Friday, March 31
Matthew 22:1-14: Comparing Matthew’s version of this parable with that of Luke (14:15-24), we note striking differences.
The first is the historical setting. In Luke the story comes much earlier—long before Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem—whereas here in Matthew it is contained among the controversy stories that immediately precede the Lord’s sufferings and Death.
The second is the literary setting. In Luke it follows other teaching sitting at table (“When you are invited by anyone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in the best place, lest one more honorable than you be invited by him”) and inviting the poor to meals (“when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind”). Indeed, the parable of the invited guests is immediately preceded by a verse that reads: “Now when one of those who sat at the table with Him heard these things, he said to Him, ‘Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!’” All this is to say, Luke represents a tradition in which various teachings of Jesus about meals were handed on in a sequence determined by subject.
In Matthew, on the other hand, this parable immediately follows the parable of the servants sent to the vineyard. The link between these two parables is clearly the repeated sending of the servants. There are other similarities between the two parables, as we shall see presently.
The third difference is in the details of the parable. Whereas in Luke this is simply the story of a great supper hosted by “a certain man,” in Matthew it is the wedding celebration of the king’s son. This context, of course, links the parable to the one preceding, which was also concerned with the “son” of the owner of the vineyard.
The present parable, as it appears in Matthew, is tied to the previous parable in other ways. Once again, for example, a series of servants is sent, and in this parable, too, the servants are badly received and ill treated. The treatment and death of these servants is unique to Matthew’s account and bears the same historical meaning as verses 35-36. These servants are the prophets.
Likewise, Matthew’s version of the parable emphasizes the detailed, meticulous preparations for the festivities (verses 4 and 8, contrasted with Luke 14:18). This thorough, extensive preparation corresponds to the detailed appointments of the vineyard in the previous parable (21:33, contrasted with Luke 20:9).
Similarly, in the present parable the king punishes the offenders and burns down their city (verse 7, contrasted with Luke 14:21), just as the owner of the vineyard punished the offender in the earlier parable (21:41). Both descriptions of the punishment and destruction are prophecies of the downfall of Jerusalem to the Romans in A.D. 70.
Saturday, April 1
Galatians 4:21-31: It seems significant that the covenants of God with Abraham and David are each ushered into history by an account of a barren woman. Thus, Holy Scripture introduces the covenant with Abraham by telling of the barrenness of Sarah, and the narrative of the Davidic covenant is introduced by the story of barren Hannah. It is not surprising, then, that the account of barren Elizabeth should introduce the story of the Incarnation. Jesus Christ is, after all, “the Son of David, the Son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1).
St. Paul, moreover, explicitly appeals to the story of barren Sarah in order to illustrate the Christian covenant. He writes, “it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, which things are symbolic” (verses 22-24).
The Greek word translated by the NKJV as “symbolic” is allegoroumena, which literally means “things said in allegory.” This is our first instance of the work “allegory” in Christian thought, where it properly means the New Testament meaning of the Old Testament text. Indeed, this is why Paul brings up the subject of barren Sarah—her historical and symbolic relevance to the Christian covenant.
Zechariah 1: This chapter contains two dated revelations, the first (verses 1-6) in October/November of 520 B.C., and the second (verses 7-17) in January/February of 519. The first oracle is a general call to repentance based on a serious acceptance of God’s prophetic word. It affirms, as all godly exhortation should affirm, that God will turn to us when we turn to Him (verse 3).
The second oracle is connected with a vision that the prophet has in a myrtle grove, where he sees various messengers of God seated on red and partly-red horses. These messengers report that the world is now peaceful. From a certain perspective, of course, this is good news. The Persian Empire had just been racked by two years of civil war resultant of the rebellion of Gaumata in 521. The Emperor Cambyses apparently committed suicide in response to the rebellion, and it took two years for the new emperor, Darius I, to put down the rebellion and secure the empire. In the midst of all this agitation and ferment, nonetheless, Jerusalem was no better off. In spite of the return of some Jews to the Holy Land, beginning in 538, life there was not yet sufficiently stable and productive for the great masses of the Jews to return from the Babylonian Captivity.
