Friday, March 1
Proverbs 10: We now come to the central core of this book (Chapters 10-22), the 375 aphorisms gathered by Solomon (verse 1). In this respect, it is surely significant that 375 is exactly the numerical value of the Hebrew letters that make up the name “Solomon.”
This central core of Proverbs is divided into two parts, a division based on both literary style and philosophical outlook.
In the first section, Chapters 10 through 15, most of the aphorisms (10:19, for instance, is an exception to this rule) are structured on an antithetical couplet, in which there is a contrast between components in the first and second lines: just/wicked, prudent/foolish, wealth/poverty, accept/refuse, and so forth. In this first section the outlook of the aphorisms is not openly religious, as a rule, but simply “true to life.”
In the second section, Chapters 16 through 22, the couplets are synthetic and complementary, not antithetical, as a rule. In each couplet, rather, the second line completes or extends some component in the first line: the refinement of silver/the testing of souls, loving friend/constant brother, and so on. In this second section, likewise, the outlook or tone is “preachy,” or exhortatory, and more explicitly religious.
Within each section, smaller groups sometimes bind the aphorisms together by either theme or by some rhetorical device. These latter include, for instance, simple expressions common to each maxim, even though the maxims themselves deal with different subjects.
Considerable stress is laid throughout on the control of the tongue (for instance, verses 19-21,31-32), in terms that will remind us of James 1:9 and 3:2-12.
Matthew 13:18-23: We have already reflected that the Parable of the Sower follows the outline of the Shema. Accordingly, the parable’s interpretation begins with the command, “Hear!” (verse 18) In the Greek wording, in fact, this command carries an emphatic pronoun, unusual with an imperative verb: “You!” This pronoun serves to emphasize the distinction between Jesus’ followers and the “others.”
The first group in this parable, symbolized in the seed sown by the wayside (verse 19), fails in the matter of the “heart” (a detail missing in Mark 4:15). These do not love God with their whole heart, a condition that renders them vulnerable to attack from the Evil One. Their hearts, which have grown dull, have no understanding (verses 14-15).
The second group, symbolized in the rocky ground, is shallow, so the Word cannot take root (verse 20). These will fall away at the first sign of trouble (verse 21). Matthew had already witnessed such trials in his own lifetime (10:18,21-23). Those who thus falter have failed to love God with their whole soul.
The third group, symbolized by the sowing among the thorns, permits the care for wealth and worldly concern to strangle the life from the Gospel (verse 22). They have failed to love God with all their might.
The fourth group, symbolized in the good ground that receives the seed, has the grace of “understanding,” because of which they bring forth fruit (verse 23). They have fruitful lives. They are later symbolized in the two productive servants in the Parable of the Talents (25:16-17).
In Matthew’s version of this parable-interpretation, we note his special emphasis on “understanding” in verses 19 and 23. According to Matthew, a special type of understanding is characteristic of true discipleship. Thus, Matthew omits both references to a failure of understanding on the part of the disciples in Mark 4:10, 13.
And at the end of the parables, in Matthew 13:51, the disciples admit that they do understand what the Lord has been saying. For more evidence of Matthew’s emphasis on understanding as a characteristic of discipleship, one may compare Mark 9:9-13 with Matthew 17:9-13; and Mark 9:30-32 with Matthew 17:22-23.
Saturday, March 2
Proverbs 11: In the midst of this practical, somewhat secular wisdom, we find some maxims of a religious nature (verse 20; cf. also 10:3,22; 12:2; 15:3,8,33; 16:1-7,9). Because the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, even secular prudence in the Bible has a religious basis (verse 1). Biblical practicality, however, is not the same thing as modern pragmatism, which is intrinsically skeptical and essentially selfish. Skepticism and selfishness are really not very practical.
The wisdom of the Book of Proverbs comes from outside this world, but it is not other-worldly. It is this-worldly, in the sense that God formed the structures in this world, according to which man must live. The divine law is written into the composition of this world, so that those who live in accordance with the divine law are the ones who are most in touch with the reality of this world itself. Since the whole world is founded on the wisdom of God, those who live in accord with this wisdom will be the world’s most practical people.
