Friday, March 27
Matthew 20:29-34: Matthew’s literary construction effectively juxtaposes these two blind men with the two sons of Zebedee, who are symbolically healed of their spiritual blindness with respect to the mystery of the Cross. Thus healed, says the text, “they followed “him” (20:34). They become part of the congregation that will accompany Israel’s true King into Jerusalem to accomplish the mystery of Redemption.
To “follow” Christ means to live by the pattern of the Cross, to pursue the implications of Baptism and the Holy Eucharist, the one a mystic identification with His death and resurrection, the other a proclamation of His death “until He comes.” These two men have accepted the challenge just made to James and John.
These blind men, calling on Jesus with the Messianic title, “Son of David,” ask for the opening of their eyes, an expression which in prophetic literature is associated with the Messianic times (cf. Isaiah 29:18; 35:5).
Zechariah 6: This chapter contains both a vision and an oracle. In the vision (verses 1-8) the prophet sees four chariots drawn by horses, which are also four “winds” or “spirits,” as it were (verse 5). He saw them earlier (1:7-11). Like the “four winds” of common parlance, these horses go in four directions: the black northbound, the white westbound, the dappled southbound, and the red eastbound. They represent God’s providential “patrol,” as it were, of the whole universe. God is keeping an eye on things, Zechariah is reminded, even things that don’t seem to be going very well.
Although Babylon lies east of Jerusalem, one journeys there by leaving Jerusalem in a northerly direction and then following the contour of the Fertile Crescent. (One who journeyed straight east would simply have to pass through the Arabian Desert, an area best avoided.) Consequently, there is a special significance in the northbound horses in this vision, for they go to Babylon, where, God assures His prophet, He has everything under control (verse 8). This vision is related, then, to the woman in the basket in the previous chapter. The “Spirit” that guides world history, including geopolitical history, is the same Spirit proclaimed to Zerubbabel in 4:6.
The oracle in this chapter (verses 9-15), like the vision of the two olive trees in 4:11-14, pertains to the Lord’s two “sons of oil,” Zerubbabel and Jeshua, the priest and the governor, the religious and the civil authority. Both are anointed by God and must work in common endeavor for the Lord (verse 13). The “branch” in verse 12, as in 3:8, refers to Zerubbabel, whose Akkadian name means “the branch of Babylon.” He is both a foreshadowing and a forefather (Matthew 1:12-13) of the One who combines in Himself the twin dignities of King and Priest.
Lazarus Saturday, March 28
John 11: Jesus comes to Bethany, the ancient site of the modern town El-Azariyeh, on the east side of the Mount of Olives, nearly two miles southeast of Jerusalem. This Arabic name, El-Azariyeh, is an obvious corruption of “Lazarus.” Bethany is not to be confused with a city of the same name in 10:40.
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).
We recall that the Jews normally devoted one week to mourning a person’s death, a fact that explains the presence of a large crowd at this time (verse 19). The evangelist remarks on this circumstance to set the stage for the very public display of this seventh sign.
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).
Zechariah 12: The prophecies in this chapter begin with the great catastrophe of which the epicenter is Jerusalem. Jerusalem becomes the instrument of the divine wrath (verse 2). It is at Jerusalem that the Lord defeats His enemies (verses 3-6; Psalms 45 ; 47 ; 76 ; Isaiah 17:12-14; Joel 2:1-20). In deed, this is the very week when He defeats them. It is at Jerusalem that the House of David has its definitive triumph over its truest enemies (verse 7), being made like unto God (verse 8).
At the same time, there will be weeping in the Holy City, lamentation as though for an Only Son, who has been pierced with a spear on the Cross (verse 10). It is in His defeat that the House of David claims its defining victory over sin and death. This is the prophecy fulfilled in John 19:37 and remembered again in Revelation 1:7.
Commenting on this chapter of Zechariah in the third century, Hippolytus of Rome wrote: “For the people of the Hebrews shall see Him in human form, as He appeared to them when He came by the holy Virgin in the flesh and as they crucified Him. And He will show them the prints of the nails in His hands and His feet, and His side pierced by the spear, and His head crowned with thorns, and His honorable Cross.” This chapter thus continues the theme of the Lord’s Passion and Death.
Palm Sunday, March 29
Zechariah 9: These latter chapters of the Book of Zechariah are so different in tone from the chronologically dated prophecies of the first eight chapters that some historians express doubt that this final part of the book even comes from the hand of Zechariah. They speak of this section as “Second Zechariah.”
Thus, this critical question about the Book of Zechariah is parallel to the question of the literary unity of the Book of Isaiah. Beginning with Chapter 40 of the Book of Isaiah, the author’s literary style and evident historical circumstances are so profoundly changed that some historians of the text speak of “Second Isaiah.”
