Friday, March 24

Matthew 19:1-12: The following section deals with matters that we may call “domestic,” in the sense of having to do with the home (domus in Latin). This subject will include sex, children, and money, and on these matters Jesus will “heal” the people of common but fallacious opinions. These subjects—sex, child-raising, and finances—are the ones on which the views of the world are likely to be sick and in want of healing.

Each of these three subjects is introduced by certain individuals or groups who approach Jesus: the Pharisees, the mothers bringing their children, and the wealthy inquirer. Matthew has apparently arranged this material in a sequence that was usual in the catechetical practice of the Christian Church. In fact, these three subjects are likewise treated together by St. Paul (cf. Ephesians 5:22—6:9; Colossians 3:18-25). The similarity of order between Matthew and Paul suggests these dominical sayings have been organized according to a standard and recognizable format.

The treatment of marriage and divorce comes in response to the question that the Pharisees put to Jesus, which question Matthew (alone) says was meant to “try” Him (peirazontes–verse 3). The context of the teaching, that is to say, was one of controversy. It is well known that the various rabbinical schools were distinguished from one another by what restrictions they placed on divorce—some stricter, some not so strict. Jesus was being invited to enter that controversy.

Instead, He went straight to the creation account in Genesis, using it to forbid all divorce (cf. also 5:32). Jesus mentions no exceptions. Even the expression “not including fornication” (me epi porneia), which is often taken as a reason for divorce, is no exception to the rule. It simply means, “I am not talking about fornication.” That is to say, the prohibition against divorce applies only to a true marriage, not cases where a man and woman are living together in sin.

What is most striking about Jesus’ prohibition is that our Lord thereby abrogates the application of Deuteronomy 24:1, which did provide for divorce. Jesus would have none of it. Divorce for the purpose of remarriage with someone else is adultery.

It is unfortunate that many readers find in this text only another species of legalism with respect to marriage. In fact, this biblical passage has as much to say of Christology as of marriage. However, when this page is “consulted,” some question about marriage is usually the reason for the consultation, so the important Christological weight of the text is simply overlooked. Inspected more carefully, however, the Christological significance of the passage could hardly be weightier. Jesus, boldly abrogating a concession given in the Mosaic Law, laid claim to immense authority—truly, “all authority”–pasa exsousia, as He will say at the end of Matthew (28:18). This authority is nothing less than divine, and it is in recognition of this total authority that we find so many people in Matthew’s stories falling prostrate before Jesus.

It is curious that those who objected to Jesus’ prohibition against divorce were not his enemies, but his disciples. They wondered, if divorce was not permitted, whether remaining celibate might not be a more attractive option (verse 10). (We wonder why the prospect of a happy marriage did not cross their minds!)

Saturday, March 25

The Feast of the Annunciation: It was on this day, exactly nine months before Christmas, that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” If the being of all created things is a becoming>/i>, a passage from “not yet” to “already,” this is especially true of human beings. If motion (kinesis) is a defining quality of everything God made, this is particularly true of human beings. Human nature is not locked into a defining set of rigid conditions. On the contrary, it always bears within itself the “becoming” that marked its origin in Creation. Man has an essentially changeable nature; he is a stream, not a lake. His existence is a process, not a state.

This process of humanization is what the Word assumed when he was made flesh and dwelt among us. The doctrine of the Incarnation does not imply an unchangeable human state—on the contrary, God’s Son came to change it!—but a full human life. Irenaeus of Lyons, in the second century, gave voice to this truth about Jesus: Gloria Dei est vivens homo—“The glory of God is a living man” (Adversus Haereses 4.20.7) The Word did not assume our humanity in abstract and philosophical terms. Rather, the Word became a specific human being, Jesus Christ, a man and the sole Mediator between God and man.

That is to say, God’s eternal Word took unto himself, not only certain human qualities, but the concrete, historical circumstances of an individual human life. He made himself a subjective participant in human history, someone whose existence and experience were circumscribed by the limiting conditions of time and space and organic particularity.

An adequate Christology, then, should affirm that the Word’s becoming flesh refers to more than the single instant of his becoming present in the Virgin’s womb. He continued becoming flesh and dwelling among us, in the sense that his assumed body and soul developed and grew through the complex experiences of a particular human life, including the transition from pre-conscious to conscious.

During the entire period the Epistle to the Hebrews calls “the days of His flesh,” he continued to become flesh and dwell among us. In fact, we must go further and say that through the experience of his passion and death he “learned obedience by the things that he suffered.” At every moment, even as he passed into the realm of the dead and then rose again, he was becoming flesh and dwelling among us. No human being has ever gone where God’s Word, becoming flesh, was reluctant to go—even to the realm of the dead. Living a human life, we Christians are convinced, Jesus sanctified human life in all its aspects, soothing every sorrow, redeeming all hopes.

Sunday, March 26

Matthew 19:13-22: In authentic Deuteronomic style, Jesus tells this man to “keep the commandments” if he wishes to enter into life (verse 17; Deuteronomy 4:10; 30:6). This hypothetical clause is proper to Matthew, as is the next hypothesis, “if you would be perfect” (verse 21).

