Friday, March 16

Matthew 18:21-35: The foregoing theme of forgiveness by the Church now introduces the subject of personal forgiveness by members within the Church (verses 21-35). This latter aspect is introduced by Peter’s use of the word “brother.” The question still has to do with family relationships in the Holy Spirit. The Church, then, is still the context.

This passage also has to do with real offenses, such as theft, cheating, and lying. Peter does not ask, “How many times must I permit my brother to annoy me or get on my nerves.” Some more serious offense is envisioned in this mandate to forgive.

The response of Jesus can be translated as either “seventy-seven” or seventy times seven.” The point of the mandate is not the precise number, whether 77 or 490. It means, rather, that there must be no limit to our forgiveness. Forgiveness cannot be allowed to become a quantitative commodity in limited supply.

After all, how does God forgive? He does not limit His mercy to our first seven offenses. He forgives us at our repentance, no matter how often we fall. We too, then, are called to forgive in the same measure. Such abundance of mercy will become the burden of the parable that follows (verses 23-35).

Jesus’ response to Peter alludes to Genesis 4:24—“ If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” This line from Lamech is a sort of culmination of the growing violence that followed man’s fall in the Garden. That fall led immediately to the murder of Abel (4:8), which led immediately to the prospect of vengeance (4:14) and then greater vengeance (4:15), leading in Lamech’s case to the equivalent of total warfare. Jesus’ response to Peter indicates that the Gospel must go in the opposite direction, placing no limits on forgiveness.

The parable that follows, which is proper to Matthew, does not exactly illustrate the mandate to forgive without limits. It indicates, rather, that we are to forgive in the measure that our heavenly Father forgives us. Thus, the parable advances the Lord’s argument with a new consideration—the massive disproportion between the debt that one man may owe to another and the incomparable debt that every man owes to God. This ridiculous disproportion is the basis of the parable’s irony.

The debt that the servant owes to the master is calculated at ten thousand talents, a figure that would amount to billions of dollars in today’s money. Consequently, the payment of the debt was beyond the servant’s ability to repay; the debtor would be in debtors’ prison forever. This is an image of eternal loss.

The proposed sale of the wife and children is a metaphor; this could not have happened in Jewish Law in Jesus’ time. Even if it could, the sale price would not pay the debt. Hence, the servant’s resolve to pay the whole debt (verse 26) was futile on its face.

In this parable, then, we discern two aspects of God: The first is His mercy, His compassion for man’s distress. God forgives the repentant. The debt is absolved because of the master’s compassion (splangchnistheis–verse 27).

The second aspect is God’s anger (orgistheis–verse 34), prompted by man’s refusal to copy the divine compassion. The servant is condemned for not imitating his master’s mercy. Instead he declines to forgive the piddling liability of a fellow servant.

In this parable Matthew returns to the message already contained in the Lord’s Prayer and the Sermon on the Mount (6:14-15).

It is important likewise to observe the intervention of the “fellow servants,” an act that continues this chapter’s theme of the Church. We remark that the master reacts to the situation at the behest of the Church, the two or three fellow servants who are gathered in his name. Indeed, the irony of the story is disclosed by the intervention of the Church. The master in the parable listens to the case made by the Church. What was retained on earth was retained in heaven.

The wicked servant’s condemnation to torture (basanisais–verse 34) is eternal, because his debt is beyond payment. No one can pay it. This is an image of eternal damnation (cf. 25:41,46).

In short, it should be easy for a Christian to forgive seventy times seven times, knowing that God has forgiven him so much more.

Saturday, March 17

Matthew 19:1-10: At this point Matthew rejoins the narrative sequence in Mark, which he will follow for the rest of the book. However, as this section begins with Jesus’ move from Galilee, in the north, to Judea, in the south, Matthew and Luke begin to follow separate sequences, Luke inserting many stories that have no parallel in the other gospels (cf. Luke 9:51—18:14).

Matthew introduces his own narrative by mentioning the end (etelesen–verse 1) of Jesus’ previous discourse—namely, the preceding chapter on life in the Church. Each of Jesus’ five large discourses in ended in the same way (cf. 7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 26:1).

