Friday, March 23

Matthew 20:29-34: This story, found also in Mark 10:46-52 and Luke 18:35-43, is linked to the city of Jericho, though not in exactly the same way in each gospel. In Mark’s account Jesus has entered and is the course of leaving the city when the blind man invokes Him. In Luke’s version this event occurs as Jesus is approaching Jericho. Indeed, in the Lukan story Jesus, on leaving Jericho, encounters the publican Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), a narrative not found in the other gospels. Here in Matthew, on the other hand, the meeting with the blind men occurs when Jesus is leaving Jericho. What is to be said about this threefold discrepancy?

First, it presents no problem from the perspective of history. The site of Jericho shifted about somewhat over the centuries, as archeologists have demonstrated. One of these shifts took place during the very period under consideration, when Herod the Great constructed a winter palace near the ancient site of Jericho, and a new settlement rose around it. That is to say, it was possible to be both entering and leaving Jericho simultaneously.

Second, there appears to be no theological or literary significance to the differences among the three Evangelists on this point. If there is such a significance, the present writer has failed to discover it.

It appears that in Matthew’s two accounts of blind men (here and in 9:27-31), both stories, as they were narrated in the Church’s preaching prior to the written Gospels, came to be told in much the same way. This would account for the similarities between them, such as the identical use of certain expressions: passing through (paragein), touching (hapto), and following (akoluo). We observe, for instance, that the first of these two verbs are not found in the parallel accounts in Mark and Luke.

The major difference of Matthew from Mark and Luke here is, of course, that Matthew has two blind men instead of one. This is surely another instance of Matthew combining two accounts of the healing of blind men from Mark (8:22-26; 10:46-52) into a single story. Why does Matthew do this? Well, his construction effectively juxtaposes these two men with the two sons of Zebedee, who are symbolically healed of their spiritual blindness with respect to the mystery of the Cross. Thus healed, says the text, “they followed “him” (20:34). They become part of the congregation that will accompany Israel’s true King into Jerusalem to accomplish the mystery of Redemption.

To “follow” Christ means to live by the pattern of the Cross, to pursue the implications of Baptism and the Holy Eucharist, the one a mystic identification with His death and resurrection, the other a proclaiming of His death “until He comes.” These two men have accepted the challenge just made to James and John.

These blind men, calling on Jesus with the Messianic title, “Son of David,” ask for the opening of their eyes, an expression which in prophetic literature is associated with the Messianic times (cf. Isaiah 29:18; 35:5).

Lazarus Saturday, March 24

John 11: We come now to Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem, the place of the culminating events effective of our redemption. This chapter, the last in the “book of signs,” narrates the greatest of these signs: the raising of Lazarus. This event, foreshadowing the resurrection of Jesus, was a literal fulfillment of His prophecy in 5:28-29: “The hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth.”

The implied request from the two sisters (verse 3) is strikingly similar to that of Jesus’ mother in 2:3. In both cases we discern petitions made to Jesus with a quiet deference, but also with a firm faith.

Moreover, Jesus’ reactions in the two cases are strikingly similar: an apparent rejection followed by an effective compliance. As these two instances are the first and last signs in the “book of signs,” their similarity is noteworthy. In both cases the sign is said to manifest Jesus’ glory (verses 4,11; 2:11; cf. 9:3).

In seeking the intervention of Jesus, the sisters of Lazarus simply state the gravity of the situation (verse 3). Their restraint closely resembles that of the Mother of Jesus at Cana (2:3), and just as Jesus at first showed an apparent indifference on that earlier occasion (2:4), so here He delays His response to the sisters’ request (verse 6). The manifestation of the divine glory will not be rushed.

Jesus views the death of Lazarus as another occasion—like Cana (2:11)—to bring the disciples to faith in Him (verse 15). Such faith is the very purpose for which John writes (20:30-31).

Crucial to the understanding of this event is the dialogue that explains it, the discussion in which Jesus tells Martha (verses 21-27) that He is the Resurrection and the life of those who believe in Him. The raising of Lazarus is the demonstration—the revelation event—of that truth.

Does Martha’s expression “even now” (kai nun) convey a request for the Lord to raise her brother right away? I believe it does, but the meaning is subtle and implicit. She does not press Jesus overtly, but her hint opens the dialogue to the experience of immediacy. Jesus fills this immediacy by His claim to be, “even now,” the Resurrection and the life. That is to say, the root of the final resurrection is planted in the here and now of faith (verses 25-26; cf. 6:40).

