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.
Saturday, March 9
Proverbs 18: Many commentators have spoken of the “pragmatic” motive in much of the Book of Proverbs. That is to say, very often what are recommended in this book are things that have been proven to work; these things get good results. Or, to borrow the expression of William James, they have “cash value.” Such things have been tried for generations, and only a fool would abandon them.
We should be cautious about this approach to Proverbs, however, because the pragmatic motive in this book is not identical to that of William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, John Dewey, and their kindred spirits. The pragmatism of these men rested on a fundamental agnosticism with respect to ultimacy. Persuaded that the correct answers to ultimate questions (“Does God exist?” “Is man’s willed activity free?”) must remain unknown to the human mind, these pragmatists recommended that human endeavor, including human thought, should follow only such lines of action as would prove to be useful and productive, such lines of action as would “get good results.” That is to say, human beings should do and think only such things as really work. If a thing or a thought does not work—if experience shows a thing or a thought to be unproductive—prudence dictates that it should not be pursued. (Thus, for instance, William James rejected the theory of atheism because it does not lead anywhere. It does not have what James calls “cash value.” Atheism promises nothing, and it delivers nothing. It is not a useful idea. The idea of God’s existence, on the other hand, has proved itself a very useful and productive idea, providing a solid basis for other human decisions.)
The problem with this American brand of pragmatism is that it separates human activity from human knowledge. It is based on agnosticism with respect to the most important philosophical questions ever posed to the human mind, and it attempts to formulate a manner of life and thought divorced from real answers to those very real questions. How, after all, can I know whether something really “works,” if I have no idea what it is supposed to do? If I do not know the purpose of a wrench, for instance, how do I know if it is useful. How can I know whether or not I am making “progress” (John Dewey’s favorite word), if I do not know where I am going? How can I seek the human good, if I have no idea what “good” means or the purpose of human existence?
Quite different is the pragmatism of the Book of Proverbs. It does not rest on agnosticism about the fundamental questions in life, but on discerned and solid answers to those questions. For Proverbs it is not the case that (to use William James’s expression) “truth happens to an idea.” Truth abides, rather, in the structure of reality, and a truthful idea is not the creation of the human mind at all. It is an idea created in the mind by the very truth that inheres in reality. Men are said to live wisely if their minds and activities are shaped by the truth that God placed in the structure of reality.
At the same time, this discernment of truth in the structure of reality does not come solely from theorizing about reality. Sometimes, and perhaps frequently, it comes from the godly effort to deal with the concrete exigencies of human life. For this reason, perhaps, the deepest insights into the reality of life in this world often come to very practical men as they grapple with the shape of history by making godly decisions in difficult and trying circumstances. It may be the case that sometimes a philosopher/king must first be a king in order to become a philosopher.
Sunday, March 10
Proverbs 19: Circumspection, not haste, is the way of correct action (verse 2); this is a warning against precipitous and impassioned reactions (cf. 18:13; 21:5; Romans 10:2). When swift action is called for in circumstances that do not permit the taking of adequate counsel, such action will be more safely and prudently taken by the man who normally does not act precipitously. That is to say, a person who normally takes adequate counsel before acting on his decisions is the one most likely to react wisely when he does not have opportunity to take counsel. He is the one who will not lose his head under pressure. He will keep his emotions at bay and not act on the basis of them (verse 11), knowing that acting on passion tends to become a habit (verse 19).
Verse 7 should not be understood in a sense that would treat all friendships with skepticism. It is simply a realistic warning that not all friends, after all, can be relied upon all the time. The person who believes otherwise will soon be embarrassed (cf. 25:19).
A gift given to the poor is a loan to God (verse 17; cf. 14:31; 17:5; 22:9; Matthew 10:42). We do well to bear in mind that God pays a generous interest on such loans.
Perhaps the Book of Proverbs contains no more important a sentiment, a conviction strongly to be maintained in the heart, than “a prudent wife is from the Lord” (verse 14; cf. 18:22).
Matthew 15:1-20: When Jesus finished the Sermon on the Mount, it was remarked that “He taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” It did not take long for the scribes to take note of this, so there soon began a series of debates about Jesus’ interpretation of the Torah (9:10-15; 12:1-4). The series continues here.
This material is largely taken from Mark 7:1-23, but Matthew does not share Mark’s perceived need to explain Jewish purification rituals to his readers. Matthew’s readers, apparently having much closer social ties to Judaism, do not need such information. Consequently, this section of Matthew is much less detailed than the corresponding text in Mark 7.
