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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).
Saturday, March 10
Matthew 16:21-28: The Cross is something we never stop carrying, as we walk in the steps of Jesus, but it will come to us differently as we pass through the various stages of the life in Christ. We learn the mystery of the Cross already in childhood, in a manner appropriate to children, but then we experience a different dimension of it in adolescence, and then again in adulthood, and finally in old age. The Cross is the key to unlocking God’s will for us in every stage of our lives.
Sometimes we will be visited with the impression that we are making no progress at all. At every stage we find ourselves resistant to the Word of the Cross. Just when we imagine that we have grasped what it means to be a Christian, we discover—perhaps with shock—that we have hardly begun.
Psalms 23 (Greek & Latin 22): One has the strong impression—strong to the point of certitude—that the “Good Shepherd Psalm” is the best-known, most frequently prayed and the most widely memorized psalm of the Bible. This psalm is particularly popular in the King James Version. Both of my children could recite it by heart at age three, an accomplishment that one suspects is not uncommon in Christian homes. Many believers pray it daily.
The popularity of this psalm is doubtless related to the traditional attraction of the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, the latter a fact readily demonstrable from the New Testament and the very earliest Christian art.
This attraction, still very widespread, was absolutely universal among the first Christians. For instance, in Matthew, written in Syria, the theme of Jesus as the Good Shepherd was especially related to that of evangelism and the sending out of the Apostles (9:36–38). This emphasis is consonant with the parable of the Shepherd’s searching for the lost sheep, preserved in 18:12–14.
In Mark’s Gospel, written in Rome, the theme of the Good Shepherd was especially associated with the Multiplication of the Loaves (Mark 6:34). Here one sees Jesus making his flock recline on the green grass (6:39), an image clearly drawn from our psalm. Evidently this became a favorite image among the Christians at Rome, for pictures of Jesus as the Good Shepherd appear everywhere in the catacombs and other early art in that city. Another New Testament work written at Rome twice refers to Jesus as the shepherd (1 Pet. 2:25; 5:4), and the image likewise appears in Hebrews (13:20), which also seems to be connected with Rome (13:24). Moreover, a second-century Christian of Rome, named Hermas, made this the major image of Jesus in a lengthy work that is called, in fact, The Shepherd.
Besides Syria and Rome, the symbol of Jesus as Good Shepherd was also clearly a popular one among the Christians in Asia Minor. For example, in the mid-second century the Bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp, refers to our Lord as “the Shepherd of the Church” (Martyrdom of Polycarp 19:2). Much earlier, however, that theme was already recorded in the Gospel of John, written in the Asian capital of Ephesus. At the very end of this Gospel, Jesus refers to “My lambs” and “My sheep” (John 21:15–17), but the longer development of this idea is in chapter 10. In this chapter several aspects of the image are treated: the sensitivity of the sheep to the Shepherd’s voice (vv. 3–5, 8, 14, 16, 27), the utter uniqueness of the Shepherd in contrast to the hireling or the robber (vv. 1, 2, 8–10, 12, 13), the Shepherd’s giving of His life for His sheep (vv. 10, 11, 14, 15, 17, 18), the gathering of the lost sheep into a single flock (v. 16) and their total security (vv. 28, 29).
Sunday, March 11
Psalms 34 (Greek & Latin 34): Summarizing an entire Wisdom theme of Holy Scripture with a single question, Psalm 34 asks: “Who is the man who desires life, and loves many days, that he may see good?” At first the question may appear merely rhetorical. After all, doesn’t everyone desire life? Would anyone intentionally choose or prefer death over life?
The Bible is not so confident on this point. Deuteronomy distinguishes a true choice between life and death. It really is a matter of choosing, and some people do, in fact, prefer death over life (Deut. 30:19). That person shows little familiarity with history, or even his own soul, who would deny this deep, inveterate death wish at work in the human heart. Our psalm’s question, then, is well directed; in very truth, just who is the man who desires life?