Martha, invited to confess that faith, gives voice to the answer of the Church with respect to the identity of Jesus: “I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world” (verse 27; cf. 6:69). The dialogue ends with this declaration, and Martha must get busy on the basis of it.

Palm Sunday

Matthew 21:1-11: Matthew explicitly interprets the Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem through the eyes of the prophet Zechariah, whom he quotes in verse 5: “Tell the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your King is coming to you, lowly and seated on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey’” (Zechariah 9:9).

This recourse to prophecy, which must have been obvious to others besides Matthew, guarantees that the event is not regarded as an isolated occurrence, because vision of prophecy places it into a larger, more panoramic historical perspective. Prophecy permits the event to be regarded as manifesting God’s purpose.

Prophecy reveals at once two things about what happened on the first Palm Sunday: first, the inner meaning of the event as God sees it, and second, the connection of the event with earlier biblical history.

The second of these points requires further elaboration. In the mind of Matthew, the biblical background or foreshadowing of this event was the story in 2 Samuel 15—17, where King David is portrayed fleeing from the rebellion of Absalom. Crossing the Kidron valley eastwards and ascending the Mount of Olives, David is the king rejected of his people, while a usurper is in full revolt. The King leaves the city in disgrace, riding on a donkey, the poor animal of the humble peasant. David is the very image of meekness in the face of defeat. In his heart is no bitterness; he bears all with patience and plans no revenge.

As he goes, David suffers further humiliation and deception from those who take advantage of his plight. One of his most trusted counselors, Ahitophel, betrays him to his enemies; another citizen curses and scorns him in his flight.

Moreover, in the description of David fleeing from Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, there is a striking contrast with the victorious Absalom, the usurper, who is driving “a chariot and horses with fifty men to run before him” (2 Samuel 15:1). Absalom represents worldly power and worldly wisdom, contrasted with the humility and meekness of the King.

Incorporating this image of David as a mystic prefiguration of the Messiah yet-to-come, the post-exilic prophet Zechariah foretold the triumphal entry of the Messiah into Zion, the story narrated by the Evangelists. The Savior arrives in Jerusalem by the very path that David used to flee from the Holy City. Riding the donkey, our Lord comes down westward from the Mount of Olives, crosses the Kidron Valley, and finally enters Jerusalem. He thus begins the week of His meekly-borne sufferings, including betrayal by a friend and rejection by His people.

Holy Monday, March 26

Matthew 21:12-27: Two components of this story are proper to Matthew and peculiar to his interpretation of it. These consist chiefly in appeals to two Old Testament texts that Matthew perceives to be “fulfilled” in what the Lord did in the Temple.

In the first of these instances, Matthew says, “Then the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them” (verse 14). Matthew alone includes this striking detail, which is full of theological significance and advances the Messianic theme that dominates his version of the story. The background of this detail is 2 Samuel 5, which tells the story of David’s taking of Jerusalem from the Jebusites in 992 B.C. When the king and his army laid siege to the city, the Jebusites taunted David that their blind and lame would suffice to defend it (2 Samuel 5:6). This taunt led to David’s enemies being metaphorically referred to as “the blind and the lame,” and this metaphor in turn led to a popular proverb, “the blind and lame must stay outside.” More literally, the proverb ran, “the blind and the lame may not come into the house.”

The Septuagint augmented this proverb by a single word, Kyriou, so that it ran, “the blind and the lame shall not come into the house of the Lord.” It is possible that the LXX’s version of the proverb reflects a later rule against begging inside the Temple, so as not to disturb the people who went there to pray. Many of the mendicants, if not most, were either blind or lame, and such a rule would have obliged them to stay outside the Temple gates in order to do their begging (cf. Acts 3:12).

Matthew’s account, therefore, is seen to reverse this exclusion of the blind and the lame. The blind and the lame, once the symbols of David’s enemies, are now received in the Temple by David’s Son, who heals them. This detail is an ironical Messianic sign. The Messiah, having entered His Temple and purged it, brings in those who had been excluded, and this, too, is an ironic fulfillment of Holy Scripture.

In the second instance of biblical fulfillment, Matthew’s Gospel refers to Psalm 8, which is seen to be fulfilled in the shouting of the children at the Lord’s entry into the city (verses 15-16). Jesus cites this psalm in reference to Himself, a point on which He is followed by the authors of the New Testament (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:27; Hebrews 2:6-8).

