Friday, December 13

Matthew 24:15-28: The material in this section of Matthew—the Abomination of Desolation and the Great Tribulation—is shared with Mark (13:14-20) and Luke (21:20-24). Jesus first alludes to a past event. In going to the remembered past in order to prophesy about the near future, Jesus follows a pattern of historical interpretation common to the Old Testament prophets.

In verse 15 the bdelygma tou eremoseos—literally “the Abomination of Desolation”—is a translation of a Hebrew expression found three times in the prophet Daniel (9:27; 11:31; 12:11; cf. 1 Maccabees 1:54), to refer to the idol erected to Zeus in the Second Temple by the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (1 Maccabees 1:54-64).

The desecration in 167 B.C, only two centuries earlier, was still a vivid memory to the Jews, who understandably regarded it as a low point in their history and a source of profound shock and outrage. At that time the Temple itself was stripped of its adornments; other pagan altars were erected, and unclean animals were sacrificed upon them (Josephus, Antiquities 12.54). This had been a time of great persecution of the righteous Jews by the unrighteous, not only by pagans but also by fellow Jews.

We observe that Matthew, unlike Mark and Luke, explicitly sends the reader to Daniel in order to explain this reference to the Abomination of Desolation. In Daniel the Hebrew expression for Abomination of Desolation, hashuqqus meshomem, appears to be a parody of the name that refers to Zeus, ba‘al shamayim, “lord of heaven.”

Matthew repeats Mark’s parenthetical note, “let the reader understand.” This exhortation, which clearly comes from the evangelists and not from Jesus, perhaps calls attention to the plan of the Roman emperor Caligula to erect a statue of himself in the Temple in A.D. 40. This proposed desecration of the holy place would have repeated what had occurred two centuries earlier under Antiochus IV Epiphanes. This seems to be what both Mark and Matthew had in mind.

Luke (21:20), on the other hand, appears to use this term to describe the Roman armies surrounding Jerusalem in A.D. 70. All of this, and worse, says Jesus, will fall on the Holy City very shortly. For Luke this dominical prophecy was directed to the Jewish Civil War against the Romans, which would climax in the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70 (cf. Josephus, The Jewish Wars 5.10).

This diversity among the gospels should tell us of a certain fluidity of understanding of prophetic discourses of this sort. It should warn us of the exegetical perils of trying to pin down this kind of prophecy with scientific precision. As we see in the present instance, even the infallible gospel writers recognized this fluid quality of eschatological prophecy. The very images of the prophecy render it open to more than one interpretation.

Saturday, December 14

Matthew 24:29-35: That coming destruction of Jerusalem, foretold by Jesus, is seen by Matthew to be both a symbol and a first stage, as it were, of the final times of the world (as in the very last verse of Matthew’s Gospel, 28:20), when Jesus will return in glory to judge. The sounding of the trumpet and the dispatching of the gathering angels (verse 31) were standard images of the world’s last judgment (Matthew 13:41,49), and we meet them in the New Testament’s earliest book (First Thessalonians 4:16). The coming judgment of the world will be the theme of the last part of Matthew’s next chapter (25:31-46).

These verses, a very precise prophecy about a specific and definitive event, give the lie to any attempt to make Jesus a calm, benign, harmless teacher of general religious theory. This is a prophecy of His return to earth at the end of time, and the Christian Church has always read it that way.

The question of the Lord’s return in judgment was, from the beginning, an integral component of the Gospel itself. It was part of the call to repentance, as we see in the second apostolic sermon:

Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that He may send Jesus Christ, who was preached to you before, whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began (Acts 3:19-21).

So integral to the Good News was this second, judgmental coming of Christ that Paul was unable to omit it even from his sermon on the Areopagus, where he managed to omit even the message of the Cross:

Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead (Acts 17:30-31).

Even in this rather abstract sermon the Second Coming was simply part of the call to repentance and could not be left out.

This doctrine of Christ’s return is clear likewise from the epistolary literature, beginning with the first chapter of the earliest epistle:

For they themselves declare concerning us what manner of entry we had to you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:10).