Consequently, the message of peace, delivered by God’s mounted observers of the earth, is a mixed message, because it has created an atmosphere of wellbeing that dulls the moral sense in the face of evil (verse 15). This Persian peace will not last forever, of course. Indeed, Persia’s defeat at the Battle of Marathon lies less than thirty years in the future.
Sunday, April 2
Matthew 22:23-33: The last three controversy stories in this series are concerned with correct interpretation of Holy Scripture. The first of these has to do with a passage in Exodus (3:6,15-16), the next (verses 34-40) with a text in Deuteronomy (6:5), and the last (verses 41-46) with a line from the Psalms (110 :1). Jesus, as He is about to fulfill all of the Hebrew Scriptures over the next few days, shows His enemies things in the Bible that they either had not noticed or had seriously misunderstood.
Jesus’ reading of Exodus 3 is arguably the most striking of all (verse 32). He finds, buried and concealed in the story of the Burning Bush, plain evidence of the doctrine of the Resurrection. In doing this, He demonstrates that the true meaning of Holy Scripture is not always on the surface. Would we otherwise have guessed that the doctrine of the Resurrection was proclaimed from the Burning Bush? This style of reading of Holy Scripture, which uncovers deeper meaning concealed in the Sacred Text and in the event narrated there, is the “teaching” (didache–verse 33) of Jesus, and it has always flourished in the theology of the Christian Church.
In this section Matthew adds the Sadducees to the growing list of conspirators, which includes the chief priests (21:2,45), the elders (21:33), the Herodians (verse 16), and the Pharisees (verse 15; 21:15).
As for the Sadducees, they did not believe in a doctrine of the resurrection. It was the Pharisees’ adherence to such a doctrine that rendered the latter party closer and more receptive to the Gospel (cf. Acts 23:6-9). The Sadducees’ disbelief in a resurrection, which is reflected in today’s reading from Matthew, came in part from their rejection of all the Hebrew scriptures except the Pentateuch. The explicit doctrine of the Resurrection, which commences in the prophetic writings, was thus lost on them.
We may remark that Matthew shows considerable animosity toward the Sadducees, mentioning them in contexts where they are not mentioned by the other gospel writers, and always unfavorably (cf. Matthew 3:7; 16:1,6,11,12; 22:34).
Zechariah 2: Jerusalem’s wall would not be reconstructed until the time of Nehemiah. During these prophecies of Zechariah, around 520, Jerusalem is still only a little village without walls. There is no slight irony, then, when an angel proposes to measure the length and breadth of it (verse 2). The irony itself is prophetic, because the day will come when Jerusalem will be too large to measure, “for the multitude of men and cattle therein” (verse 4). More than the earthly Jerusalem is involved here, of course. The perspective of this prophecy is turned, rather, to that Jerusalem yet to come, “when many nations shall be joined to the Lord” (verse 11).
The Jerusalem where Zechariah lived had already been destroyed once, and less than six centuries later it would be destroyed again. None of the promises made to that ancient Jerusalem were completely fulfilled in this regard, because that Jerusalem was a type and prefiguration of the more ample and catholic Jerusalem to whom the pledge was made, “Behold, I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world” Matthew 28:20). This is the Jerusalem where God’s Exodus-presence is fulfilled: “For I, says the Lord, will be unto her as a wall of fire round about, and will be the glory in the midst of her” (verse 5). This protecting presence of the Lord is the chapter’s major theme (cf. verse 11,13). In verse 12 we have the first occurrence of the expression “Holy Land” with reference to the land of promise. The expression will later appear in the Wisdom of Solomon 12:3 and 2 Maccabees 1:7.
Monday, April 3
Zechariah 3: Chief among the priests who returned from Babylon was the high priest Jeshua, or Joshua, whose father Jehozadak had been carried away to Babylon back in 586 (1 Chronicles 6:15). Jeshua’s name invariably appears second among the returning exiles (Ezra 2:2; Nehemiah 7:7; 12:1,10,26), right after Zerubbabel, the governor appointed by Cyrus to oversee Jerusalem’s restoration. In the prophecies of Zechariah, Zerubbabel and Jeshua are paired as the spiritual and political leaders of the people, as we shall see in Chapter 4. In the present chapter the prophet beholds the high priest Jeshua standing before God with an angel and with Satan. Satan is doing for Jeshua what he did for Job, namely, “opposing” him, saying bad things to God about him (verse 1; cf. Job 1:9-11; 2:4-5).
