Friday, January 12

Matthew 5:21-30: The first of Matthew’s five contrasts has to do with the Lord’s understanding of the Torah’s prohibition, “Thou shalt do no murder” (verse 21). Here, as in the next examples, Jesus responds, “but I say to you,” a formula indicating that His own understanding of the Law is superior even to that of Moses.

There is an irreducible claim in these sustained assertions—namely, that Jesus, being the very Lawgiver of Mount Sinai, has the authority to speak for the Law’s intention. This claim is based on the standard legal principle: “the meaning of a law is determined by the intention of the lawgiver.” Moses, after all, was only the promulgator of the Torah, not its author. Jesus implicitly makes the latter claim for Himself, which is the reason He is speaking from the mountain (verse 1).

Thus, Jesus understands the prohibition against murder not simply as an injunction against taking someone’s life, but as an interdiction excluding all acts of anger and violence, including speech and even thought (verse 22). This teaching is given in detail and at some length, as Matthew portrays Jesus as the Teacher of the Church. He teaches with authority (7:29).

In the present case—dealing with anger—the teaching of Jesus is consistent with standard Old Testament moral doctrine, especially in the Wisdom literature (Proverbs 6:14, 34; 14:17, 29; 15:1, 18; 16:14, 32; 19:19; 27:4; cf. James 1:19–20).

The context of this prohibition against anger and violence is the Christian Church, a point indicated by the references to the “brother” (verses 22, 23, 24). Indeed, these admonitions are set within the context of the Church’s Eucharistic worship (verse 24). This is clearer, perhaps, in the Didache, a Syrian work roughly contemporary with Matthew: “But every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one who is at odds with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned” (Didache 14). In short, love is superior to sacrifice (12:7; Mark 12:33–34).

Reconciliation must be made “quickly” (verse 25), so that the conflict does not grow out of hand. The “imprisonment” in this section refers to the divine judgment, as it does in the parable of the unforgiving servant (18:34–35).

The teaching of these verses implicitly contrasts contention with love. For Jesus and the New Testament, love is the true fulfillment of the Torah (22:40). For this reason, it is important to understand what is meant by love and not to be confused by its counterfeits. This consideration forms the sequence to the next contrast.

Saturday, January 13

Matthew 5:31-37: Whereas the Mosaic Law prohibits perjury—an imprecation in testimony to a lie (Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 5:11)—Gospel righteousness forbids oaths in testimony to the truth.

In fact, this is how the ethical tradition of the Church has interpreted the prohibition of oaths—that is, as pertaining to ordinary conversation, not a more solemn setting in which an oath is reasonable and expected. Thus, we observe the Apostle Paul’s complete lack of scruple in this matter (cf. Romans 1:9; 2 Corinthians 1:23; Philippians 1:8; 1 Thessalonians 2:5). The Church has followed suit, not understanding this prohibition in the same strict sense as the prohibition against divorce.

The point of the prohibition is to avoid frivolous, unnecessary, and irreverent appeals to God, no matter how such appeals may be disguised. Invocations of this sort encroach on the realm of the divine, and the biblical Lord would be treated with the same nonchalance that pagans felt toward the Homeric gods. Oaths of this kind are irreverent to the divine presence, much like the uncovered head of a woman in prayer. Such oaths—frivolous invocations to the divine truth as guarantor of human claims—demean the divine majesty by forcing God to participate in a merely human conversation. Gospel righteousness recognizes the insult implied in such behavior and such an attitude.

The examples given in these verses, particularly that related to one’s own head (verse 36), contain some measure of disguise or subterfuge, to avoid using God’s name explicitly (“heaven,” “earth,” “Jerusalem”—verse 34; cf. 23:16-22). This suggests an “unofficial” context for the prohinition. In solemn and more formal settings, after all, such as a courtroom, there would be no such disguising of the references to God’s holy name.

The Lord’s prohibition of oaths extends and perfects the Mosaic proscription against taking the Lord’s name “in vain” (that is, on behalf of a false assertion) and strengthens the Old Testament’s care to reverence the holiness of God’s name (Leviticus 19:12). In this sense Jesus’ prohibition goes to the root of the divine intention in the Torah, much as His prohibition of divorce and adulterous thoughts more profoundly asserts what the Old Testament says of the sanctity of marriage.

In addition, the Lord’s injunction here forces the believer to assume full responsibility for the “truth content” of what he says (verse 37; cf. James 5:12; 1 Corinthians 1:19). He cannot evade this moral responsibility by a casual invocation of the supernatural. Such invocations, says Jesus, are far from harmless; they come “from the Evil One” (ek tou Ponerou), from whom we pray to be delivered (apo tou Ponerou–6:13).

Finally, let us note that the Lord Himself declined the high priest’s adjuration to swear to His own divinity (26:63, in Matthew only).

