Friday, February 28
Romans 11:11-21: Here Paul introduces his metaphor of the olive tree in order to illustrate how it is that non-Jews find themselves as members of the ancient plant of Israel. That is to say, how is it that “Abraham is the father of us all”?
The failure of most Jews to recognize Jesus as the Messiah is described by Paul as the lopping-off of branches from the olive tree of Israel, and the entry of the Gentiles into the Christian Church he portrays as an engrafting of alien branches into the earlier stock. The tree, however, remains the same.
The ancient calling of the Israelites has not been abrogated. It remains the root-work of the whole plant. How should Christians react to this crucial development of salvation history? What should be their relationship to the Jews? Paul mentions two things, one negative and the other positive:
Negatively, Christians must not be boasters and smart-alecks. They must avoid pride about their own engrafting into the ancient tree (verse 18). After all, it was by grace through faith that they were engrafted; they had done nothing to deserve it. Divine grace should be received with reverence, not with smug self-satisfaction. The Christian must not look down on the Jew or give himself airs. If the native branches themselves were lopped off of the tree, then the engrafted branches should be especially cautious, lest they too suffer the same fate (verse 21). Nothing is less attractive than a smirking Christian, and the Christian who boasts against the Jews, or contemns the Jews, or speaks of the Jews with disdain, is a moral abomination.
Positively, Christians should endeavor to make the Jews “jealous” (verse 14). Here is what Paul means: The first Gentiles joined the Christian Church because they were “jealous” of the blessings enjoyed by the Jews and were looking for an opportunity to share those blessings (verse 11). Now it is time for the process to work the other way: It is time for the Christians to make the Jews themselves jealous!
That is to say, Christians should live in such a way that the Jews will want to share in the blessings of the life in Christ, because the life in Christ is meant to be, in fact, their own inheritance. Christ is the fulfillment of all of Israel’s deepest longings, and if Jews see Christians sharing blessings that properly belong to themselves, they too will become jealous and crave what is rightly theirs.
Saturday, March 1
Romans 11:22-27: The common distinction between God’s mercy and His justice, even though inadequate and misleading, seems to be an attempt to express a real difference, and that difference appears to be what Paul has in mind by distinguishing between God’s kindness and His severity (verse 22).
The continuance of God’s kindness, though unmerited and freely bestowed, does depend on human perseverance. “Otherwise you also will be cut off,” writes St. Paul. This apostle knows nothing about a level of grace that precludes the possibility of the believer’s defection. Even as he holds the winning hand, foolish man may still choose to discard. God’s grace never removes the freedom of man’s choice.
But just as it is possible for a believer to fall, it is also possible for an unbeliever to rise. The defection of the Jews, therefore, is not necessarily final (verse 23). Their return to the ancient tree would seem especially fitting (verse 24). Indeed, this is what God has in mind (verse 25). It is the “mystery” (mysterion) of His plan for the Jews, when history has run the proper measure of its course.
The “all Israel” that will be saved appears to refer to the fullness of the Church, drawn from both Jews and Gentiles. This return to the Gospel, Paul believed, was prophesied by Isaiah (verses 26-27).
Matthew 15:21-28: Jesus now turns from the Jewish unbelievers to a Gentile whose faith will bring about the healing of her daughter. It is significant that in both Mark and Matthew this story follows the discussion about ritual uncleanness, a preoccupation of the Jews.
Matthew began his gospel by drawing attention to Jesus as “the son of David” (1:1). It was the name by which he was invoked by the blind men (9:27). Now it is by this title that the Canaanite woman addresses him (verse 22). Later on, this messianic designation will come more into evidence. It is the title by which He will be greeted in Jericho (20:29) and Jerusalem (21:9). The Lord’s acceptance of this title will rankle His enemies (21:15; 22:41-45). If it is striking to find “son of David” on the tongue of a Gentile, we should bear in mind Matthew’s earlier citation from Isaiah with respect to that Galilean border with Phoenicia (4:13-15; Isaiah 9:15).
In Matthew’s version of this story, the accent lies on faith: “Great is your faith” (verse 28; contrast Mark 7:9). The woman’s “great faith” is reminiscent of the earlier Gentiles in Matthew, such as the Magi and, more explicitly, the centurion in 8:10. This woman thus becomes a kind of first-fruits of Jesus’ final Great Commission to “all nations.”