In both these cases Satan is the “accuser of our brethren, who accused them before our God day and night” (Revelation 12:10). In the case of Jeshua, Satan’s accusation had to do with the “filthy garments” of the high priest (verse 3), which signify his unworthiness. This may refer to his personal unworthiness and/or to the unworthiness of the people that he represents at the altar. Either and both interpretations will fit the context. The question under debate is, can such a priest, so improperly vested, properly offer sacrifices to the Almighty? At this point the angel of the Lord rebuked Satan for his accusation against the priest: “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you!” (Zechariah 3:2) (In case anyone inquires, “The Lord rebuke you!” is the execration regularly preferred by angels who are obliged to deal with Satan; cf. Jude 9.)
Jeshua may be taken to represent any and all of God’s servants aware of their total unworthiness as they come to worship. Their hearts are full of such sentiments as, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8), “I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof” (7:6), and “God, be merciful to me a sinner! (18:13). Satan, of course, is ever at hand on such occasions, ready even further to discourage these saints who feel guilty in their filthy garments, suggesting to their minds that they may as well give the whole thing up as useless. But what do the angels say? “Take away the filthy garments from him. . . . Let them put a clean turban on his head.” We do not come before God with any cleanliness of our own. “See,” the Lord says, “I remove your iniquity from you, and I will clothe you with rich robes” (verses 4-5).
That is to say, we approach the worship of God only in the pure grace of our redemption. “Is not this,” asks our good angel, “a branch plucked from the fire?” (3:2) In the literal context, this plucking refers to redemption from the Babylonian Captivity. In its Christian context it refers to a more radically redemptive plucking from a far more serious fire. In either case, when someone is plucked from the fire, he tends to be a bit smudged up, and his clothes are in pretty bad shape. Not to worry, the angel says, God can handle that.
Tuesday, April 4
Matthew 22:41-46: While the Pharisees are still gathered in Jesus’ presence, He poses for them an additional exegetical problem: To whom was David referring when he spoke of his “Lord” in Psalm 110 (Greek and Latin 109)? If it was the Messiah, who must be David’s own son, how could he be David’s “Lord”? Jesus thus teases the mind to ask a deeper question of the Psalm, just as He earlier (verse 32) indicated a concealed meaning in Exodus 3. In each case this deeper meaning is verified and validated in His person.
As Christians grasped the point of Jesus’ question here, this psalm became ever more important in the development of early Christology (cf. Mark 16:19; Acts 2:34-35; 1 Corinthians 15:25; Hebrews 1:3; 8:1; 10:12).
Zechariah 4: As in other prophetic accounts (cf. Amos 7:8; 8:2), a dialogue of questions and answers accompanies this vision of Zechariah. This is apparently necessary, as the vision is complex and detailed.
The image of the lamp stand is surely related to the lamp stand in the Mosaic tabernacle (Exodus 25:31-37) and in the Solomonic temple (1 Kings 7:49). From the bas relief on the Arch of Titus in Rome, we know that the second temple also had such a lamp stand. The lamp stand of Zechariah’s vision is not entirely identified with these, however. Being visionary, it is differently contoured. The seven lamps represent the fullness of the God’s providential knowledge of the world (verse 10), of which the constant worship in God’s temple at Jerusalem served as a sign.
These lamps were nourished by the oil provided by the two ministries of the secular ruler and the priest, Zerubbabel and Jeshua (verses 10-14). We recall that both the kings and the priests of Israel were anointed with the same oil that burned in the seven-branch lamp stand (Exodus 27:20; 30:23-24; Leviticus 24:2). They are “sons of oil.”
In their historical context, the efforts of these men seemed weak, but they acted by the power of God’s Spirit (verse 6). Consequently, no matter how tiny appeared their efforts, let no one despise “the day of small things” (verse 10), which refers to their laying of the foundation for the new temple (verse 9). This foundation stone of God’s house (verse 7), which is mystically identical with the seven-faceted stone in 3:9, should be viewed as a Christological prophetic reference. Much of the imagery of this chapter will appear later in Revelation 11.
