Friday, March 16

Matthew 19:10-12: Most Christians recognize that in this passage the reference to self-castration is a metaphor of irony, akin to the amputation of a hand or the gouging out of an eye mentioned in the previous chapter.

This section on celibacy is proper to Matthew, but its content is consonant with the general New Testament thesis of the superiority of consecrated celibacy over marriage (cf. Luke 14:20; 18:29; 1 Corinthians 7:25-35).

Romans 16:1-16: As the rising sun moves up toward the eastern horizon each morning, one by one the myriad stars of heaven start to disappear. They do not depart the sky, of course, but the stars do become invisible by reason of the sun’s larger and more garish light, and we upon the earth may no longer gain our bearings by observing them.

Not so the saints who shine on high. The true Sun or Righteousness does not, at His rising, eclipse those lesser lights by which the Church on earth is guided. On the contrary, He Himself illumines the saints, who have no light apart from Him. The reign of Christ does not dethrone the saints, who have no reign apart from His.

The saints, because they are so many, and their serried ranks so closely stand together, are described as a “cloud” (Hebrews 12:1). Yet, on closer inspection we perceive that not one of the saints loses those personal and particular traits by which each friend of Christ may be distinguished from the others. The Good Shepherd calls them each by name.

The individual and particular names of the saints are inscribed in the Book of Life, and the names of many of them are written likewise in the Bible. It is the singular merit of Romans 16 that it contains the New Testament’s largest collection of names of individual Christians. They belong to the “church,” a word that now appears in Romans for the first time (verses 1,4,5,16,23).

In the chapter here under consideration, these are all names of Christians at Rome, with the exception of Phoebe, the “deaconess” of Cenchreae (the eastern port of Corinth), who will carry this epistle to the church at Rome.

When the Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome in A. D. 49 (Acts 18:2), that expulsion also included the Jewish Christians. Many of these came east and settled in cities that Paul evangelized. This is how they came to be the friends of Paul and even his coworkers. However, with the death of Claudius in the year 54, about three and a half years before the composition of Romans (January to March of 58), some of these Christians naturally returned to Rome, where they owned homes and other property. Paul’s greetings here, then, are directed to those who had returned to Rome over the previous forty-two months.

Saturday, March 17

Matthew 10:13-15: From a discussion about marriage Jesus passes to the subject of children, in which He repeats the injunction indicated in 18:1-4. The subject arises when children are brought to Jesus to receive His blessing (verse 13), a scene found in all the Synoptics (Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17). All of them likewise include the objection of the disciples against what they evidently regarded as an unwarranted intrusion on the Lord’s time and attention.

It has been suggested that the early (pre-Scriptural) Church preserved the memory of this scene because it answered a practical pastoral question about infant baptism. Read in this way, Jesus is affirming the practice of infant baptism: “Let the little children come to Me.” Indeed, the verb that Matthew uses here, koluein, “forbid them not,” is identical with the expression used with respect to the baptisms of the Ethiopian eunuch and the friends of Cornelius (Acts 8:36; 10:37; 11:17).

I do not think this interpretation of the passage to be likely, because there is simply no evidence in the New Testament that infant baptism was a problem. On the contrary, the reader should presume that baptism, as the Christian replacement for circumcision, was available to infants, just as circumcision was. In each case it was admission to the covenant. It would be strange indeed, if Jewish children could belong to the Mosaic covenant, while Christian children could not partake of the Christian covenant.

Moreover, the baptism of entire households in the New Testament (Acts 11:14; 16:15,31-33) indicates that it was normal to baptize infants in Christian families. Although the pastoral practice of the Christian Church varied in this matter, the “validity” of infant baptisms was not challenged for well over a thousand years. Consequently, to see a reference to a “controversy” about infant baptism in these lines of Matthew seems to me an unlikely interpretation.

Romans 16:17-27: Having finished his greetings to friends at Rome, Paul next sends the salutations of those who are with him at Gaius’s house in Corinth (verse 23; cf. 1 Corinthians 1:14; Acts 19:29).

Prior to sending these salutations, however, Paul warns the Romans against schism, heresy, and dissension (verses 17-18). He knows there are trouble-makers abroad. Indeed, among the Jewish Christians who were returning to Rome during those years, he may have recognized some of the very individuals who had been sowing dissent among his own congregations in the East.

The tone of Paul’s warnings here differs greatly in style from the rest of the Epistle to the Romans. One would think that Paul, as thought on the friends in Rome that he had just named, had somewhat forgotten that he was writing to a church that he had not founded. He reverts to his more usual style, so that these few verses more closely resemble the other epistles. For example, one may compare verses 17-20 with Galatians 6:12-17.

Once again Paul commends the good reputation of the Roman Christians (verse 19; 1:8).

The crushing of Satan underfoot (verse 20), of course, fulfills the prophecy in Genesis 3:15.

Greetings are first sent from Timothy, who had recently arrived at Corinth and will soon be leaving to accompany the collection to Jerusalem (Acts 20:4).

