Friday, March 22
Proverbs 31: Destined someday to be the king of Massa, a small realm in northern Arabia (cf. Genesis 25:14; 1 Chronicles 1:30), Lemuel was grateful to a wise mother for several verses of practical instruction that would serve him well in the years ahead. That instruction, being brief, could be inscribed on a single small sheet of vellum or papyrus, and Lemuel probably had a number of copies made for his friends. As gifts, those copies he also shared with other kings in the region, so that his mother’s instructions made the rounds of various royal courts, carried by emissaries otherwise dispatched to attend to the diplomatic and mercantile concerns of Massa.
In due course, one of those emissaries came to Jerusalem to arrange some commercial treaty or other with King Solomon. Lemuel, well acquainted with Solomon’s universal reputation for wisdom (cf. 1 Kings 4:31), had sent along a copy of his mother’s instructions as a personal gift.
Now it happened that Solomon was in the process, just then, of editing a collection of traditional wisdom proverbs. Gladly receiving Lemuel’s little scroll, therefore, he read it promptly and was so impressed that he incorporated the maternal instructions verbatim into his collection. Thus now, three thousand years later, we read those brief instructions of Lemuel’s mother in Proverbs 31:1–9.
Perhaps significant also is the context in which Solomon placed the instructions of Lemuel’s mother in the Book of Proverbs. Namely, immediately in front of the famous description of the ideal wise woman (31:10–31). Was Solomon thereby paying the Queen Mother of Massa a compliment, suggesting that she herself exemplified that description? I doubt that I am the only reader who has entertained this thought.
Although the Book of Proverbs several times recommends that a young man pay attention to the teaching of his mother (1:8; 6:20; 15:20), these verses from Lemuel’s mother are the only example of maternal teaching explicitly contained in Proverbs.
And, on reading this material, we gain the impression that it is not, on the whole, much different from the instruction that a young man received from his father. There are warnings against lust (31:3) and drinking alcohol (31:4), along with an exhortation to take care of the oppressed and the poor (31:5–9).
Some of the material here resembles that in other ancient collections of teaching intended for future rulers. For example, “The Instruc- tion of King Meri-Kare,” an Egyptian manuscript preserved (as Papyrus Leningrad 1116A) in St. Petersburg, contains a collection of such teaching from near the end of the third millennium before Christ.
Lemuel’s royal mother obviously embodied a traditional form of wisdom, heavily accented with good sense and moral responsibility. In this respect her instruction is of whole cloth with the rest of the Book of Proverbs.
The most ancient form of the wisdom tradition, of which Lemuel’s mother and the Book of Proverbs are good representatives, was not much concerned with the kinds of thorny speculative questions that preoccupied Ecclesiastes and the Book of Job. It did not normally raise theoretical reflections about the meaning and purpose of life. It contained nothing suggestive of the “cutting edge” of new ideas that might distract from the serious business of getting on with a good and useful life.
The inherited wisdom tended to ask “how” a person should live in a difficult world rather than “why” he should go on living in a difficult world. Instead of inquiring “Why do the innocent suffer?” it suggested ways of avoiding those sufferings that a man might bring upon himself by not living wisely.
The wisdom of Proverbs and Lemuel’s mother may be called conservative and traditional, a wisdom proved repeatedly in the experience of previous generations. It would certainly discourage a young man from “marching to a different drummer” or “doing his own thing.” It emphasized such themes as fidelity to inherited standards of responsibility, respect for the teachings of parents and elders, hard work, fiscal conservatism, sobriety, virtue, principled judgment, prudence in one’s business affairs and matters of state, personal discipline in the use of time, money, and other resources, strict marital fidelity, and the consequent joys of home and family.
Although history has left us no other record of Lemuel, we are probably justified in thinking of him living to an old age on the throne of the kingdom of Massa, dying secure in the memory of grateful citizens who recalled his wise and benevolent reign. It should not surprise us, either, if some archeologist should someday uncover his tomb and find the inscription: “Here lies Lemuel, King of Massa, whose final words were, ‘I owe it all to Mom.’”