Sunday, January 14

Hebrews 7:11-28: Today’s reading introduces us to the “sacrifice” of Jesus. The word “sacrifice” is ambiguous because it pertains to so many and so varied uses. We find it in a great number of contexts.

During this next summer, for example, we will be hearing the word “sacrifice” on the radio and television pretty much everyday. Sportscasters will tell us that so-and-so made a sacrifice bunt or hit a sacrifice fly. This example may appear trivial, but it does illustrate an essential feature of sacrifice. A man gives up something in order to advance something else. The batter who hits a sacrifice fly or a sacrifice bunt is always out, but the good of the team is advanced.

This is a substantial feature of the notion of sacrifice. A person gives up, lets go of, something for the sake of something else. It is the “price” he pays. Whenever we speak of sacrifice, this aspect seems always to be present. Thus, Dr. Webster defines sacrifice as “a giving up, a destroying, permitting injury to, or foregoing of some valued thing for the sake of something of greater value or having some more pressing claim.”

Thus, soldiers sacrifice for their country, and parents for their children. Sacrifice always involves both a loss and a gain.

It is the unanimous view in the New Testament that Jesus sacrificed Himself. The view is unanimous because it came from Jesus Himself: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many,” and ““This is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many” (Mark 10:45; 14:24).

We are redeemed by Jesus’ blood, because His blood is His own life, His inner being, His own soul: “You make His soul an offering for sin”—“ He poured out His soul unto death” (Isaiah 53:10,12). We were bought by His wounds, and by His stripes were we healed, because the sufferings of Jesus were the mode in which He handed over Himself. We were purchased by His death, because in His death He gave up Himself.

Monday, January 15

Matthew 5:38-42: Revenge and resistance form the theme of the fourth contrast between Gospel righteousness and that of the scribes and Pharisees. Some of this material is shared with Luke 6:29-30.

In the Old Testament, strict limits on revenge, based on a kind of qualitative equity (quid pro quo), caused it to assume a form resembling commutative justice (verse 38). This Mosaic arrangement placed on Israelite society a measurable restraint that could be enforced. It could rather easily be assimilated into a system of justice and appropriate retribution.

Gospel righteousness, however, is not satisfied with creating a society governed by commutative justice. It wants to eliminate from the heart all forms of revenge or coercive resistance to an evildoer (verse 39).

A blow on the right cheek, presumably struck by a right-handed man, must be delivered backhand. To hit a man in this way is chiefly a gesture of insult. The one who suffers such a blow may not experience much physical injury, but the loss of personal dignity can be immense. It is this loss of personal dignity and respect that the believer must be prepared to sustain.

Whereas in Luke (6:29) plain robbery is envisaged in the seizure of garments, in Matthew it is set in a forensic context (verse 40). Matthew also places the demand of a mile’s walk into a legal setting—an official compulsion (aggarvsei–verse 42; compare 27:32–eggarevsan. The sense of the verb is “commandeer.”

Our earliest commentary on these words of our Lord understands them as the effort to overcome evil by good: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. . . . Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. . . . Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. Therefore ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:18-21; cf. 1 Corinthians 6:7; 1 Peter 2:20-23; 3:14).

These admonitions of Jesus fulfill and perfect the Mosaic Law by strengthening and extending the restraint taught in that Law, a restraint sought by the divine intent of the Law. The measured concession to vengeance in the Torah was analogous to the concession made to divorce. In both cases the command of Jesus goes to the deeper purpose sought by the Torah. This profound purpose of the Torah had about it a prophetic quality that the Gospel brings to fulfillment.

It is the implied claim of Jesus to discern the divine purpose even better than Moses did.

This antithesis dealing with revenge and violence leads logically to the next, which deals with the love of enemies (verses 43-48).

Tuesday, January 16

Matthew 5:43—6:4: The fifth contrast between Gospel righteousness and that of the scribes and Pharisees has to do with the love of one’s enemies. The Old Testament does not actually prescribe hatred on one’s enemies, of course; that part is a sort of hyperbole. Nonetheless, the prescribed love of one’s neighbor (22:39; Leviticus 19:18) certainly prompted some question about who, exactly, was included in this list (Luke 10:29). Jesus extended the Mosaic commandment on this point by expanding the word “neighbor” to include “enemy.” This truly was a new idea in Israel’s experience.

This love of one’s enemies must come from the heart, because Jesus made it a matter of prayer (verse 44). It has to do with one’s relationship to the “Father in heaven” (verses 45,48).

Once again, as in all these five contrasts, believers are called to “exceed” (perisson–verse 47). Their love, like their righteousness, must be “in excess” (verses 46-47). To love those that love us affords no reward, because such love is its own reward. The love of one’s enemies, however, is not an act rewarding in itself. One loves in such a way only for the sake of the heavenly Father.