Jesus, moving south, goes somewhat eastward across the Jordan, avoiding a trip through Samaria. He is followed by “large” crowds (contrast with Mark 10:1), “to follow” being the normal word for discipleship.

In Mark’s parallel account (10:1), it is said that Jesus taught these crowds, whereas Matthew says that He “healed” them (etherapeusen–verse 2). The significance of this change is to be found in the light it sheds on the teaching that immediately follows. The following section deals with matters that we may call “domestic,” in the sense of having to do with the home (domus in Latin). This subject will include sex, children, and money, and on these matters Jesus will “heal” the people of common but fallacious opinions. These subjects—sex, child-raising, and finances—are the ones on which the views of the world are likely to be sick and in want of healing.

Each of these three subjects is introduced by certain individuals or groups who approach Jesus: the Pharisees, the mothers bringing their children, and the wealthy inquirer. It would seem that Matthew has arranged this material in a sequence that was usual in the catechetical practice of the Christian Church. In fact, these three subjects are likewise treated together by St. Paul (cf. Ephesians 5:22—6:9; Colossians 3:18-25). The similarity of order between Matthew and Paul suggests these dominical sayings have been organized according to a standard and recognizable format.

There immediately follows, then, a teaching about sex, which includes marriage, divorce, and celibacy (verses 3-12), for which there is a partial parallel section in Mark 10:2-12.

The treatment of marriage and divorce comes in response to the question that the Pharisees put to Jesus, which question Matthew (alone) says was meant to “try” Him (peirazontes–verse 3). The context of the teaching, that is to say, was one of controversy. It is well known that the various rabbinical schools were distinguished from one another by what restrictions they placed on divorce—some stricter, some not so strict. Jesus was being invited to enter that controversy.

Instead, He went straight to the creation account in Genesis, using it to forbid all divorce (cf. also 5:32). Jesus mentions no exceptions. Even the expression “not including fornication” (me epi porneia), which is often taken as a reason for divorce, is no exception to the rule. It simply means, “I am not talking about fornication.” That is to say, the prohibition against divorce applies only to a true marriage, not cases where a man and woman are living together in sin.

What is most striking about Jesus’ prohibition is that our Lord thereby abrogates the application of Deuteronomy 24:1, which did provide for divorce. Jesus would have none of it. Divorce for the purpose of remarriage with someone else is adultery.

It is unfortunate that many readers find in this text only another species of legalism with respect to marriage. In fact, this biblical passage has as much to say of Christology as of marriage. However, when this page is “consulted,” some question about marriage is usually the reason for the consultation, so the important Christological weight of the text is simply overlooked. Inspected more carefully, however, the Christological significance of the passage could hardly be weightier. Jesus, boldly abrogating a concession given in the Mosaic Law, laid claim to immense authority—truly, “all authority”–pasa exsousia, as He will say at the end of Matthew (28:18). This authority is nothing less than divine, and it is in recognition of this total authority that we find so many people in Matthew’s stories falling prostrate before Jesus.

Sunday, March 18

Matthew 19:11-15: It is curious that those who objected to Jesus’ prohibition against divorce were not his enemies, but his disciples. They wondered, if divorce was not permitted, whether remaining celibate might not be a more attractive option (verse 10). (We wonder why the prospect of a happy marriage did not cross their minds!)

Perhaps to their surprise, Jesus agreed with them, not because of the indissolubility of marriage, but because celibacy is a superior expression of the Kingdom of Heaven (verse 12). Nonetheless, Jesus declared, celibacy is a gift from God, a grace not accorded to all men (verse 11).

Most Christians recognize that in this passage the reference to self-castration is a metaphor of irony, akin to the amputation of a hand or the gouging out of an eye mentioned in the previous chapter.

This section on celibacy is proper to Matthew, but its content is consonant with the general New Testament thesis of the superiority of consecrated celibacy over marriage (cf. Luke 14:20; 18:29; 1 Corinthians 7:25-35).

From a discussion about marriage Jesus passes to the subject of children (verses 13-15), in which He repeats the injunction indicated in 18:1-4.
The subject arises when children are brought to Jesus to receive His blessing (verse 13), a scene found in all the Synoptics (Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17). All of them likewise include the objection of the disciples against what they evidently regarded as an unwarranted intrusion on the Lord’s time and attention.

