Friday, February 10
Matthew 10:16-26: Four animals are mentioned in the first verse, all of them for their symbolic value. Although this initial mission is only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” it is significant that the “nations” are mentioned in 10:18; again, this foreshadows the Great Commission given at the end of Matthew. These verses make it clear that the proclamation of the gospel by the Church will be met with resistance, just as we saw to be the case in chapters 8 and 9. Like Jesus, the disciples will be “handed over” to “councils” (synedria). This description, contained here in prophecy, was very much the experience of the Christians whom Matthew knew when he was writing these words. Similar experiences are recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.
Psalms 88 (Greek & Latin 87): One of the obvious reasons people pray is to be strengthened and comforted by the experience of doing so. Such comfort and strength derive sometimes from the words of the prayer, and sometimes from the sense of God’s close presence, but perhaps more often from both together.
Beyond our ability to number them, many men have approached prayer feeling depressed, anxious, weak, or desperate, but they finish their prayer full of hope and with a sense of calm. If this were not the case rather often, I suspect, some men would seldom pray.
Indeed, it makes sense to suppose the Lord confers grace on the habit of prayer precisely for the purpose of prompting us to pray resolutely, more often, and with greater persistence. If this were not so, His Holy Spirit would hardly have inspired so many prayers in which we detect this pattern. Such a prayer is Psalm 88, a meditation of Ethan the Ezrahite. This is a struggling prayer in which we detect no obvious signs of exultation or spiritual joy. The man devoted to God feels “adrift among the dead” and suffers from the terror of the divine wrath. Not once in this psalm is there a hint of joy. Feeling abandoned throughout his prayer, he is just as lonely at the end: “Loved one and friend You have put far from me, / my companions into darkness.”
It is very important to take note of such prayers, because they testify that the final purpose of prayer is not spiritual consolation. It is, rather, the gift of oneself to God—the placing of one’s life in God’s will.
Because the Lord confers so much joy on man’s serious, disciplined quest for prayer, it can happen that the desire for spiritual comfort may replace the desire for God. A man may come to prayer, no longer to place himself in God’s will, but in order simply to experience the joy of praying.
At various times in our life in Christ, the Lord will thwart prayer of this sort, because it has become just a subtler form of selfishness. The Holy Spirit will hold back the warm blessings normally attendant on prayer, precisely in order to concentrate a man’s attention on God, and not on himself. When this happens, the man devoted to God must remember that he is not less pleasing to the Lord, and, if faithful, he will become even more pleasing.
Saturday, February 11
Matthew 10:27-31: This section continues to portray the resistance with which the proclamation of the Gospel will be met. In his exhortation to confidence in the face of such adversity, the Lord takes up an image from the Sermon on the Mount, God’s care of the birds (verses 29-31). Will He not be even more solicitous on our behalf, if He displays such regard toward the tiny sparrows? (cf. 6:26).
Psalm 136 (Greek & Latin 135): After three introductory verses that call for the praise of God, one may distinguish three stanzas in this psalm.
Stanza 1, verses 4–9, we may think of as the “cosmic stanza,” because it deals with God’s work of Creation described in the opening verses of Genesis. This stanza is structured on four verbs (descriptive participles in Hebrew): “does great wonders . . . made the heavens . . . laid out the earth . . . made great lights.” Verses 8 and 9 are a continuation of verse 7 (“the sun to rule by day . . . the moon and stars to rule by night”) and bring the “cosmic” portion of the psalm to a close.
But Creation is the stage on which God makes history, so in stanza 2, verses 10–22, we move from Genesis to Exodus. This we may think of as the “history stanza,” containing material from the Books of Exodus, Numbers, and Joshua. In this stanza, likewise, there is a fourfold series of verbs (again, descriptive participles in Hebrew), this time mainly in pairs, that describe God’s redemptive activity for His people: (1) “struck Egypt . . . and brought out Israel;” (2) “divided the Red Sea . . . and made Israel pass through;” (3) “overthrew Pharaoh . . . led His people through the wilderness;” (4) “struck down great kings . . . slew famous kings . . . and gave their land as a heritage.”
Finally, stanza 3, verses 23–26, speaks of God’s continuing care for His people down through the ages. He is not simply a God of the past, but of “us,” the present generation of believers. The last part of the psalm is about here and now: “remembered us in our lowly estate . . . rescued us from our enemies . . . gives food to all flesh.”
Thus, Psalm 136 pursues a threefold theme: creation, deliverance, and the continued care of the redeemed. In this respect, the triple structure of our psalm is identical with that of the Nicene Creed: God made us, God saved us, God stays and provides for us all days unto the end. In the Creed, this structure is explicitly Trinitarian: “one God, the Father Almighty, the Creator . . . one Lord, Jesus Christ . . . the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life.”
