Friday, March 28
Matthew 22:15-22: In Matthew this series of conflict stories has already begun to introduce those persons who will play an active hand in the drama of the Crucifixion. Already he has introduced the chief priests, the elders, and the Pharisees (21:23,45). Now he introduces the Pharisees again, the Herodians, and the Roman government—the latter symbolized in the coin of taxation.
In the story that follows this one he will introduce the Sadducees, the party of the priesthood (verse 23). Throughout these stories, then, Matthew is bringing back once again a confluence of enemies intent on killing “the King of the Jews” at the beginning of this Gospel (2:3-4).
The evil intent of the Pharisees’ question is noted at the beginning of the story (verse 15). This question is part of a “plot” (symboulion). His enemies want to “trap” Jesus (padigevo, a verb that appears only here in the New Testament). Pharisees and Herodians had no use for one another, but their common hatred of Jesus unites their efforts to spring a trap on Him.
This conspiracy of God’s enemies made a deep impression on the early Christians. Indeed, they saw it as the fulfillment of a prophecy in Psalm 2 (cf. Acts 4:23-30).
The Lord’s enemies commence with manifest flattery, evidently to put Jesus off His guard before springing their loaded question (verse 16). All three of the Synoptics mention this detail.
The payment of the head tax to the Roman government was a source of resentment and occasional rebellion among the Jews, both because it was a sign of their subjection to Rome and because they disliked handling the graven image of the emperor on the coin. To this question, then, either a yes or a no answer could provide the basis for a political accusation against Jesus—or at least could gain Him new enemies. If Jesus forbade the paying of this tax, He would offend the Herodians. If He approved of it, He would further offend the Pharisees. Either way, He would give offense.
Reading their hearts (verse 18; 9:4) and reprimanding their hypocrisy, the Lord obliges them to produce the coin in question, thereby making it clear that they all do, in fact, have the coin and do pay the tax (verse 19).
That point established, He then obliges them to identify the head and name on the coin, namely, Tiberius Caesar (A.D. 14-37). Obviously the coin belongs to the emperor, so they can continue doing what they have always done—pay the tax. Caesar minted and distributed the coin. It is his.
Separated from its literary context, this story answers a practical question for Christians, and it has always served that purpose. Considered thus, it is consonant with the general teaching about taxation that we find elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. Romans 13:7; 1 Peter 2:13-19).
But then Jesus goes on. The concern of Jesus, however, is not identical with that of His enemies. He is not concerned about what is owed to Caesar, but what is owed to God. This, too, must be paid, and Jesus is about to pay it. Rendering unto God the things of God refers to our Lord’s approaching sufferings and death. Thus, what began as a mundane political question is transformed into a theological matter of great moment, leaving them all amazed (verse 22).
It is important, however, to keep this story in the context where the Gospels place it, the context of the Lord’s impending death. The question posed to Jesus is not a theoretical question. Indeed, it is not even a practical question. It is a loaded question—a question with an evil ulterior motive. It is a sword aimed at the Lord’s life.
Saturday, March 29
Matthew 22:23-33: The last three controversy stories in this series are concerned with the correct interpretation of Holy Scripture. The first of these has to do with a passage in Exodus (3:6,15-16), the next (verses 34-40) with a text in Deuteronomy (6:5), and the last (verses 41-46) with a line from the Psalms (110 :1). Jesus, as He is about to fulfill all of the Hebrew Scriptures over the next few days, shows His enemies things in the Bible that they either had not noticed or had seriously misunderstood.
Jesus’ reading of Exodus 3 is arguably the most striking of all (verse 32). He finds, buried and concealed in the story of the Burning Bush, plain evidence of the doctrine of the Resurrection. In doing this, He demonstrates that the true meaning of Holy Scripture is not always on the surface. Would we otherwise have guessed that the doctrine of the Resurrection was proclaimed from the Burning Bush? This style of reading of Holy Scripture, which uncovers deeper meaning concealed in the Sacred Text and in the event narrated there, is the “teaching” (didache–verse 33) of Jesus, and it has always flourished in the theology of the Christian Church.
In this section Matthew adds the Sadducees to the growing list of conspirators, which includes the chief priests (21:2,45), the elders (21:33), the Herodians (verse 16), and the Pharisees (verse 15; 21:15).
