slain,” being the one Mediator between God and Man (Revelation 5:6).

Philippians 2:1-11: There were forces of disunity active in the Philippians congregation. These seem to have been based on differences of personality and temperament (cf. 4:2) rather than doctrine, but they were nonetheless disruptive and painful. Paul was especially sensitive to these Philippian problems, because he was suffering from similar difficulties, such as jealousies and rivalries, at Ephesus (1:15-17,29-30).

In the present chapter, therefore, Paul exhorts the Philippians to unity. This unity, based on “communion of the Spirit” (koinonia Pnevmatos), is expressed in “the comfort of love,” with “affection and mercy” (literally “heart and mercies”—splanchna kai oiktirmoi, words that the early Christians liked to join. See verse 1; Colossians 3:12; James 5:11). Paul is asking the Philippians to consult their experience of God in comfort, consolation, communion, and mercy, and then to live accordingly.

All the Philippians must cultivate the same set of mind (to avto phronete, have the same love (ten avten agapen), be of one soul (sympsychoi), and “think the same thing” (to hen phronountes). It has long been recognized that all four of these expressions mean the same thing. Thus, in the fourth century St. John Chrysostom commented, posakis to avto legei, “he several times says the same thing.”

Twice in the list Paul uses the verb phroneo, meaning “to think,” or, perhaps better, “to have in mind,” “to dwell on in thought.” The verb has as much to do with attitude and sentiment as it does with thought or reason. This epistle uses this verb ten times (cf. also 1:7; 2:5; 3:15,19; 4:2,10), more than any other of Paul’s epistles.

The attitude encouraged by Paul is opposed to all forms of “selfish ambition or conceit” (verse 3). The first of these words, eritheia, is perhaps better translated as “factiousness” or “party spirit.” In the first chapter Paul had used this same word to describe the problems at Ephesus (1:17), and he writes of the same evil elsewhere (Romans 2:8; 2 Corinthians 12:20; Galatians 5:19-20). Other early Christians warned about this evil as well (cf. James 3:14,16; Ignatius of Antioch, Philadelphians 8.2). It refers to partisan attempts to gain power and control in the Church. The presence of this word (which before Christian times is found in only one pagan Greek writer, Aristotle [Politics 5,1302b4 and 1303a14) in so much earlier Christian literature suggests that this was an ongoing problem.

The opposite of this vice is tapeinophrosyne (recognize here the root we just looked at?), which means lowliness, the internal sense of humility, personal modesty, humbling oneself (thus Jesus, in verse 8, “humbled Himself”—etapeinosen heavton).

It is instructive to note that this word is never found in pagan Greek literature. It conveys an ideal and state of mind alien to pagan culture. It is a distinctly biblical word. Indeed, the word had to be made up by the first Greek translators of the Hebrew Scriptures to express the sense of Proverbs 29:23 and Psalms 130 (131):2.

This humility means self-abnegation in the sight of God, the chief example of which is God’s Son, who emptied Himself and took the form of a servant and then humbled Himself in obedience unto death. This is the model that Paul holds out to the Philippians (verses 5-11).