Sunday, February 12
Matthew 10:32-42: As we face the animosity of the world, Jesus warns us, there is the real danger that we will end by denying Him. Indeed, confessing and denying, the two verbs spoken of in verses 32-33, are both illustrated in the case of Simon Peter, who both confessed Jesus (16:16) and then denied Him (16:22f; 26:31-35,69-75).
The New Testament provides a number of stories in which entire households accepted the Gospel, which then became the basis of a whole new way of family life. The next few verses of Matthew, however, affirm that such is not always the case. The Gospel proclamation can divide as well as unite, and family unity has sometimes been destroyed by the Gospel’s acceptance by some family members and its rejection by others. This is a matter of history experience. Consequently there is the principle announced in verse 37 about the priorities of love. This “he who” sentence becomes the first of a series of ten such sentences that close out the chapter on the more positive note of those who actually accept the Gospel. In this series of short sayings we particularly observe the emphasis on the first person pronoun, “me” or “my,” with reference to Jesus. It appears seven times.
The “little ones” in the final verses are to be identified, not only as little children, but also as other Christians, those “babies” to whom the Father reveals His Son (11:25), and who welcome Christ into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (21:16). It will be the thesis of the last part of Chapter 25 that the charity shown to these “least of my brethren” is actually shown to Christ. Here in Chapter 10 the context of this reference suggests that the “little ones” (mikroii are especially to be identified as those who proclaim the Gospel.
Psalm 19 (Greek and Latin 18): This psalm begins with the testimony to God’s truth in the work of creation and then goes on to speak of the further testimony to that same truth in God’s law. These two revelations are the topics of the two halves of this psalm.
First, nature, given us by God that we may know Him. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” our psalm begins, “and the firmament proclaims the work of His hands. Day speaks the word unto day, and night unto night proclaims the knowledge. There is neither speech, nor words, nor can their voices be heard; yet their sound has gone forth to all the earth, and their message to the corners of the world.” That is to say, there is a message for us from God, inscribed in the structure of creation.
Second, the law, also given us by God that we may know Him: “The law of the Lord is pure, converting souls. The testimony of the Lord is sure, giving wisdom to little ones. The judgments of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart. The commandment of the Lord is bright, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the Lord is holy, enduring for ever and ever.” Such is the reciprocity between the Creation account in Genesis and the Sinai event in Exodus. What God reveals in nature, He also reveals in His law. Thus, whether he turns to God’s Word in nature or to God’s Word in the Torah, man finds order and truth and justice and wisdom and holiness.
It should not surprise us, then, that the Apostle Paul should see in God’s revelation in nature a foreshadowing of His revelation in the Gospel, for the universality of God’s witness in the works of creation is to be matched in the universal character of the Gospel’s proclamation. Speaking of the missionaries who proclaim God’s Word to the ends of the earth, Paul compares their witness to that same wisdom in which “day speaks the word unto day, and night unto night proclaims the knowledge.” He comments in Romans: “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. But I say, have they not heard? Yes indeed: ‘Their sound has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world’” (10:18). Paul is saying that the Gospel is as cosmic as the cosmos.
Just as the Gospel is God’s fulfillment of the Torah, so it is God’s answer to the hope that lies at the heart of nature. Each morning we behold how God “set His tent in the sun, and he goes forth as a bridegroom from his wedding chamber; he rejoices as a giant to run his race. His going forth is from the furthest heaven, and his setting is at the other extreme, nor can anything be hidden from his heat.”
Monday, February 13
Matthew 11:1-19: This first verse brings Jesus’ second discourse to a close (Compare 7:28). Presumably the apostles now go out to do the ministry for which Jesus was preparing them in Chapter 10 (cf. 10:1). While they are gone, Matthew introduces a “John the Baptist interlude,” a literary construction (paralleled in the structure of Mark 6:7-30) to indicate the passage of time while the apostles are gone. This is the story of the apparent despondency of John in prison.
There are two things particularly to observe in this story:
First, Matthew clearly relies on his readers’ familiarity with the entire career of John the Baptist. Although he refers here to John’s imprisonment, the circumstances of that imprisonment are not narrated until Chapter 14.
Second, the signs of the Messiah, listed here by Jesus in 11:5f, are not at all similar to those earlier enunciated by John the Baptist himself in 3:10-12. This dissimilarity may have been the cause of John’s evident misgivings, as he languished in his prison cell.
The fickle resistance that John experienced to his own preaching (11:17) is a sign of the people’s lack of interest in true conversion. This becomes the theme of the following verses: the condemnation of the cities of Galilee.
Deuteronomy 34: We come, finally, to the death of Moses, the last of the Israelites sentenced to die before Israel may enter the Promised Land. Indeed, that sentence was so complete that even Moses’ body could not cross the Jordan.