Lazarus Saturday, March 23
John 11:1-44: We come now to Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem, the place of the culminating events effective of our redemption. This chapter, the last in the “book of signs,” narrates the greatest of these signs: the raising of Lazarus. This event, foreshadowing the resurrection of Jesus, was a literal fulfillment of His prophecy in 5:28-29: “The hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth.”
This sickness of Lazarus, Jesus declares, will not finish in death—death will not have the final word—-but in “the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (verse 4). The theme of the divine glory in this chapter (verse 40) ties the raising of Lazarus to the first of Jesus’ Signs, the miracle at Cana (2:11).
The implied request from the two sisters (verse 3) is strikingly similar to that of Jesus’ mother in 2:3. In both cases we discern petitions made to Jesus with a quiet deference, but also with a firm faith.
Moreover, Jesus’ reactions in the two cases are strikingly similar: an apparent rejection followed by an effective compliance. As these two instances are the first and last signs in the “book of signs,” their similarity is noteworthy. In both cases the sign is said to manifest Jesus’ glory (verses 4,11; 2:11; cf. 9:3).
In seeking the intervention of Jesus, the sisters of Lazarus simply state the gravity of the situation (verse 3). Their restraint closely resembles that of the Mother of Jesus at Cana (2:3), and just as Jesus at first showed an apparent indifference on that earlier occasion (2:4), so here He delays His response to the sisters’ request (verse 6). The manifestation of the divine glory will not be rushed.
At the same time, the evangelist emphasizes Jesus’ love for this family at Bethany (verse 5), whose faith He is putting to trial (verse 26).
The Greek of the verb “loved” in verse 5 (“Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus”) is in the imperfect tense, indicating Jesus’ sustained, habitual affection for this family (egapa; Vulgate diligebat). The wording of verse 6 suggests that the Lord’s delay in going to Bethany was intended to demonstrate (hos oun; Vulgate ut ergo) that love!
The delay of two days (verse 6) puts the reader in mind of the time span in Jesus’ resurrection.
The imperfect tense of “were seeking” (ezetoun—verse 8; Vulgate quaerebant) indicates the constant danger to Jesus in Jerusalem: “Then the Jews took up stones again to stone Him. . . . Therefore they sought again to seize Him” (10:31,39).
Jesus’ pronouncements about the light in verses 9-10 continue a theme introduced in 9:4: “We must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; the night is coming when no one can work.” The conflict between light and darkness is John’s interpretation of the events and confrontations in the several preceding chapters. In the present story Jesus tells the disciples that the time has now arrived for determined action in that conflict. He brings the discussion abruptly back to Lazarus, whom he knows (without explanation) to be dead.
When Jesus at length discloses his resolve to return to Jerusalem (verses 12-13), the disciples, understandably alarmed, remind Him of the dangers to His life (cf. 5:16-18; 7:19,25; 8:59; 10:31,39). Ignoring this concern, Jesus refers to the work yet to be accomplished before the darkness falls (cf. 9:4; 13:30).
Following a pattern pervasive in John (3:4; 4:15,33; 6:52; 8:18,33), the disciples misunderstand the Lord’s reference to the “sleep” of Lazarus (verses 11-13; Mark 5:19; 1 Thessalonians 4:14). The Christian reader will recognize, nonetheless, that their misunderstanding expresses as the very thesis of the story, as of the Gospel itself: “If Lazarus has fallen asleep, then he will be saved”—sothesetai.
Jesus views the death of Lazarus as another occasion—like Cana (2:11)—to bring the disciples to faith in Him (verse 15). Such faith is the very purpose for which John writes (20:30-31).
Thomas’s comment—“ “Let us also go, that we may die with Him”—is prompted by the danger awaiting them at Jerusalem. The detail, “die with him,” in which Thomas apparently meant Lazarus, ironically points also to the death of Jesus. Thomas thus gives voice to a fundamental thesis of the Christian faith, according to which we die and rise with Christ (cf. Galatians 2:19-20).
John heightens the extraordinary nature of what Jesus does by mentioning that Lazarus has been in the tomb four days (verse 17). Such a long period—-beyond the three days that Jewish lore believed the soul to hover near a corpse—rendered it probable that the body of Lazarus had begun to rot (verse 39).