This kind of love makes a person “perfect,” it most renders him like God, and being “like God” is the purpose of the Torah (Leviticus 19:2). It is understood, of course, that only God can enable a person to love in this way (Romans 8:2-4).

The love of one’s enemies appears last in Matthew’s sequence of contrasts based on the Torah, because it is the perfecting and ultimate sign of Gospel righteousness. It must be the distinguishing mark of the Christian. By it, believers become not only “more righteous, but perfect like unto God. The love of one’s enemies certainly does not “come naturally.”

Indeed, if it does seem to “come naturally,” something is wrong with it. In such cases, it is a counterfeit. Such counterfeits are not rare, so we do best to distinguish this Gospel love from things that resemble it.

For example, the love of enemies enjoined in the present context is not a tactic, a thing done to accomplish something else. It is not the practical means to an end, such as the conversion of the enemy. The love of enemies enjoined in this passage is an end in itself, because it renders a man like unto God.

This Gospel-enjoined love of enemies is not a mark of noble character—the generosity of the magnanimous man—nor is it the cultivated fruit of universal benevolence, of the sort we associate with the oriental religious sage. These are but human counterfeits of what the Lord enjoins here. Christian love of enemies is done purely to please a Father in heaven.

Wednesday, January 17

Matthew 5:5-15: In the text of the Lord’s Prayer according to Matthew (and the Didache), we petition the Father to forgive us as we likewise forgive others. This petition is not only explained immediately after the Prayer (6:14-15), but it is elaborated later in Matthew’s directions about forgiveness in the Church, including the parable in 18:23-35).

Psalms 38 (Greek & Latin 37): This psalm commences with a prayer for deliverance from divine anger: “O Lord, do not rebuke me in Your wrath, nor chasten me in Your hot displeasure.” Already the poet feels overwhelming pain which he describes, whether literally or by way of metaphor, in the most physical terms: “Your arrows [thunder bolts?] pierce me deeply, and Your hand presses me down.” What he suffers comes from sin and the response of the divine wrath, from which he begs to be delivered: “There is no soundness in my flesh, because of Your anger, nor any health in my bones because of my sin.” The equation: sin = wrath of God.

Whether physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual—or all of them together—what we suffer in this life are the incursions of death, and death is simply sin becoming incarnate and dwelling among us, for “through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12).

Such is the essential conviction of our prayer in this psalm: “For my iniquities are gone over my head; like a heavy burden they are too heavy for me. My wounds are foul and festering because of my folly.”

Hebrews 9:1-10: It is recorded that when Jerusalem was about to be surrounded by the Babylonians in 587, Jeremiah went into the Temple and removed the Ark of the Covenant, which he carried to Mount Nebo and concealed in a cave (2 Maccabees 2:4-5). Now among the objects contained in the Ark of the Covenant was a golden urn in which was placed a part of the Manna that fed the people in the desert.

This Manna was the heavenly bread, the “bread of angels” (Psalms 77 [78]:23-25). It was concealed in that golden urn; it was the “hidden Manna,” and Jeremiah hid it still further in a cave. In the final analysis, however, it is not man that hides the Manna. In its very nature, it is hidden from man, because the Manna is the bearer of mystery. It contains the eternal mystery of God, who becomes man’s food. He feeds His children with His own life. We feed on this Manna in the Holy Eucharist, as is obvious in John 6, but it is also the eternal life of heaven (Revelation 2:17).

Thursday, January 18

Matthew 6:19-34: Dominating the early part of Matthew 6 (the triad of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting) was the warning not to work for an earthly reward. These next verses maintain that theme, exhorting us not to burden our hearts with divided loyalties. The image of the “evil eye” in verse 23 seems to be a reference to envy cf 20:15; Mark 7:22; 1 John 2:16). The metaphor of the eye as a lamp, found in the biblical Wisdom tradition (Proverbs 15:30; Sirach 23:19), also appears in Tobit 10:5).

The “therefore” of verse 25 means that the following verses are a conclusion of the message enunciated in the preceding section of this chapter. If we are not to covet (as we were told in the preceding verses), we are also not to worry; the disciplining of inappropriate desires should diminish inappropriate anxiety. God provides all necessary things for those who seek first His kingdom (or, to put it differently, who love Him — cf. Romans 8:28). Except for Luke 12:28, the adjective “of little faith” (oligopistos) is found only Matthew; besides here in 6:30, it also appears in 8:26; 14:31; 16:6.

Psalms 37 (Greek & Latin 36): How does one pray this psalm? To begin with, by respecting its tone, which is one of admonition, warning, and promise. Surely prayer is talking to God, but it also involves listening to God, and this is a psalm in which one will do more listening than talking. It is a psalm in which the believer prays by placing his heart open and receptive to God’s word of admonition, warning, and promise.

