Friday, March 30
Matthew 20:29-34: This story, found also in Mark 10:46-52 and Luke 18:35-43, is linked to the city of Jericho, though not in exactly the same way in each gospel. In Mark’s account Jesus has entered and is the course of leaving the city when the blind man invokes Him. In Luke’s version this event occurs as Jesus is approaching Jericho. Indeed, in the Lukan story Jesus, on leaving Jericho, encounters the publican Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), a narrative not found in the other gospels. Here in Matthew, on the other hand, the meeting with the blind men occurs when Jesus is leaving Jericho. What is to be said about this threefold discrepancy?
First, it presents no problem from the perspective of history. The site of Jericho shifted about somewhat over the centuries, as archeologists have demonstrated. One of these shifts took place during the very period under consideration, when Herod the Great constructed a winter palace near the ancient site of Jericho, and a new settlement rose around it. That is to say, it was possible to be both entering and leaving Jericho simultaneously.
Second, there appears to be no theological or literary significance to the differences among the three Evangelists on this point. If there is such a significance, the present writer has failed to discover it.
To “follow” Christ means to live by the pattern of the Cross, to pursue the implications of Baptism and the Holy Eucharist—the one a mystic identification with His death and resurrection, the other a proclaiming of His death “until He comes.” These two men have accepted the challenge just made to James and John.
These blind men, calling on Jesus with the Messianic title, “Son of David,” ask for the opening of their eyes, an expression which in prophetic literature is associated with the Messianic times (cf. Isaiah 29:18; 35:5).
In fact, one notes in Matthew a disposition to call Jesus the “Son of David” (a title introduced in the very first verse of this Gospel), when He miraculously heals. We observe this in the healings of both the blind men (here and in 9:30), the blind and mute demoniac (12:22-24), and the Canaanite woman’s daughter (15:21-28). These healings are signs of the coming of the Messiah, foretold by the prophets (cf. 4:23; 9:35; 10:1).
Saturday, March 31
Lazarus Saturday: Crucial to the understanding of the raising of Lazarus is the dialogue that explains it, the discussion in which Jesus tells Martha 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.
Now Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.
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 (John 11:25-26; cf. 6:40).
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to Him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Martha’s response expresses the faith of the Maccabees and Pharisees. This was the hope of Israel.
Answering this affirmation, Jesus changes the tense from future to present: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” 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.” The dialogue ends with this declaration, and Martha must now get busy on the basis of it. The Jesus who abides in the believer is the risen Jesus, and the life he confers on the believer—even now—in the Resurrection life.
Palm Sunday, April 1
Matthew 21:1-11: Today’s Gospel reading tells us:
But when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that He did, and the children crying out in the temple and saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant and said to Him, “Do You hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes. Have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants / You have perfected praise’?”
Jesus cites this line from Psalm 8 to refute His enemies, exactly as the psalm indicated: “Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants You have perfected praise because of Your enemies, that You may silence the enemy and the avenger.”
In what sense is praise perfected on the lips of children? It means that the praise of God has been handed on to the next generation, the new generation—the young people still in their formative years.
This experience was of growing importance in the early Church. We recall that many of the first generation of Christians believed they would be the last generation. Indeed, the sense of the imminent return of Christ was so strong that even in the mid-50’s Paul appealed to it as a reason for not getting married (1 Cor 7).
A major question facing the early Church was how to transmit the Gospel to a new generation, the children who had no direct exposure to the Apostles. Could that new generation—another step removed from the origins of the Church—share the vision of their parents? Could they be truly orthodox?
Take, for example, the grandchildren of that Philippian jailer. Would they be disposed to raise their voices in praise, as Paul and Silas had done? We now know the answer, of course, because the Philippians church is still there, but the answer may not have been so clear ahead of time.
The praise of God is perfected when it is passed to children. (This is perhaps the major objection against professional choirs in church: their music is often too complicated for children to sing.) It is essential to the being of the Church that her praise ne perfected in the mouths of children. It means that the children are growing into the faith of their parents and grandparents. They are taking their places, waving leafy palms in the air, with the children who surrounded Jesus riding on his donkey. These children are learning to experience the promise of the Kingdom.
Monday, April 2
Matthew 21:12-46: The purging of the Temple is found in all four Gospels, but Matthew includes two details not found in the other accounts: These consist in appeals to two Old Testament texts that Matthew perceives to be “fulfilled” in what the Lord did in the Temple.
In the first of these instances, Matthew says, “Then the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them.” Matthew alone includes this striking detail, which is full of theological significance and advances the Messianic theme that dominates his version of the story.
The background of this detail is 2 Samuel 5, which tells the story of David’s taking of Jerusalem from the Jebusites in 992 B.C. When the king and his army laid siege to the city, the Jebusites taunted David that their blind and lame would suffice to defend it (2 Samuel 5:6). This taunt led to David’s enemies being metaphorically referred to as “the blind and the lame,” and this metaphor in turn led to a popular proverb, “the blind and lame must stay outside.” More literally, the proverb ran, “the blind and the lame may not come into the house.”