When Paul expands on this theme in the fourth chapter of that epistle, we observe that his point of emphasis—what most needed elucidation—was not the Lord’s return, which was taken for granted, but the resurrection of the dead in Christ (4:16-17).

Sunday, December 15

Matthew 24:36-44: A further illustration in the extended exhortation to vigilance is the example of Noah at the time of the flood. All the signs of impending danger were present, but only Noah was able to read them. According to the Epistle to the Hebrews, “By faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household, by which he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith” (11:7).

But Noah not only lived in righteousness; he also proclaimed righteousness. The Apostle Peter referred to him as “a preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5), and late in the first century Clement of Rome wrote that “Noah preached repentance, and those who heeded him were saved” (7.6).

This picture of Noah as a righteous preacher of repentance came to the early Christians from Jewish lore about that famous builder of the ark. Flavius Josephus wrote of Noah’s relationship to his contemporaries in this way: “Noah was most uncomfortable with their actions, and, not at all happy with their conduct, he persuaded them to improve their dispositions and their actions. Seeing, nonetheless, that they did not obey him but remained slaves to their own wicked desires, he feared that they would slay him, together with his wife and children, as well as the spouses of the latter, so he departed out of that land” (Antiquities 13.1).

Unable to convert his contemporaries, Noah then followed the divine leading to build an ark for the delivery of his family. He knew that God intended to flood the earth and destroy its wicked. This is what things will be like, says our Lord, at the end of the world.

The similarity between “days of Noah” and the “advent” (parousia–verses 3,27,37,39) of the Son of Man consists in the suddenness of the crisis. Not until it is actually upon them do men realize what is happening. It is literally a kataklysmos (verses 38,39), from the verb klyzo, “to wash over,” “to wash away.” The people in Noah’s time, like those at the beginning of The Plague, by Albert Camus, were living what they thought were normal lives, not expecting the catastrophe about to befall them. This is how it will be when the Son of Man returns.

Among those people living normal lives will be believers. They will be living with the unbelievers, working in the fields, grinding at the mill (verses 40-41). Yet, God will distinguish between the believer and the unbeliever. He will take the one and leave the other.

This distinction, or judgment, already introduced in the parables of the tares and wheat (13:24-30,38-42) and the good and bad fish (13:47-50), is not taken up thematically. It will appear in the parables of the good and bad servant (verses 45-51), the wise and foolish virgins (25:1-13), and the sheep and goats (25:31-46). God’s judgment means that some men will be saved, others lost. Holy Scripture gives no evidence of any other conclusion.

Monday, December 16

Matthew 24:45-51: This image of the household in danger (in the immediately previous verses) introduces a parable distinguishing the wise, good, and loyal servant from the lazy, dissolute, and wicked one (verses 45-51). This is the first of three consecutive stories in Matthew, in which the passage of time is integral to the testing of God’s servants. The next two are the parables of the ten virgins (25:1-13) and the talents give to three servants (25:14-30). Although Matthew encapsulates the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world into a consistent set of images, it would be wrong to interpret too literally the word “immediately” in verse 29. These next three parables, in fact, suggest that the end of the world may still be some way off.

Nonetheless, the Lord’s return in judgment must be constantly looked for, and the anticipation of it becomes a formal principle of Christian morality. Hence, this parable distinguishing the loyal and unfaithful servant is the first of four parables about the final judgment. All four end in punishment for those who are unfaithful (verse 51; 25:12,30,41,46).

In this first parable Jesus describes a servant as “faithful and wise” (verse 45). In the present context “faithful” (pistos) probably bears the meaning of “loyal” rather than “believing.” Several times St. Paul uses this very adjective to describe the ideal pastor, missionary, or Christian leader (1 Corinthians 4:1-12; Ephesians 6:21; Colossians 1:7; Titus 1:9). In the present text, we observe that the vocation of this servant is to feed the others in the household (verse 46).