As for the Sadducees, they did not believe in a doctrine of the resurrection. It was the Pharisees’ adherence to such a doctrine that rendered the latter party closer and more receptive to the Gospel (cf. Acts 23:6-9). The Sadducees’ disbelief in a resurrection, which is reflected in today’s reading from Matthew, came in part from their rejection of all the Hebrew scriptures except the Pentateuch. The explicit doctrine of resurrection, which commences in the prophetic writings, was thus lost on them.
We may remark that Matthew shows considerable animosity toward the Sadducees, mentioning them in contexts where they are not mentioned by the other gospel writers, and always unfavorably (cf. Matthew 3:7; 16:1,6,11,12; 22:34).
The policy of the Sadducees to side with the Roman overlords (which the Pharisees did not) had rendered them comparatively unpopular with the people. Alone among the gospel writers, Matthew tells of the crowd’s delight at their discomfiting by Jesus (verse 33).
After Jerusalem’s destruction at the hand of the Romans in A.D. 70, the prestige of the Sadducees disappeared completely. Because they were a priestly party, their services were no longer required after the loss of the temple.
We may also remark that the “case” posed by the Sadducees actually is recorded in the story of Sarah contained in Tobit 3:8; 6:14. She really did outlive seven husbands!
It is further instructive to observe that the theme of the Resurrection is introduced by the Lord’s own enemies, by way of denying it. It is the doctrine of the Resurrection that Jesus will prove within just a few days, to the consternation of these enemies.
Sunday, March 30
Matthew 25:14-30: Everything has to do with the ability to persevere through the passage of 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 the man himself assesses 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).
Monday, March 31
Matthew 22:34-40: Matthew’s version of this story differs considerably in tone from the parallel text in Mark 12:28, where the questioner appears well disposed toward Jesus. The corresponding text in Luke 10:25 comes much earlier in the narrative, in a quite different setting, where it introduces the parable of the Good Samaritan.
In Matthew, however, the question put to Jesus is integral to the series of skirmishes between Jesus and His enemies (21:15—22:46), which precedes the Lord’s lengthy denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees in the next chapter (which is also proper to Matthew). The present scene also takes up the theme of biblical interpretation, which was inaugurated in the previous story (verses 23-33).
Some manuscripts call the questioner in this story a “lawyer” (nomikos). Inasmuch as this word is not found elsewhere in Matthew and is missing in the better manuscripts of this passage, it is possible that an early copyist borrowed the term from the parallel account in Luke 10:25.
The rabbinic tradition counted up to 613 Commandments in the Torah, 248 of them positive (“you shall”) and 365 of them negative (“you shall not”)—one for each day of the year. They were not considered all to be of the same weight. The prohibition against idolatry, for instance, clearly carried more weight than laws about the maintenance of a man’s sideburns.
Jesus answers the questioner by reciting part of the Shema, which devout Jews recited several times each day (Deuteronomy 6:5). As Matthew cites the text, he slightly alters (“mind,” or dianoia, instead of “strength,” or dynamis) the LXX reading. We notice that Mark’s text includes the whole Shema.
Jesus cites only two positive commandments, not the prohibitions. Love is the fundamental commandment on which all the others rest.
As the Sadducees had failed to notice the implications of Exodus 3:14-15, so the Pharisees had somehow missed the true meaning of (and relationship between) Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. Not really loving God, they have also not loved their neighbor, whom they were currently plotting to kill. They were not rendering unto God the things that are God’s (verse 21).
Tuesday, April 1
Matthew 22:41-46; While the Pharisees are still gathered in Jesus’ presence, He poses for them an additional exegetical problem: To whom was David referring when he spoke of his “Lord” in Psalm 110 (Greek and Latin 109)? “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.” If it was the Messiah, who must be David’s own son, how could he be David’s “Lord”? Jesus thus teases the mind to ask a deeper question of the Psalm, just as He earlier (verse 32) indicated a concealed meaning in Exodus 3. In each case this deeper meaning is verified and validated in His person.
As Christians grasped the point of Jesus’ question here, this psalm became ever more important in the development of early Christology. No other line of the Book of Psalms enjoys in the New Testament a prominence equal to these opening words of Psalm 109. In the traditions reflected in the Synoptic Gospels, for example, Christians remembered that Jesus had quoted this verse in controversy with some of His rabbinical opponents (cf. Matt. 22:44; Mark 12:36; Luke 20:42) and that the context for His citation was the decisive and great kerygmatic question of the Lord’s identity: “What do you think about the Christ? Whose Son is He?” (Matt. 22:42). In these few words of the Psalter, “The Lord said to my Lord,” Christians learned that Jesus is not only David’s descendant but also his preexisting Lord. He is the Son, not only of David, but of God.
