Friday, March 6

Matthew 14:13-21: The great significance of the multiplication of the loaves among the early Christians may be discerned from the fact that: (1) outside of the events of Holy Week, it is one of the very few scenes recorded in all four gospels; (2) aspects of it are depicted numerous times in the earliest Christian iconography; (3) normally recorded in language identical to, or at least reminiscent of, that of the Last Supper, it is clearly one of the events of Jesus’ life perceived to be weighted with the greatest theological significance. This is clearest in John, where it is accompanied by the lengthy and elaborate Bread of Life discourse.

This miraculous event brought to the minds of those present the expectation that the coming Messiah would renew the events of the Exodus, including the feeding of the people with miraculous bread in the wilderness. This sense of expectation and fulfillment accounts for the considerable emphasis on Messianic themes in early Eucharistic texts of the Christian Church.

Proverbs 15: This chapter contains several references to the acceptance of correction (verses 5,10,12,31,32). Among a young man’s worst enemies is his innate resistance to correction, a resistance spawned of rebellion and an independent spirit. Giving in to such a spirit generally produces three results, all of them bad: First, it strengthens a man’s spirit of rebellion. (A rebel’s spirit is useful in the face of oppression; otherwise, it is a counterproductive trait in a man. A sustained spirit of rebellion, a spiritual chip on the shoulder, renders a man useless for any purpose.) This leads to hardness of heart and self-absorption.

Second, refusal to accept correction deprives a man of instruction about some point on which at least one other person thinks he needs instruction. Third, it discourages that same person from making some attempt at correction and instruction in the future. Thus, many valuable lessons will be lost if the young man does not early recognize and deal with these inner impulses of rebellion. Following such impulses is not the path to wisdom.

A Christian reading of this theme in Proverbs should see more in the Sacred Text, not less, than a merely Jewish reading of it. Even the simplest, plainest reading of Proverbs, based on the most literal sense of the Text, shows the importance of being open to correction. The Christian reader, however, reading the Scriptures through the lens of Christ, will recognize God the Father as the True Parent who speaks in these lines.

Thus, the submission that all children owe to the discipline of their parents becomes the symbol of a greater docility that God’s children owe to their heavenly Father. That is to say, the Christian reader should see more in the meaning of Proverbs in this regard: “Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them reverence. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live?” (Hebrews 12:9)

Saturday, March 7

Matthew 14:22-36: Mark (6:45-52) and (John 6:16-21) both record the story of Jesus walking on the water, but only Matthew includes the detail of Simon Peter’s semi-successful efforts to do the same. Reassured by Jesus (verse 27), he steps off the boat and places his foot solidly on a wave. His attempt is brought abruptly to finish when, taking his eyes off of Jesus, the apostle did what no Christian should ever do: he looked down. (Peter’s name means “rock,” and it has been remarked that this is the only scene in the gospels where we see him displaying a truly rock-like quality—he sank!) After attempting this “stroll” (peripatesan–verse 29), Peter finds himself reprimanded for his inadequate faith (verse 31).

At the end, those “in the boat” confess Jesus as “truly the Son of God,” the defining confession of the Christian faith (see also Matthew 1:27; 16:16; 24:36; 26:63f, and, of course, 28:19). Like the Magi and so many other characters in Matthew’s gospel, they adore him (14:33).

The boat eventually found land at Gennesaret, on the northwest of the Sea of Galilee, between Capernaum to the north, and Tiberias to the south (cf. John 6:23-24).

Proverbs 16: Proverbs deals with more than human effort. This book shares, rather, the conviction of the Bible’s historians and prophets (including the author of Job) that God reigns over human history and has plans of His own with respect to human destiny (verses 1-4,9,25,33). Man is not in charge of history. The “big picture” is not man’s responsibility. Consequently, God does not generally let him see the big picture. God’s governance of history is unfathomable. (Even those prophets to whom the Lord gives a panoramic view of history are often unable to see even one step ahead in matters of their own lives. Jeremiah is an example.)

This is not to say, of course, that human choices count for nothing in the course of events. It means only that man should restrict his concerns to those aspects of life that he can actually do something about, and these are determined largely by the circumstances in which Divine Providence places him. Each man must do his duty, as determined by those responsibilities, leaving to God the outcome of events. Man must be content to do right “as God gives us to see the right” (Abraham Lincoln).

