Friday, March 2

Matthew 14:1-12: Matthew now returns to the sequence in Mark 6, to narrate the beheading of John the Baptist, the multiplication of the loaves, the walking on the water, and so on.

He begins with the martyrdom of John. Like the other Evangelists, Matthew clearly expects his readers already to be familiar with the identity of this Herod. Modern readers, however, need to be informed that he was Herod Antipas, whom the Romans had made tetrarch (ruler over a quarter of a Roman province, the province here being Syria) over Galilee and Perea after the death of his father, Herod the Great (cf. Matthew 2). Sharing his father’s insecurity and superstition, Antipas imagines that the slain John has somehow returned in Jesus to haunt him for his crime. It is at this point that Mark and Matthew insert the story of that crime.

Whereas Mark uses the story of Herod’s execution of John the Baptist as a sort of interlude between the sending out and return of the Twelve (Mark 6:6-31), Matthew has already employed that setting back in Chapter 10. Consequently, his account of the execution of John the Baptist fits into a slightly different sequence. Otherwise, his version of the event is simply a shortened form of Mark’s.

In this story of Herod, attention should be drawn to the king’s similarity to the ancient King Saul, who was likewise tormented by the unforeseen but lamentable consequences of an unwise, incautious oath (cf. 1 Samuel 14:24-30,43-46).

Another Old Testament parallel with this story is perhaps even more obvious. Accordingly, we observe John as a new Elijah, Herod as new Ahab, and Herodias as a new Jezebel.

In placing the arrest and death of John immediately after the rejection Jesus at Nazareth, Matthew augments the sense of tragedy in both events. Each prophet, John and Jesus, is rejected by Israel in a single generation. Jesus will now withdraw from the pubic scene (verse 13).

Saturday, March 3

Matthew 14:13-21: The great significance of the multiplication of the loaves among the early Christians may be discerned from the fact that: (1) outside of the events of Holy Week, it is one of the very few scenes recorded in all four gospels; (2) aspects of it are depicted numerous times in the earliest Christian iconography; (3) normally recorded in language identical to, or at least reminiscent of, that of the Last Supper, it is clearly one of the events of Jesus’ life perceived to be weighted with the greatest theological significance. This is clearest in John, where it is accompanied by the lengthy and elaborate Bread of Life discourse.

This miraculous event brought to the minds of those present the expectation that the coming Messiah would renew the events of the Exodus, including the feeding of the people with miraculous bread in the wilderness. This sense of expectation and fulfillment accounts for the considerable emphasis on Messianic themes in early Eucharistic texts of the Christian Church.

Even as Matthew begins this story, we observe a significant way in which he alters the narrative in Mark. Whereas Mark (6:34), describes Jesus as “teaching” the people in the wilderness, Matthew says that Jesus “healed” them (verse 14). This change of perspective is consonant with Matthew’s other indications that Jesus had begun to withdraw from teaching the Jews in public and to concentrate, instead, on the immediate band of His disciples. Nonetheless, Jesus still expresses His messianic compassion through healing and feeding them.

Psalms 55 (Greek & Latin 54): This psalm places on the lips of Jesus—in the context of his Passion—the words: “For if an enemy had cursed me, I could have borne it; or if someone who hated me had boasted over me, I could have hidden myself from him. But it was you, a man with whom I was one in soul, my companion and intimate friend, who enjoyed pleasant meals with me; we walked in harmony together in the house of God.”

The context is the Lord’s betrayal by someone with whom He had shared many a meal—even the miraculous loaves and fishes—and, more recently, the Passover Seder, on the night before He died. We may see in this psalm, then, the Lord’s sentiments in the agony at Gethsemane, as He awaited the arrival of the treacherous friend who would betray Him with a kiss and hand Him over to His enemies. Judas was a “companion” in the strict sense of someone with whom He had shared bread (panis).

The Gospels suggest that this experience of treachery from a special friend was among the deepest sufferings sustained by the One who became like unto His brethren in all things save sin. If the story of Judas is narrated in all four canonical Gospels, as well as in Acts, the earliest Christians must have thought it singularly important.

In each of the Gospels, moreover, Judas is identified as the betrayer precisely during the Last Supper—that is to say, in a context recognized to be Eucharistic. Nor is it incidental that the first occasion at which our Lord spoke of the coming betrayal was at the end of His own lengthy discourse about eating His body and drinking His blood (John 6:70, 71).

Sunday, March 4

Matthew 14:22-36: We know from John (6:14-15) that considerable messianic expectation among the crowd followed on the miracle of the loaves. Jesus, knowing the spiritual weakness and worldly ambition of His disciples, immediately sent them away by boat, so that they would not succumb to this dangerous enthusiasm on the part of the crowd (verses 22-23). Meanwhile Jesus himself went off to pray alone.