In verse 22 we learn that Paul’s scribe, who has written this epistle at his dictation, is named Tertius, a Latin name signifying that he is the third son in his family. Tertius sends along greetings from his younger brother, Quartus (verse 23). Their older brother, Secundus, will be one of those carrying the collection to Jerusalem (Acts 20:4).

Sunday, March 18

Matthew 19:16-22: If we are to look for another link between this section and the preceding theme of children, perhaps we find it in the fact that the question is asked by a “young person” (neaniskos). Indeed, this feature is unique to Matthew. Both Mark and Luke suggest, in fact, that the man may not be young, because he claims to have kept all the commandments “from my youth,” an expression that Matthew’s account does not contain.

In authentic Deuteronomic style the man is told to “keep the commandments” (less explicit in Mark and Luke) 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).

Psalms 145 (Greek & Latin 144): This psalm of most exuberant praise is also the last one composed (in the original Hebrew) as an alphabetic acrostic, and perhaps it is the one that best illustrates the intent of that rhetorical medium. To begin each successive line of a psalm with the next letter of the alphabet is not simply a cute literary trick; it serves, rather, to state an aspiration to a truth—namely, that God is to be praised by every sort of sound, that every conceivable formulation of our throat and tongue and lips is to be directed to the divine glory, that no kind of intonation should be deprived of His presence.

And Psalm 145 conveys this verity in grand style. Indeed, this psalm so overflows with rich, resonating magnificence that it is nearly a crime simply to recite it. The very luxury of the sounds needs to be tasted, the mouth and throat filled by its glory.

The dominating ideas appear repeatedly, variously combined and in endless replications: benediction, magnificence, glory, abundance, majesty. To speak of “restraints” imposed on this psalm by reason of its acrostic form (as one curiously benighted commentator does) is a judgment belied by every line. There are no discernible restraints in this most prodigal of psalms.

Psalm 145 is the voice of the new life within us, that life of which Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). Each mounting crescendo of this psalm abounds with the life of the victorious Christ: “Generation after generation will praise Your deeds and make declaration of Your might. The magnificence of the glory of Your holiness they will tell, and Your wonders will they proclaim. They will speak the power of Your fearsome deeds and expound on Your magnificence. They will herald the remembrance of Your goodness, and in Your righteousness will they exult.”

The God praised in this psalm is praised chiefly for His great and rich mercy: “Compassionate is the Lord and merciful, longsuffering and abounding in mercy. Gracious is the Lord to all alike; His compassions rest on all His works.”
The Kingdom of Christ is not of this world; it is truly eternal and transcendent and belongs to heaven. Accordingly, the words and sentiments of our psalm repeatedly raise the mind above earthly things to the realm of eternal life. Several expressions of eternity appear in its lines: “from age to age,” “for ever and ever,” and so forth. Its emphasis thus goes beyond specific and individual deeds.

Monday, March 19

1 Corinthians 1:10-17: Toward the end of the year 49 Paul began his mission at the city of Corinth, where he ministered for the next 18 months (Acts 18:11). The beginnings of the Corinthian congregation were not promising. Indeed, there seems to have been confrontation and animosity associated with that parish from the very beginning. It was founded in strife.

Paul had started by teaching in the local synagogue each Sabbath, sharing the Gospel not only with the Jews, but also with the local Gentiles that were attracted to many features of Judaism (18:4). When the Jews at the synagogue opposed and cursed what Paul was saying, he finally broke off any further discussion with them. He left the synagogue in a huff, saying, ““Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.”

From that point on, along with a few Jews, such as Crispus and Sosthenes, the Gentiles gathered separately under Paul’s tutelage (18:8-17). This was hardly the end of the strife, because the Christians met in a home that was right next door to the synagogue! (18:7)

We may take this theme of strife as the first point in our reflections, because there is an atmosphere of conflict in everything we know about the origins of the Corinthian church. Paul’s two letters to that congregation are full of references to discord and dissension, and so is the letter that St. Clement, the third bishop of Rome, wrote to the Corinthians near the end of the first century.

Paul’s first eighteen months at Corinth were very hard on him as the founding pastor. During that whole time, he took no salary for his labors, working instead as a tent maker to earn his living. Paul became so discouraged with the strife at Corinth that the Lord gave him a special revelation to keep him going. St. Luke tells us, “Now the Lord spoke to Paul in the night by a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, but speak, and do not keep silent; for I am with you, and no one will attack you to hurt you; for I have many people in this city’” (18:9).

If the Apostle Paul needed reminding on this score, perhaps all Christians do. The story of the founding of the Corinthian church stands in the Bible to teach us that the presence of conflict does not invalidate the experience and claims of a congregation. This account testifies that God does not abandon a Christian congregation just because it has a bit of conflict and an occasional locking of horns. Christ did not abandon the church at Corinth.

There are those who believe that the experience of a Christian congregation must be nothing but light and peace. Indeed, we all know of people who stay away from church because they believe churches to be inhabited by sinners. That is something on the order of staying away from grocery stores in order not to associate with the hungry, or refusing to enter a hospital for fear there may be sick people present.

