Friday, January 29

Matthew 9:1-8: Once again Matthew, omitting the colorful detail about the removal of the roof, has simplified a story for purposes of concentrating the attention on the person-to-person encounter between Jesus and the paralytic. The most significant thing about the paralytic is not his paralysis, but his “sins,” so this is what Jesus addresses first. Indeed, even when He heals the paralysis, Jesus does so in order to demonstrate His authority over the man’s sins. In what He does in this scene, then, Jesus inserts Himself between God and the man, speaking to the man with God’s authority. It is not without significance that all three versions of the story also include the detail that Jesus could, like God, read His accusers’ inner thoughts.

In each of the three Synoptic Gospels, moreover, the Lord’s claim to authority over sin here becomes the first occasion on which His enemies accuse Him of blasphemy. This is significant too, because at His judicial process before the Sanhedrin, blasphemy will be the crime of which He is accused. In a sense, then, Jesus’ trial begins with His healing of the paralytic, because this scene is recognized by even His enemies as the occasion on which He forcefully claims divine authority.

In all three Synoptic Gospels, the paralytic becomes the “type” of the sinner. He is helpless, carried by others because he cannot carry himself. He is utterly in need of mercy above all things. Indeed, even his forgiveness and his cure are not credited to his own faith. All three ac- counts mention that the Lord sees the faith, not of the paralytic, but of the men who support him. This point of “corporate faith” in the forgiveness of sins is accentuated in Matthew’s version, where the authority of Jesus to forgive sins is shared with “men” (9:8). The plural here is significant and touches on an important theme in Matthew, the Church’s authority to bind and loose in God’s name (16:19; 18:18). This theme is related to the Great Commission at the end of that Gospel, where the entire mission of the Church is rooted in the total “authority” of Christ (28:18).

Matthew is alone in placing this story immediately after the stilling of the storm and the driving out of the Gergesene demons. When the healing of the paralytic is effected to demonstrate that Jesus is possessed of the “authority to forgive sins,” it is done with that same ready dispatch with which He stilled the storm and drove the devils into the swine.

Saturday, January 30

Matthew 9:9-13: By comparing this story with the parallel accounts in Mark and Luke, we learn that Matthew’s other name was Levi. Much like the previous story of the paralytic, this account of the call of Matthew’s call combines the theme of forgiveness with healing, for Jesus is here portrayed as a physician (9:12). As so often, Matthew’s version of this story includes a reference to the fulfillment of prophecy, in this case the prophet Hosea (Cf. also Matthew 2:15). Matthew was fond of this verse of Hosea about the Lord’s preference of mercy over sacrifice, and he will quote it again in 12:7.

Psalm 138 (Greek & Latin 137): This psalm may be regarded as a meditation on the nature of prayer; it is a serene reflection on what it means to speak to God. In approaching this psalm, it is useful to keep ready at hand the question, “What sorts of things are involved in prayer?” Thus, it begins, “I will confess to You, O Lord, with all my heart; in the sight of the angels will I sing to You, for You have heard all the words of my mouth.”

What does it mean to pray? It is first of all a matter of the heart. The “confession” (exsomologesomai) of prayer is interior. Especially in this modern age of subjectivity, it would be easy to interpret this truth as implying that one’s prayer is being made “with real feeling.” Indeed, one meets many individuals who spend most of their prayer time attempting to “feel” the right sorts of things, so that prayer becomes an exercise in the cultivation of proper sentiments. Or worse, one meets those who have actually stopped praying because their hearts are “no longer in it,” so that they do not “feel sincere.” Alas, it is common these days to identify sincerity with emotional spontaneity. The word “heart,” in the biblical and traditional vocabulary of prayer, bears no such meaning.

When we speak of prayer “from the heart” we mean, rather, from the very core of ourselves, the center of decision and resolve, a region vastly deeper than our emotions. It is at that level that God speaks to us. Truly, it is with a view to finding our hearts that we make the great efforts that prayer itself demands of us.

So when we begin to pray, we endeavor to involve, as best we can, our inner core of decision and resolve. To the extent that we can find them or know them at all, we turn our hearts to God, and we confess Him. We do it briefly; otherwise the very effort becomes a distraction from prayer.

From the context of our hearts, especially the placing of our minds within our hearts, we turn to God’s “context”; that is to say, the holy angels. We place our hearts in His throne room; “in the sight of the angels will I sing to You.” Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as “private prayer” in the Christian life. Our prayer to God is always sustained by the angelic presence. Even so was the prayer of Christ our Lord (cf. Luke 22:43–45).