Among the themes touched on in this chapter are commercial honesty (verse 1; cf. 16:11; 20:10; Leviticus 19:35-36; Deuteronomy 25:13-16; Amos 8:5-6; 12:8; Micah 6:10-11), the dangers of pride (verse 2), integrity as a guide (verse 3), the salvific fruit of righteousness (verses 4-9,18-19), control of the tongue (verses 12-13), the importance of a breadth of views (verse 14), and the value of a generous spirit (verses 24-26).
Matthew 13:24-30: Matthew replaces the parable in Mark 4:21-25 with this parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, which is proper to his own gospel. It is joined to the parables that follow by the common image of growth. So much is this the case that Matthew postpones the explanation of the Wheat and the Weeds until after the parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven.
As we shall see in that delayed explanation, the first of these parables is about judgment, and in cases of judgment there is usually the danger of misjudging. The difficulty of distinguishing the weeds from the wheat is that, in their early stages, they look very much alike. So the Lord commands that both be allowed to grow to maturity, because only in maturity are they easily distinguished. Thus, the point of the parable is that finality in judgment should be delayed until “all the facts are in.” Indeed, by delaying the explanation of this parable until verses 36-43, Matthew is illustrating its point.
Sunday, March 3
Proverbs 12: The chapter continues the series of couplets containing contrasts: love/hate (verse 1), good/wicked (verse 2), wickedness/righteousness (verse 3), virtuous wife/shameful wife (verse 4), and so on.
Such sustained emphasis on contrasts and distinctions should put to rest the recent idea that biblical teaching is non-analytical and non-critical. For several generations some of those who dislike classical philosophy have pretended that “Semitic thinking” is unlike “Greek thinking” in this respect. They have told us that the Greeks applied critical distinctions to dissect ideas and look at them in an objective, detached way that separated the knower from the known. On the other hand, the Semites (so the story goes) took a unitive approach to knowledge, in which the knower became identified with what was known.
This version of the matter, however, involves an oversimplification that does justice to neither the Semites nor the Greeks. While it is true that the common Semitic verb for knowing, yada‘, implies union rather than division (as in “Adam knew his wife”), another common Semitic verb for knowing, bin, means knowledge of a discursive, critical sort. Both aspects of knowledge, that is to say, are contained in Semitic epistemology. Similarly, with respect to the Greeks, the application of critical, objective distinctions, of the sort characteristic of dialectics, should not be taken as the goal of classical Greek philosophy. Dialectics is a means, rather, of arriving at metaphysical contemplation, gnosis (the Sanskrit jnana), in which the knower and the known are united.
In short, the differences between Greek and Semitic approaches to knowledge cannot be reduced to the elementary distinction between analytical and contemplative knowledge. Nor can either approach be reduced to a single, simple description.
Matthew 13:31-35: The Parable of the Mustard Seed (verses 31-32) is also about growth. Unlike the previous parable, it is found in the other Synoptics (Mark 4:30-32; Luke 13:18-19).
This parable and the one that follows it—the Leaven in verse 33—address the second part of the Parable of the Sower; to wit, the seed that falls on rocky ground (verses 5-6). That rocky ground, we recall, symbolized those shallow folk unable to love God with the whole soul. The seed that fell there, unable to bring forth fruit, is now contrasted with the growth of the mustard seed and the leaven.
The mustard seed is sown, says Matthew, “in his field,” an expression not found in this place in Mark and Luke. It appears that this field represents the world, into which God’s Son entered, along with His missionaries who continue to sow the seed. This image of the field also ties the present parable back to the one before it (verses 24,27).
Monday, March 4
Proverbs 13: Wisdom is not something that a young man can discover on his own. He either has the good sense to receive it as instruction or he will never have it. He must, therefore, listen and pay attention. It will be difficult, however, to listen and pay attention if he is forever running his mouth (verse 3). Custody of one’s tongue, then, is absolutely required for the attaining of wisdom.