It had already been late in the day when the miracle of the loaves took place (verse 15), and it was well into the night when Jesus finished praying. The apostles were out in the middle of the lake, rowing against the wind (verse 24). Some time between three and six o’clock in the morning (verse 25), while it was still quite dark, they suddenly beheld Jesus walking to them on the water. Indeed, he was “strolling” (peripaton)! The disciples took Jesus for a ghost or mirage (phantasma) and reacted accordingly (verse 26).

Although Mark (6:45-52) and (John 6:16-21) record this story, only Matthew includes the detail of Simon Peter’s semi-successful efforts to do the same. Reassured by Jesus (verse 27), he stepped off the boat and placed his foot solidly on a wave. His attempt was brought abruptly to finish when, taking his eyes off of Jesus, the apostle did what no Christian should ever do: he looked down! (Peter’s name means “rock,” and it has been remarked that this is the only scene in the gospels where we see him displaying a truly rock-like quality—he sank.) After attempting this “stroll” (peripatesan–verse 29), Peter found himself reprimanded for his inadequate faith (verse 31).

At the end, those “in the boat” confess Jesus as “truly the Son of God,” the defining confession of the Christian faith (see also Matthew 1:27; 16:16; 24:36; 26:63f, and, of course, 28:19). Like the Magi and so many other characters in Matthew’s gospel, they adore Him (14:33).

The boat eventually found land at Gennesaret, on the northwest of the Sea of Galilee, between Capernaum to the north, and Tiberias to the south (cf. John 6:23-24).

As we saw in verse 14, we notice once again that Jesus then healed the people (verse 36); He did not teach them (Contrast Mark 6:55-56).

Monday, March 5

Matthew 15:1-20: When Jesus finished the Sermon on the Mount, it was remarked that “He taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” It did not take long for the scribes to take note of this, so there soon began a series of debates about Jesus’ interpretation of the Torah (9:10-15; 12:1-4). The series continues here.

This material is largely taken from Mark 7:1-23, but Matthew does not share Mark’s perceived need to explain Jewish purification rituals to his readers. Matthew’s readers, apparently having much closer social ties to Judaism, do not need such information. Consequently, this section of Matthew is much less detailed than the corresponding text in Mark 7.

The use of the expression “this people” to designate the Jewish opponents of Jesus reflects the actual situation at the time Matthew wrote. Alone among the four Evangelists, Matthew habitually refers to “their synagogues” (43:23 9:35; 10:17; 12:9, 13:54), a usage that testifies to the situation after the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. After that date, the Jewish Christians, expelled from the synagogues controlled by the Pharisees, were obliged to establish synagogues of their own. It is striking that the only time James uses the word “synagogue” (in 2:2), he is referring to a Christian gathering.

The question about washing hands before eating bread (verse 2), we observe, follows closely on the story of the miraculous bread (14:13-21). In addition, it is soon followed by Jesus’ reference to the “children’s bread” (verse 26), a second account of miraculous loaves (verses 29-37), and another discussion about bread (16:5-12).

Whereas the scribes and Pharisees accuse the disciples of violating “the traditions of the elders” (verse 2), Jesus’ counter-question goes much further, indicting the accusers of violating the Law of God. This indictment elevates the seriousness of the debate. Indeed, Jesus sets that “tradition” in opposition to God’s commandment, and by reason of this opposition He calls the accusers “hypocrites” (verse 7), citing Isaiah (29:13 LXX) to enforce the point.

In making this argument, Matthew has recourse to prophecy as a means to interpret the Torah. It seems likely that this approach characterized the early Church’s polemic against Pharisaic Judaism.

Addressing those who heard this debate, Jesus summons them to “understand” (syniete–verse 10). We recall that “understanding” is the essential requirement for a profitable hearing of the Word (13:13,15,19,23,51).

Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and scribes left unanswered the question of the washing of hands before eating. It is now taken up (verse 11), as it is a question of importance to Matthew’s Jewish Christians. The dominical principle is clear: Real purity is an internal reality, not a ritual compliance.

Although the reference to “blind guides” is also found in Luke 6:39, the context of this metaphor in Matthew 15:12-15 is proper to Matthew alone. The reference to their blindness will also appear in 23:16 (cf. 7:5), when the Lord once again takes up His case against the scribes and Pharisees at greater length. The irony of the metaphor has to do with the habit of the rabbis of regarding the Jews—because of their possession of the Torah—as the “leaders” of the blinded human race (cf. also John 9:40f; Romans 2:19).

Once again the disciples, observing the offense given by the teaching of Jesus (verse 12), need further instruction (verse 15). Are they, too, without understanding (asynetoi–verse 16)? Are they as blind as the Pharisees (verse 14)?