If the Church of Jesus Christ is a refuge for sinners—if it is really true that He came to call sinners, not the just—then there is no logic to the expectation of finding only nice and upright people at church.

This consideration brings us to point two: the cult of personalities in a congregation is one of the main sources of strife. This is obvious in Paul’s comment to the Corinthians: “Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas.” Here he lists the names of the first three pastors of the Corinthian congregation. Each of these men had brought into the Church a certain number of converts, and each of these groups, it appears, developed a personal loyalty to the pastor that had converted them.

Tuesday, March 20

Matthew 20:1-16: 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).

Psalms 120 (Greek & Latin 119): is the first of fifteen consecutive psalms known as the “songs of ascent.” Though the origin of the expression is not entirely certain, a very probable interpretation takes this title to mean that these particular psalms were chanted by pilgrims to Jerusalem as they drew near and began to ascend the heights on which the Holy City is settled. Truly, quite a number of lines in these psalms are readily understood in such a context. In any case, these fifteen form a distinct collection within the Psalter.

Holy Scripture tells us that the Church in the upper room, as she anticipated the arrival of “the Holy Spirit of promise” (Eph. 1:13) from on high, “continued with one accord in prayer and supplication” (Acts 1:14), nor is it difficult to hear this psalm arising from her mouth as she waited: “To the Lord I called in my distress, and He answered me. O Lord, deliver my soul from wicked lips, and from a deceitful tongue.”

Lies and deception lay all about the Church on that morning. Already, for instance, the rumor was started that the disciples had stolen the dead body of Jesus from the grave while the soldiers slept (cf. Matt. 28:11–15). And as for the body of believers, already “we know that it is spoken against everywhere” (Acts 28:22). But soon would arrive that Holy Spirit to confront their accusers and “convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment” (John 16:8).

Meanwhile the Church answers her calumniators in prayer: “What further would you have, or what more be given you, a deceitful tongue? The warrior’s sharp arrows, with coals of desolation? Ah me, that my sojourn (paroikia) is prolonged, and I have made my home among the tents of Kedar. So much the sojourner (paroikesen) is my soul. Peaceful, I spoke peace to those who hated me. When I addressed them, they warred against me without cause.”

Wednesday, March 21

Matthew 20:17-19: This section begins with the Lord’s third and final prediction of the His coming Passion (verses 17-19; Mark 10:32-34; Luke 18:31-34). This prophecy is much more detailed than the earlier two (16:21; 17:22-23), mentioning the Lord’s manumission to the chief priests (26:57), His condemnation by them (26:66), His handing over to Pilate (27:2), and the mockery and scourging (27:26-30). Unlike Mark (10:34), Matthew also specifies crucifixion (27:32-44), a form of execution practiced by the Romans.

Psalms 128 (Greek & Latin 127): Notwithstanding the superior status of consecrated celibacy, which we have recently considered in the Gospel according to Matthew, it is a fact that most Christians have been sanctified, made holy, through the varied relationships and obligations established by the sacrament of marriage and the begetting of children.

In this connection, the theme of the believer’s family, so prominent in the previous psalm, is even more dominant in Psalm 128: “Blessed are all who fear the Lord, those who walk in His ways. The fruits of your labors will you eat; you are blessed, and it will be well with you. Your wife shall be like a vine, flourishing within the walls of your house, your sons like olive shoots about your table. Behold, thus shall be blessed the man who fears the Lord. The Lord bless you from Zion, and may you see the good things of Jerusalem, all the days of your life. May you see your children’s children. Peace be upon Israel.”

This psalm, which begins with a beatitude and ends with a blessing, is modest in its hopes. It does not wish for wealth, or power, or prestige. There is nothing here about “getting ahead.” The psalm speaks, rather, of eating the fruits of one’s own labors (in idiom, literally, the labors of one’s fruits). It is not a wish for easy money, but for such resources as come from hard employment. Indeed, the word used here is not the usual one designating work; it is, rather, the plural form of ponos, which means labor in the sense of very arduous tasks, even pain.

In fact, in most versions of Revelation 16:10 and 21:4, ponos is translated as “sorrow.” Once again, as in the previous psalm, the image evoked here is that of the fallen Adam, bending over his hoe to deal with the uncooperative soil. Yes, this is the blessing of our psalm, the simple joy of maintaining one’s own life, even at subsistence level.

And also the life of one’s family. A man’s wife and his children are blessings from God, here described with the metaphors of fruitful plants. The blessing of this psalm is the happiness found in the life of work and the circle of the family, all the way to old age and the vision of grandchildren. God, says our psalm, blesses His reverent (“all who fear the Lord”) and obedient (“those who walk in His ways”) servants with these benedictions. Such things pertain to the peace of Jerusalem.

Thursday, March 22

Matthew 20:20-8The two blind men in this account are, of course, the two sons of Zebedee, James and John, who 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.

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.

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).