The Septuagint augmented this proverb by a single word, Kyriou, so that it ran, “the blind and the lame shall not come into the house of the Lord.” It is possible that the LXX’s version of the proverb reflects a later rule against begging inside the Temple, so as not to disturb the people who went there to pray. Many of the mendicants—if not most—were either blind or lame, and such a rule would have obliged them to stay outside the Temple gates in order to do their begging (cf. Acts 3:12).
Matthew’s account, therefore, is seen to reverse this exclusion of the blind and the lame. The blind and the lame—-once the symbols of David’s enemies—are now received in the Temple by David’s Son, who heals them. This detail is an ironical Messianic sign. The Messiah, having entered His Temple and purged it, brings in those who had been excluded, and this, too, is an ironic fulfillment of Holy Scripture.
In the second instance of biblical fulfillment, Matthew’s Gospel refers to Psalm 8, which is seen to be fulfilled in the shouting of the children at the Lord’s entry into the city). Jesus cites this psalm in reference to Himself, a point on which He is followed by the authors of the New Testament (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:27; Hebrews 2:6-8).
In short, Matthew’s account of the purging of the Temple lays special emphasis on the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures.
Tuesday, April 3
Matthew 25:1-13: 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 (Matthew 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, and a particular 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.
Spy Wednesday, April 4
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 had 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 5
Matthew 26:17-56: We come now to Holy Thursday and the evening of the Last Supper. The traditions behind the four gospels attach several stories to the narrative of the Last Supper. The Church chiefly remembers the Last Supper, however, as the occasion of the instituting of the Holy Eucharist, an event recorded in the three Synoptic Gospels.
To the three Synoptic accounts of the Holy Eucharist we must add that in 1 Corinthians 11, which is at least a decade older than the earliest of the four gospels. Indeed, this narrative recorded by St. Paul links the institution of the Eucharist explicitly to the betrayal by Judas: “I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the night in which He was betrayed took bread . . .” This text provides clear evidence that the traditional narrative contained in the Eucharistic prayer, as it was already known to Paul when he founded the Corinthian church about A.D. 50, made mention of Judas’s betrayal. That same formula or its equivalent—“on the night He was betrayed”–is found in both the liturgies of St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom.
The Church’s testimony on this point is remarkable. It is as though some deep impulse discourages Christians from celebrating the Holy Communion without some reference to the betrayal by Judas. This reference serves to remind Christians of the terrible judgment that surrounds the Mystery of the Altar:
Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body” (1 Corinthians 11:27-29).
In spite of their manifest shortcomings in discipleship, the Twelve obey Jesus, making the necessary preparations for the Seder (verses 17-19), as they had earlier prepared for His triumphal entry in Jerusalem (21:2-7). In this brief dialogue we observe that the Passover and the Unleavened Bread are fused together, as they were in practice. On the day of the Seder (Thursday of Holy Week), all leavened bread was thrown out, so that only unleavened bread would be in the house that evening. Like Mark (14:12), Matthew refers to that Thursday as “the first day of unleavened bread” (verses 17; Mark 14:1).
In this same dialogue Matthew introduces another view of the “timing” of this event. Jesus has His own “time”–kairos (verse 18). This kairos of Jesus has to do with God’s plan, though its implementation subsumes the “opportunity” (eukaria) of the Lord’s enemies (verse 16). This kairos of Matthew (missing in Mark 14:14) is identical with the “hour” in John (2:4; 7:30; 8:20; 12:23,27; 13:1; 16:21,32; 17:1). Both terms are references to God’s control of history—Divine Providence as it pertained to Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is obviously quite conscious of this.
Whereas in Luke (22:19-23) the Lord’s mention of the betrayer comes after the Holy Eucharist, in Mark (14:19-21) and Matthew (verses 21-25), it comes first in the Supper narrative. The Lord’s knowledge of the kairos is of a piece with His knowledge of the betrayer. He is able to read both times and hearts. The scene in the Upper Room grows dramatically tense as Jesus announces what is to transpire that night.
When the Apostles question Jesus on this announcement, they address Him as “Lord”–Kyrios (verse 22). Only Judas fails to do so (verse 25). Upon His betrayer Jesus pronounces a “woe” (verse 24), prophetic of what will transpire in 27:1-10. We recall the series of seven “woes” pronounced against the scribes and Pharisees in chapter 23.
Good Friday, April 6
The Bridegroom is Taken Away: If we paint the subject with a large brush, we may be prompted to see two major kinds of Christology abroad in this country: Christ as Teacher and Christ as Savior.
It is no surprise that non-Christians prefer to concentrate on Christ as Teacher. This picture of Christ is attractive, not only to devout Hindus and Buddhists, but even to secular people who are ethically serious.
