Friday, February 17
Matthew 12: 31-37: Strictly speaking there is no “unforgivable” sin, because God’s mercy stands ready to forgive any sin of which repent. The whole business of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is that it is, by definition, the sin of which men do not repent. It is total and inveterate blindness of heart, in which men can no longer discern the difference between light and darkness. Such appears to be the sin of which the Lord’s enemies are guilty in these texts where we find them plotting His death. For a pastoral perspective it may be said that those Christians who fear they may have committed such a sin should be take courage from the thought that their very fear is strong evidence that they have not done so. Those who are approaching the unforgiven sin are those who no longer even think about repentance and feel no need for it.
Genesis 48: Because of his special role in saving the family, Joseph receives something like the blessing of the firstborn — that is, a double portion; he become the father of two of Israel’s tribes. That meant that his descendents would settle twice the amount of the Promised Land as any of his brothers.
Joseph’s two sons, Ephrem and Manasseh, became as it were the sons of Israel himself (verses 1-7). When Jacob is introduced to the two boys (verses 8-11), his poor eyesight reminds us of aging Isaac, of whose blindness Jacob had taken advantage. The irony is striking. In that earlier case too the larger blessing had been given to the younger son. What Isaac had done by mistake, however, Jacob will do on purpose (verses 12-15).
A Christian reader will take note of Jacob’s crossing of his hands in the act of blessing. It is noteworthy that at least one Christian reader of this text referred to this action as an act of “faith” (Hebrews 11:21, the only example of faith that this epistle ascribes to Jacob). In the blessing itself (verses 15-16), Jacob reaches back two generations in order to reach forward two generations.
Joseph, though he governs Egypt, is unable to govern his old father (verses 17-20). Jacob, let it be said, knew a thing or two about blessings: “I know, my son, I know.” Jacob has been reversing everything since the day he was born, right after tripping up his old brother as the latter emerged from the womb (25:22-23). Right to the end of his life he continues to take the side of the younger man. It is a trait of his personality.
Saturday, February 18
Matthew 12:38-45: Both examples given here, the Ninevites and the queen from southern Arabia, are Gentiles, those of whom Matthew has just been speaking in 12:18-21. The figures of Jonah and Solomon should also be understood here as representing the prophetic and sapiential traditions of Holy Scripture.
Jesus is the “greater than Jonah,” whose earlier ministry foreshadowed the Lord’s death and Resurrection, and also the conversion of the Gentiles. The Lord’s appeal to Jonah in this text speaks also of Jonah as a type or symbol of the Resurrection. The men of Nineveh, who repented and believed, are contrasted with the unrepentant Jewish leaders who refuse to believe in the Resurrection (cf. 28:13-15). Matthew will return to the sign of Jonah in 16:2. Jesus is also the “greater than Solomon,” who was founder of Israel’s wisdom literature and the builder of the Temple.
The Queen of the South, that Gentile woman who came seeking Solomon’s wisdom, likewise foreshadowed the calling of the Gentiles. She was related to Solomon as the Ninevites were related to Jonah—as Gentiles who met the God of Israel through His manifestation in the personal lives of particular Israelites.
It is a point of consolation to observe that in neither case—whether Solomon or Jonah—were these Israelites free from personal faults!
Genesis 49: It has long been noticed that some of the imagery of this chapter seems to be based on figures in the Babylonian zodiac. The number of Jacob’s sons, twelve, lent itself readily to the imagery of a zodiac. (This will also be true of the Bible’s last book, where the symbolisms of Jacob’s twelve sons will be combined with the symbolisms of the twelve apostles. Zodiacal imagery is found everywhere in the Book of Revelation.) That Babylonian zodiac, like all solar zodiacs, had twelve “signs,” some of which were identical to the later Greek and Roman zodiacs. Indeed, in the present chapter we find the images of Aquarius (verse 4), Gemini (verse 5), Leo (verse 9), and Sagittarius (verse 23). Other images in this chapter are not found in the later zodiacs, however, such as the ass, the serpent, the hind, the colt, and the wolf.
Reuben does not fair too well in the blessing (verses 3-4), because of his sin (35:22). His tribe evaporated, as it were, rather early in Israel’s history, absorbed by the other tribes and by the Syrians. In the final list of the tribes it will appear second, after Judah (Revelation 7:5). Like Reuben, Simeon and Levi (verses 5-7), would cease to exist as political entities. Simeon would be absorbed by Judah, and Levi, as the priestly tribe, would be divided up among all the others as a special class without specific tribal territory. Neither tribe will be show up in the roll in Judges 5, and in the final blessing of Moses, in Deuteronomy 33, Simeon is not mentioned at all. In short, a certain cloud hangs over Jacob’s three oldest sons, which are displaced in seniority by the royal tribe, the family of Judah (verses 8-12).
