Friday, April 11
Matthew 24:45-51: 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 entrusted to the 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 formative 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 (Matthew 24: 51; 25:12, 30, 41, 46).
In this parable Jesus describes the righteous 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.
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.
Whereas in Luke (12:46) the punishment of the unfaithful servant places him among “unbelievers,” in Matthew he shares the lot of the “hypocrites” (verse 57). Matthew thus sounds again the repeated condemnation of the hypocrites in the previous chapter (23:13,14,15,23,25,27,28). Also unlike Luke, Matthew here refers to “weeping and gnashing of teeth” as an element of the final condemnation. This expression is fairly often found in Matthew as a concluding statement of judgment (8:12; 13:42,50; 22:13).
Saturday, April 12
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 reference in verse 2—“It was Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped His feet with her hair”—is a good example of John’s assumption that his readers were familiar with other events in Jesus’ life that were not recorded in this gospel: “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book” (20:30). It is uncertain whether this anointing is to be identified with other and similar actions recorded in the New Testament.
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).
Palm Sunday, April 13
Matthew 21:1-11: The enthusiasm shown at our Lord’s entry into Jerusalem is partly to be explained, as a matter of history, as the people’s response to the raising of Lazarus, an event not recorded in the Synoptic Gospels.
Comparing the three Synoptics, we observe that Matthew explicitly interprets the Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem through the eyes of the prophet Zechariah, whom he quotes in verse 5: “Tell the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your King is coming to you, lowly and seated on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey’” (Zechariah 9:9).
This recourse to prophecy, which must have been obvious to others besides Matthew, guarantees that the event is not regarded as an isolated occurrence, because vision of prophecy places it into a larger, more panoramic historical perspective. Prophecy permits the event to be regarded as manifesting God’s purpose.
Prophecy reveals at once two things about what happened on the first Palm Sunday: first, the inner meaning of the event as God sees it, and second, the connection of the event with earlier biblical history.
The second of these points requires further elaboration. In the mind of Matthew, the biblical background or foreshadowing of this event was the story in 2 Samuel 15—17, where King David is portrayed fleeing from the rebellion of Absalom. Crossing the Kidron valley eastwards and ascending the Mount of Olives, David is the king rejected of his people, while a usurper is in full revolt. The King leaves the city in disgrace, riding on a donkey, the poor animal of the humble peasant. David is the very image of meekness in the face of defeat. In his heart is no bitterness; he bears all with patience and plans no revenge.
As he goes, David suffers further humiliation and deception from those who take advantage of his plight. One of his most trusted counselors, Ahitophel, betrays him to his enemies; another citizen curses and scorns him in his flight.
Moreover, in the description of David fleeing from Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, there is a striking contrast with the victorious Absalom, the usurper, who is driving “a chariot and horses with fifty men to run before him” (2 Samuel 15:1). Absalom represents worldly power and worldly wisdom, contrasted with the humility and meekness of the King.
Incorporating this image of David as a mystic prefiguration of the Messiah yet-to-come, the post-exilic prophet Zechariah foretold the triumphal entry of the Messiah into Zion, the story narrated by the Evangelists. The Savior arrives in Jerusalem by the very path that David used to flee from the Holy City. Riding the donkey, our Lord comes down westward from the Mount of Olives, crosses the Kidron Valley, and finally enters Jerusalem. He thus begins the week of his meekly-borne sufferings, including betrayal by a friend and rejection by His people.
Bridegroom Monday, April 14
Matthew 21:12-22: It is not easy to imagine, at this great distance in time, the drama, solemnity, and historical significance of that event. As the Gospels record it, Jesus cleansed the Temple in the context of the Passover, when its precincts were crowded with Jewish pilgrims from all around the Mediterranean Basin and across the wide expanse of the Fertile Crescent. In short, the witnesses to this incident came from worldwide Judaism, that immense international family the prophets called kol Israel, “all Israel.”