These four days, combined with the earlier two (verse 6), also evoke the completion of Creation. It is in the raising of Lazarus that the Lord finishes “all His works” (Genesis 2:3).
Crucial to the understanding of this event is the dialogue that explains it, the discussion in which Jesus tells Martha (verses 21-27) 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.
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 (verses 25-26; cf. 6:40).
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” (verse 27; cf. 6:69). The dialogue ends with this declaration, and Martha must get busy on the basis of it.
Martha’s summons to her sister (verse 28) is described with a delicacy of detail suggesting an immediate eyewitness. Jesus is identified simply as the didaskalos, “teacher,” doubtless a translation of rabbi.
Evidently to avoid the crowd at the family’s home, Jesus remains on the outskirts of the village, nearer the tomb (verses 29-30). The crowds, nonetheless, follow Mary out, observing that her departure is abrupt (verse 31).
Prostrating herself before the Lord, Mary repeats the view just expressed by her sister, with obvious disappointment and perhaps with a sense of bewilderment that that Jesus had tarried his journey to Bethany. We may wonder if this statement of the sisters—dismayed at Jesus’ delay in coming—may reflect a sentiment of the early Christians, many of whom believed that the Lord would come back quickly: ““How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10; cf. Matthew 24:45—25:28).
Jesus does not even answer Mary, but he is deeply moved by her sorrow. Jesus sees her tears (verse 33). When this verb, “sees,” is ascribed to Jesus in John’s Gospel, it is normally to inaugurate an outpouring of grace. Thus does Jesus see Nathaniel (1:47), the paralytic at the pool (5:6), the hungry multitude in the wilderness (6:5), the woman taken in adultery (8:10), the man born blind (9:1), and His Mother and the Beloved Disciple at the foot of the Cross (19:26).
Jesus’ emotional response in the present case is described as ebrimésato to pnevmati, which I have translated as “groaned in the spirit.” In the LXX, as in classical Greek (cf. also Mark 14:5), this verb normally indicates indignation or anger. If anger is John’s intended meaning here, the evangelist is describing Jesus’ stance toward death.
In Holy Scripture, death is no friend of man. Death is the enemy! It is death that has stolen this brother away for the sisters who loved him. It is death that fills Mary’s heart with sorrow. Death is the enemy that Jesus prepares Himself to confront. He will not deal gently with death. According to the faith of the Church, Jesus “tramples down death by death.”
The bystanders, perceiving Jesus’ emotional response to the moment, remark on his affection for Lazarus (verse 34-35). Others in the crowd, nonetheless, express the same bewilderment as the two sisters (verses 36-37).
John briefly describes the tomb (verse 38), and Jesus directs it to be opened (verse 39). This command, delivered without explanation, is the Lord’s usual modus operandi throughout this gospel:
John 2:7-8—“Fill the pots with water. . . . Draw some out now, and take it to the master of the feast.”
John 5:8—“ Rise, take up your bed and walk.”
John 6:10— “Make the people sit down.”
John 9:7— “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.”
The obedience required by Jesus is not based on human reasoning, but on trust in Him. That is to say, Jesus does not appeal to empirical evidence or rational deductions, but on our personal relationship to Him and the knowledge of His love for us.
Martha, ever the practical one, raises an objection. This objection is, of course, quite opposed to her earlier profession of faith (verse 27). The command given by Jesus is based on that profession, and Jesus makes this point (verse 40).
Jesus’ brief prayer before the tomb is not a petition, but a confession of thanks, following a standard Hebrew formula of benediction (verse 41). The Father has already heard Him!
Palm Sunday, March 24
Matthew 21:1-11: Those of us raised in Christian homes very likely have sharply defined memories of walking in Palm Sunday processions when we were children. I recall that my parents made a great deal of this with me and my siblings, and I rejoice now—in old age—to see my grandchildren, from the time they can barely walk, take hold of their palms and other branches to join the congregation out into the warm spring sun to process behind the Cross in the traditional procession of the day. This experience, repeated year by year, confirms my impression that Palm Sunday is supremely a day for children. It has been so from the beginning:
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.”