This habit of guarding one’s tongue, in order the better to hear and learn instruction, can become a life-long habit, a distinguishing characteristic of the wise man even when he grows older. We see this phenomenon in a special way in the traditions of ancient Egypt, where the “silent just man” became a moral ideal of Egyptian culture, exemplified in The Instructions of Ani in the second millennium before Christ all the way to the ascetical literature of the Christian monks of the Egyptian desert. The “silent just man” maintained strict control over his tongue, and in order to maintain control over his tongue he was obliged to keep guard also over his emotions. His speech, when he did speak, would bear wise counsel and insight. Such a man could be trusted. To him could be given responsibilities over serious matters, even the destiny of nations.
It was proverbial in antiquity—and not only in Egypt—that no man could safely govern anything outside of himself until he had learned to govern his own soul (16:32). And a man began to learn this discipline in his youth, by not opening his mouth except to ask questions and to seek instruction.
Matthew 13:36-43: Like the parable that it explains, this explanation is proper to Matthew. As in the case of the Parable of the Sower (verse 10), the explanation of the Wheat and the Weeds is given to the disciples in private—“in the house,” eis ten oikian. As an interpretation of history, it pertains to the divine mysteries; therefore, it is not shared outside the household of God. It is strictly “in-house.”
This distinctive feature of “the mysteries of the Kingdom of heaven” points to an important distinction of Christian theology, a distinction readily detected in the New Testament. Certain aspects of the Gospel are shared with the world at large, because they pertain to the kerygma, the message of God to the world, in order to bring the world to faith. These include the Lordship of Jesus, repentance from sin, justification by faith, Baptism and the rites pertinent to it, the return of Christ at the end of history, and the final judgment.
Tuesday, March 5
Proverbs 14: Wisdom is the foundation of homes and households (verse 1). This is the inherited wisdom of the ages, conservatively handed down in the tradition of “families and villages” (to borrow Aristotle’s coupling).
Since the experience of family necessarily involves the transmission of identity, the tradition or inherited wisdom is not peripheral to family life. Unassailable tradition, based on perceived absolutes, is not something with which a family can dispense. It is of the essence, and it is this sense of tradition’s essential character that injects a note of urgency into the rhetoric of the Book of Proverbs. The exhortations in Proverbs are matters of life or death. Hence, this sense of urgency goes far to account for the toughness of discipline inculcated throughout the book.
Consequently, moral indifference or relativism, based on skepticism and an overly critical spirit, spell the death of wisdom and therefore the death of family life (verse 11). Nowhere does the Bible tolerate the relativism and despair (including a sympathy for suicide) that characterized some primitive writings of Mesopotamia, such as the ancient Dialogue of Pessimism. The latter work, written over three thousand years ago, reads today like a work of recent Existentialism. If such attitudes were characteristic of the philosophy of Mesopotamia, it is no wonder that Abraham insisted that Isaac should not go back there (Genesis 24:5-6).
The Book of Proverbs, in mighty contrast, represents the voice of moral and metaphysical absolutes, a wisdom based on the sense of the scrutiny and presence of God (verses 2,26-27; cf. 13:14; 15:39,11,29).
Matthew 13:44-52: This remaining section of the Parables of the Kingdom is completely proper to Matthew. It contains three parables: the Hidden Treasure (verse 44), the Pearl (verses 45-46), and the Dragnet (verses 47-50). These are followed by a brief exchange between Jesus and the disciples with respect to their understanding of the parables (verses 51-52).
The parables of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl pertain to the third seed sown in the Parable of the Sower—the seed sown among thorns (verse 7). That seed, we recall, was strangled by “the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches” (verse 22). This preoccupation with wealth is addressed in the parables of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl; in each case the man who finds the treasure or pearl gives up all that he has in order to obtain the desired prize. Following the outline of the Shema, such a one loves God with all his strength.
Wednesday, March 6
Proverbs 15: This chapter contains several references to the acceptance of correction (verses 5,10,12,31,32). Among a young man’s worst enemies is his innate resistance to correction, a resistance spawned of rebellion and an independent spirit. Giving in to such a spirit generally produces three results, all of them bad: First, it strengthens a man’s spirit of rebellion. (A rebel’s spirit is useful in the face of oppression; otherwise, it is a counterproductive trait in a man. A sustained spirit of rebellion, a spiritual chip on the shoulder, renders a man useless for any purpose.) This leads to hardness of heart and self-absorption.