Flavius Josephus tells us that Jacob lived seventeen years in Egypt (Antiquities 2.8.1). The biblical description of Jacob’s death (verses 28-33) is remarkable for its failure to mention death! Jacob simply goes “to his people” (el-‘ammiw). Jacob had become Israel, and Israel had become a people. Hence, it was deemed inappropriate to come right out and say that Jacob had died. Jacob was Israel, and Israel still lived.
Sunday, February 19
Genesis 50: This chapter has three parts: (1) the burial of Jacob (verses 1-14), (2) Joseph and his brothers (verses 15-21), and (3) the death and burial of Joseph (verses 22-26).
Egyptian embalming was one of the great curiosities of the ancient world, a feature that made Egypt famous. Whereas modern techniques of embalming are designed to disguise the effects of death for only a short time, Egyptian mummification was an attempt to resist the effects of death as much as possible, an endeavor to defy permanently the decay and corruption of the body. Jacob’s embalming required forty days verses 1-6). By Egyptian standards, this was pretty short. Ancient Egyptian texts suggest something closer to seventy days, which is the number of mourning days indicated in verse 3.
The large retinue of Jacob’s funeral cortege (verses 7-9) serves to stress his prestige and importance. The site of his burial (verses 10-14) ties this story back to the earlier accounts in the patriarchal narrative. This property had been “in the family” ever since Abraham purchased it in Genesis 23 as the family burial plot. Sarah, we recall, was the first to be buried there.
This later account of Joseph and his brothers (verses 15-21) continues a theme from Genesis 45. We contrast the magnanimity of Joseph with the petty, pitiful brothers, who were trying save their necks with a very thin fabrication. Josephus places this story up in the land of Canaan, immediately after Jacob’s burial. He says that the brothers were fearful of returning to Egypt with Joseph.
The reference to Joseph’s “brothers” at his burial (verses 22-26) should be interpreted simply to mean his relatives, which is the normal meaning of the word “brother” in Holy Scripture. Joseph was, after all, younger than most of his blood brothers. Stephen’s sermon seems to indicate that all of Jacob’s sons were buried at Schechem (Acts 7:16). In the rabbinical tradition, however, that site was Hebron (cf. Josephus, Antiquities 2.8.2).
Joseph probably did not seem so far away to the early Church Fathers as he does to us. His tomb at Shechem was yet known in the third century and venerated by the Samaritans who lived there, according to Origen, and Jerome tells us, more than two centuries later, that it was still being visited.
That grave was the special possession of Shechem, the ancient tribal center of Manasseh and the scene of the covenantal renewal under Joshua: “And the bones of Joseph, which the sons of Israel had brought up out of Egypt, they buried at Shechem in a plot of ground that Jacob had purchased from the sons of Hamor for a hundred silver pieces” (Joshua 24:32). Doubtless it was at Shechem that Israel of old had chiefly narrated the epic charge of the dying Joseph to his relatives that his bones should be carried back at the time of the Exodus. Indeed, St. John Chrysostom regarded his words as a prophecy of the Exodus.
Monday, February 20
Matthew 13:1-9: Jesus begins this sermon by sitting down (verse 1)—the posture of the teacher—just as when He began the Sermon on the Mount (5:1; cf. 24:3). A close reading of this text discloses a striking parallel with Revelation 7:9-12, where a great multitude stands before God seated on the throne beside the sea (4:6).
This first parable, in which most of the sown seed is lost, summarizes Jesus’ own experience, as narrated in the previous chapter. So little of the Gospel, it seems, has fallen on fertile ground. As directed to the Church, this parable urges a sense of modesty about “success” in fruitful preaching. A great deal of the sown Word will simply be wasted.
Proverbs 1: Verses 2-6 of this chapter form a single sentence that states the intent of the book. Proverbs is an educational work, designed to lay down certain insights of prudence, or practical wisdom, in the form of short, pithy sayings, or “proverbs” (mishlim). The wisdom (hokma) conveyed in these sayings has to do with the practical moral assessments that a man must make to lead a godly, just, and productive life (verse 2). This teaching, therefore, pertains to discipline (musar), or self-mastery, as well as the ability to make moral distinctions based on discernment (bina).
Therefore, the wise person (verse 3) will be cautious in the conducting of his life (hashkel), acquainted with the requirements of righteous living (sedeq), able to make sound judgments (mishpat), and to do what is honest (mesharim). If someone learns such things when he is young (verse 4), his wisdom will increase as he grows older (verse 5; cf. 4:18).