Moreover, during the decades preceding this event, extensive restoration and embellishment, begun under Herod the Great, had further enhanced the Temple’s attraction, greatly swelling the crowds who milled around the four markets on the Mount of Olives, where birds and other animals were sold as victims to be sacrificed during the feast.
In addition to that traditional arrangement, the Temple’s Court of the Gentiles had very recently—perhaps as recently as A. D. 30—been made available for such commerce; it appears that Caiaphas, the current High Priest, was responsible for this development. That is to say, the deed of Jesus was a reaction, not to an ancient and venerable custom, but to an innovation introduced by one of his principal opponents. Purging the Temple of these mercantile provisions, Jesus was explicitly challenging the authority of the High Priest; he was accusing Caiaphas of defiling the Temple.
It is most significant that the part of the Temple cleansed by Jesus was the Court of the Gentiles, that place set apart for those many non-Jews who—not becoming Jews—hadadopted Israel’s God as their own. Such a group would never have existed without the Diaspora, the wide diffusion of Jewish congregations throughout the known world. In ever-greater numbers, these people, called “fearers of God” (phoboumenoi ton Theon) attached themselves to local synagogues and observed as much of the Jewish piety as they were able. We know of one such man at Caesarea, named Cornelius, who kept the regular fasting days and hours of prayer.
It is hardly surprising that some of the “God-fearers” should also want to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem in order to celebrate the major feast days in the Temple. So, to accommodate them, Herod the Great placed a large courtyard around the Second Temple, where they could gather and pray.
Caiaphas, therefore, by permitting this precinct to become a marketplace, created a scandal; a house of prayer, specifically designed for Gentiles to worship Israel’s God, was thus defiled, and the devotion of faithful people was inhibited.
This, then, was the significance of Jesus’ purging of the Temple: When Jesus entered the Temple that day, he beheld these Gentiles gathered to celebrate Passover on the coming weekend. His indignation was aroused as he beheld this affront to their piety. Today, he resolved, this must stop; this was the day prophesied by Zechariah, when “everyone who is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 14:16).
Bridegroom Tuesday, April 15
Matthew 24:1-13: 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.
In addition, the distinction between moros and phronimos comes in the final parable of the Sermon on the Mount: “Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a phronimos who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a moros who built his house on the sand” (7:24-26).
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).
Spy Wednesday, April 16
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).
Maundy Thursday, April 17
Matthew 26:17-56: The narrative tradition of the early Church—preserved especially in her liturgical practice—fixed the Savior’s sufferings and death in a determined sequence that became standard. This explains why all four Gospels are in substantial harmony regarding that sequence. The fixing of the narrative tradition also explains why all the Evangelists begin the Passion story on “the night he was betrayed” (1 Corinthians 11:23).
In each of the gospels except John, the description of Judas’s betrayal is preceded by an account of Jesus’ agonizing prayer in the Garden. This scene is also described in Hebrews 5:7-8. We will consider all four accounts:
The scene of Jesus praying in the Garden, on the night before his death, is among the most disturbing presentations among the Gospel narratives. Specifically, Jesus’ immense sadness and personal distress seem much out of character with what the Gospel stories—up to this point—would lead the reader to expect. What has become of the serenity and self-assurance that tells the leper, “I will it; be cleansed” (Matthew 8:3)? Where now is the confidence that announces to the centurion, “I will come and heal him” (8:7), or commands the wind and sea, “Peace, be still” (Mark 4:39)? In short, the image of Jesus in the Garden stands in stark contrast to the picture we have of him from all prior scenes in his life.
From very early times, pagans themselves were quick to notice in the Agony what they took to be an inconsistency with Christian belief in the divinity of Christ. Late in the second century, when the critic, Celsus, wrote the first formal treatise against the Christian faith, he cited Jesus’ fear and discomposure in the Garden as evidence against the doctrine of his divinity. Celsus inquired, “Why does [Jesus] shriek and lament and pray to escape the fear of destruction, speaking thus: ‘Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me’?” In truth, reasoned Celsus, if Jesus so “lamented” (oduretai) his coming death, he does not appear to have been especially brave, much less divine!