Indeed, like the Magi at the beginning of this gospel and the disciples at the end of it (2:11; 28:17), this woman is said to adore Jesus (proskynein–15:25).
The symbolism of the future universal calling is also foreshadowed in verse 30, where the “great multitudes” come to the Lord with their various needs and distresses. This detail, too, is proper to Matthew. (Compare 10:1; 12:15; 14:13-14).
Sunday, March 2
God’s guidance of history is complex, not because God is complex, but because man’s infidelities have complicated the process. Far from being the mere unfolding of the divine foreknowledge—and even less the enactment of a divine decree—history is the encounter of man’s freedom with God’s, an encounter in which God subsumes human mistakes into a more ample redemptive pattern. The format of this pattern is dialectical, in that the human resistance to God’s will (sin, disobedience) becomes part of that will’s very application. This is the pattern that God followed with the Gentiles. It is now the pattern that He will follow with the Jews.
Truly, God’s plans for the Jews have never changed, because God keeps faith with the patriarchs, to whom He made so many promises. The Jewish people are still the apple of His eye (verses 28-29).
In the sin of Adam, God consigned (synekleisen) all to disobedience. This has been the history of the human race. God’s wisdom, however, and His fathomless counsel have so directed man’s disobedience as to bring about his redemption. All of this history He has guided in the direction of mercy (verse 32). All that He does He does in mercy. Paul finishes this chapter with a brief doxology to the divine mercy (verses 33-36).
Matthew 12:38-50: Both examples given here, the Ninevites and the queen from southern Arabia, are Gentiles, those of whom Matthew has just been speaking in 12:18-21. The figures of Jonah and Solomon should also be understood here as representing the prophetic and sapiential traditions of Holy Scripture.
Jesus is the “greater than Jonah,” whose earlier ministry foreshadowed the Lord’s death and Resurrection and also the conversion of the Gentiles. The Lord’s appeal to Jonah in this text speaks also of Jonah as a type or symbol of the Resurrection. The men of Nineveh, who repented and believed, are contrasted with the unrepentant Jewish leaders who refuse to believe in the Resurrection (cf. 28:13-15). Matthew will return to the sign of Jonah in 16:2. Jesus is also the “greater than Solomon,” who was founder of Israel’s wisdom literature and the builder of the Temple.
The Queen of the South, that Gentile woman who came seeking Solomon’s wisdom, likewise foreshadowed the calling of the Gentiles. She was related to Solomon as the Ninevites were related to Jonah—as Gentiles who met the God of Israel through His manifestation in the personal lives of particular Israelites.
In verses 46-50 Matthew portrays our relationship to Jesus as a new set of family relationships, under the Fatherhood of God; these new relationships transcend those relationships established by blood. In due course, however, we do find the fleshly relatives of Jesus within the body of the believers (cf. Acts 1:14).
Clean Monday, March 3
Matthew 5:43-48: The Old Testament does not actually prescribe hatred on one’s enemies, of course; that part is a sort of hyperbole. Nonetheless, the prescribed love of one’s neighbor (22:39; Leviticus 19:18) certainly prompted some question about who, exactly, was included in this list (Luke 10:29). Jesus extended the Mosaic commandment on this point by expanding the word “neighbor” to include “enemy.” This truly was a new idea in Israel’s experience.
This love of one’s enemies must come from the heart, because Jesus made it a matter of prayer (verse 44). It has to do with one’s relationship to the “Father in heaven” (verses 45,48).
Once again, as in all these five contrasts, believers are called to “exceed” (perisson–verse 47). Their love, like their righteousness, must be “in excess” (verses 46-47). To love those that love us affords no reward, because such love is its own reward. The love of one’s enemies, however, is not an act rewarding in itself. One loves in such a way only for the sake of the heavenly Father.
This kind of love makes a person “perfect,” it most renders him like God, and being “like God” is the purpose of the Torah (Leviticus 19:2). It is understood, of course, that only God can enable a person to love in this way (Romans 8:2-4).
The love of one’s enemies appears last in Matthew’s sequence of contrasts based on the Torah, because it is the perfecting and ultimate sign of Gospel righteousness. It must be the distinguishing mark of the Christian. By it, believers become not only “more righteous, but perfect like unto God. The love of one’s enemies certainly does not “come naturally.”
Indeed, if it does seem to “come naturally,” something is wrong with it. In such cases, it is a counterfeit. Such counterfeits are not rare, so we do best to distinguish this Gospel love from things that resemble it.