At the same time, God’s loyal and obedient servant takes strength from the remembrance that God holds governance over the whole historical process. Even as men struggle to remain faithful, while not seeing the larger picture of which their own efforts are but a part, faith in a ruling God offers the proper basis for a sane, holy, and rational hope. This truth has special pertinence for those charged with the rule of nations (verses 10,12-15).

Sunday, March 8

Matthew 15:1-20: When Jesus finished the Sermon on the Mount, it was remarked that “He taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” It did not take long for the scribes to take note of this, so there soon began a series of debates about Jesus’ interpretation of the Torah (9:10-15; 12:1-4). The series continues here.

This material is largely taken from Mark 7:1-23, but Matthew does not share Mark’s perceived need to explain Jewish purification rituals to his readers. Matthew’s readers, apparently having much closer social ties to Judaism, do not need such information. Consequently, this section of Matthew is much less detailed than the corresponding text in Mark 7.

The use of the expression “this people” to designate the Jewish opponents of Jesus reflects the actual situation at the time Matthew wrote. Alone among the four Evangelists, Matthew habitually refers to “their synagogues” (43:23 9:35; 10:17; 12:9, 13:54), a usage that testifies to the situation after the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. After that date, the Jewish Christians, expelled from the synagogues controlled by the Pharisees, were obliged to establish synagogues of their own. It is striking that the only time James uses the word “synagogue” (in 2:2), he is referring to a Christian gathering.

Proverbs 17: Wisdom is learned and practiced in the home and the community (or the village, as Aristotle says). It has to do with simple, quotidian experiences, both domestic and immediately social. Consequently, a number of these maxims are concerned with man’s life in his home and in society: the blessings of a quiet household (verse 1), the raising of children (verses 21,25), dependable servants (verse 2), reverence for the younger and older generations (verse 6), the maintenance of friendships, even the friendships of others (verses 9,17), the resolution of conflicts (verse 14), and respect for the poor (verse 5).

The perfect man, we are told, is the one who “does not stumble in word” (James 3:2). Because a man’s speech is his chief means of associating with his family and his community, his ability to govern his tongue will chiefly determine the quality of his social relationships. It is a man’s speech that will make or break him in the moral and social orders. Without proper control of his tongue, a man is of no decent use to either God or his fellow men. It is not surprising, therefore, that this chapter on man’s domestic and social life should contain several references to the power of speech, not only good speech (verse 7) and controlled speech (verses 27-28), but also perverse speech (verse 20) in a number of forms, such as mendacity (verses 4,7), ridicule (verse 5), and gossip (verse 9).

Monday, March 9

Proverbs 18: Many commentators have spoken of the “pragmatic” motive in much of the Book of Proverbs. That is to say, very often what are recommended in this book are things that have been proven to work; these things get good results. Or, to borrow the expression of William James, they have “cash value.” Such things have been tried for generations, and only a fool would abandon them.

We should be cautious about this approach to Proverbs, however, because the pragmatic motive in this book is a far cry from that of William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, John Dewey, and their kindred spirits. The difference is this: The pragmatism of these philosophers rests on a fundamental agnosticism with respect to ultimacy. Persuaded that the correct answers to ultimate questions (“Does God exist?” “Is man’s willed activity free?”) must remain unknown to the human mind, these pragmatists recommend that human endeavor, including human thought, should follow only such lines of action as would prove to be useful and productive, such lines of action as would “get good results.”

According to this view, that is to say, human beings should do and think only such things as really work. If a thing or a thought does not work—if experience shows a thing or a thought to be unproductive—prudence dictates that it should not be pursued.

Thus, for instance, William James rejects the theory of atheism because it does not lead anywhere; it promises nothing and delivers nothing. Atheism is not, therefore, a useful idea. On the other hand, James continues, the idea of God’s existence has proved itself a very useful and productive idea. So James encourages belief in God.

The problem with this modern brand of pragmatism is that it separates human activity from human knowledge. It is based on agnosticism with respect to the most important philosophical questions ever posed to the human mind, and it attempts to formulate a manner of life and thought divorced from real answers to those very real questions.

How, after all, can I know whether something really “works,” if I have no idea what it is supposed to do? How can I know whether or not I am making “progress” (John Dewey’s favorite word), if I do not know where I am going? How can I seek the human good, if I have no idea what “good” means or the purpose of human existence?

Quite different is the pragmatism of the Book of Proverbs. It does not rest on agnosticism about the fundamental questions in life, but on discerned and solid answers to those questions. For Proverbs it is not the case that (to use William James’s expression) “truth happens to an idea.” Truth abides, rather, in the structure of reality, and a truthful idea is not the creation of the human mind at all. It is an idea created in the mind by the very truth that inheres in reality. Men are said to live wisely if their minds and activities are shaped by the truth that God placed in the structure of reality.