It is in the mouths of children, Holy Scripture tells us, that praise is made perfect. In what sense is this true? What is their about praise in the mouths of children that makes it perfect? It means that the praise of God has been successfully handed on to the next generation, the new generation, the young people still in their formative years. The first responsibility of Christian evangelism is to make sure that our children effectively receive the faith from us. Before we dare preach the Gospel to anyone else, we must make absolutely certain we have shared it with our children. This must be a determining principle in every Christian home.
This experience of “perfecting praise” was of primary 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).
As the Church grew, however, and Jesus did not return, 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 Christians?
Take, for example, the grandchildren of that Philippian jailer in Acts 16. 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 original congregation at Philippi is still—but it may not have been so clear to the jailer and his wife on that night when their tiny children were baptized by Paul and Silas.. 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 is 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, March 25
Matthew 21:12-27: I propose to examine this story—the purging of the Temple—by considering it at three historical levels: First, we will reflect on the meaning of the event when it happened. Second, we will look at the meaning of the event in the narrative tradition of the early Church. Third, we will examine the features of the story that are particular to Matthew.
First, let us reflect on our Lord’s action in the Temple in its own immediate context. What significance did it have for those who were witnesses to its original setting?
We should begin by recalling that the coming Messiah was expected to purge the Temple. Earlier suggestions of this idea include Isaiah 56:7, which is quoted by the Gospels as a prophecy fulfilled on this occasion:
Even them I will bring to My holy mountain, / And make them joyful in My house of prayer. / Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices /Will be accepted on My altar; / For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.
In this text the Temple is “purged” in the sense of being rebuilt after its destruction by the defiling Babylonians. Our Lord also indicates His fulfillment of prophecy on this occasion by justifying His action with a reference to Jeremiah 7:11: “‘Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of thieves in your eyes? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,’ says the Lord.”
Perhaps even more to the purpose, however, were the words of Malachi, referring to the Messiah’s coming to the Temple in order to purge it:
Behold, I send My messenger, / And he will prepare the way before Me. / And the Lord, whom you seek, / Will suddenly come to His temple, / Even the Messenger of the covenant, / In whom you delight. / Behold, He is coming,’ / Says the Lord of hosts. / ‘But who can endure the day of His coming? / And who can stand when He appears? / For He is like a refiner’s fire / And like launderers’ soap. / He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver; / He will purify the sons of Levi, / And purge them as gold and silver, / That they may offer to the Lord / An offering in righteousness. / Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem / Will be pleasant to the Lord, / As in the days of old, / As in former years” (Malachi 3:1-4).
The context of this purging foreseen by Malachi was the sad state of Israel’s worship, to which he was witness (1:6-10,12-14).
The Temple’s expected “purging” by the Messiah had mainly to do with ritual and moral defilements, much as those Judas Maccabaeus had cleansed from the Lord’s house after its defilement by Antiochus Epiphanes IV. This purging was completed with the Temple’s rededication on December 14, 164 B. C. (1 Maccabees 4:52).
As described in the New Testament, however, the physical “defilement” does not appear to have been so severe. It apparently consisted of the noise and distractions occasioned by the buying and selling of sacrificial animals necessary for the Temple’s ritual sacrifice. John describes the scene in greater detail:
And He found in the temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers doing business. When He had made a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen, and poured out the changers’ money and overturned the tables” (John 2:14-15).
Hence, what the Lord did in this respect was more symbolic than practical. There is no evidence that this action of Jesus amounted to more than a slight disturbance in the daily activity of the Temple, nor does Jesus seem to have persisted in it. He intended, rather, to enact a prophecy, much in line with sundry similar actions by the Old Testament prophets. Those who were witnesses to the event discerned this significance, recognizing it as a “Messianic sign.” This recognition explains the menacing reaction of the Lord’s enemies (Mark 11:18; Luke 19:47).
Second, with respect to the later historical context of the first century, let us consider the circumstances in which this story was conveyed in the preaching of the Church prior to finding a place in the canonical Gospels. In this context it is reasonable to suppose that the Christians related this event of the Temple’s purging to that definitive “purging” of the Lord’s house when Titus destroyed it in A.D. 70. In fact, in the Synoptic accounts this story of the Lord’s action is placed near His predictions of that later catastrophe. If what Jesus did on that day did not actually disrupt the daily routine of ritual sacrifice, the later action of the Romans most certainly did. Jesus’ prophetic act, therefore, foreshadowed the Temple’s destruction and the cessation of Israel’s sacrificial cultus, which has never been restored.