It is foreign to the intent of these notes to investigate those critical questions. However they are to be answered, it is a fact that the books of Isaiah and Zechariah have come down to us as unified works, whatever the historical background of the material they contain. Consequently, each of these books is interpreted in these notes within the context of its own literary integrity. Rather than dissecting either book on the basis of literary perceptions that may be massively subjective, it seems more useful to interpret each part of each book within the context of that book’s integrity, just as the Sacred Text has come down to us.
That procedure declared, it is worth observing that this latter part of the Book of Zechariah, like the second part of the Book of Isaiah, contains more explicit prophecies of the Passion of our Lord, a circumstance indicating the propriety of reading these texts during Holy Week.
Today’s passage is such a text. Verse 9 declares, “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,’” a passage that the Gospel according to Matthew understands as prophetic of the Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem (21:5). The background of this passage is 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 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, Zechariah prophesied the messianic entry of Jesus into Zion. The Savior arrives 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.
Holy Monday, March 30
Matthew 21:12-17: This scene is found in all four Gospels, but with significant differences in the narrative order. The most obvious of these differences is between John, where this story appears fairly early in the narrative (John 2:13-17)—right after Jesus’ first miracle (2:11)—and the Synoptics, all of which place the story in the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. There are further, less significant differences among the Synoptics. For example, whereas in Matthew the purging of the Temple immediately follows the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and apparently takes place on Palm Sunday itself, in Mark it is preceded by the cursing of the fig tree and takes place on Monday. In Luke the triumphal entry and the purging of the Temple are separated by Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem.
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 “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).
Zechariah 7: This chapter has two parts. In the first (verses 1-7), the prophet addresses a specific question about fasting. Since the fall of Jerusalem and its temple in 586, the Jews had adopted special fasting seasons during the year to commemorate their national disaster. Now that the temple in Jerusalem was being rebuilt, nearly seventy years later, should they keep those fast seasons any longer? Certain villagers in the Holy Land want to know, and the prophet answers them with a specific oracle from the Lord.
The second part of this chapter (verses 8-14) is probably situated here because it refers to the earlier prophets (verse 12), whom Zechariah had just mentioned (verse 7). The prophet reminds his contemporaries that their recent defeat and scattering had been foretold by the former prophets as a result of the sins of the nation. The specific precepts that Zechariah cites (verse 9-10) seem to indicate the social prophets of two centuries earlier: Amos, Micah, and Isaiah.
Holy Tuesday, March 31
Matthew 25:1-13: 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).
Zechariah 8: Now, seventy years after God’s departure from Jerusalem had left it completely vulnerable to the attack of the Babylonians, God is about to return and make it once again His holy city. Indeed, the chapter following this one will describe His return as Israel’s anointed King seated on the foal of an ass.
Jerusalem will once again be a “city of faith” (verse 3: ‘ir ha’emeth) where God will dwell. Both sexes and all ages will dwell there securely (verses 4-5). The Lord will once again gather the scattered (verse 7) and dwell in their midst (verse 8). All of this is promised in the rebuilding of the temple (verses 9-13). The reason things have changed, says Zechariah, is that God has relented from His wrath (verses11,14), and the prophet goes on to insist on the maintenance of those social virtues (verses 16-17) of which he had spoken in the previous chapter (7:9-10). The special seasons of fasting, about which Zechariah had been consulted earlier (7:1-7), will be turned into times of joy (verses 18-19). Jerusalem will once again become a place of pilgrimage (verses 20-22), even for the gentiles (verse 23). The whole world will be converted to the God of the Jews (cf. John 4:22).
These prophecies, only imperfectly realized with respect to Jerusalem’s second temple, are properly interpreted in their Christian fulfillment in the message of the Gospel. The salvation truly accomplished in Jerusalem is that fulfilled in the dramatic events of the last week of the earthly life of Jesus of Nazareth.
Spy Wednesday, April 1
Zechariah 11: Another passage from Zechariah invoked by Matthew in connection with the Lord’s Passion is Zechariah 11:13: “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the value of Him who was priced, whom they of the children of Israel priced, and gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me” (Matthew 27:9f). Matthew cited this text as a prophecy fulfilled by Judas Iscariot in his betrayal of the Lord for 30 pieces of silver, the prescribed price of a slave (Exodus 21:32).
There is a curious confusion of words in this text of Zechariah, however, apparently seen by Matthew as pointing to a deeper layer of meaning. In the traditional Hebrew reading, the Lord tells the prophet: “Cast it to the potter (el-hayoser).” Zechariah goes on to say, “So I cast it, in the house of the Lord, to the potter,” a reading reflected in several modern translations. With the change of only one letter, however, the Hebrew text would read: “Cast it into the treasury (el-hahoser)” and “So I cast it, in the house of the Lord, into the treasury.” This latter reading is followed by other translations.
Rather than choose between these two possible readings, however, the Gospel of Matthew conflates them, maintaining both the Temple treasury and the potter. Thus, Judas Iscariot, realizing the gravity of his betrayal but despairing of God’s mercy, returns to the Temple and throws in the 30 shekels. The clinking of those silver coins, bouncing and rolling across the stone floor of the Temple, has been resounding in the ears of the Church for the past 2000 years, summoning every sinful soul back from the perils of final despair.