By “life” we mean, of course, much more than material, animal survival, for man does not “live” by bread alone. True human life is a far more ample thing, a matter of the soul’s relationship to God; true life involves living in a particular way. The psalmist goes on, then, to answer his own question: “Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit. Depart from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.”
Our choices really do count in the sight of God. Even though He causes His rain to fall on both the just and the unjust, it would be a serious mistake to suppose that God has no regard for the difference between a just and an unjust man. God actively resists the proud man and gives His grace to the humble (Proverbs 3:34; James 4:6). God really does discriminate, and our psalmist elaborates on the consequences of this discrimination: “The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their cry. The face of the Lord is against those who do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.”
These verses of Psalm 34 are later paraphrased in 1 Peter 3:10–12: “He who would love life / And see good days, / Let him refrain his tongue from evil, /And his lips from speaking deceit. / Let him turn away from evil and do good; / Let him seek peace and pursue it. / For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, / And His ears are open to their prayers; / But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” For the Apostle Peter, these lines of our psalm provide an outline for how the Christian is to live. He comments on them: “Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous; not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing” (3:8-9).
Choosing life over death clearly has a great deal to do with the discipline of one’s mouth: “Keep your tongue . . . and your lips,” says the psalmist, for “if anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man” (James 3:2). Seeking and pursuing peace is nine-tenths a matter of keeping bad things out of one’s mouth.
And how does one accomplish this difficult vigilance? By constantly, over and over, putting the words of prayer into his mouth, and this was how the psalm began: “I will bless the Lord at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth.” This ceaseless prayer, manifestly a standard teaching of the New Testament, is also a theme in our psalm: “This poor man cried out, and the Lord heard him. . . . The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears.”
This life of constant, sustained calling on God involves also a certain cultivation of “taste” that leads to vision: “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good.” Once again, it is 1 Peter that comments on our psalm by contrasting the sins of the tongue with the godly discipline of the Christian mouth: “Therefore, laying aside all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all evil speaking, as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is gracious” (2:1–3; see also Heb. 6:5).
Finally, in Psalm 34 the context for this continual effort of prayer is the experience of various trials suffered in the service of God. The dominant sentiment is one of trust in God: “I sought the Lord, and He heard me, and delivered me from all my fears. . . . The young lions lack and suffer hunger; but those who seek the Lord shall not lack any good thing. . . . Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all. He guards all their bones; not one of them is broken. . . . The Lord redeems the soul of His servants, and none of them who trust in Him shall be condemned.”
Monday, March 12
Matthew 17:14-23: Whereas Matthew greatly simplifies and shortens Mark’s version of this story in the narrative parts, he actually amplifies the “saying” part of it in verse 20. He does this in two ways: (1) He inserts here the Lord’s reference to faith as a mustard seed, a dominical saying found in quite another context in Luke 17:6; (2) Je inserts here Jesus’ reference to the disciples’ “small faith” (oligopistia). We saw earlier that this New Testament expression, “small faith,” either as a noun (here only) or as an adjective, is found almost exclusively in Matthew; cf. 6:6; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8 (otherwise only in Luke 12:28). Faith, according to Matthew, is understood as trust in the authority (exsousia) of Jesus (8:9-13; 9:2). Miracles are said to be worked by faith (9:20-22, 28f). In three scenes where Mark and Luke do not do so, Matthew portrays Jesus as saying, “as you have believed, so be it done to you” (8:13; 9:29; 15:8).
When the man approaches Jesus (verse 14), he kneels down—gonypeton, literally “bending the knee”—before Jesus. That is to say, he assumes before Jesus the posture of prayer (contrast Mark 9:14-17). Like Solomon at the dedication of the Temple, he kneels before Jesus in prayer. This is the second time in two consecutive scenes in Matthew where kneeling is the proper posture in the presence of Jesus. In Matthew, then, the scene is one of worship and prayerful petition. And what does the man say to Jesus when he kneels down? Kyrie, eleison! — “Lord, have mercy!”