The next dimension of prayer’s context is direction: “Toward Your holy temple shall I bow down, and Your holy name will I confess, for You have magnified Your holy name above all things.” As all regular visitors to Holy Scripture know, the true temple of God is Jesus Christ our Lord. He is the definitive abiding-place where mankind finds God. The goal of prayer, after all, is the union of God and man, so the proper foundation of prayer is the Incarnation, in which God and man are joined definitively. It is “the synthesis achieved by God, which carries the name of Jesus Christ” (Hans Urs Von Balthasar). The Christian religion knows nothing of prayer outside of Christology.

This principle is likewise the meaning of the words that follow: “Your holy name will I confess, for You have magnified Your holy name above all things.” It is in God’s magnification of the name of Jesus that all Christian prayer is safely placed. The fundamental confession that we make in our hearts is “Jesus is Lord!”

The name and Lordship of Jesus is the very substance of our prayer. When, in a later line, our psalm speaks of the salvific stretching forth of God’s hand, we do well to keep in mind that this is done only in the name of Jesus (cf. Acts 4:30).

Sunday, January 31

Matthew 9:14-17: The terms of the question point to a feature that distinguished the disciples of Jesus from the followers of John the Baptist. In due course the followers of John the Baptist were absorbed into the Christian Church, a process of which we see evidence in the New Testament itself, notably the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel according to John, and it seems likely that the final stages of this assimilation may have been contemporary with the composition of Matthew.

In His response to the question, Jesus makes it clear that the Christian freedom from fasting was a very temporary arrangement, entirely limited to the time of His earthly ministry, and we know that even prior to the end of the first century the Christian Church had already established Wednesday and Friday each week as fast days. This arrangement would distinguish the Christians from the Pharisaic Jews, who faster on Mondays and Thursdays.

Hebrews 11:8-16: In his treatment of the heroes of faith, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews spends more time on Abraham than on any other character in Holy Scripture. Who are the true children of Abraham? Was it just the Jews?

The apostles, and chiefly St. Paul, saw no reason to think so. First, most of the Jews, and certainly the bulk of the Jewish leaders, actually rejected the claims of Jesus. If they rejected the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham, how could they be counted the true children of Abraham? Second, since the possession of eternal life came from union with Jesus in faith, why should only Jews be counted children of Abraham? Had not John the Baptist affirmed that God was able even from stones to raise children to Abraham?

The apostles took seriously one very important fact of biblical history: Abraham was justified by faith, long before the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. Why, then, should the true children of Abraham, who lived by the faith of Abraham, be obliged to observe the Law of Moses? After all, Abraham had never observed that Law, but he was justified.

By faith, Abraham walked out into the wilderness, following the guidance of God, and without the guidance of the Torah. The author of Hebrews finds in this story an outline and foundation of the Christian experience.

Monday, February 1

Matthew 9:18-26: From this point on, Matthew breaks away from the Markan sequence that he has been following. This sequence will be picked up again in Matthew 12. Matthew’s version of this double miracle, the seventh and eighth in the current ten miracles, involves of significant shortening of the 22 verses with which Mark 5 tells the story. The expression “from that hour” in Matthew 9:22, which is not found in the parallel accounts in Mark and Luke, serves to tie the story back o the account of the centurion’s servant in 8:13. Matthew is also the only one of the evangelists to mention the flute players already assembling for the funeral of Jairus’s daughter. The raising of the little girl is to be contrasted with the killing of the first-born, which was the tenth of the Mosaic plagues.

Hebrews 11:17-22: Readers of this chapter—from Sirach to Kierkegaard—have pondered long what thoughts may have intruded themselves into the struggling mind of Abraham when the Lord required him to offer his son Isaac in sacrifice.

Perhaps the most insuperable problem was one of logic: How did Abraham reconcile in his thought the imminent loss of his son with the Lord’s earlier promise that this same son would be the father of many people? Just how could he resolve the contradiction between God’s promise, which he completely believed, and God’s command, which he was completely resolved to obey?

In fact, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, in the earliest Christian commentary on this story, explicitly cited God’s earlier promise—“in Isaac your seed shall be called”—in the context of the command that Isaac was to be sacrificed (Hebrews 11:18). How was it possible to reconcile God’s promise with God’s command? Abraham had three days to think about it.

The author of Hebrews reflected that Abraham, in order to resolve that contradiction, must have introduced into his reasoning process one further consideration—to wit, God’s power: “He reasoned that God . . . is able”—logisamenos hoti . . . dynatos ho Theos.

The wording of this argument is quite precise. In speaking of God, the author of Hebrews uses the adjective dynatos instead of the verb dynatei (“is able” instead of “could”). Likewise, in spite of several standard English translations of the text, this clause contains no object. The author had more in mind than the saving of Isaac. He was thinking of an abiding quality of God—His power over death. For the author of Hebrews, the mind of ancient Abraham raced ahead in prophecy to the doctrine of the resurrection—it was an experienced inference from what he already knew of God. From the very temptation he endured, Abraham arrived at a new understanding of God—namely, that He is powerful to raise the dead to life. This was a true prophetic revelation granted to the struggling mind of His servant.