The use of the expression “this people” to designate the Jewish opponents of Jesus reflects the actual situation at the time Matthew wrote. Alone among the four Evangelists, Matthew habitually refers to “their synagogues” (43:23 9:35; 10:17; 12:9, 13:54), a usage that testifies to the situation after the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. After that date, the Jewish Christians, expelled from the synagogues controlled by the Pharisees, were obliged to establish synagogues of their own. It is striking that the only time James uses the word “synagogue” (in 2:2), he is referring to a Christian gathering.
The question about washing hands before eating bread (verse 2), we observe, follows closely on the story of the miraculous bread (14:13-21). In addition, it is soon followed by Jesus’ reference to the “children’s bread” (verse 26), a second account of miraculous loaves (verses 29-37), and another discussion about bread (16:5-12).
Monday, March 11
Proverbs 20: This chapter contains sound counsel about the avoidance of useless problems. It is folly, for example, to provoke those in authority (verse 2). It is equally imprudent and useless to engage in unnecessary strife (verse 3).
Especially to be avoided is the exacting of revenge (verse 22; cf. 25:21-22). Of all human pursuits, revenge is the most unprofitable, seldom or almost never to the advantage of the one who exacts it. There is, moreover, a distinct likelihood that the one seeking revenge may be putting himself secretly in the place of God. This truth does not deny, of course, the valid claims of justice, exacted by proper legal authority. Still, the wrath of man is not to be identified with the justice of God (James 1:20). The Bible’s condemnation of revenge pertains less to the valid claims of legal and civil justice than to the emotional sense of satisfaction derived from inflicting personal retribution. The latter, let it be said, is a pursuit devoid of blessing. Much better is it to leave all vengeance to the God who neither deceives nor can be deceived (verse 24). For this reason, vengeance is strictly discouraged in both the Old Testament (24:29; Sirach 28:1) and the New (Matthew 5:39; Romans 12:17,19; 1 Peter 3:9).
This chapter also devotes attention to the importance of steady labor and the sustained application of effort (verses 4,13), as well as to integrity in commercial dealings (verses 10,23).
Matthew 17:14-21: 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!”
This kneeling down, or prostration, in prayer is not simply a generic act of worship. It is specified by its Christological reference. And in kneeling down he addresses Jesus as “Lord”–Kyrios. We should contrast this with Mark’s account of the scene, 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 12
Proverbs 21: A wise man will learn, not only when he submits to reprimand, but also when he sees others appropriately chastised (verses 11-12). This truth points us to one of the great advantages of studying history, because history is, among other things, the chronicling of God’s judgments against fools and scorners, and a wise man will take these lessons of history to heart.
We recently learned that a prudent woman is a gift from the Lord (19:14); a contentious wife, on the other hand, is a curse beyond human endurance (verses 9,19; cf. 25:24; 27:15).
God’s assessment of a man’s heart is not to be identified with a man’s assessment of his own heart (verse 2; cf. 16:2). “Feeling good about yourself” (Also known as “It works for me) is the most deceptive of feelings and keeps the soul forever immature and self-centered.
The “king” in verse 1 is any king. Since kings, holding sway over nations, are in an excellent position to influence the paths of history, God may be said to follow a certain economy of effort by using the decisions of kings to bring about His own purposes. God does not have to do this, obviously, but Holy Scripture indicates that He does.
On the other hand, while kings have their own projects and programs that affect the lives of many, the Bible (including Proverbs) is persuaded that God’s plans are not identical with those of the king, even when He employs the king’s decisions to bring them about. Ultimately, then, it is not the great men of the earth who determine the destinies of nations, but the Lord, who sees and knows all things, even those events that lie in the contingent future. God’s will prevails (verses 30-31).
Matthew 17:22-27: This story, found only in Matthew, once again shows a special solidarity between Jesus and Peter, inasmuch as the taxes of both are paid by the same coin. In spite of his being called “Satan” by the Lord, then, 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 who witnessed the Lord’s transfiguration at the beginning of this chapter.
This text also serves to instruct on the obligation of believers to pay taxes to the government.
Wednesday, March 13
Proverbs 22: The shared humanity of the rich and the poor (verse 2) is the basis of our moral obligation to care for the poor (verses 9,22; cf. 29:13), and the Lord is the avenger of their neglect (verse 16; 23:1-11). This chapter’s subsequent exhortation not to oppress the poor resonates with the voices of the prophets (cf. Isaiah 5:8-9; Jeremiah 22:13-19; Micah 2:1-5; Habakkuk 2:6-17).