It has been suggested that the early (pre-Scriptural) Church preserved the memory of this scene because it answered a practical pastoral question about infant baptism. Read in this way, Jesus is affirming the practice of infant baptism: “Let the little children come to Me.” Indeed, the verb that Matthew uses here, koluein, “forbid them not,” is identical with the expression used with respect to the baptisms of the Ethiopian eunuch and the friends of Cornelius (Acts 8:36; 10:37; 11:17).

I do not think this interpretation of the passage to be likely, because there is simply no evidence in the New Testament that infant baptism was a problem. On the contrary, the reader should presume that baptism, as the Christian replacement for circumcision, was available to infants, just as circumcision was. In each case it was admission to the covenant. It would be strange indeed, if Jewish children could belong to the Mosaic covenant, while Christian children could not partake of the Christian covenant.

Moreover, the baptism of entire households in the New Testament (Acts 11:14; 16:15,31-33) indicates that it was normal to baptize infants in Christian families. Although the pastoral practice of the Christian Church varied in this matter, the “validity” of infant baptisms was not challenged for well over a thousand years. Consequently, to see a reference to a “controversy” about infant baptism in these lines of Matthew seems to me an unlikely interpretation. There is no evidence that infant baptism became controversial until much later in Church History.

Monday, March 19

Matthew 19:16-22: The third subject in this chapter—money—is introduced by a man that comes to our Lord, seeking counsel on how to attain eternal life (verse 16). This scene is paralleled in Mark 10:17-22 and Luke 18:18-23.

If we are to look for another link between this section and the preceding theme of children, perhaps we find it in the fact that the question is asked by a “young person” (neaniskos). Indeed, this feature is unique to Matthew. Both Mark and Luke suggest, in fact, that the man may not be young, because he claims to have kept all the commandments “from my youth,” an expression that Matthew’s account does not contain.

In authentic Deuteronomic style the man is told to “keep the commandments” (less explicit in Mark and Luke) if he wishes to enter into life (verse 17; Deuteronomy 4:10; 30:6). This hypothetical clause is proper to Matthew, as is the next hypothesis, “if you would be perfect” (verse 21).

From this hypothesis regarding perfection, the Church in due course came to distinguish the monastic vocation from the vocation of other Christians. This was a reasonable inference drawn from the Sacred Text. Just as not everyone is called to consecrated celibacy (verses 11-12), so not everyone is called to consecrated poverty, and these two things have always been recognized as pertaining to the monastic dedication.

The literary and theological relationship between these two passages in Matthew was noted back in the 4th century by St. John Chrysostom, On Repentance 6.3.12-13. While neither celibacy nor poverty is commanded to all Christians, their double consecration indicates a special calling extended to some Christians whose charismatic way of life will stand as a prophetic witness to the Church and to the world.

As a point of history, therefore, it is no exaggeration to say that this chapter of Matthew is one of the biblical texts most responsible for the institution of Christian monasticism. It was on hearing this text read in his parish church in Egypt back in the 3rd century that young Anthony, determined not to follow in the footsteps of the rich man, sold all his possessions and went into the desert to spend the rest of his life in celibacy, poverty, and prayer.

As for the man who declined the Lord’s invitation to be “perfect,” he left himself vulnerable, nonetheless, to a great deal of sadness (verse 22). His failure to accept the Lord’s challenge now leads to a series of teachings on the dangers of wealth (verses 23-29).

Tuesday, March 20

Matthew 19:23-30: What should be said about the impossibility of the rich man’s entering heaven? The subsequent verse, in fact, confirms it. Yes, says Jesus, the salvation of the rich man is humanly impossible. This does not mean, however, that there is impossibility on God’s side. God can pass a camel through the eye of the needle (verse 26). Let the rich man take care, however. Let him reflect that he is asking God for a miracle.

This metaphor of the camel and the needle, therefore, is something of a parallel with the moving of mountains. Both parables have to do with the power of faith in the God. Salvation is ever a gift of God, not a human achievement.