Having mysteriously addressed the identity of Christ, this same line of our psalm goes on to speak of His triumph and enthronement, with the solemn proclamation: “Sit at My right hand.” These majestic words were quoted in the first sermon of the Christian Church, that of Pentecost morning at the third hour (cf. Acts 2:34), and became the foundation of some of the most important Christological and soteriological statements of the New Testament (cf. Mark 16:19; Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2.).
In this one line of the psalm, then, we profess, in summary form, those profound doctrines at the foundation of our whole relationship to God—the eternal identity of Jesus Christ, His triumph over sin and death, and His glorification at God’s right hand: “God . . . has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, . . . who . . , when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:1–3).
Our psalm immediately goes on to speak of those who oppose the triumph of Christ: “‘. . . till I make Your enemies Your footstool.’ The Lord shall send the rod of Your strength out of Zion. Rule in the midst of Your enemies.” Once again, in the writings of the New Testament these few words were quoted to lay the basis for the Christian interpretation of history and eschatology (cf. Acts 2:35f, 36 1 Cor. 15:25; Eph. 1:22; Heb. 10:12, 13; and perhaps 1 Pet. 3:22).
The reference to “Zion” evokes remembrance of the history of that ancient city, also known as Salem and Jerusalem, and the figure of her earliest recorded king, Melchizedek. He was not only the king of Jerusalem but also her “priest of God Most High” (Gen. 14:18), and it is with reference to that mysterious priesthood of Melchizedek that Psalm 109 speaks of the priesthood of Jesus: “The Lord has sworn and will not relent, ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.’”
Wednesday, April 2
Matthew 23:1-12: Although individual verses of this chapter correspond to verses in the other gospels, this chapter’s construction as a whole and its setting in the last week of Jesus’ life are peculiar to Matthew. It fittingly follows the long series of altercations between Jesus and His enemies in the two previous chapters.
The present chapter commences with a warning that the Lord’s disciples are not to imitate the hypocritical, self-absorbed religion of the Pharisees (verses 1-10). It is instructive to observe that this censure is not extended to the chief priests, the Sadducees, the Herodians, and the elders. Only the scribes and Pharisees are criticized here.
This restriction of the censure indicates the setting in which Matthew wrote, some time after the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, at which point the priests, the Sadducees, and the Herodians were no longer part of the Jewish leadership. The Judaism with which Matthew was dealing was that of the Pharisees and the scribes, the only ones left with the moral authority to lead the Jewish people. Those other social and religious elements, though powerful at an earlier period, were not of immediate concern to Matthew. Although the priestly class are Jesus’ chief enemies in the story of the Passion, they do not figure here in chapter 23, because Matthew has in mind his own contemporary circumstance, in which the priestly class is no longer significant.
This discourse is directed to Jesus’ disciples, who are warned not to follow the example of the scribes and Pharisees (verses 1-3). The “seat of Moses” is a metaphor for the teaching authority of these men. We observe that Matthew regards these men as still having authority, very much as we find the Apostle Paul recognizing the authority of the high priest and the Sanhedrin. This authority, says the Sacred Text, is to be respected. It is the men that hold that authority who are not to be imitated!
In what respect are they not to be imitated? They lay heavy burdens on men’s backs. In context these are the burdens of legalism, a weight that makes the service of God onerous and unbearable (verse 4). This is a form of religious oppression. These “heavy burdens,” which contrast with the “light burden” of the Gospel (11:30), consisted of the numerous rules, regulations, and rubrics that governed the lives of their fellow Jews. Matthew is at one with Paul that these myriad matters were no longer essential.
Thursday, April 3
Matthew 23:13-22: Matthew begins a series of “Woes” against the scribes and Pharisees. Leaving out verse 14 (not found in the more reliable manuscripts and apparently borrowed from Mark 12:40 and Luke 20:47), there are seven “Woes” in this series, seven being the number signifying completion and fulfillment. That is to say, these hypocritical, self-satisfied men have brought to completion and fulfillment the myriad infidelities recorded in biblical history (verse 32). In denouncing them, therefore, the Lord uses the traditional formula of the prophets, whom their forefathers had murdered—“Woe!”