A literal reading of this chapter seems to indicate that God—or the angels—buried Moses, so that “no one knows his grave to this day.” Endless ink has been devoted to discussions on this point. This scene prompted the poem by Cecil Frances Alexander, some of which runs:
By Nebo’s lonely mountain On this side Jordan’s wave In a vale in the land of Moab There lies a lonely grave. But no man built that sepulcher And no man saw it e’er; For the Angels of God upturned the sod and laid the dead man there.
This was the bravest warrior That ever buckled sword; This the most gifted poet That ever breathed a word; And never earth’s philosopher Traced with his golden pen On the deathless page truths half so sage As he wrote down for men.
Tuesday, February 14
Matthew 11:20-24: The fickle resistance that John experienced to his own preaching (11:17) is a sign of the people’s lack of interest in true conversion. This becomes the theme of the following verses. In Chapter 8-9 Jesus was meeting the resistance of elite enemies, the spiritual leaders of the nation. Here in Chapters 11-12, however, we see resistance to the Gospel on the part of large numbers. Just as the opposition to John the Baptist was total and unreasoning, so is the stand against Jesus. This opposition of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum will lead to the plot against Jesus’ life in 12:14 and the subsequent tensions of that chapter. These verses also introduce the image of the final judgment, which will be the theme of Jesus’ final discourse, Chapters 23-25. The warning invoked against Capernaum here is taken from the cursing of Babylon in Isaiah 14:13-15; in the Book of Revelation Babylon will become, of course, the city symbolic of final unrepentance and eternal loss.
The Book of Ecclesiastes: Augustine of Hippo, in his major work, The City of God, appeals to the Book of Ecclesiastes with respect to God’s judgment over human history. He writes:
This most wise man devoted this whole book to a full exposure of this vanity, evidently with no other object than that we might long for that life in which there is no vanity under the sun, but verity under Him who made the sun. In this vanity, then, was it not by the just and righteous judgment of God that man, made like to vanity, was destined to pass away? But in these days of vanity it makes an important difference whether he resists or yields to the truth, and whether he is destitute of true piety or a partaker of it—important not so far as regards the acquirement of the blessings or the evasion of the calamities of this transitory and vain life, but in connection with the future judgment which shall make over to good men good things, and to bad men bad things, in permanent, inalienable possession. In fine, this wise man concludes this book of his by saying, “Fear God, and keep His commandments: for this is every man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every despised person, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.
What truer, more terse, more salutary enouncement could be made? “Fear God,” he says, “and keep His commandments: for this is every man.” For whosoever has real existence, is this, is a keeper of God's commandments; and he who is not this, is nothing. For so long as he remains in the likeness of vanity, he is not renewed in the image of the truth. “For God shall bring into judgment every work,”— that is, whatever man does in this life—“whether it be good or whether it be evil, with every despised person,”——that is, with every man who here seems despicable, and is therefore not considered; for God sees even him and does not despise him nor pass him over in His judgment.
Wednesday, February 15
Matthew 11:25-30: In contrast to those in verses 20-24, who resist the Lord and reject the Gospel, are the “babies” to whom the Father reveals His Son, and the Son His Father. Because of its similarity to the Gospel and Epistles of St. John in the very terms of its expression, this text from Matthew is often referred to as the locus johanneus.
This custom is perhaps unfortunate, for it conveys the impression that these verses in Matthew would fit the Fourth Gospel better than they fit Matthew. In fact, however, these verses may be taken as the very key to the proper understanding of Matthew as a whole. They are the explanation of the Father’s voice in 3:17 and 17:5. God has hidden such revelation from the “wise and prudent,” such as the citizens of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum.
Matthew’s use of these expressions, “babies” and “little ones,” to describe Christians, accentuates his teaching on the humility necessary to receive the divine revelation of the Father. Hence the invitation to learn of Jesus, for He is meek and humble of heart, modeling the meekness of those who will inherit the earth (5:5). This meekness of the Lord will later be noted when He rides into Jerusalem seated upon an ass (21:5).
Psalm 101 (Greek & Latin): This is a hymn of dedication and promise on the part of God’s servant, and its reference to the punishment of evildoers has prompted some critics to see in it the kind of righteous political program possibly associated with a royal enthronement. Indeed, the psalm is ascribed to David.
Along with such a political reading of the text, nonetheless, this psalm applies also to the humbler, yet perhaps more substantial, task of the governance of one’s own home. Twice here we find the expression “my house”—“I have walked in the innocence of my heart, in the midst of my house” and “The man who practices arrogance will not lodge in the midst of my house.” This psalm may be read, then, as a text concerned with the godly governance of a man’s household.
A house is an intentionally structured reality; it is quite different from dwelling in a cave or abiding under the branches of a tree. A house is designed; it is shaped according to a pattern, and the integrity of the house depends on its adherence to principles and laws. And what is true of the house is true likewise of the household, which is also structured according to principles and laws.