At the same time, this discernment of truth in the structure of reality does not come solely from theorizing about reality. Sometimes, and perhaps frequently, it comes from the godly effort to deal with the concrete exigencies of human life. For this reason, perhaps, the deepest insights into the reality of life in this world often come to very practical men as they grapple with the shape of history by making godly decisions in difficult and trying circumstances. It may be the case that sometimes a philosopher/king must first be a king in order to become a philosopher.

Tuesday, March 10

Mathew 15:29-39: Like Mark, Matthew has a second account of the multiplication of the loaves. This account is often called “the multiplication for the Gentiles,” because of several elements in the story suggesting its transmission in a largely Gentile setting. For example, the Lord’s reluctance to send the people away suggests that they have come “from afar” (as indeed Mark 6:3 explicitly says), a common way in which the early Christians spoke of the calling of the Gentiles. Thus, Jesus is here portrayed as multiplying for the Gentiles the “crumbs” that the Gentile woman begged for in Matthew 15:27.

This bread is food for a journey—“on the way,” en te hodo–verse 32). The Lord feeds His people “in the wilderness” (en eremia–verse 33), as He did after their deliverance from Egypt. This bread, then, is the equivalent of the Manna that fell from heaven.

We also observe that this food—which He “takes” and “breaks” with “thanksgiving” (evcharistesas)—Jesus “gives” to His disciples, that they may feed the multitude (verse 36; cf. 26:26). This format of activity is a paradigm of the Eucharistic rite of the Church, in which we perceive the importance of the apostolic ministry and mediation.

Proverbs 19: Circumspection, not haste, is the way of correct action (verse 2); this is a warning against precipitous and impassioned reactions (cf. 18:13; 21:5; Romans 10:2). When swift action is called for in circumstances that do not permit the taking of adequate counsel, such action will be more safely and prudently taken by the man who normally does not act precipitously. That is to say, a person who normally takes adequate counsel before acting on his decisions is the one most likely to react wisely when he does not have opportunity to take counsel. He is the one who will not lose his head under pressure. He will keep his emotions at bay and not act on the basis of them (verse 11), knowing that acting on passion tends to become a habit (verse 19).

Verse 7 should not be understood in a sense that would treat all friendships with skepticism. It is simply a realistic warning that not all friends, after all, can be relied upon all the time. The person who believes otherwise will soon be embarrassed (cf. 25:19).

A gift given to the poor is a loan to God (verse 17; cf. 14:31; 17:5; 22:9; Matthew 10:42). We do well to bear in mind that God pays a generous interest on such loans.

Perhaps the Book of Proverbs contains no more important a sentiment, a conviction strongly to be maintained in the heart, than “a prudent wife is from the Lord” (verse 14; cf. 18:22).

Wednesday March 11

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).

Proverbs 20: This chapter contains sound counsel about the avoidance of useless problems. It is folly, for example, to provoke those in authority (verse 2). It is equally imprudent and useless to engage in unnecessary strife (verse 3).

Especially to be avoided is the exacting of revenge (verse 22; cf. 25:21-22). Of all human pursuits, revenge is the most unprofitable, seldom or almost never to the advantage of the one who exacts it. There is, moreover, a distinct likelihood that the one seeking revenge may be putting himself secretly in the place of God. This truth does not deny, of course, the valid claims of justice, exacted by proper legal authority. Still, the wrath of man is not to be identified with the justice of God (James 1:20). The Bible’s condemnation of revenge pertains less to the valid claims of legal and civil justice than to the emotional sense of satisfaction derived from inflicting personal retribution. The latter, let it be said, is a pursuit devoid of blessing. Much better is it to leave all vengeance to the God who neither deceives nor can be deceived (verse 24). For this reason, vengeance is strictly discouraged in both the Old Testament (24:29; Sirach 28:1) and the New (Matthew 5:39; Romans 12:17,19; 1 Peter 3:9).

This chapter also devotes attention to the importance of steady labor and the sustained application of effort (verses 4,13), as well as to integrity in commercial dealings (verses 10,23).

Thursday, March 12

Matthew 16:21-28: There is a massive contrast between two verses in this chapter of Matthew: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. . . . “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.” In the first case Peter sees what it is humanly impossible to see; “flesh and blood” has not revealed it. In the second case Peter does not savor (phronein) the things of God, but the things of men.