Peter’s response to this teaching (verse 27) may seem somewhat to exaggerate the size of his own abnegation. Just how successful was the fishing business that he gave up. After all, every time he catches a fish in the New Testament, the event is regarded as a miracle. “Giving up everything” in Peter’s case may not appear, at first, to involve all that much.

Looks are deceptive, however. Peter’s commitment to our Lord would eventually lead him to witness the martyrdom of his wife (cf. Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 7.11.63) and then be crucified upside down on Vatican Hill (cf. Tertullian, Scorpiace 15.3).

Moreover, the Lord Himself honored what Peter had to say, and He promised to reward Peter’s self-sacrifice (verse 28). He extends this promise to all the Twelve.

This is an important text in the ecclesiology of Matthew. The Apostles here—the institutional Twelve—become the new patriarchs, as it were, of the People of God. Their foundational role in the Church was so important that the Church took care to preserve even the exact number after the defection of Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:15-26).

The Lord’s promise of recompense is then extended to all those who, in imitation of the Twelve, would devote their lives to the closer following of Christ and the ministry of the Gospel along the road of self-abnegation (verse 29). These, too, will attain eternal life, the quest about which the rich man recently inquired (verse 16).

More than Mark, Matthew emphasizes the rewards of the world to come, omitting Mark’s inclusion of the rewards promised during the present age (cf. Mark 10:30).

The final verse in this chapter (verse 30), which is easily detachable from the present context, is apparently placed here because it prolongs the theme of reversal found in the previous verse—as the poor become rich, so the last become first, and the first last. This theme of reversal, in fact, appears to account for Matthew’s insertion of the next parable at this point. In that parable, as we shall see, the theme of reversal appears again (20:8).

Wednesday, March 21

Matthew 20:1-16: The parable about the day-workers is probably found in this place because it tells a narrative about the last called being the first paid, thus illustrating, as it were, the final verse of Chapter 19: “But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” The parable ends with the repetition of the theme of reversal (verse 16).

It is obvious, nonetheless, that this parable, found only in Matthew, is easily separable from that verse, and it touches only one aspect of the parable—namely, the reversed order in which the payment to the workers is made. In fact, the parable itself is just as comprehensible without that theme.

The parable of the day workers was doubtless remembered among the early Christians because it did, in fact, address one of their early theological questions — How to regard the Gentiles who were “late-comers” to the Church. The earlier comers to the field are all given a work contract, which may be interpreted as God’s established covenant with His people. Those that come last, however, work without a contract; that is to say, they have been promised nothing specific. They are outside the ancient covenant (Ephesians 2:12).

But God’s generosity rewards them anyway, and this parable is more descriptive of the Owner of the vineyard than of the workers. The Owner, of course, is God, who is described as merciful and generous with those who work for Him, as well as firm with those who contemn His generosity. The vineyard is, of course, the People of God (cf. Isaiah 5:1-7; Jeremiah 12:10).

The grumblers, who are reprimanded at the end of the parable, are not rebuked for dissatisfaction with what they have received, but for their dissatisfaction with what the other people have received. These grumblers may also become the enemies who have already commenced plotting against the Son of the field’s Owner (21:33-46).

The workers themselves are day laborers, the sort especially needed at the harvest. This feature suggests the eschatological import of the story: These are the “last times,” and everything is settled “in the evening” (verse 8).

Thursday, March 22

Luke 20:9-19: The parable of the vine-growers—listed prominently in Jesus’ teaching during the last week of his earthly life—provides a sharp, defining outline of how he came to understand, not only his ministry to his contemporaries, but also his larger significance in the history of Israel. It illustrates how Jesus thought about his mission and destiny. No other of his parables, I believe, contains such an obviously “autobiographical” perspective.

This parable of the vine-growers, in which the sending of God’s Son is presented as the defining moment of history, may be regarded as an extension of what Jesus said when he first preached on Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth: “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). In the story of the vine-growers, we see the clearest evidence that Jesus addressed, in his own heart, the large dimensions of his destiny.

In Luke, as in Mark (12:6), the son in the parable is described as “my beloved,” agapetos mou, the same expression the Father used to address Jesus at both his baptism and his Transfiguration.