The Christian apologist, Origen, refuting Celsus in the following century, responded that the Gospel’s critic failed to appreciate Jesus’ complete acceptance of the Father’s will in his coming death. His petition for deliverance—as desperate as it seemed to be—was immediately followed by the words, “Nevertheless, not my will, but Yours be done.” This sentiment, Origen went on, demonstrated Jesus’ “piety and greatness of soul,” his “firmness,” and his “willingness to suffer.”
Needless to say, all Christians are at one with Origen’s response to the objections of Celsus.
Christians should also consider, nonetheless, the force of that pagan’s argument. Although the “malice” (kakourgon) of Celsus denied him access to the true and deeper meaning of the Agony, we must give him credit for discerning in it the full measure of Jesus’ humanity. Even as we reject that critic’s conclusion, we are obliged to recognize its force.
That is to say, the fullness of Jesus’ humanity was most manifest in the event described in the Epistle to the Hebrews as “the days of his flesh” (5:7). In the Savior’s agony, believers perceive the most profound and disturbing inferences of the doctrine of the Incarnation—the “enfleshing” of God’s Son.
More than anywhere else in the New Testament, the Garden scene presents us with the phenomenon of frailty and conflict in the mind and heart, as Jesus struggles with the trauma of his impending Passion. Indeed, he speaks of this conflict in terms of spirit and flesh. It is during—and with respect to—his experience in the Garden that he declares, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:38). To be in the flesh is to feel weak. He knew whereof he spoke!
Good Friday, April 18
Matthew 26:57—27:61: Matthew and Mark both testify that “Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit” (Matthew 27:50; cf. Mark 15:37), but neither author relates what the “loud voice” said. One conjectures that Matthew and Mark are alluding to Jesus’ final words as they are recorded in Luke and/or John.
This anguished cry of the Savior has variously interpreted. In particular, there has arisen, in recent times, the notion that God the Father actually did forsake His Son hanging on the Cross. Jesus’ abandonment by his Father—his experience of damnation—is sometimes understood, indeed, to be the very price of salvation.
This theory is to be interpreted with a certain measure of caution, I believe. I suggest that the following points should be considered with respect to this caution.
First, the Christian faith firmly holds—as a doctrine not subject to contradiction—that the true God never abandons those who call upon Him in faith.
Second, whatever Jesus’ experience was—as expressed in this cry—it was still an experience. That is to say, it was existential; it pertained to Jesus’ existence, not his being, or essence. In being, or essence, Jesus remained God’s eternal and beloved Son. Consequently, it was not possible that his cry of dereliction declared, as a fact, that God had abandoned him.
For those who, like myself, follow the doctrinal guidance of Ephesus and Chalcedon, it was not possible for God the Father to forsake His Son in any real—factual—sense, because the Father and the Son are of “one being” (homoousios). The godhead is indivisible.
Therefore, Jesus’ cry conveyed, not an objective, reified condition of his, but, rather, his human experience of distance from God. The abandonment was psychological, not ontological.
God does not abandon His friends and loyal servants—much less His Son. Nonetheless, it often happens that God’s friends and servants feel abandoned, and they feel it very keenly. And when they do, they often enough have recourse to the Book of Psalms . . . . as Jesus does in the present case.
When the Savior expressed this painful experience in prayer, the opening line of Psalm 22 arose to his lips—in Hebrew, ’Eli, ’Eli, lamah ‘azavtani—“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” He could hardly have prayed this line of the Psalter unless he knew the Father was still “my God.”
In making this prayer his own, Jesus was hardly expressing a sentiment unique to himself. He was, rather, identifying himself with every human being who has ever felt alienated from God, abandoned by God, estranged from God. Perhaps this prayer best expresses what we mean when we speak of “the days of his flesh” (Hebrews 5:7). It was in this deep sense of dereliction that we perceive, most truly, that “the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us” (John 1:14).