For example, the love of enemies enjoined in the present context is not a tactic, a thing done to accomplish something else. It is not the practical means to an end, such as the conversion of the enemy. The love of enemies enjoined in this passage is an end in itself, because it renders a man like unto God.
This Gospel-enjoined love of enemies is not a mark of noble character—the generosity of the magnanimous man—nor is it the cultivated fruit of universal benevolence, of the sort we associate with the oriental religious sage. These are but human counterfeits of what the Lord enjoins here. Christian love of enemies is done purely to please a Father in heaven.
Nor is the purpose of the love of enemies to feel good or virtuous. In fact, the Christian who loves his enemies may feel perfectly miserable about himself. The love of one’s enemies is not an exercise in self-fulfillment. It is, rather, an act of self-emptying. It is the Cross. It is to love as Christ loves, and as His Father loves.
Shrove Tuesday, March 4
Romans 12:1-9: Here begins the “therefore” (verse 1) section of Romans, in which Paul enunciates the practical moral and ascetical inferences to be drawn from the dogmatic premises elaborated in the first eleven chapters (compare Ephesians 4:1; Philippians 2:1, and so forth).
Although the believer has been delivered from the works of the Mosaic Law—”the curse of the Law”—he has by no means been freed from the works of the Gospel. As the Sermon on the Mount repeatedly asserts, the works of the Gospel are far more demanding than the works of the Law (cf. Matthew 5:17-22,27-28,33-34,38-39,43-44, and so on). At baptism the believer assumes responsibility, and if he refuses to take that responsibility seriously he runs the risk of defection from the faith and being cut off from Christ (11:20-22).
Listed first here, among the components of this responsibility, is the duty of cultivating bodily holiness, because the body itself is the bearer of the Holy Spirit, who will in due course raise it from the dead (8:11). Paul is reviewing here the plea that he made for bodily holiness in 6:12-13,19-20. This ascetical effort he now describes in the imagery of sacrifice (cf. Philippians 4:18; 1 Peter 2:5).
This moral and ascetical effort, because it stands directly at variance with the standards, interests, and aspirations of the world, will also require an adversarial attitude toward the world. To the world the Christian must not “conform” (verse 2). The Greek word indicating worldly conformity here is syschematizesthe, in which the attentive reader will discern the root word, schema. The world, that is to say, tends to “schematize” human beings by imposing an outward pattern on them. (A few verses later Paul will contrast the world’s outward uniformity with the great diversity among Christians.)
The believer, however, is not to adopt the “schemes” of the world. He is not to “conform” but to be “transformed,” metamorphousthe, this verb indicating an inner change (meta) of form (morphe). Outward conformity is replaced by inner renewal.
This transformation comes from what Paul calls a “newness of mind,” implying a radical alteration of both the content and the processes of thought. The thought-life of the Christian mind (nous), precisely because it is “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16) will bear less and less resemblance to the ideas of the world, as the believer is transformed by the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Ash Wednesday, March 5
Matthew 6:1-18: The first word, a plural imperative, is a summons to caution: “Take care,” prosechete. The Christian moral life has this in common with any serious moral system—namely, that an intense, reflective custody of the soul is necessary. In the present instance this custody has chiefly to do with the purity of one’s intentions. The entire moral life can be radically undermined by wrong intentions. Purification of intentions requires a most serious vigilance over the mind and will.
This chapter treats of the great triad of traditional Jewish piety: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. Because our Lord himself authoritatively juxtaposes these three components here in Matthew, it is normal to think of them together as constituting a kind of ascetical standard. In truth, for a very long time Christians (for example, Hermas and Leo I of Rome, John Chrysostom, Maximus the Confessor) have habitually spoken of the three together as sort of a paradigm or outline of biblical ascetical life. In pre-Christian biblical literature, however, that specific triad of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving is found in only one place: Tobit 12:8. It is through Matthew that this triad passed into Christian piety.
Even as Jesus treats of these three practices of piety, however, he continues the spirit of the five contrasts that He elaborated in the previous chapter. Almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, He says, are all to be undertaken in a spirit that is contrasted with that of the hypocrites (verses 2,5,16). By now it is clear that this word refers to those same scribes as Pharisees; it is shorthand for the Jewish leadership that set itself against Jesus and the Gospel. Matthew’s references to them in these early chapters show a rising hostility on their side, as well as Jesus’ disposition to take them to task. This latter disposition will reach its climax in chapter 23, which several times will condemn the “scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”
In the present text, these hypocrites are accused of failing to “take care” not to practice their righteousness to gain human approval. Theirs is not a true righteousness.