The problem, of course, lies in the condition of the heart. An evil heart, the radical source of all evil in man (verse 19), is the reason the disciples do not yet understand God’s Word (13:15,19). An evil heart is recognized by its infidelity to the Torah, of which the second tablet of the Decalogue receives special attention here (verse 19).

Tuesday, March 6

Matthew 15:21-31: Jesus now turns from the Jewish unbelievers to a Gentile whose faith will bring about the healing of her daughter. It is significant that in both Mark and Matthew this story follows the discussion about ritual uncleanness, a preoccupation of the Jews.

Matthew began his gospel by drawing attention to Jesus as “the son of David” (1:1). It was the name by which he was invoked by the blind men (9:27). Now it is by this title that the Canaanite woman addresses him (verse 22). Later on, this messianic designation will come more into evidence. It is the title by which He will be greeted in Jericho (20:29) and Jerusalem (21:9). The Lord’s acceptance of this title will rankle His enemies (21:15; 22:41-45). If it is striking to find “son of David” on the tongue of a Gentile, we should bear in mind Matthew’s earlier citation from Isaiah with respect to that Galilean border with Phoenicia (4:13-15; Isaiah 9:15).

In Matthew’s version of this story, the accent lies on faith: “Great is your faith” (verse 28; contrast Mark 7:9). The woman’s “great faith” is reminiscent of the earlier Gentiles in Matthew, such as the Magi and, more explicitly, the centurion in 8:10. This woman thus becomes a kind of first-fruits of Jesus’ final Great Commission to “all nations.”

Indeed, like the Magi at the beginning of this gospel and the disciples at the end of it (2:11; 28:17), this woman is said to adore Jesus (proskynein–15:25).

The symbolism of the future universal calling is also foreshadowed in verse 30, where the “great multitudes” come to the Lord with their various needs and distresses. This detail, too, is proper to Matthew. (Compare 10:1; 12:15; 14:13-14).

Psalm 61 (Greek & Latin 60): Combining petition and confidence, Psalm 60 (Hebrew 61) is one of the simplest and easiest prayers of the entire Psalter.

“Hear my petition, O God,” we begin, “attend to my prayer. From the ends of the earth I called out to you, when my heart was anxious.” Already is introduced here the first part of a contrast between “far” and “near.” In anxiety of heart we cry out to God “from the ends of the earth,” but by the very act of doing so we then find ourselves saying: “I will abide in Your temple forever; I will be protected in the shadow of Your wings.”

The movement from “far” to “near,” which is the whole business of prayer, is a great deal more than a mere psychological experience. It has to do, rather, with the mystery of redemption: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13). It is not a matter here of our “feeling far off.” Our feelings on the point are futile and unreliable. It is not a feeling but a fact that without Christ, we are far off, and the anxiety of heart, mentioned here as characteristic of our being far from God, is well founded: “At that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).

Wednesday, March 7

Matthew 15:32-39: Like Mark, Matthew has a second account of the multiplication of the loaves. This account is often called “the multiplication for the Gentiles,” because of several elements in the story suggesting its transmission in a largely Gentile setting. For example, the Lord’s reluctance to send the people away suggests that they have come “from afar” (as indeed Mark 6:3 explicitly says), a common way in which the early Christians spoke of the calling of the Gentiles. Thus, Jesus is here portrayed as multiplying for the Gentiles the “crumbs” that the Gentile woman begged for in Matthew 15:27.

This bread is food for a journey—“on the way,” en te hodo–verse 32). The Lord feeds His people “in the wilderness” (en eremia–verse 33), as He did after their deliverance from Egypt. This bread, then, is the equivalent of the Manna that fell from heaven.

We also observe that this food—which He “takes” and “breaks” with “thanksgiving” (evcharistesas)—Jesus “gives” to His disciples, that they may feed the multitude (verse 36; cf. 26:26). This format of activity is a paradigm of the Eucharistic rite of the Church, in which we perceive the importance of the apostolic ministry and mediation.

First Corinthians 1:1-9: As Paul reacts to the schismatic tendencies of the Corinthian church, his major concern is to affirm the unity that all believers have in Christ. Even before enunciating this theme explicitly in the argument to follow, he introduces it in the very wording of these initial verses. Let us count the number of times he mentions “Christ” here:

Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, to the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given to you by Christ Jesus, that you were enriched in everything by Him in all utterance and all knowledge, even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you, so that you come short in no gift, eagerly waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will also confirm you to the end, that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Thursday, March 8

Matthew 16:1-12: The tension between Jesus and His antagonists rises to a new height in chapter 16, beginning with their renewed demand for a sign (verses 1-4; cf. 12:8). This demand is the occasion of the Lord’s criticism of them (verses 5-12) and the first prophecy of their role in the Passion (verse 21). In demanding this sign, these enemies copy the example of the devil (4:2,6). In contrast to the faith of the recent Canaanite woman (15:28), this demand indicates unbelief.