A household, moreover, is “hierarchical,” a Greek word indicating that its structure, its ordering, is sacral and stands under the aegis of heavenly prerogative. Founded on divinely sanctioned authority, families are hierarchical realities. Family homes are eminently prescriptive institutions, the loci of inherited wisdom and of the transmission of identity and culture. It is in homes that we learn to speak, and therefore to think. It is in homes that we learn to relate to other people and are thus cultured into human beings.
Thursday, February 16
Matthew 12:1-8: Matthew now picks up again the Markan sequence that he had broken off back in 9:17. He does this with two stories that he has taken from the series of five conflict stories in the second and third chapters of Mark: the stories of the standing grain and of the man with the withered hand.
These two narratives, both of which concern the observance of the Sabbath, appropriately follow the previous sayings about “rest” and the “yoke.” Matthew’s version of the first of these stories is longer than Mark’s, augmented by the reference to the priests who serve in the Temple on the Sabbath. The Lord’s reasoning here is as follows: If the servants of the Temple may work on the Sabbath, how much more the servants of the One who is greater than the Temple. The argument here is similar to that in 5:17-48; namely, Jesus’ superiority to the Mosaic Law.
Ecclesiastes 2:1-11: The wise man considers the kinds of things in which men attempt to find meaning, once they realize that “all is vanity.” Chief among these is the pursuit of prosperity. There is a special irony here: Wisdom is the path to prosperity, and yet Wisdom knows that prosperity is, in the final analysis, futile.
Jeremiah 7: In this chapter the prophet is critical of those Judeans who put an idolatrous confidence in the Temple. He mocks them with a sing-song refrain, “Temple of the Lord, Temple of the Lord, Temple of the Lord.”
Those citizens of Jerusalem carried to excess the earlier promise Isaiah made to Hezekiah, a promise that the Assyrians would not be able to destroy the Temple. That divine promise, made at a particular time and in specific circumstances, was transformed into a talisman, as it were, a sort of magical formula. Jeremiah realized that Isaiah would never have countenanced such an interpretation of God’s promise. Indeed, Isaiah—like Jeremiah later—had always been critical of a magical trust in the religious establishments, including the Temple.
Friday, February 17
Matthew 12:9-14: This story continues the theme of the Lord’s relationship to the Sabbath. Rabbinical theory permitted acts of healing on the Sabbath only in danger of death; otherwise such actions had to be postponed. In this text, and generally throughout the gospels, Jesus ignores this distinction. In the present instance His enemies are completely frustrated, because Jesus does not do anything with which they can accuse Him. He does not touch the afflicted man; He does not speak one word that could be interpreted as an act of healing. He simple tells the man to extend his impaired hand, and immediately the hand is healed! In their frustration the Lord’s enemies take the action to which most of the narrative has been building up to this point—they resolve that Jesus must die. That is to say, they resolve to do what Herod had failed to accomplish in the second chapter of Matthew.
Psalm 102 (Greek & Latin 101): This psalm is structured on a contrast, pursued through two sequences. The first half of the first sequence is all “I”—I am miserable, I am sad, my heart withers away like the grass in the heat, I lie awake at night, I feel like a mournful bird, I mingle my drink with tears, my days flee like the shadows of an evening, and so forth. Life being rough, a goodly number of our days are passed with such sentiments, so it is usually not difficult to pray this part of the psalm.
The second half of the first sequence arrives with the expression, “but You, O Lord,” which is just as emphatic in the Hebrew (we’attah Adonai) and the Greek (sy de Kyrie). “You” is contrasted with “I.” God is not like me; God is almighty and does what He wants and does not die. God is enthroned forever, and His name endures from generation to generation. God will arise and deliver His people.
The second and shorter contrasting sequence repeats the first. Once again, as at the beginning, there is the sense of our human frailty, our shortened days, our strength broken at midcourse. To this is contrasted the eternity of God; His years endure unto all generations. Thus, both sequences in this psalm form contrasts between the permanence of God and the transience of everything created.
Jeremiah 8: In this chapter (verse 22) is the first of two instances when Jeremiah refers to the “balm of Gilead” (cf. 46:11). This medicinal ointment, known in Islam as “balsam of Mecca,” is first mentioned in Genesis 37:25 as one of the products transported by Midianite traders. Native to Arabia, this resinous gum was domesticated in ancient times and was well known to the whole Fertile Crescent and the Mediterranean Basin.
The “balm of Gilead” is also well known to students of literature and the stage. Although “Balm of Giliead” is the title of an early play by Lanford Wilson, perhaps the expression is best known from Poe’s “The Raven”:
"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil! — prophet still, if bird of devil! Whether Tempter sent, or whatever tempest tossed thee ashore, Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted — On this home by Horror haunted — tell me truly, I implore — Is there — is there balm in Gilead? — tell me — tell me, I implore!" Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."