The first deed of righteousness named by Jesus is almsgiving (verses 2-4), which comes closest to the concerns of social behavior enunciated in the preceding five contrasts. The social nature of almsgiving makes it the easiest thing to do for human approval. However, those who abuse almsgiving by a bad intention are simply using the poor to their own advantage. Very well, says Jesus, they must be satisfied with that advantage (verse 2).
Thursday, March 6
Matthew 16:1-12: The tension between Jesus and his antagonists rises to a new height in chapter 16, beginning with their renewed demand for a sign (verses 1-4; cf. 12:8). This demand is the occasion of the Lord’s criticism of them (verses 5-12) and the first prophecy of their role in the Passion (verse 21). In demanding this sign, these enemies copy the example of the devil (4:2,6). In contrast to the faith of the recent Canaanite woman (15:28), this demand indicates unbelief.
We likewise note here Matthew’s inclusion of the Sadducees among the enemies of Jesus (verses 1,6,11,12). Once again Matthew’s text here reflects certain concerns that arose in Judaism (and consequently among Jewish Christians) after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Foremost among the Jewish groups who lost credibility in the aftermath of that event was the party of the Sadducees. This group, it was generally believed, had been excessively compliant with the Roman powers for over a century—too compromising, too little disposed to speak up for the people as the Pharisees had done. Consequently, after the year 70 the Sadducees came into bad odor among rank-and-file Jews.
Moreover, this party was bound to lose power, because their power had been concentrated in the temple priesthood, which was put out of business by the destruction of the temple. In Matthew we observe (three times in these verses, and elsewhere in 3:7; 22:34) explicit criticisms of the Sadducees not found in the other gospels. Mark (12:18) and Luke (20:27) mention the Sadducees only once each.
The present encounter of Jesus and His enemies introduces a brief dominical discourse about bread (verses 5-12). This discourse summarizes the two occasions when Jesus multiplied the loaves.
It also contains some criticism of the apostles, who are described as “of little faith” (verse 8), in spite of having witnessed two miraculous provisions of bread (verses 9-10). These disciples of the Lord do not yet “understand” (verse 8) the implications of those miracles in the wilderness. The Lord’s reproach brings them to some level of understanding (verse 12). At least in some measure, the sown seed is beginning to fall on good ground. Nonetheless, this will not be the Lord’s last reproach against the apostles in the present chapter (cf. verse 23).
Friday, March 7
Romans 12:10-21: Among the duties and disciplines enumerated here, we observe that most have to do with the mutual relations among Christians (verses 9-10,13,16), though certain of these particulars also look to relationships outside the communion of the Church (verses 14,17-21).
Christian love is genuine—literally “non-hypocritical,” anypokritos (verse 9); it goes beyond the civility and politeness required in a decent society.
Christian love is morally discerning, however, not confusing evil and good. Indeed, it is striking to find, amidst these sundry admonitions to love, a clear injunction to hate: “Abhor what is evil.” Those things in society that are abhorrent should be regarded with abhorrence, not tolerance, and this too is a duty of Christian love.
The love to be cultivated is not only the spiritual love called agape, but includes also those more common qualities of philadelphia (fraternal love), philostorge (affection), time (esteem), and philoxenia (hospitality) (verses 10,13).
Such things are impossible except by the personal cultivation of patience, hope, and prayer (verse 12). This prayer will embrace one’s enemies (verse 14; Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27-28) and require the forgiveness of wrongs (verse 17; Matthew 6:12-15). Paul tells these Romans not to hold grudges against persecutors. In view of the terrible persecution of Christians that will break out in Rome during the next decade, this was uncommonly timely counsel.
Paul’s wording of the quotation from Deuteronomy 32:35 in verse 19 differs from that found in both the Septuagint and the extant (Massoretic) Hebrew text, but it is identical with the quotation in Hebrews 10:30. Was there another version of this passage common among the early Christians? The meaning, in any case, is clear enough. Christians are to leave to God all revenge and settling of scores. They are always to pursue good, never evil. Evil is the Christian’s only true enemy (verse 21).