From this hypothesis regarding perfection, the Church in due course came to distinguish the monastic vocation from the vocation of other Christians. This was a reasonable inference drawn from the Sacred Text. Just as not everyone is called to consecrated celibacy (cf. verses 11-12, which we read last week), so not everyone is called to consecrated poverty, and these two things have always been recognized as pertaining to the monastic dedication.

The literary and theological relationship between these two passages in Matthew was noted back in the 4th century by St. John Chrysostom, On Repentance 6.3.12-13. While neither celibacy nor poverty is commanded to all Christians, their double consecration indicates a special calling extended to some Christians whose charismatic way of life will stand as a prophetic witness to the Church and to the world.

As a point of history, therefore, it is no exaggeration to say that this chapter of Matthew is one of the biblical texts most responsible for the institution of Christian monasticism. It was on hearing this text read in his parish church in Egypt back in the 3rd century that young Anthony, determined not to follow in the footsteps of the rich man, sold all his possessions and went into the desert to spend the rest of his life in celibacy, poverty, and prayer.

As for the man who declined the Lord’s invitation to be “perfect,” he left himself vulnerable, nonetheless, to a great deal of sadness. His failure to accept the Lord’s challenge will lead, in tomorrow’s reading, to a series of teachings on the dangers of wealth (verses 23-29).

Psalms 19 (Greek & Latin 18): The Christian faith recognizes two ways in which God has made His revelation to us: through nature and through grace. “Through Creation and through Holy Scripture” is another way of saying the same thing. These are the two means that God has given us through which to know Him. These two revelations are the topics of the two halves of this psalm.

First, nature, given us by God that we may know Him. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” our psalm begins, “and the firmament proclaims the work of His hands. Day speaks the word unto day, and night unto night proclaims the knowledge. There is neither speech, nor words, nor can their voices be heard; yet their sound has gone forth to all the earth, and their message to the corners of the world.” That is to say, there is a message for us from God, inscribed in the structure of creation.

Second, the law, also given us by God that we may know Him: “The law of the Lord is pure, converting souls. The testimony of the Lord is sure, giving wisdom to little ones. The judgments of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart. The commandment of the Lord is bright, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the Lord is holy, enduring for ever and ever.” Such is the reciprocity between the Creation account in Genesis and the Sinai event in Exodus. What God reveals in nature, He also reveals in His law. Thus, whether he turns to God’s Word in nature or to God’s Word in the Torah, man finds order and truth and justice and wisdom and holiness.

Monday, March 27

Galatians 2:11-21: This text is distinctive in its description of Redemption in personal and existential terms. In the NT most statements about Redemption tend to lay emphasis on the universality of what God has done in Jesus; the terms tend to be plural and collective: “God so loved the world,” says John 3:16.

Similarly, Paul wrote that God “spared not His own Son but delivered Him up for us all” (Romans 8:32). Paul also so wrote, “There is one God, and there is one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:6).

The words of Jesus over the covenant-cup also stress a universal perspective: “This is My blood of the new covenant which will be shed for you and for the many.” Earlier the Lord had said that “the Son of man came not to served but to serve and to give His life for the many” (Mark 10:45). Texts of this sort abound in early Christian literature, all insisting that the blood of Jesus was shed for all mankind. That is to say, the New Testament teaches universal, not limited atonement.

More rarely does the NT speak of Jesus’ love for each person. For example, the parable of the Good Shepherd tells how He goes out in search of the one lost sheep. In the Gospel of John, the Good Shepherd says that He calls each of His sheep by name. When the Gospel of John speaks of the Holy Eucharist, the emphasis once again is on the singular: “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides and I in him.” This same accent is found in the Book of Revelation: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone opens, I will come unto him and eat with him.”

Such expressions of personal intimacy with the Lord are not as common in St. Paul, but today’s text from Galatians is an exception: “The life I live now in the flesh, I live in the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” This text is evidence that Paul, like John, knew the love of Christ to be directed as him personally. He too is “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”

St. John Chrysostom comments on this passage:

Each person justly owes as great a debt of gratitude to Christ, as if [Jesus] had come had come for his sake alone, because He would not have grudged this His condescension though but for one, so that the measure of His love to each is as great as to the whole world

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Tuesday, March 28

Matthew 20:1-19: The parable about the day-workers is probably found in this place because it tells a narrative about the last called being the first paid, thus illustrating, as it were, the final verse of Chapter 19: “But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” The parable ends with the repetition of the theme of reversal (verse 16).

It is obvious, nonetheless, that this parable, found only in Matthew, is easily separable from that verse, and it touches only one aspect of the parable—namely, the reversed order in which the payment to the workers is made. In fact, the parable itself is just as comprehensible without that theme.

The parable of the day workers was doubtless remembered among the early Christians because it did, in fact, address one of their early theological questions — How to regard the Gentiles who were “late-comers” to the Church. The earlier comers to the field are all given a work contract, which may be interpreted as God’s established covenant with His people. Those that come last, however, work without a contract; that is to say, they have been promised nothing specific. They are outside the ancient covenant (Ephesians 2:12).