Such folk find comfort and support, for example, in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. They reason—not without cause—that world peace would certainly be attained if everyone simply turned the other cheek when offended and refused to return evil for evil. In this view, Jesus becomes a great teaching of universal morality. His maxims are compared favorably with those of Gautama, Socrates, and Confucius.
This is rather often the case among non-Christians who are attracted by the picture of Christ as Teacher. If he is conceived as Savior, it is in only in the sense that he instructs human beings how to live a moral life.
This view is very far off-base, because the teaching given by Christ is inseparable from the salvation given by Christ. The attempt to extract the teaching of Christ from the person, work, and vocation of Christ infallibly leads to a misunderstanding of that teaching.
Stating the thesis in another way, let us affirm that the Mount of the Beatitudes cannot be correctly understood apart from Mount Calvary. Since both hills are presented in the Gospel of Matthew, let us examine the question as Matthew presents it.
Matthew’s description of the Passion of Christ is the consummate illustration of his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. The particulars of this demonstration are clear and unmistakable, leaving no doubt about Matthew’s intention.
We may consider these particulars in two respects, one formal, and the other material.
First, there is the formal perspective of Matthew’s presentation of the moral life. Here we are faced with the motif of Jesus’ heavenly Father. In the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, the believer’s consciousness of the heavenly Father is the formal, determining principle of the moral life.
The disciple’s constant thought and remembrance is of the heavenly Father. In all things—whether in fasting, prayer, or almsgiving—he endeavors to please this Father, “who sees in secret” (6:4,6,18). It is in Him that the believer puts his entire trust, convinced that the heavenly Father knows his every need (6:8,32). It is the heavenly Father’s glory that he seeks above all things (5:16). The disciple’s love for others is simply his endeavor to imitate the perfection of his Father in heaven (5:48).
If he forgives, it is for the sake of being forgiven by his Father in heaven (6:14-15). His sole interest is in doing the will of the heavenly Father (6:10; 7:21), to whom he prays (6:9; 7:11). He does all of these things for the purpose of being a child of the heavenly Father (5:45). He seeks his reward only from the Father in heaven (6:1). The sustained consciousness of the heavenly Father—all through the three chapters of the Sermon on the Mount—is the formal, determining principle of the moral life. Christ’s teaching in that sermon cannot be abstracted from that formal principle.
Now, it is a fact that such a preoccupation with the Father in heaven is exactly what we find in Matthew’s description of Jesus’ Passion. He is aware that the heavenly Father would answer his slightest wish to be supplied with twelve legions of angelic warriors, were he to request it (26:53). He will not request it, however, convinced that this is not the Father’s will.
Indeed, the resolve to do the will of his Father is obviously what most deeply moves and strengthens Jesus in the Passion. Having instructed His disciples—in the Sermon on the Mount—to pray that the Father’s will should be done on earth as it is in heaven, Jesus models this petition when he prays at the beginning of the Passion. Three times, Matthew tells us (26:44), Jesus makes the same prayer: “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will”(26:39,42).
Indeed, the Greek text for “Thy will be done”—genetheto to thelema Sou—is identical in the Sermon on the Mount (6:10) and the Agony in the Garden (26:42). In both cases this prayer is specifically addressed to the Father (6:9; 26:39,42). Thus, the prayer of Jesus in his Passion exemplifies the prayer given in the Sermon on the Mount. In the conscious intention of his Passion, he illustrates the formal moral principle of the Sermon on the Mount.
Second, let us consider the material content of the Sermon on the Mount. In that Sermon Christ instructed his disciples on the blessedness of “those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (5:10) and suffer the pain of false accusations (5:11). He warned the disciples against retaliation against evil and exhorted them not to resist those who use violence against them (5:38-42). He cautioned them against holding grudges against injuries (6:12,14).
In his Passion Jesus illustrates and exemplifies these components of his moral teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Thus, when one of His disciples grabs a sword to resist those who came to arrest the Savior, Jesus immediately puts a stop to the violence, because “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (26:51-52).
Resolved to live and die by the rules that he laid down in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus endures without complaint the manifold injuries and injustices inflicted upon him: the unwarranted arrest, the false witnesses, the accusation of blasphemy, the beatings, mockery, and insults, the scourging, the crowning with thorns, and the manifold sufferings of the Cross.
We misunderstand the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount if it is reduced to an abstract and idealistic ethical code—something separable from the life, work, and vocation of the one who preached it. It must be understood and interpreted, rather, in the way Jesus modeled it in his Passion.
It is imperative that those resolved to follow the Sermon on the Mount be conscious that nothing less is involved than the mystery of the Cross, in which God’s Son gave himself in selfless obedience to the will of the heavenly Father. From the Mount of the Sermon it is but a short step to the Mount of Golgotha.