At verse 17 a new collection of maxims begins, in which the independent and impersonal couplets are replaced by a return to personal address: “my son.” The section, which continues through 24:22, commences with an exhorting call to wisdom (verses 17-18). A man must begin the quest of wisdom by putting his trust in God (verse 19) and the remembrance that there is no wisdom apart from truth (verses 20-21).
A good reason for not associating with an angry man is that one may start to imitate him (verses 24-25), but one can think of other reasons as well.
The warning against imprudent economic entanglements (verses 26-27) is an echo of several passages in Proverbs (6:1; 11:15; 17:18; 20:16).
Verse 28 is the classic principle of conservative philosophy, which will be repeated in the next chapter (23:10).
Matthew 18:1-14: 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.
Thursday, March 14
Proverbs 23: The greatest conceit a man can cultivate is a trust in “his own” wisdom (verse 4), because true wisdom is the shared inheritance of human experience. Therefore, it is no proper goal of education that a student should be taught “to think for himself.” Any idiot can learn that on his own. (The Greek word for “his own” is idios.) It is a proper goal of education, rather, that a student should learn to think the thoughts of Plato, of Aristotle, of Amen-em-Opet, of Ahikar, of Confucius, of the other great minds whose ideas have fed and sustained entire civilizations. A true education, an introduction to wisdom, comes from hearing the instruction of those who are truly wise (verse 12). Idiosyncratic isolation is arguably the greatest enemy to the acquisition of wisdom.
Verses 15 to 28 take up again some of the motifs of the first part of Proverbs, encouraging the fear of the Lord (verse 17), custody of the heart (verse 19), sobriety and self-restraint (verses 20-21), respect for tradition (verses 22,24-25), and chastity (verses 27-28). This chapter closes with a colorful and amusing description of drunkenness (verses 29-35).
Matthew 18:15-20: we perceive Matthew’s conviction that the Church is a house of redemption and reconciliation. To be redeemed, for Matthew, and to be reconciled, means to be at peace with the Church.
This message, once again, is obscured by copyist’s insertion of the words “against you” (eis se) in verse 15, an insertion that makes the offense appear to be a private matter between two Christians. This insertion, unknown to Origen in the third century and missing in the two oldest codices of the Sacred Text, seems to have been made under the influence of Peter’s question in verse 21, “How often shall my brother sin against me?”
The questionable insertion alters the sense of the passage rather dramatically. If the reading “against you” were original, the sense of the text would indicate a private offense involving only me and my brother. Without that insertion, however, the text refers to any sin that I see my brother committing. In all such cases, he remains my brother, for whom I am responsible, and his sin is, therefore, my business. I have an obligation in charity to consult with my brother on the matter.
Friday, March 15
Proverbs 24: Material prosperity and the blessings of a stable life are founded on, and in some measure guaranteed by, the quest of wisdom (verses 3-4). Prudent choices and circumspect behavior, most especially in the time of youth when prudence and circumspection are not yet solid habits, will determine a man’s course for many years, perhaps even for his whole lifetime (verse 27). The failure at such application also brings about its own results (verses 30-34).
A first step toward wisdom is to turn away from evil. It is a matter of elementary experience that the evil-doer seems sometimes to prosper more than the just man. Whereas in the Book of Job the observation of this latter phenomenon spawns a philosophical discussion about its cause, here in Proverbs it represents only a distracting temptation. Instead of wondering how to interpret the prosperity of the wicked, the young man in Proverbs is simply warned against becoming deceived by it through envy (verses 1-2,8-9,19-20; 3:31; 23:17). Also to be eschewed, as a distraction at best, is the pursuit of revenge (verse 29). The wise man must avoid such temptations and get on with life.
True righteousness, however, is not a matter of looking good to men, nor is true prosperity attained simply being regarded as prosperous. God sees and judges the heart. In particular, God recognizes the difference between brave and cowardly hearts. He knows whether or not a man is inwardly acquiescing in evil and oppression (verse 11-12). God is not impartial. He takes the side of the righteous man (verses 15-16). This is the thesis put to trial in the Book of Job.
God’s reading of the heart also discerns the smug gloating one feels at the failure of an enemy (verse 17-18). God does not respect the self-righteousness contained in such sentiments. Justice on the earth has nothing to do with smug emotions.
Matthew 18:21-35: This passage also has to do with real offenses, such as theft, cheating, or 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.
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.