He is also called phronimos, often translated as “prudent” or “wise,” but perhaps better rendered here as “thoughtful” or “reflective.” It is the same adjective used to describe five of the maidens in the next parable (25:2,4,8,9). Matthew also uses it to describe the man who builds his house on a rock foundation (7:24). It is the characteristic that Christians are to share with snakes! (10:16)

The wicked servant, on the other hand, assures himself that he still has opportunity to neglect his stewardship. He is coaxed into this disposition precisely because there appears to be a delay in the return of his master. “My master is delaying His coming,” he says to himself (verse 48). That is to say, the sense of a postponement is an essential part of the story. The failure of the servant has to do with his inability to deal with the prolonged passage of time. What he lacks is perseverance. The Son of Man will come when the slackers do not expect him (verses 44,50).

Tuesday, December 17

Matthew 25:1-13: This parable story continues the theme of the delay of the parousia; it is the story of the ten maidens awaiting the arrival of the Bridegroom. Everything is going just fine in the account, except for the delay involved: “But while the Bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept” (25:5). That is to say, they were not cautious about the warning, “Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (24:44).

The coming of the Bridegroom in this parable is identical to the parousia of the Son of Man mentioned several times in the preceding chapter (24:39,44,50).

The ten maidens are divided between those who are “foolish” (morai) and those who are wise, prudent, or thoughtful. However we are to translate this latter adjective, phronimoi, it has just been used to describe the faithful servant that awaits his master’s return (24:45). Matthew is fond of this adjective, which he uses seven times. He uses the adjective moros six times—the only Synoptic evangelist to do so.

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).

Wednesday, December 18

Matthew 25:14-30: In this parable about the three stewards who receive “talents” from their Master the passage of time—once again—is integral to their testing. “After a long time,” says our Lord, “the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them” (25:19). There is no instant salvation in the Christian life, that is to say.

The point of comparison with the rest of Matthew’s context is found in the Master’s return to settle accounts. This is a reference to the parousia of the Son of Man, the subject of all the parables in this series. Once again, and for the third time (24:48; 25:5), the parousia is delayed (verse 19; contrast Luke 19:15).

Everything has to do with the ability to persevere through time. After all, we do not remain the same through the passage of time. Time changes things, and we must cope. Events affect our thoughts and sentiments. This coping with the passing of time is an integral part of our testing before God.

A “talent” was a unit of money in Roman times. It was something to be invested, in order to make a profit. The metaphorical sense of “talent,” meaning a natural gift with which a human being has been endowed, comes entirely from this parable. Indeed, the metaphorical use of this word has become so common that we do not realize that this usage was originally a metaphor.

The Master makes an investment in His servants. They work for Him. The talents belong to the Master, not the servants. Their responsibility is what is known as stewardship, and proper stewardship is the subject matter of the judgment that follows the Master’s return.

This parable is in great part an allegory. The master who departs is Christ our Lord, who has gone into heaven but will return in due course. The talents are the resources that He leaves to the stewardship of His servants, so that they may increase the yield thereof. His return is the end of history, and His calling to account is the final judgment.

The differences among the five, two, and one talents, however, are probably not meant to be interpreted allegorically. It simply means that some of God’s servants are given more responsibilities than others. The essential moral concern is that each steward is to work with what he has been given. He is not responsible for what he has not been given.

Two of the servants are good stewards and justify the Master’s confidence in them (verses 16-17). They receive “the joy of your Lord” (verses 21,23), which is eternal life. It is the equivalent of the marriage celebration of the last parable (verse 10) and the “Kingdom” of the next (verse 34). It is encouraging to observe the terms in which these parables describe the reward of the righteous. The faithful man is called “blessed” (24:46; 25:34). He becomes a guest at the wedding (25:10) and enters into the Lord’s joy (25:21,23). He becomes a “ruler” (24:47; 25:21,23). He inherits a kingdom (25:34).

The third servant describes himself as “afraid.” Because he refused even to try, the Master calls him “lazy.” Obviously they assess his character quite differently. Self-approval does not count for much with God.

The third servant “buried his talent,” an expression that is still common (verse 18). We observe that he blamed the Master for his own failure (verse 25). The Master’s response, in the second part of verse 26, should be read as a question: “You knew, did you . . . .?”

Rejected at the judgment (verses 27,30), this lazy, wicked servant is like the five improvident maidens in the preceding parable (verse 12) and the goats in the next parable (verse 41).