Wednesday, April 5
Matthew 23:1-12: The present chapter commences with a warning that the Lord’s disciples are not to imitate the hypocritical, self-absorbed religion of the Pharisees. It is instructive to observe that this censure is not extended to the chief priests, the Sadducees, the Herodians, and the elders. Only the scribes and Pharisees are criticized here.
This restriction of the censure indicates the setting in which Matthew wrote, sometime after the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, at which point the priests, the Sadducees, and the Herodians were no longer part of the Jewish leadership. The Judaism with which Matthew was dealing was that of the Pharisees and the scribes, the only ones left with the moral authority to lead the Jewish people. Those other social and religious elements, though powerful at an earlier period, were not of immediate concern to Matthew. Although the priestly class are Jesus’ chief enemies in the story of the Passion, they do not figure here in chapter 23, because Matthew has in mind his own contemporary circumstance, in which the priestly class is no longer significant.
This discourse is directed to Jesus’ disciples, who are warned not to follow the example of the scribes and Pharisees (verses 1-3). The “seat of Moses” is a metaphor for the teaching authority of these men. We observe that Matthew regards these men as still having authority, very much as we find the Apostle Paul recognizing the authority of the high priest and the Sanhedrin. This authority, says the Sacred Text, is to be respected. It is the men that hold that authority who are not to be imitated!
Zechariah 5: In this chapter, which also uses dialogue to interpret what is seen, there are two visions. In the first (verses 1-4), the prophet sees a flying scroll considerably larger than one would expect; indeed, it is the same size as the portico in Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6:3). This scroll contains the curses attendant on those who violate the terms of God’s covenant (cf. Deuteronomy 29:18-20). This scroll represents a permanent warning of the dangers of infidelity.
In the second vision (verses 5-11), the prophet sees “Wickedness” portrayed as a woman carried in a basket. Unlike the very large scroll in the first vision, the present vision gives us a very small basket. It holds only an ephah, yet this woman can fit into it. She must be a pretty insignificant woman—this Wickedness—and the angelic figures contemptuously shove her down into the basket and enclose it with a leaden lid. Representing the power of Babylon, which the Bible holds in contempt, the woman and her basket are deposited in the Babylonian plain (verse 11; cf. Genesis 11:2). This is the same woman, by the way, who looks so much larger and more impressive in Revelation 17.
Thursday, April 6
Matthew 23:13-36: The seven (or eight) “woes” in this, the Lord’s last discourse in Matthew, are to be contrasted with the seven (or eight) “blesseds” with which the first discourse began (5:3-12).
The scribes and Pharisees are censured for neglecting the weightier matters of the Torah while concentrating on small particulars of lesser moment (verse 23). The comparison of the camel and the gnat (verse 24) is reminiscent of the camel and the needle’s eye (19:24).
The burden of the Lord’s judgment falls on the failure of these hypocrites to go deeper than the mere surface letter of observance—deeper in the Torah, deeper into their own hearts, where all is corruption and death (verse 27). They clean the outside, but the neglected inside is in sorry shape (verse 25). They stay away from an interior transformation that would render valuable the observance of the Torah: judgment, mercy, and faith. This criticism, with its accent on interiority, is an echo and summary of what Israel’s prophets taught over the centuries.
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. (If one journeyed straight east, he 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 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.
Friday, April 7
Matthew 23:37—24:2: In his lament over Jerusalem, our Lord speaks of the persecution of the prophets and sages, a subject mentioned in earlier parable in this Gospel (cf. 21:34-35; 22:6).
The reference to “Zechariah, the son of Barachiah,” which has never been pinned down with precision, seems to include elements of the biblical prophet Zechariah, Jehoiada’s son in 2 Chronicles 24:20-22, and the son of Beeis, whose story in narrated in Josephus (Wars 4:334-344).
All this just blood, unjustly spilt, will fall on the present “generation” (verse 36; cf. 11:16; 12:39,41; 16:4; 17:17; 24:34). Matthew saw the fulfillment of that threat in the events associated with Jerusalem’s fall in the year 70.
The expression, “this generation,” when it appears in the Gospel stories, evokes the “generation” of those Israelites who perished in the wilderness. That ancient “generation” served as the chief example of unbelief by which the People of God many still forfeit their inheritance.
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.