In short, Matthew’s account of the purging of the Temple lays special emphasis on the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures.

Tuesday, March 27

Matthew 25:1-13: The difference between the five foolish maidens and the five prudent maidens is that the latter have prepared themselves to deal with the prolonged passage of time. Not considering the possibility of delay, the foolish maidens have not provided oil for their lamps. They are unable to “go the distance” with God.

In context, then, the prudence required is a kind of thoughtfulness, the habit of critical reflection, a cultivated ability to think in terms of the passage of time, a sensitivity to the movement of history. These wise maidens are not creatures of the moment. Consequently, they carry along their little jugs of oil, to make sure that their lamps will not be extinguished. They are able to “go the distance,” because they have thoughtfully made provision.

Time is the test of all these women, because the Bridegroom is “delayed”–chronizontos tou Nymphiou. This is the same verb, chronizo, previously used of the wicked servant: “My master is delayed”–chronizei mou ho Kyrios (24:48).

We also observe that the prudent maidens are unable to help the foolish (verse 9). They are not being cruel or insensitive in this refusal. They are simply recognizing the limitations that come with responsibility. It is a plain fact that there are some things that one Christian cannot do for another. This limitation pertains to the structure of reality, and the foolish maidens have brought their problem upon themselves.

The prudent, thoughtful maidens enter into the wedding festivities, and the door is closed (verse 10). This closing of the door represents the end of history; the deed represents finality. In an earlier parable Matthew had narrated the exclusion of a man from a wedding festival because of his failure to take it seriously (22:11-14).

This parable ends with an exhortation to vigilance (verse 13). John Calvin captured the spirit of this parable when he wrote, “the Lord would have us keep in constant watch for Him in such a way as not to limit Him in any way to a particular time” (On Second Thessalonians 2.2).

Like the parable that comes before it and the two that will follow, this is a study in contrasts. It portrays the antithesis between those who think wisely and those who don’t think at all. This contrast indicates an essential component of the life in Christ, because wise reflection is necessary to “going the distance.” Critical, reflective thought is not optional in the Christian life; it is a moral imperative.

It is important to observe that all ten of these maidens are Christians. Some will be saved, and some will not. The difference between them is somewhat analogous to the difference between the wheat and the tares in Matthew 13:24-30,36-43. It is bracing to consider that some will be reprobate: “Amen, I say to you, I never knew you” (verse 12). These are very harsh words to be directed to Christians who have been waiting for their Lord’s return. They waited, but they did not do so wisely, and everything had to do with vigilance through the passage of time: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming” (verse 13). Five of these Christians failed the test of perseverance.

Spy Wednesday, March 28

Matthew 26:1-16: There are four brief scenes in these sixteen verses. These scenes alternate back and forth between Jesus’ friends and Jesus’ enemies.

The first verse of this chapter indicates that Jesus has now finished “all” five of the great discourses in Matthew (Compare 7:28; 11;1; 13:53; 19:1). Matthew’s wording here (“when Jesus had finished all these sayings”) puts the reader in mind of the end of the five books (Chumash) of Moses: “When Moses finished speaking all these words” (Deuteronomy 32:45).

This first section (verses 1-2), unlike the other gospels, includes a fourth prophecy of the Passion, specifying that it will happen “after two days” (verse 2). Since our Lord has already prophesied the Passion on three earlier occasions (16:21; 17:22-23; 20:18-19), He can preface this fourth prophecy with, “You know.” This is the only prophecy of our Lord that links His Passion with the Passover.

In the second scene (verses 3-5) the action shifts to a conspiracy of Jesus’ enemies assembled in the courtyard of the high priest (verse 3)–the very place where Peter will soon deny knowing Jesus (verse 69). Caiaphas was the high priest from A.D. 18 to 36. His whole family was involved in opposition to Jesus and the Church (Acts 4:6).

In spite of their decision to wait until after the Passover before arresting Jesus (verse 5), the Lord’s enemies will take advantage of an opportunity provided for them by Judas Iscariot (verses 14-16). Matthew and Mark demonstrate how the betrayal of Judas was associated with an event, which both evangelists next proceed to describe; this is the third scene, Jesus’ anointing at Bethany (verses 6-13; Mark 14:3-9; cf. John 12:1-8).