The Temple officials collect the coins. Their first thought is to put them into the Temple treasury (hahoser), but they are afflicted by a hypocritical scruple about such a use of blood-money. Instead, they take the coins and purchase the “field of the potter (hayoser).” The double disposition of these coins of Judas, the inspired Evangelist saw clearly, was a fulfillment of a prophetic word spoken centuries earlier in that mystic text of Zechariah.
This “field of the potter,” perhaps so named because of broken sherds lying about in it, came to be known as the “field of blood,” says Matthew, because it was purchased with blood-money. As such this field is a very rich symbol of Redemption. This obscure piece of real estate, bought with the price of the blood of Christ, became a sort of down payment on that ultimate Redemption by which “the Lord’s is the earth and the fullness thereof.” By the price of His blood, Christ became the “Landlord,” the Lord of the earth. All this Matthew saw in the prophecy of Zechariah.
Maundy Thursday, April 2
Matthew 26:17-56: We come now to Holy Thursday and the evening of the Last Supper. The traditions behind the four gospels attach several stories to the narrative of the Last Supper. These include the story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, a saying of Jesus relative to His coming betrayal, a prophecy of Peter’s threefold denial, various exhortations and admonitions by Jesus, and a description of the institution of the Holy Eucharist.
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).
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). Although Matthew uses the verb “blessed” (evlogesas) with respect to the bread, he shifts to its equivalent “gave thanks” (evcharistesas) with reference to the chalice. We find both terms used interchangeably in early Eucharistic vocabulary.
Zechariah 10: Israel’s worst enemies, over the years, had been the kings who failed properly to shepherd the people, along with the false prophets who abetted them (verse 2-3). These were the men chiefly responsible for the scattering of God’s flock at the time of Jerusalem’s downfall. This distinction between Israel and its rulers will be important over the next two chapters. Whereas the Lord will punish the latter, He Himself will undertake to provide for the former. From them will emanate the cornerstone, the tent peg, the bow of battle — all metaphors associated with the covenanted Davidic kingship (verse 4).
This is a prophecy, of course, of Israel’s true King to come, identified with God Himself. This is the King whose entrance into Jerusalem was celebrated yesterday. He will restore the scattered (verses 8-11). In particular He will deliver them from their enemies, symbolized by the two powers traditionally governing the two ends of the Fertile Crescent, Assyria and Egypt (verse 11). In contrast to the wandering with which the chapter began (verse 2), God’s people will “walk in His name” (verse 12).
Good Friday, April 3
Matthew 26:57—27:61: Mark and Matthew, but more especially John, tell the story of the Lord’s trial by weaving it back and forth with the scene in the outer courtyard, where Peter is also under a kind of interrogation. Jesus and Peter are both on trial, as it were, and the reader appreciates the contrast between them. In both cases there are testimonies, and in each case there is an adjuration of some kind. In both cases there is perjury (Matthew 26:63,74).
Even before the charges against Jesus are stated, the Sanhedrin is seeking the death penalty (Matthew 26:59). Indeed, Jesus’ enemies made this determination some time ago (12:14). The charge they want to sustain, if they can find witnesses for it, is blasphemy, one of their earliest accusations against Jesus (9:3). Jesus knows exactly what they are up to, and they know that he knows it (21:23). The Sanhedrin is specifically accused of suborning perjury (26:59).
It is not so easy, however, to find even false witnesses to support the charge of blasphemy (26:60). Jesus, it is said, made some remark or other about the destruction of the Temple, but there is inadequate agreement between the two witnesses brought forward to make this point (26:61). Only John (2:19-21) records the actual words of Jesus that formed the basis for this accusation.
Zechariah 13: Maintaining his emphasis on the Lord’s Passion and Death, the prophet goes on to speak of the striking of the Shepherd and the consequent dispersal of His disciples (verse 7), a text interpreted for us in Matthew 26:31 (cf. Mark 14:27; John 16:31).
This is the event by which the false gods are defeated (verse 1). These are the demonic forces brought to naught by the death of the First Born. Questioned about the marks of the wounds in His flesh, the Lord responds, “These wounds I received in the house of My friends” (verse 6).
Cyril of Alexandria wrote in the fifth century: “when the Only Begotten Word of God ascended into the heavens in the flesh to which He was united, there was something new to be seen in the heavens. The multitude of holy angels was astounded, seeing the King of glory and the Lord of hosts being made in a form like ourselves. . . . Then the angels asked this, ‘What are these wounds in Your hands?’ And He said to them, ‘These wounds I received in the house of My friends.’” These are the wounds that He will show to His disciples after His resurrection. He bears these wounds in his glorified flesh forever, as He stands before the Father, “as though slain,” being the one Mediator between God and Man (Revelation 5:6).