Like Solomon at the dedication of the Temple, then, the man kneels before Jesus in prayer. Here we have the second of two consecutive scenes in Matthew (the first being the Transfiguration in 17:6) that portray the believers before Jesus on bended knee.
This kneeling down, or prostration, in prayer is not simply a generic act of worship. It is specified by its Christological reference. Indeed, in the former scene, the Transfiguration, the disciples fall into this posture when they hear the voice of the Father identifying Jesus as His Son. Their posture is a theophanic response (cf. Revelation 1:16-17). Here in Matthew (verse 15) the man bends the knee Avton–“towards Him.”
And in kneeling down he addresses Jesus as “Lord”–Kyrios. We should contrast this with Mark’s account, which addresses Jesus here as “Teacher”–Didaskalos. Matthew, that is to say, uses the full confessional word of the Christian faith (cf. Philippians 2:11; 1 Corinthians 8:6; 12:3).
Tuesday, March 13
Matthew 17:24-27: This story, found only in Matthew, demonstrates a special solidarity between Jesus and Peter, inasmuch as the taxes of both are paid by the same coin.
In spite of his recently being called “Satan” by the Lord, Peter did not really fall from the Lord’s favor; the Apostle was warned and reprimanded, not rejected. Indeed, even after those stern words in chapter 16, Peter was still chosen as one of the three disciples to witness the Lord’s transfiguration at the beginning of this chapter.
In the present text, as in every other New Testament text that speaks of his fishing, we may wonder about Peter’s skills as an angler. In every single gospel account, whenever Peter catches a fish, the event is regarded as a miracle.
This text also serves to instruct on the obligation of believers to pay taxes to the government.
Psalms 78 (Greek & Latin 77): This psalm is, in large part, devoted to the theme of the Desert Wandering of the Israelites. It is largely devoted to the same theme, which provides its proper interpretation. A kind of poetic summary of the Books of Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and even some of Joshua, Judges, and 1 Samuel, Psalm 78 concentrates on the Chosen People’s constant infidelity and rebellion, especially during the desert pilgrimage:
But they sinned even more against Him by rebelling against the Most High in the wilderness. . . . How often they provoked Him in the wilderness, and grieved Him in the desert! Yes, again and again they tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel. They did not remember His power: The day when He redeemed them from the enemy.
Quite a number of hours are required to read the whole story of the people’s infidelity in the desert as it is recorded through several books of the Bible. Psalm 78, however, has long served as a sort of meditative compendium of the whole account. Its accent falls on exactly those same moral exhortations we find in 1 Corinthians and Hebrews—the people’s failure to take heed to what they had already beheld of God’s deliverance and His sustained care for them. They had seen the plagues that He visited on the Egyptians, they had traversed the sea dry shod, they had been led by the pillar of cloud and fire, they had slaked their thirst with the water from the rock, they had eaten their fill of the miraculous bread, they had trembled at the base of Mount Sinai, beholding the divine manifestation. In short, they had already been the beneficiaries of God’s revelation, salvation, and countless blessings.
Still, “their heart was not steadfast with Him, nor were they faithful in His covenant.” And just who is being described here? Following the lead of the New Testament, we know it is not only the Israelites of old, but also ourselves, “upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” The story in this psalm is our own story. So we carefully ponder it and take warning.
Wednesday, March 14
Matthew 18:1-9: Here begin the sayings that form the fourth great dominical discourse in Matthew; this one is devoted to what may be called “rules for the congregation.” It begins by the memorable scene in which Jesus holds up the faith of children as a model for adults. Far from refusing children access to Jesus until they arrive at the explicit and doctrinal faith of adults, Jesus admonishes adults to model their own faith on the more elementary faith of the child. Because children are the most in danger of being scandalized, this topic of children leads naturally into the subject of scandal, and in this connection come the Lord’s statements about millstones and self-mutilation. The latter are certainly to be understood by way of hyperbole.