In the story of the anointing in Bethany, it is clear that our Lord’s disciples were not completely “with” Him. Failing to grasp the implications of this most recent prophecy of the coming Passion, they are unable to grasp the dramatic significance of what transpires at Bethany (verses 8-12).

The evangelist draws our attention to the negative reactions of Jesus’ disciples (verses 8-9). These, especially Judas Iscariot (John 12:4-6), are indignant at what they regard as a waste of resources. Clearly they are insensitive to the drama unfolding before their eyes. For them the Gospel has been reduced to a social ministry aimed at caring for the poor. It is obvious that the person of Jesus—Jesus Himself–is not central to their view of things. They are anxious to serve Christ in the poor, evidently in response to the final parable of the previous chapter—the parable of the Last Judgment—but they forget about the more immediate Christ right in front of them. They separate the message of Jesus from the person of Jesus.

Consequently, in His response to the disciples, Jesus makes the matter “personal”: “She has done a beautiful thing for Me . . . You do not always have Me.” Jesus “knows” (gnous–verse 10) what these men are made of; He is aware of the weakness of their loyalty to Him.

Jesus then explains the meaning of what has just transpired: This woman has done a prophetic thing—she had prepared His body for burial (verse 12). It is worth noting that Matthew, thus understanding the event at Bethany, will later omit mention of the anointing of Jesus’ body in the tomb (Contrast 28:1 with Mark 16:1).

This deed pertains to the “Gospel,” says Jesus (verse 13). The Gospel, after all, is about Jesus; it is not about social concerns separable from His own person. The woman in this story is concentrated on Jesus, and such concentration pertains to the essence of the Gospel.

Judas, at least, seems to understand this, and in the fourth scene he makes his move (verses 14-16). He has stayed with Jesus as long as it has been to his advantage (cf. John 12:6). Judas is very sensitive to his own advantage. His surname, “Iscariot,” means “man (’ish of Kerioth–cf. Joshua 15:25). Those early Gospel readers familiar with Latin may have noticed the name’s similarity to the noun sicarius–literally “knifeman,” or assassin. Perhaps having heard of the plot of Jesus’ enemies, Judas goes and makes them an offer (verse 15).

Alone among the New Testament writers, Matthew names the actual price of the transaction: thirty silver pieces, the price of a slave (Exodus 21:32), the low wages of the shepherd in Zechariah 11:12 (cf. Matthew 27:3-10).

This deal, says Matthew, was a turning point (verse 16). There was now a traitor among the disciples, waiting for his opportunity. It would come on the following night.

This section of Matthew is a story of irony and contrasts. The irony, worked out in four short scenes, consists in the antithesis between the intention of Jesus’ enemies and what they actually accomplished. Not wanting to provoke a riot by arresting Jesus during the Passover, they set in motion a train of events that would in due course lead to the destruction of their Holy City. Hoping to dispose of a troublesome religious teacher, they unwittingly implemented a divine determination to supplant their own religious authority. Judas, complaining of the loss of 300 coins from his purse, sells Jesus for one-tenth of that number.

The chief contrast in the story is between the gracious anointer on the one hand and all the cruel, or insensitive, or treacherous individuals on the other.

Maundy Thursday, March 29

Matthew 26:17-56: The Synoptic Gospels, joined by Paul’s testimony in 1 Corinthians 11, link the Eucharistic Institution to Jesus’ betrayal by Judas Iscariot. That same formula or its equivalent—“on the night He was betrayed”—is found in both the liturgies of St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom.

The Church’s testimony on this point is remarkable. It is as though some deep impulse discourages Christians from celebrating the Holy Communion without some reference to the betrayal by Judas. This reference serves to remind Christians of the terrible judgment that surrounds the Mystery of the Altar: “Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body” (1 Corinthians 11:27-29).

When the Apostles question Jesus on his announcement of the betrayal, they address Him as “Lord”–Kyrios (verse 22). Only Judas fails to do so (verse 25).

There is a particular poignancy in the setting of Judas’s betrayal: the Passover meal, the Seder. Judas has just passed from the ranks of Israel to the service of Pharaoh. Our Lord’s identification of the betrayer (verse 25), missing in Mark and Luke, is also found in John (13:26-27).

In the Greek text Judas’s question to the Lord is worded so as to expect a negative reply: “Surely not I, Rabbi?” Judas is, among other things, a hypocrite, and as such he receives a “woe” appropriate for hypocrites (cf. 23:13,14,15,23,25,27,29). Jesus’ answer to him—“You have said it”—is identical to His reply to Caiaphas (verse 64) and Pilate (27:11).