Third, let us consider the components of this story that are proper to Matthew and peculiar to his interpretation of it. These consist chiefly 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” (verse 14). 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 (verses 15-16). 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.
Bridegroom Tuesday, March 26
Matthew 25:1-13: 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, the habit of critical reflection, a cultivated ability to think in terms of the passage of time, a 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 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, March 27
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, March 28
Matthew 26:17-56: 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.
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).
There is a particular poignancy in the setting of Judas’s betrayal: the Passover meal, the Seder. Judas has just passed from the ranks of Israel to the service of Pharaoh. Our Lord’s identification of the betrayer (verse 25), missing in Mark and Luke, is also found in John (13:26-27).
In the Greek text Judas’s question to the Lord is worded so as to expect a negative reply: “Surely not I, Rabbi?” Judas is, among other things, a hypocrite, and as such he receives a “woe” appropriate for hypocrites (cf. 23:13,14,15,23,25,27,29). Jesus’ answer to him—“You have said it”—is identical to His reply to Caiaphas (verse 64) and Pilate (27:11).
The reader knows that, while Jesus shares the Seder with His disciples, final preparations for his impending arrest are being conducted at the house of Caiaphas. The arresting party arms itself and waits the return of Judas Iscariot, who will lead them to where Jesus will be. Judas leaves the Seder early: “Having received the piece of bread, he then went out immediately. And it was night” (John 13:30).
While the plot is in progress, Jesus comes to that part of the Seder where the Berakah, the blessing of God, is prayed at the breaking of the unleavened loaf. Jesus, after praying the traditional Berakah, breaks the loaf and mysteriously identifies it as His body: “Take, eat; this is My body” (verse 26).
Because the Greek noun for “body,” soma, has no adequate equivalent in Aramaic or Hebrew, we presume that Jesus used the noun basar (sarxs in Greek), which means “flesh.” Indeed, this is the noun we find all through John’s Bread of Life discourse (6:51-56). In the traditions inherited by St. Paul and the Synoptic Gospels, the noun had been changed to “body.”
Then, when Jesus comes to the blessing to be prayed at the drinking of the cup of wine, He further identifies the cup: “Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (verses 27:28).
Good Friday, March 29
Philippians 2:1-11: The contrast between Christ and Adam, found in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, does not appear to have been original with Paul. We already find that contrast in what is apparently an ancient hymn verse cited by St. Paul in the Epistle to the Philippians:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2:5-11 RSV).
Relative to Good Friday, two points should be made about this passage:
First, its rich doctrinal character is surprising in a context where we would not expect it. The context is not doctrinal. It is, rather, a moral exhortation, in which Paul describes how Christians are to be humble and obedient in their regard and behavior toward one another (2:1-4,12-16). Settled in the middle of that context, the Christological passage quoted above has the feel of an insertion. It takes the reader in a specifically doctrinal direction. It appears that Paul, wanting to hold up the example of the obedience of Christ, reminds them of a text that he expects his readers to recognize. Familiar texts like this are frequently taken from well-known hymns, and a close reading of the passage suggests a strophic structure.
Second, at least part of the content of this hymnic insertion clearly relies on a contrast between Christ and Adam. Adam, we recall, was disobedient in trying to become like God. This is implied in what the serpent told Eve with respect to the forbidden fruit: “For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God” (Genesis 3:5). That is to say, disobedient Adam “regarded equality with God a thing to be grasped” (harpagmon egesato to einai isa Theo).
God’s Son, in contrast, being “in the form of God” (en morphe Theou), was already “equal to God” (isa Theo). He had not need to grasp it. Yet He emptied Himself and assumed “the form of a servant” (morphen doulou), becoming obedient to death on the Cross. This is the model of obedience that Paul holds out to Christians, telling them, “Have this mind (touto phroneite) among yourselves.” Believers are to abandon the example of Adam and pursue the standard of Christ. This is the moral message of Good Friday.