But God’s generosity rewards them anyway, and this parable is more descriptive of the Owner of the vineyard than of the workers. The Owner, of course, is God, who is described as merciful and generous with those who work for Him, as well as firm with those who contemn His generosity. The vineyard is, of course, the People of God (cf. Isaiah 5:1-7; Jeremiah 12:10).

The grumblers, who are reprimanded at the end of the parable, are not rebuked for dissatisfaction with what they have received, but for their dissatisfaction with what the other people have received. These grumblers may also become the enemies who have already commenced plotting against the Son of the field’s Owner (21:33-46).

The workers themselves are day laborers, the sort especially needed at the harvest. This feature suggests the eschatological import of the story: These are the “last times,” and everything is settled “in the evening” (verse 8).

Wednesday, March 29

Matthew 20:20-34: Like Mark, Matthew follows the Lord’s third prophecy of the Passion by by recording the occasion on which the two sons of Zebedee, James and John, request of the Lord the privilege of sitting to his immediate right and left when he enters into his kingdom. Still worldly and without understanding, the two brothers are portrayed as resistant to the message of the Cross.

In both Gospel accounts the Lord’s response to their request is to put back to the brothers a further query about their ability to “drink the cup whereof I am to drink,” and Mark’s version contains yet another question about their being “baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized.”

Both images used by our Lord in this context, baptism and the cup, are found elsewhere in the New Testament as symbolic of the Lord’s Passion (Luke 12:50; Matthew 26:39-42). Obviously, in the context of the New Testament churches the baptism and the cup referred symbolically to two of the sacraments, and it was understood, moreover, that these two sacraments place their communicants into a special relationship with the Lord’s Passion (Romans 6:3f; Colossians 2:12; 1 Corinthians 11:26). The questions about baptism and the cup, then, were most instructive for the Christians attending divine worship where these Gospel texts were read and interpreted.

Matthew’s version, moreover, presents Zebedee’s wife, the mother of the two brothers, approaching the Lord to make the request on their behalf. This woman, elsewhere known as Salome, Matthew calls simply “the mother of Zebedee’s sons.” The detail is certainly significant, inasmuch as this designation, “mother of Zebedee’s sons,” appears only twice in the entire New Testament, both times in Matthew: here in 20:20 and later, in 27:56, at the foot of the Cross.

In the first of these instances Zebedee’s wife is portrayed as an enterprising and somewhat ambitious worldling who fails to grasp the message of the Cross, while in the later scene we find her standing vigil as her Lord dies, now a model of the converted and enlightened Christian who follows Jesus to the very end. This marvelous correspondence between the two scenes—a before and after— is proper to Matthew and points to a delicate nuance of his thought.

Thursday, March 30

Matthew 21:28-46: The parable Jesus tells here, which has no parallel in Mark and Luke, is a study in contrast between two brothers. Matthew inserts it here as a “link” story, and in fact it serves that literary function perfectly. First, its reference to John the Baptist (verse 32) links the parable to the foregoing discussion in 21:23-27. Second, its reference to the vineyard prepares for the parable that is to follow (verses 33-46). In addition, the parable of the two sons fits admirably into Matthew’s long series of controversial encounters between Jesus and those that are preparing to kill Him (21:23—22:46).

This contrasting story of two brothers is of a kind with which the Bible abounds. We think, for instance, of the contrast between Ishmael and Isaac, or between Esau and Jacob. Indeed, the special place of this motif in Holy Scripture is indicated by the contrast between Cain and Abel near the beginning of it.

Likewise, this was not the only occasion on which Jesus contrasted two brothers. A better-known instance is found in Luke 15:11-32.

Before examining the present parable in Matthew, we do well to reflect the more general significance of these biblical stories of fraternal contrast. Aside from the sense conveyed by any one of them, is there a more universally applicable message common to all of them?

There appears to be. In each such story the two brothers are raised in the same family. They grow up in more-or-less identical conditions, subject to the same influences, or, as modern behavioral scientists like to say, in the same environment. Neither has a “home court advantage” over the other. Yet, in each instance the two brothers turn out very differently from one another.

This repeated contrast tends to foster a general impression: namely, that the behavior of human beings is not determined—is not fixed—by either nature or nurture. It is determined, rather, by personal choices that each man makes. Men born of the same parents and raised in the same home can grow up very differently from one another, a fact illustrating the truth that men make their own decisions, for good or ill, and set the course for their own destiny.

That is to say, the Bible gives no support to the notion that the fate of human beings is determined by the circumstances of their birth or upbringing. The Bible does not countenance the thesis that human beings are no more than the sum total of the influences brought to bear upon them. A human being becomes, rather, what he makes himself to be, and this takes place through his choices.

Moreover, the truth of this assertion is compatible with the burden of the present parable, in which each son makes a personal choice of obedience or disobedience, repentance or hardness of heart.

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.