This instruction will be grammatical, rhetorical, and imaginary (verse 6), but its principle is moral (verse 7), and its transmission comes from parental tradition (verses 8-9). Hence, religious docility to tradition is absolutely required for its attainment.
One of the first things to be acquired in the pursuit of wisdom is the courage to resist peer pressure (verses 10-19). The clear presumption here is that a young man is surrounded by other young men equally ignorant, who, left to their own devices, will simply pool their ignorance for some common venture ill conceived. Therefore, the young man is first of all warned against the nefarious influence of his possible companions. All through this book we see an insistence on this point: Wisdom is to be learned from the past, not from one’s contemporaries.
The first chapter closes with the first discourse of Wisdom (verses 20-33), an expression formulated by the feminine plural (hokmoth), designating an abstraction. This is Wisdom as it comes from the mind of God (cf. also Proverbs 8; Sirach 1 & 8; Wisdom of Solomon 6-9). The Christology of the New Testament will show this personification to be, in fact, a Person (Luke 11:31; John 1:1-18; Colossians 1:15-20). It is Wisdom that pours forth the Spirit (verse 23; cf. John 7:37-39).
Tuesday, February 21
Matthew 13:10-17: In the Gospel dialogue that immediately follows the parable of the sown seed, only Matthew quotes at length the long text from Isaiah found in verses 14-15. This text well fits the pattern of growing obstinacy on the part of Jesus’ enemies, a theme that has been growing steadily since 11:16. The argument the Lord uses in these verses is obscure, for the plain reason that hardness of heart is an obscure and mysterious subject.
If the workings of divine grace are difficult to comprehend, even more difficult to grasp is man’s willful refusal of that grace. Because a choice is both an effect and a cause, there is a tautology in human choice, and like all tautologies it can only be expressed by what seems a circular argument. That is to say, we choose because we choose. This is what is meant by “free” choice.
Mysteriously, then, the refusal to believe is also the punishment for the refusal to believe. These verses are also a sort of explanation of the following section, particularly verses 19 and 23, which contrast the “understanding” and “non-understanding” of God’s Word.
In this respect the disciples of Jesus are distinguished from the others who hear the parables. The “to you” is contrasted with the “to them” (verse 11). The “whoever has” is distinguished from the “whoever has not” (verse 12). There is an antithesis between those that see (verse 16) and those that do not see (verse 13).
Matthew thus introduces the historico-theological themes of grace and rejection. To those who have, more will be given, while from those who have nothing, even that will be taken away (verse 12). Matthew will return to this irony in the Parable of the Talents (25:29). The judgment aspect of this antithesis will be illustrated in the suicide of Judas (273-10).
Inasmuch as these things cannot be understood, they are called “mysteries” (verse 11—contrasted with the “mystery” in Mark 4:11), indicating God’s free and mysterious (and mysterious because free!) interventions in history through grace and rejection. Matthew, in his own lifetime, was watching the fulfillment of these words of Jesus in the very painful relations between the Church and the Jews.
Wednesday, February 22
Matthew 13:18-23: Matthew 13:18-23: We have already reflected that the Parable of the Sower follows the outline of the Shema. Accordingly, the parable’s interpretation begins with the command, “Hear!” (verse 18) In the Greek wording, in fact, this command carries an emphatic pronoun, unusual with an imperative verb: “You!” This pronoun serves to emphasize the distinction between Jesus’ followers and the “others.”
The first group in this parable, symbolized in the seed sown by the wayside (verse 19), fails in the matter of the “heart” (a detail missing in Mark 4:15). These do not love God with their whole heart, a condition that renders them vulnerable to attack from the Evil One. Their hearts, which have grown dull, have no understanding (verses 14-15).
The second group, symbolized in the rocky ground, is shallow, so the Word cannot take root (verse 20). These will fall away at the first sign of trouble (verse 21). Matthew had already witnessed such trials in his own lifetime (10:18,21-23). Those who thus falter have failed to love God with their whole soul.
The third group, symbolized by the sowing among the thorns, permits the care for wealth and worldly concern to strangle the life from the Gospel (verse 22). They have failed to love God with all their might.
The fourth group, symbolized in the good ground that receives the seed, has the grace of “understanding,” because of which they bring forth fruit (verse 23). They have fruitful lives. They are later symbolized in the two productive servants in the Parable of the Talents (25:16-17).
In Matthew’s version of this parable-interpretation, we note his special emphasis on “understanding” in verses 19 and 23. According to Matthew, a special type of understanding is characteristic of true discipleship. Thus, Matthew omits both references to a failure of understanding on the part of the disciples in Mark 4:10, 13.