In the first case he is a “rock” in the sense of a foundation stone. In the second he is a rock that a man may trip over, a rock of stumbling, a skandalon (cf. 13:41; 18:7). Jesus words are a warning and threat to Peter, because scandal is that which brings final judgment. Peter becomes Satan!

In spite of being reprimanded here by the Lord, and notwithstanding the solemn warning that Jesus will give him at the Last Supper, Peter will continue to resist this “word of the Cross” right through to the Lord’s Passion, finally denying Him three times under the pressure of questioning. It is no small thing for a man to be called “Satan” by the One whom he has just identified as “the Son of the living God.” Nor would this be the last occasion on which Peter would be obliged to suffer a public rebuke (cf. Galatians 2:11).

Proverbs 21: A wise man will learn, not only when he submits to reprimand, but also when he sees others appropriately chastised (verses 11-12). This truth points us to one of the great advantages of studying history, because history is, among other things, the chronicling of God’s judgments against fools and scorners, and a wise man will take these lessons of history to heart.

We recently learned that a prudent woman is a gift from the Lord (19:14); a contentious wife, on the other hand, is a curse beyond human endurance (verses 9,19; cf. 25:24; 27:15).

God’s assessment of a man’s heart is not to be identified with a man’s assessment of his own heart (verse 2; cf. 16:2). “Feeling good about yourself” (Also known as “It works for me) is the most deceptive of feelings and keeps the soul forever immature and self-centered.

The “king” in verse 1 is any king. Since kings, holding sway over nations, are in an excellent position to influence the paths of history, God may be said to follow a certain economy of effort by using the decisions of kings to bring about His own purposes. God does not have to do this, obviously, but Holy Scripture indicates that He does. On the other hand, while kings have their own projects and programs that affect the lives of many, the Bible (including Proverbs) is persuaded that God’s plans are not identical with those of the king, even when He employs the king’s decisions to bring them about. Ultimately, then, it is not the great men of the earth who determine the destinies of nations, but the Lord, who sees and knows all things, even those events that lie in the contingent future. God’s will prevails (verses 30-31).

Friday, March 13

Matthew 17:9-13: Matthew here omits a verse from Mark (9:10: “So they kept this word to themselves, questioning what the rising from the dead meant”), a line indicating ignorance on the part of the disciples. Matthew tends to leave out such indications, because he regards correct understanding as part of discipleship itself.

Since, as it appears, Matthew is reliant on Mark for much of his material, and since Mark often portrays the disciples speaking in ignorance, Matthew is often obliged to adjust the narratives in order to make the point he wants. We may note this development by contrasting Mark 4 with Matthew 13. Thus, Mark 4:10 (“But when He was alone, those around Him with the twelve asked Him about the parable”) becomes Matthew 13:10 (“Why do You speak to them in parables?”). That is to say, the disciples in Matthew do not ask Jesus to explain the parable. Then, Mark’s line “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?” (4:13) is completely omitted in Matthew.
These differences carry over to the explanation of the parable. In Mark 10:15 we read “When they hear, Satan comes immediately and takes away the word that was sown in their hearts,” whereas in Matthew’s version (13:19) we read, “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart.”

Similarly, Mark 10:20 says simply, “these are the ones sown on good ground, those who hear the word, accept it, and bear fruit,” while the parallel text in Matthew (13:23) says, “he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces.”

Proverbs 22: The shared humanity of the rich and the poor (verse 2) is the basis of our moral obligation to care for the poor (verses 9,22; cf. 29:13), and the Lord is the avenger of their neglect (verse 16; 23:1-11). This chapter’s subsequent exhortation not to oppress the poor resonates with the voices of the prophets (cf. Isaiah 5:8-9; Jeremiah 22:13-19; Micah 2:1-5; Habakkuk 2:6-17).

At verse 17 a new collection of maxims begins, in which the independent and impersonal couplets are replaced by a return to personal address: “my son.” The section, which continues through 24:22, commences with an exhorting call to wisdom (verses 17-18). A man must begin the quest of wisdom by putting his trust in God (verse 19) and the remembrance that there is no wisdom apart from truth (verses 20-21).

A good reason for not associating with an angry man is that one may start to imitate him (verses 24-25), but one can think of other reasons as well.

The warning against imprudent economic entanglements (verses 26-27) is an echo of several passages in Proverbs (6:1; 11:15; 17:18; 20:16).

Verse 28 is the classic principle of conservative philosophy, which will be repeated in the next chapter (23:10).