Thursday, December 19

Luke 1:1-25: The question of Zachariah is a request not for further instruction but for an explanation: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years” (1:18).

To ask “How shall I know?” does not convey a spirit of faith and obedience, but a spirit of skepticism. Indeed, “How shall I know?” is entirely an epistemological question. Even as he offers incense in God’s house, Zachariah is a cultivated doubter. (They do exist among the clergy.)

The gravity of Zachariah’s doubt is rendered more obvious if we consider it in contrast to Abraham’s response to an identical promise. Both of them married to women beyond childbearing years, Abraham and Zachariah were each told that his wife would bear him a son. These sons would be “children of promise,” conceived by God’s special intervention. Zachariah very well knew the story of Abraham, but still he insisted, “How shall I know this?”

In punishment for such arrogance and lack of faith, Zachariah is struck speechless for the next nine months and eight days (perhaps to the considerable relief of his wife), thus given an opportunity to ponder the serious nature of his offense. He must repent. If he is to become a fit father for John the Baptist, than whom there is no one greater among those born of women (7:28), Zachariah has much to learn about the ways of God.

Until he repents, the doubting Zachariah strikes one as the “thoroughly modern man,” far less concerned with what he knows than with how he can know it. Burdened with an excessive, even morbid, preoccupation with the psychology of knowledge, modern man no longer seems sure of knowing anything at all. In this respect Zachariah bears some resemblance to Descartes, the philosopher chiefly responsible for introducing the intentional, systematic cultivation of doubt as the basis of the philosophical pursuit. Doubting everything possible to doubt, Descartes concluded that he knew for certain only that he was thinking, and from his thinking he went on to demonstrate (but only to himself!)his existence. He arrived, that is, at the Self, the first single reality not subject to doubt.

Zachariah may serve as a parabolic warning to modern man, because the relentlessly doubting mind must finish by asserting nothing at all. Zacharias may start as a Cartesian, but Gabriel reduces him to a Deconstructionist. Indeed so, for the doubt that begins by destroying faith must end by destroying reason.

Friday, December 20

Luke 1:26-38: To Mary’s inquiry—“How can this be, since I do not know a man?” (1:24)—Gabriel gives an adequate and very reassuring response, whereas Zachariah’s inquiry was not only denied, but the man himself was punished for even making it!

The difference between the two cases is not hard to discern. Mary’s question is actually a request for further instruction. Since she is a virgin, and Gabriel is telling her she is about to become a mother, Mary really does need more information. Her question to Gabriel means something like “Tell me what I am supposed to do.” There is no arrogance here, nor doubt.

On the contrary, Mary’s attitude is summed up in her final words to Gabriel: “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” (1:38). Such was clearly not the case with Zachariah.

God promised Abraham, “one who will come from your own body shall be your heir” (Genesis 15:4). This promise was paralleled in the words of Gabriel, as he announced the coming Messiah: “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son” (Luke 1:31).

There is a further point of correspondence between the two cases in what we may call a “difficulty” standing in opposition to the promise. Nothing is really difficult for God, of course, but from a merely human perspective both promises appeared improbable. In the instance of Abraham, the difficulty had to do with the advanced years of both him and his wife. This thought, we are told, crossed Abraham’s mind at the time: “Shall one be born to a man who is one hundred years old? And shall Sarah yet give birth, who is ninety years old?” (Genesis 17:17)

The Mother of Jesus, for her part, mentioned a similar consideration to the angel of promise: “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” (Luke 1:34) In both instances, we observe, the “difficulty” was raised in question form.

In each case—Abraham and Mary—Sacred Scripture ascribes the conception of the promised child to the work of the Holy Spirit. Thus, St. Paul, contrasting the promised Isaac with Ishmael, said the latter “was born according to the flesh,” whereas the child of promise was born “according to the Spirit” (Galatians 4:23,29). With respect to the promised Jesus, the angel declared to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35). Both the barrenness of Sarah and the virginity of Mary provided the occasion for the outpouring of God’s power on human inadequacy. The Holy Spirit, that is to say, is the “Spirit of promise” (Ephesians 1:13).