Second, refusal to accept correction deprives a man of instruction about some point on which at least one other person thinks he needs instruction. Third, it discourages that same person from making some attempt at correction and instruction in the future. Thus, many valuable lessons will be lost if the young man does not early recognize and deal with these inner impulses of rebellion. Following such impulses is not the path to wisdom.
A Christian reading of this theme in Proverbs should see more in the Sacred Text, not less, than a merely Jewish reading of it. Even the simplest, plainest reading of Proverbs, based on the most literal sense of the Text, shows the importance of being open to correction. The Christian reader, however, reading the Scriptures through the lens of Christ, will recognize God the Father as the True Parent who speaks in these lines.
Thus, the submission that all children owe to the discipline of their parents becomes the symbol of a greater docility that God’s children owe to their heavenly Father. That is to say, the Christian reader should see more in the meaning of Proverbs in this regard: “Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them reverence. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live?” (Hebrews 12:9)
Matthew 13:53-58: Nazareth’s negative response to Jesus indicates a new level of resistance among the Jews with respect to the Gospel. We will see this resistance intensify through chapters 14-16.
This section begins with the normal formula that ends each of the five dominical discourses in Matthew (verse 53; cf. 7:28; 11:1; 19:1; 26:1): “When Jesus had ended these sayings . . .”
The reaction of the Nazarenes is expressed by their wonder at Jesus’ unexpected authority. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount the wonder of the people expressed a positive tone (7:28-29), but now it becomes an expression of skepticism (verse 56), scandal (verse 57), and unbelief (verse 58). They do not even refer to Jesus by name but speak contemptuously of “this man” (verses 54,56).
Thursday, March 7
Proverbs 16: Proverbs deals with more than human effort. This book shares, rather, the conviction of the Bible’s historians and prophets (including the author of Job) that God reigns over human history and has plans of His own with respect to human destiny (verses 1-4,9,25,33). Man is not in charge of history. The “big picture” is not man’s responsibility. Consequently, God does not generally let him see the big picture. God’s governance of history is unfathomable. (Even those prophets to whom the Lord gives a panoramic view of history are often unable to see even one step ahead in matters of their own lives. Jeremiah is an example.)
This is not to say, of course, that human choices count for nothing in the course of events. It means only that man should restrict his concerns to those aspects of life that he can actually do something about, and these are determined largely by the circumstances in which Divine Providence places him. Each man must do his duty, as determined by those responsibilities, leaving to God the outcome of events. Man must be content to do right “as God gives us to see the right” (Abraham Lincoln).
At the same time, God’s loyal and obedient servant takes strength from the remembrance that God holds governance over the whole historical process. Even as men struggle to remain faithful, while not seeing the larger picture of which their own efforts are but a part, faith in a ruling God offers the proper basis for a sane, holy, and rational hope. This truth has special pertinence for those charged with the rule of nations (verses 10,12-15).
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.
Friday, March 8
Proverbs 17: Wisdom is learned and practiced in the home and the community. It has to do with simple, quotidian experiences, both domestic and immediately social. Consequently, a number of these maxims are concerned with man’s life in his home and in society: the blessings of a quiet household (verse 1), the raising of children (verses 21,25), dependable servants (verse 2), reverence for the younger and older generations (verse 6), the maintenance of friendships, even the friendships of others (verses 9,17), the resolution of conflicts (verse 14), and respect for the poor (verse 5).
The perfect man, we are told, is the one who “does not stumble in word” (James 3:2). Because a man’s speech is his chief means of associating with his family and his community, his ability to govern his tongue will chiefly determine the quality of his social relationships. It is a man’s speech that will make or break him in the moral and social orders. Without proper control of his tongue, a man is of no decent use to either God or his fellow men. It is not surprising, therefore, that this chapter on man’s domestic and social life should contain several references to the power of speech, not only good speech (verse 7) and controlled speech (verses 27-28), but also perverse speech (verse 20) in a number of forms, such as mendacity (verses 4,7), ridicule (verse 5), and gossip (verse 9).
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.