This identical expression—agapetos mou—is found, likewise, in the Septuagint (Greek) version of Isaiah’s poem—“My beloved has a vineyard.” Jesus’ parable, then, identifies the son as the “my beloved” in Isaiah’s poem. It is to him that the vineyard truly belongs, because he is the heir. He is the son with regard to God, and the heir with regard to Israel’s history.

This, then, is Jesus’ interpretation of both his mission and his coming death: He is the “heir” of the ancient ministry of the prophets. Because of this, says Jesus, the unfaithful vine-growers “cast him out of the vineyard and killed him” (20:15). He sees that his own murder will be the culminating crime in Israel’s continued rejection of God and His messengers.

Friday, March 23

Matthew 22:15-22: From a purely material perspective, this series of conflict stories, all of them placed during the final week of our Lord’s earthly life, is nearly identical in the three Synoptic Gospels. This fact offers strong testimony that the final chapters in these three Gospels reflect the preaching of the early Church, which apparently knew a standard narrative structure respecting the last week of Jesus’ life on earth.

Matthew follows this structure. In this series of conflict stories he has already begun to introduce those persons who will play an active hand in the drama of the Crucifixion. Already he has introduced the chief priests, the elders, and the Pharisees (21:23,45). Now he introduces the Pharisees again, the Herodians, and the Roman government—the latter symbolized in the coin of taxation.

In the story that follows this one he will introduce the Sadducees, the party of the priesthood (verse 23). Throughout these stories, then, Matthew is bringing back once again that confluence of enemies that were intent on killing “the King of the Jews” at the beginning of this Gospel (2:3-4).

The evil intent of the Pharisees’ question is noted at the beginning of the story (verse 15). This question is part of a “plot” (symboulion). His enemies want to “trap” Jesus (padigevo, a verb that appears only here in the New Testament). Pharisees and Herodians had no use for one another, but their common hatred of Jesus unites their efforts to spring a trap on Him.

This conspiracy of God’s enemies made a deep impression on the early Christians. Indeed, they saw it as the fulfillment of a prophecy in Psalm 2 (cf. Acts 4:23-30).

The Lord’s enemies commence with manifest flattery, evidently to put Jesus off His guard before springing their loaded question (verse 16). (All three of the Synoptics mention this detail.)

The payment of the head tax to the Roman government was a source of resentment and occasional rebellion among the Jews, both because it was a sign of their subjection to Rome and because they disliked handling the graven image of the emperor on the coin. To this question, then, either a yes or a no answer could provide the basis for a political accusation against Jesus—or at least could gain Him new enemies. If Jesus forbade the paying of this tax, He would offend the Herodians. If He approved of it, He would further offend the Pharisees. Either way, He would give offense.

Reading their hearts (verse 18; 9:4) and reprimanding their hypocrisy, the Lord obliges them to produce the coin in question, thereby making it clear that they all do, in fact, have the coin and do pay the tax (verse 19).

That point established, He then obliges them to identify the head and name on the coin, namely, Tiberius Caesar (A.D. 14-37). Obviously the coin belongs to the emperor, so they can continue doing what they have always done—pay the tax. Caesar minted and distributed the coin. It is his.

Separated from its literary context, this story answers a practical question for Christians, and it has always served that purpose. Considered thus, it is consonant with the general teaching about taxation that we find elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. Romans 13:7; 1 Peter 2:13-19).

But then Jesus goes on. The concern of Jesus, however, is not identical with that of His enemies. He is not concerned about what is owed to Caesar, but what is owed to God. This, too, must be paid, and Jesus is about to pay it. Rendering unto God the things of God refers to our Lord’s approaching sufferings and death. Thus, what began as a mundane political question is transformed into a theological matter of great moment, leaving them all amazed (verse 22).

It is important, however, to keep this story in the context where the Gospels place it, the context of the Lord’s impending death. The question posed to Jesus is not a theoretical question. Indeed, it is not even a practical question. It is a loaded question—a question with an evil ulterior motive. It is a sword aimed at the Lord’s life.

And this is the sense in which we should understand Jesus’ response. Understood in this way, the Lord’s directive is full of irony. He tells His enemies to give back to God that which belongs to Him. And, in context, just what is that? It is Jesus Himself, whose life they will steal, and in their act of murder that which belongs to God will be rendered unto God.