Going through in more detail, we begin with the question of which of the disciples is the greatest (verses 1-5). In the parallel text in Mark 9:33-37, the disciples themselves argued which of themselves was the greatest. Matthew not only changes the question, then, he changes also the context of the question. It is no longer a debate among competing apostles; it is a question put to Jesus, as though a point of speculation. The question becomes spiritual and theological; it pertains to the Kingdom of Heaven. When the question is answered in verse 4, it is still about the Kingdom of Heaven.
The “child” held up as a model here is a paidion, roughly meaning someone under the age of twelve, someone who has not yet made his bar mitzvah. That is to say, it is a “kid,” someone not quite taken seriously. Hence, the lesson is one of humility. Elaborating on the point (verses 3-4, for which there are no parallels in the accounts of Mark and Luke), Jesus says that unless one becomes a paidion, he will not even enter the Kingdom, much less be contender for “greatest” cf. 20:26-27; 23:11-12).
Then Jesus asserts in a positive way (verse 4) what He has just affirmed negatively (verse 3). This disregard for power and social status elaborates what Jesus said about the poor in spirit in 5:3.
At first, verse 5, about receiving the “little one,” seems to have nothing to do with the context. In place of the childlike quality of humility, our attention is drawn to the children themselves and how they are to be treated.
In Mark’s version, in fact, this action and the words of Jesus do not appear, at first sight, even to address the question about which the Apostles have been arguing.
This impression is misleading. In telling the Church how to receive children, Matthew is preparing for the next section, on scandal. Verse 5 sets the positive stage for the coming warning about scandal. Jesus affirms that those who receive children, receive Him. He identifies Himself with children.
And how are we to receive children? From the hand of God. Anytime there is an “unwanted child,” somebody can expect to render an answer at the throne of God. Receptivity is the Christian’s fundamental response to the appearance of children in this world (cf. 10:40; 25:31-46). This is all Jesus has to say on the subject of birth control.
Then Matthew (but not Mark and Luke) begins the section on scandal (verses 6-9), which follows immediately on the appearance of the child. It begins with a solemn warning not to scandalize the “little believers” (micros pistevon).
Thursday, March 15
Matthew 18:10-20: Here we have some of the toughest, harshest verses in the New Testament: violent image—drowning, cutting off a hand, gouging out an eye—all suggesting the difficulty of getting into the Kingdom of Heaven.
To give scandal, in the biblical sense, does not mean to shock. It means to cause spiritual harm (even though shock does sometimes accompany scandal). Scandal means to hurt someone spiritually, to cause to sin, to degrade someone’s conscience. In the present text the word is found six times, whether as a verb or a noun.
In the first instance it refers to the spiritual harm done to a child or young person. The Lord’s mind in this case is the reverse side of His love and preference for children. The punishment that He threatens to those who cause spiritual harm to children is an expression of His own love for children.
Those who would imitate Christ, then, must be protectors of children (born or unborn!); this is not an option for Christians, but the obligation rests more clearly on parents and those with responsibility in loco parentum, such as teachers, and counselors. For this reason, the spiritual protection of children is an essential feature of those with a responsibility of spiritual fatherhood in the Church, namely, bishops and priests. It is bishops and priests, perhaps, who are most threatened with this millstone around the neck.
What, then, is a skandalon? The word means a “trap” or “snare,” a device to trip someone. Therefore it is of the nature of a skandalon that it takes someone by surprise; he is caught before he knows it.
In the case of children, then, a scandal is caused by those whom the child trusts, those whom the child is supposed to trust, those whom the child has been taught to trust. Understood thus, a scandal is the violation of a trust; it preys on the vulnerability of the child. Clearly, in the way that the New Testament speaks of this sin, it is especially heinous. The one who does it will be drowned, says the Sacred Text, en to pelagei tes thalasses. He will sink to the very bottom, because this is the worst of sins.
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.