We likewise note here Matthew’s inclusion of the Sadducees among the enemies of Jesus (verses 1,6,11,12). Once again Matthew’s text here reflects certain concerns that arose in Judaism (and consequently among Jewish Christians) after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Foremost among the Jewish groups who lost credibility in the aftermath of that event was the party of the Sadducees. This group, it was generally believed, had been excessively compliant with the Roman powers for over a century, too compromising, too little disposed to speak up for the people as the Pharisees had done. Consequently, after the year 70 the Sadducees came into bad odor among rank-and-file Jews.

Moreover, this party was bound to lose power, because their power had been concentrated in the temple priesthood, which was put out of business by the destruction of the temple. In Matthew we observe (three times in these verses, and elsewhere in 3:7; 22:34) explicit criticisms of the Sadducees not found in the other gospels. Mark (12:18) and Luke (20:27) mention the Sadducees only once each.

The present encounter of Jesus and His enemies introduces a brief dominical discourse about bread (verses 5-12). This discourse summarizes the two occasions when Jesus multiplied the loaves.

It also contains some criticism of the apostles, who are described as “of little faith” (verse 8), in spite of having witnessed two miraculous provisions of bread (verses 9-10). These disciples of the Lord do not yet “understand” (verse 8) the implications of those miracles in the wilderness. The Lord’s reproach brings them to some level of understanding (verse 12). At least in some measure, the sown seed is beginning to fall on good ground. Nonetheless, this will not be the Lord’s last reproach against the apostles in the present chapter (cf. verse 23).

First Corinthians 1:10-17: There are those who believe that the experience of a Christian congregation must be nothing but light and peace. Indeed, we all know of people who stay away from church because they believe churches to be inhabited by sinners. That is something on the order of staying away from grocery stores in order not to associate with the hungry, or refusing to enter a hospital for fear there may be sick people present.

If the Church of Jesus Christ is a refuge for sinners—if it is really true that He came to call sinners, not the just—then there is no logic to the expectation of finding only nice and upright people at church.

This consideration brings us to a second point: the cult of personalities in a congregation is one of the main sources of strife. This is obvious in Paul’s comment to the Corinthians: “Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas.” Here he lists the names of the first three pastors of the Corinthian congregation. Each of these men had brought into the Church a certain number of converts, and each of these groups, it appears, developed a personal loyalty to the pastor that had converted them.

Friday, March 9

Matthew 16:13-20: This text presents the definitive answer to one of the major questions of this gospel, the true identity of Jesus: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Because this confession of faith was (and still is) regarded as the foundation stone of the Christian Church, the nickname “Rock” (perhaps closer to “Rocky” in English) was given to the man who made it, Simon Bar Jonah (or, in English, “Simon Johnson”). It was in Simon’s fishing boat that Jesus was earlier confessed to be “truly the Son of God” (14:33), so that his boat becomes in the gospels a great symbol of the Church.

The great prominence of this “Rocky Johnson” (Kephas in Aramaic and Petros in Greek) among the Twelve Apostles is indicated by the fact that his name appears first in every single New Testament list of the Twelve. Those early churches most closely associated with the Apostles Peter and Paul enjoyed a singular eminence and spiritual authority among all the early Christians. Chief among them were the churches at Antioch and Rome.

As we see by comparing this account to Mark 8:27-30, the early preaching and narrative tradition of the Church “fixed” this event at Caesarea Philippi. It is rare in the Gospels for an individual event to become so fixed in this way.

Caesarea Philippi is situated on the southern slope of Mount Hermon, which is the highest peak in Palestine. Near it are the pools of Benaias, one of the chief sources of the Jordan River. The name Benaias is derived from the god Pan, and the name of the city, Panion, was changed to Caesarea when Herod’s son, Philip, rebuilt it and dedicated it to Caesar Augustus. The name Caesarea Philippi thus refers to both men, Caesar and Philip.

The reader observes that the question of Jesus—“Who do you say that I am?”—is differently phrased among the three Synoptic Gospels. In Matthew the question is also a matter of auto-identification; there is the presumption that Jesus is the Son of Man.

Such is the determining inquiry—the true identity of Jesus of Nazareth—the proper determination of the Who that poses the question itself. The history of the seven Ecumenical Councils of the Christian Church illustrates that all other doctrinal questions are reducible to this one question: Just who is Jesus?

Earlier, Matthew had touched on the suspicion that Jesus was really John the Baptist returned to life (cf. 14:1-2). He returns to it now (verse 14). We should find it significant that some of the Lord’s contemporaries resorted to prophetic history as a way of explaining Jesus. He resembled the prophets more than anyone else they could think of. Elijah, after all, had never really died, and his return was still expected (cf. Malachi 3:1,23).