The reader knows that, while Jesus shares the Seder with His disciples, final preparations for his impending arrest are being conducted at the house of Caiaphas. The arresting party arms itself and waits the return of Judas Iscariot, who will lead them to where Jesus will be. Judas leaves the Seder early: “Having received the piece of bread, he then went out immediately. And it was night” (John 13:30).

While the plot is in progress, Jesus comes to that part of the Seder where the Berakah, the blessing of God, is prayed at the breaking of the unleavened loaf. Jesus, after praying the traditional Berakah, breaks the loaf and mysteriously identifies it as His body: “Take, eat; this is My body” (verse 26).

Then, when Jesus comes to the blessing to be prayed at the drinking of the cup of wine, He further identifies the cup: “Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (verses 27:28). Although Matthew uses the verb “blessed” (evlogesas) with respect to the bread, he shifts to its equivalent “gave thanks” (evcharistesas) with reference to the chalice. We find both terms used interchangeably in early Eucharistic vocabulary.

Jesus identifies the wine in the chalice as His covenant blood. It is the blood of atonement and sanctification, originally modeled in the blood of Exodus 24:8—“And Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you according to all these words’” (cf. Hebrews 13:20; 1 Peter 1:2). Matthew alone includes the words from Isaiah 53:12: “which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (verse 28; cf. the entire context in Isaiah 53:13—53:12). We recall Matthew lays great stress on the forgiveness of sins (cf. 1:21; 5:23-24; 6:12,14,15; 9:6; 18:21-35).

Good Friday, March 30

Matthew 26:57—27:61: Jesus is tried before two different tribunals: a Jewish trial by the Sanhedrin, an a Roman trial before Pilate. Matthew joins the first of these to the denials by Peter, and the second to the suicide of Judas.

Matthew’s double construction accomplishes two things: First, it varies the narrative by alternating stages: the story begins with Jesus, goes to Peter, comes back to Jesus, goes to Judas, and finally returns to Jesus once again.

Second, because Matthew joins a specific disciple to each of Jesus’ interrogations, he indicates the dimension of discipleship in the Passion narrative. Thus, the drama of the Cross is not isolated from the trial and trauma of the soul. That is to say, what transpires in the salvation wrought by God in Jesus finds a resonating correspondence in the human struggle of failure and repentance, treachery and despair. The ironic tragedy of the Cross is reflected in the inner battle of the disciple’s soul.

Third, Matthew’s narrative construction encourages the reader to contrast Peter and Judas as two types of response to sin and redemption. In fact, Christians over the centuries have followed Matthew’s encouragement in this respect.

Pontius Pilate, now appearing for the first time in Matthew, is identified by his title of hegemon, meaning governor, procurator, or prefect (27:2). Pilate held this office from A.D. 26 to 36. Residing and ruling at Caesarea, he was currently in Jerusalem to help keep order in the city during the Passover, when much larger crowds sometimes occasioned disturbances.

Jesus’ enemies “hand Him over” (paredokan) to this Gentile ruler, thus fulfilling the prophecy of Jesus (20:19). This manumission was necessary, because the Roman government reserved the death penalty specifically to its own authority (John 18:31).

In handing Jesus over to the authority of the Gentiles, the Jewish leaders were explicitly rejecting Jesus and His messianic claims. In due course, Matthew will explain that the Jewish people as such, represented in the crowd that gathered before Pilate, consents to that rejection (27:25). That action in Pilate’s presence was a decisive turning point in salvation history. It represented what St. Paul described as the cutting off of branches from the ancient tree of Israel (Romans 11:16-24).

Even from a secular view of Jewish history, moreover, that repudiation of Jesus was decisive. From that hour, the history of the Jewish people took a different and profoundly altered direction. Even though theology insists that the Jews have never ceased to be God’s people (Romans 9:11), the historical condition of their calling was changed beyond anything imaginable prior to that time. Within the space of a few years the Jews lost their temple and the worship associated with that temple. That loss, which would have bewildered all the prophets and sages of the Hebrew Bible, has now lasted almost two millennia.

The altered state of the Jewish religion became a major theological problem for the early Christians, who saw in it a fulfillment of the sixth chapter of Isaiah. That problem prompted St. Paul to regard the structure of salvation history as dialectical, as we see in Romans 9—11.