Ecclesiastes 3:1-22: Ecclesiastes is not only the most somber of the biblical authors; he is one of the darkest writers in the entire history of philosophy. For him, all of existence is vexation of heart and spirit (1:14; 2:11, 17, 22, 26; 4:4, 6, 16; 6:9). Empirical evidence, he believes, does not support the thesis of a moral universe (3:16; 4:1; 5:8; 7:15; 8:12, 14).
Happiness is supremely elusive (5:10–12; 6:1–9), and nothing is ever as it appears (9:11; 10:6). The very sequences of times and seasons, which elsewhere in the Bible represent God’s covenanted care for man (Genesis 8:22; Psalm 103 :19–24), provoke in the mind of Ecclesiastes only the deepest sense of ennui (Ecclesiastes 1:3–8; 3:2–8). Even if wisdom can be attained—which prospect he deems unlikely (7:23–24)— wisdom and grief are inseparable (1:18).
For all that, this writer is no Buddhist. “Vanity of vanities, and all is vanity,” for Ecclesiastes, represents only a vexing impression with which his believing mind struggles. In spite of this impression, he remains a man of faith, and ultimately his philosophical choice is inseparable from that faith.
Believing in a supreme God—and very unlike the Buddha in this respect—Ecclesiastes never embraces the thesis of radical chaos. The root problem in the world is not the world. It is the human heart’s rebellion against God:
”Truly, this only I have found: / That God made man upright, / But they have sought out many schemes” (7:29).
In spite of all appearances, then, Ecclesiastes never loses his conviction that God is the final judge of all human decisions (3:17; 5:6). God’s sovereignty over man’s destiny must never be forgotten (11:9—12:1). However dark the path that man treads, he must in faith continue to “fear God and keep His commandments, / For this is man’s all. / For God will bring every work into judgment, / Including every secret thing, / Whether good or evil” (12:13–14).
Friday, April 4
Jeremiah 52: The Book of Jeremiah ends with fall of Jerusalem and the willful destruction of Solomon’s Temple. The futility Ecclesiastes sensed within human experience in general comes to Jeremiah in a specific historical form. Exiled by the rivers of Babylon all the children of the covenant will be obliged to come to grips with that tragedy and the centuries of rank infidelity that led to it.
Arguably, however, Jeremiah was the man in whose soul the loss of the Temple was most singular and poignant. It represented the defining hour of his extremely lonely life. Most of Jerusalem’s citizens, suffering from chronic shallowness and terminal optimism, had always thought him something of an oddity and a nuisance, maybe even a public menace.
They accused him (Jeremiah 37:14), conspired against him (18:18), seized him (26:8), sought his life (11:21), struck him and put him in stocks (20:2), imprisoned him (32:3), kidnapped him (chs. 42—43), threw him in a deep pit where he nearly died from hunger (38:6–9). In short, Jeremiah was obliged to “go it alone.” Jeremiah’s was a more than ordinary personal desolation, inasmuch as he embraced a life of consecrated celibacy and asceticism as a prophetic sign of Jerusalem’s approaching devastation (16:1–5).
Interpreting that approaching doom of 587 was the very substance of
Jeremiah’s ministry, and his prayer was integral to that interpretation.
The Lord was on the point of destroying the very institutions that He had for centuries cultivated and sustained, and in the heart of Jeremiah the city’s looming destruction assumed metaphysical dimensions. It suggested to his mind both the overthrow of nature and the dissolution of history.
Thus, it was Jeremiah’s destiny to assume the impending tragedy of Israel into the fabric of his own heart, an experience that filled him with a deep feeling of radical alienation from God. He struggled in the darkness:
O the Hope of Israel, his Savior in time of trouble, /
Why should You be like a stranger in the land, / And like a traveler who
turns aside to tarry for a night? (14:8) . . . “Will you surely be to me
like an unreliable stream, / As waters that fail? (15:18) . . . Do not be
a terror to me; / You are my hope in the day of doom (17:17).
Jeremiah’s prayer was shaped, therefore, by the contours of Israel’s tragedy:
Oh, that my head were waters, / And my eyes a fountain of
tears, / That I might weep day and night / For the slain of the daughter
of my people!” (9:1) . . . Woe is me, my mother, / That you have borne
me, / A man of strife and a man of contention to the whole earth!
(15:10) . . . But His word was in my heart like a burning fire / Shut up
in my bones; / I was weary of holding it back (20:9).