Tuesday, February 2

Luke 2:22-40: Since the presentation of our Lord in the temple is an account found only in the Gospel of Luke (2:22-40), it seems reasonable to look at that narrative through the lens of Luke himself.

It is not hard to do. This is the story, after all, of the Messiah’s first visit to the temple in Jerusalem, a site that Luke makes a foundation stone of his literary structure. Indeed, he begins and ends his Gospel in the temple (1:5-9; 24:52-53).

Moreover, near the end of Jesus’ first visit to the temple, Luke remarks that the prophetess Anna “spoke of Him to all those who looked for the redemption in Jerusalem” (2:38). The real “redemption in Jerusalem” takes place, of course, in the last pages of Luke, describing the sufferings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. These are the events included in what Luke’s original Greek text calls Jesus’ exodos, “which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (9:31).

Luke’s story takes for granted the full significance of the temple. He presumes that the reader is familiar with the Lord’s assumption of “residence” there shortly after its completion (1 Kings 8), His departure from it at the time of its destruction (Ezekiel 10), and His return there when the temple was rebuilt (Haggai 2:1-9; Zechariah 8-9).

The Lord is met by Simeon, an elderly man whom Luke describes with references to the Holy Spirit in three successive verses (2:25-27). Cast in the role of a prophet by these references, the inspired Simeon, after a canticle of praise, prophesies the drama that will ensue in the temple toward the end of the Gospel: “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that will be spoken against” (2:34).

It was “in that instant” that Simeon was joined by “Anna, a prophetess,” who spoke of this Messiah “to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem” (2:36-38). This too, as we have seen, was a prophecy of the Lord’s death and resurrection, for those things brought about that “redemption in Jerusalem.”

Such, at the beginning of Luke, is the small company that welcomes the Messiah on His first visit to the temple. Upon these two old people comes an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, much as Luke describes in the beginning of Acts. Here too the Spirit descends upon a son and a daughter, a manservant and a maidservant, and they prophesy (Acts 2:17-18). Israel is well represented by these two figures who foster in their hearts the ardor of ancient hopes. But Simeon and Anna, even as they gave thanks to God for the Messiah’s arrival (2:28-29,38), dimly foretell the drama that will later unfold in the courts of the temple.

Wednesday, February 3

Hebrews 11:23-29: Arguably one of the most puzzling verses in Holy Scripture is that which tells why Moses’ mother did not drown him at birth. Just to introduce this subject as a matter of inquiry, but without recommending the accuracy of the translation, I quote the relevant verse in the New King James Version: “And when she saw he was a beautiful child, she hid him three months” (Exodus 2:2).

Ancient interpreters tended to treat this text as a puzzle. Though differing among themselves somewhat with respect to details, they agreed that its meaning is more profound and mysterious than first appears.

We may begin with the New Testament witnesses, Stephen and the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, this latter text appearing in today’s reading. In their reading of this verse, both these early Christians maintained the adjective asteios, which the Septuagint used to describe Moses. Although this word is most often translated as “well formed” or “beautiful” (as in the NKJV), each of these sources recognized that the appearance of Moses was of a quality different from merely human beauty.

Thus, after the adjective asteios, Stephen added the qualifying expression to Theo, “to God,” which effectively changes the sense of the verse to “well pleasing to God” (Acts 7:20). Moreover, Stephen described Moses himself, his relationship to the Lord, not his mother’s assessment of the child. In fact, Stephen does not even mention Moses’ mother.

In the Epistle to the Hebrews, where the appearance of the newborn Moses is given as the reason why his parents “were not afraid of the king’s command,” the entire context is that of faith: “By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden three months by his parents, because they saw that he was a beautiful child” (11:23 emphasis added). Here the point is very subtle indeed. When the parents looked upon little Moses, they were able to discern “by faith” some aspect of the child’s appearance that was not otherwise obvious. We recall that this section of Hebrews began by defining faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of *things not seen*” (11:1). Faith gave Moses’ parents a special discernment in regard the child.

These readings are in accord in their search for a deeper, subtler meaning in the Bible’s description of the newborn Moses. They all agree that the appearance of the newborn Moses was revelatory of God’s purpose.

I respectfully offer here another approach to the passage. I suggest that we should look more closely at the underlying Hebrew text, which asserts of Moses’ mother, wattere’ ‘oto ki tov hu‘. This clause literally says, “and she saw that he was good.”