And at the end of the parables, in Matthew 13:51, the disciples admit that they do understand what the Lord has been saying. For more evidence of Matthew’s emphasis on understanding as a characteristic of discipleship, one may compare Mark 9:9-13 with Matthew 17:9-13; and Mark 9:30-32 with Matthew 17:22-23.
Romans 9:1-13: Paul now commences the third part of this epistle, chapters 9-11, in which he applies the principle of the divine predestination to an actual theological problem addressed by the early Church: How can it be that the greater part of the Jewish people, whom over many centuries God had prepared with such persistent care for the coming of His Messiah, failed to recognize the Messiah when He came?
Several sources in the New Testament address this thorny question in some form. In most of these sources the New Testament writers recognized that Israel’s failure, its “falling away,” had itself been prophesied in the Old Testament, chiefly Isaiah. This approach to the problem is clearest in John (12:37-41), but we find it in other authors as well (Matthew 13:10-15; Mark 4:10-12; Luke 8: 10; Acts 28:23-28).
Paul goes further. Israel’s failure, he says, was not only prophesied but also providential. God, foreknowing Israel’s defection, made use of that defection; He prepared ahead of time to make it serve as the occasion and the impulse for the justification and salvation of the Gentiles. He did this by His mysterious, unfathomable, providential guidance of history. Such is the argument of Romans 9-11.
Thursday, February 23
Proverbs 4: The Book of Proverbs does not claim to contain the fullness of Israel’s wisdom tradition. It only serves as a guide, rather, and a bulwark of that tradition, the larger body of wisdom being contained and transmitted chiefly through oral delivery (verses 1-9). Consequently, the Book of Proverbs is constantly indicating a larger historical context beyond its own text. (In this respect, Proverbs resembles the New Testament, another literary collection that presupposes and addresses a larger social and doctrinal context. Though that context is always present in the New Testament, it is sometimes referred to explicitly, as in 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 1 Corinthians 10:23; 15:1.)
The chief thing a man must teach his son is the Torah (verse 2; Deuteronomy 6:7). Indeed, throughout this chapter we note that the wise man speaks of Wisdom in much the same terms Deuteronomy uses to describe the Law.
Wisdom must become a man’s bride (verses 7-13; cf. Sirach 14:20-27; 51:13-22; Wisdom of Solomon 8:2).
Friday, February 24
Matthew 13:24-35: Matthew replaces the parable in Mark 4:21-25 with this parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, which is proper to his own gospel. It is joined to the parables that follow by the common image of growth. So much is this the case that Matthew postpones the explanation of the Wheat and the Weeds until after the parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven.
As we shall see in that delayed explanation, the first of these parables is about judgment, and in cases of judgment there is usually the danger of misjudging. The difficulty of distinguishing the weeds from the wheat is that, in their early stages, they look very much alike. So the Lord commands that both be allowed to grow to maturity, because only in their maturity are they easily distinguished. Thus, the point of the parable is that finality in judgment should be delayed until “all the facts are in.” Indeed, by delaying the explanation of this parable until verses 36-43, Matthew is illustrating its point.
Proverbs 5: Except for consecrated celibates like the prophet Jeremiah and the apostle Paul, the godly and productive life of a man normally requires the proper governance of his home. It is the teaching of Holy Scripture, however, that a man cannot govern his home unless he can govern himself. Self-control and discipline, therefore, are among the primary requisites of a good husband and father, and these are qualities to be developed from an early age. Consequently the Book of Proverbs is emphatic on the prohibition of sexual activity outside of marriage. Sex outside of marriage is also outside of God’s will.
A man’s marriage, in fact, can be damaged long before the marriage takes place. Sex before marriage often involves exploitation and disrespect, and it always involves irresponsibility, selfishness, and rebellion. These are bad habits to learn, not qualities in a man that will make him a good husband and father.
The present chapter of Proverbs, accordingly, warns a young man against the wiles of the adventurous woman. With keen psychological perception, the Sacred Text indicates that the attraction of such a woman most often has as much to do with vanity as with lust. The young man feels flattered by the woman’s attention (verse 3); it causes him to “feel good about himself,” and it is a simple fact of experience that most of us are disposed to befriend, like, and cultivate those who make us feel good about ourselves. It is one of our great and abiding weaknesses.
Hence, the young man is warned chiefly against the deceptive nature of flattery (verses 4-5). The flattering, adventurous woman has no idea where she is going, so it is very unsafe to follow her (verse 6). Indeed, a sensible man will put as much distance as possible between himself and such a woman (verse 8), for she is Big Trouble (verses 9-14).
In very figurative and flowery language, reminiscent of the Song of Solomon, the young man is exhorted to find joy in his wife (verses 15-20).