The most obvious parallels to this passage, I submit, are the several places where the Book of Genesis says of Creation, “And God saw that it was good,” wayyar’ ‘Elohim ki tov (Genesis 1:10,12,18,21,25,31). It is remarkable that both passages employ the identical predicate (ra’ah) and exactly the same objective clause (ki tov). That is to say, each of these books begins with the selfsame assertion, ra’ah ki tov — ” . . . saw that . . . was good.” Moreover, this verbal correspondence between Genesis and Exodus, too manifest for doubt, is certainly deliberate on the author’s part. Thus, God’s salvific deed in Exodus is here set in intentional parallel with His creative work in Genesis. I propose that this theological harmony pertains to the deeper, subtler significance of the text.

Thursday, February 4

Matthew 9:27-38: This section sets the stage for the calling of the Lord’s first missionaries and the missionary discourse of Matthew 10. This early mission-circuit of Jesus (periegen in verse 35, “He went around”) was stern work. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that there were 204 villages in Galilee. It was a foreshadowing of the Great Commission to “all nations” with which Matthew’s gospel ends.

Hebrews 11:30-40: When the author of Hebrews speaks of a “better resurrection,” I understand the reference in contrast to other resurrections recorded in Holy Scripture, the various restorations to life recorded elsewhere in Holy Scripture. These latter would include the young son of the widow of Zarephtha (1 Kings 17), the son of the Shunammite lady (2 Kings 4), the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5), the only son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7), Lazarus of Bethany (John 11), and the lady named Tabitha (Acts 9). In all of these examples, those who were raised from the dead came back to this life, the life in the still mortal flesh. Eventually they were all obliged to die again.

This is surely not what our author calls a better resurrection. What he clearly has in mind is the final resurrection, the resurrection prophesied by the mother and her seven martyred sons in 2 Maccabees 7. All of these eight people, as well as the elder Eliezar in the previous chapter of 2 Maccabees, went to their horrible deaths professing faith in the resurrection unto eternal life. This is the “better” resurrection.

The resurrection is the radical doctrine of the Christian Church, and it must not be in doubt. Suffering and death for the sake of the truth will not be sustained by a watery half-truth, some vague and general sense of assurance. The only basis for the life of the people of God is the rock-solid fact of the resurrection unto eternal life. To understand the seriousness of their commitment to the resurrection, Christian need to be reminded of these things. If a person is going to be intent on his adherence to the Lord Jesus, he will many times find no other thought to sustain him than the thought of the resurrection. This was the doctrine that sustained the Maccabees when they stood up to Antiochus IV in the second century before Christ, and it was the doctrine that sustained the first century Christians who were slaughtered by Nero.

When the Christian says “alleluia,” therefore, he makes his most profound statement of faith, because “alleluia” is the song of the resurrection.

Friday, February 5

Matthew 10:1-15: Before sending out His missionaries in Matthew 11:1, Jesus gives a lengthy discourse on the structure and dynamics of mission; this is the second great sermon of the Gospel of Matthew. This initial mission, unlike the Great Commission at the end of Matthew, is directed only “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. The disciples are endowed with exsousia, “authority” (10:1), which we have seen to be a characteristic of Jesus’ own ministry in deed and word. Sometimes the shaking-off of dust from the feet has been taken very literally by Christian preachers; cf. Acts 13:51.

Among many curious features of this list of the twelve apostles, it is instructive to note that the list includes someone who worked for the Roman government (Matthew) and someone sworn to its overthrow (Simon the Canaanite; cf. Luke 6:15). Much of this chapter will be concerned with the resistance that the world will offer to the proclamation of the Gospel. This message has been prepared by Chapter 8—9, where Jesus’ own ministry was constantly resisted by those who felt it to be a threat.

Hebrews 12:1-11: Jesus knew where He was going when He began Holy Week and the Way of the Cross, and that vision of the final glory is what permitted Him to step onto that dolorous path—“for the joy that was set before Him.” He took up the cross, not for the sake of temporary suffering, but because of the final joy. Hebrews speaks of this truth elsewhere too: “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone” (2:9).

Similarly, when Christians are called upon to endure, they are not called on to so for the sake of endurance, but for the sake of the future glory, “we may be partakers of His holiness.” We look to Jesus as our model: “though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered” (5:8).

This is why today’s text turns our attention to Jesus–aphorontes eis ton Iesoun, translated variously as “looking unto Jesus” (KJ, RSV), “our eyes fixed on Jesus” (Phillips, NIV, NEB, NAB), and “let us not lose sight of Jesus” (JB). If one is going to live as a Christian, this is where he keeps his gaze. Jesus is the joy set before us. He is the author and perfecter of our faith.