One may likewise think of Psalm 37 as the soul speaking to itself: “Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him . . . But the meek shall inherit the earth . . . The little that the righteous has is better than the riches of many wicked . . . The Lord knows the days of the upright . . . The Law of his God is in his heart,” and so on. The human soul, after all, is not of simple construction. The great thinkers who have examined the soul over many centuries seem all to agree that it is composed of parts, and sometimes these parts are at odds one with another. This mixture of conflicting experiences in the soul leads one to utter such petitions as, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” It is one part of the soul praying for the other.

In this psalm, one part of the soul admonishes the other, reminds the other, cautions the other, encourages the other. And this inner conversation of the human spirit all takes place in the sight of God, the Giver of wisdom.

This inner discussion is rendered necessary because of frequent temptations to discouragement. As far as empirical evidence bears witness, the wicked do seem, on many occasions, to be better off than the just. By the standards of this world, they prosper.

Our psalm is at pains to insist, however, that this prosperity is only apparent, in the sense that it will certainly be short-lived. As regards the workers of iniquity, “they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb . . . For evildoers shall be cut off . . . For yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be . . . For the arms of the wicked shall be broken . . . The transgressors shall be cut off together.”

The suffering lot of the just man is likewise temporary and of brief duration. He need only wait on the Lord in patience and trust: “Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He will give thee the desires of thy heart. Commit your way unto the Lord, and trust in Him, and He shall bring it to pass . . . But the salvation of the righteous is of the Lord; He is their strength in the time of trouble. And the Lord will help them and deliver them; He will deliver them from the wicked and save them, because they trust in Him.”

This, then, is a psalm of faith and confidence in God, without which there is no Christian prayer. It is also faith and hope under fire, exposed to struggle and the endurance that calls for patience. After all, “faith is the substance of things hoped for” (Heb. 11:1), and “We were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope . . . But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance” (Rom. 8:24, 25). Our psalm is a meditative lesson on not being deceived by appearances, and a summons to wait patiently for God’s deliverance.

Friday, January 19

Mathew 7:1-6: Just as the preceding verses told us not to worry about ourselves, these verses tell us not to worry about others. In neither case are we to take the place of God. This chapter, then, continues the theme of freedom from distraction, so that God receives our entire attention. One will also observe an irony in these verses. Immediately after being told not to “size up” others (7:1-5), we are exhorted to size them up! (7:6)

Psalms 35 (Greek & Latin 36): In this psalm, the characteristics of the lawless man are contrasted, not with those of a just man, but with the boundless divine mercy: “Your mercy, O Lord, is in the heavens. . . . How precious is Your mercy, O God. . . . Oh, continue Your mercy to those who know You.” This is not a psalm about human morality, but about the metaphysics of mercy.

The qualities of divine mercy are indicated by the various words with which it is set in parallel—faithfulness, righteousness, judgments: “Your faithfulness reaches to the clouds. Your righteousness is like the great mountains; Your judgments are a great deep.” Gazing out on the vast expanse of sky, mountains and sea, the psalmist contemplates the multidimensional mercy of God: “that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height—to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:17–19).

When we pray this psalm, therefore, we do not need to go outside of our own souls to discover the identity of the “lawless man,” before whose eyes “there is no fear of God.” That lawlessness is a deep dimension of ourselves that is recalcitrant to God’s infinite mercy and the righteousness of His judgments. This lawless man lives in his own little world, its chief characteristic being that it is so terribly, so pitifully little.

The sole cure for this rebellion in our hearts is the divine gift of mercy. Only God can heal our blindness: “For with You is the fountain of life; in Your light we see light.” Knowing that all is His gift, we ask only the maintenance of God’s mercy: “Oh, continue Your mercy to those who know You, and Your righteousness to the upright in heart.”

Hebrews 9:16-28: For the ancients, blood was not simply a bodily fluid. It was the source of the body’s life. It was, for all practical purposes, the soul: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul” (Leviticus 17:11).

For the ancients, blood was a thing of the spirit. As the source of man’s life, it was the blood that joined man to his Creator. Blood was fleshly, but it was also godly. It was the link between man and his Creator. When it flowed out of his body, man died. He was no longer linked to his Creator, so he died.

This intuition explains why, in the Bible, all sacrifices of atonement are blood sacrifices. All sin offerings involve the shedding of blood. Only blood can mediate atonement. Whenever the link between God and man has been sundered, there must be the shedding of blood.

In the case of Jesus, however, the blood is “godly” in a new sense, because of the Incarnation. If the shedding of human blood, according to Genesis 4, cries out to God, how much more the blood of God’s Son. Inasmuch as the “life is in the blood,” the pouring out of Jesus’ blood is the pouring out of the life that God assumed in our flesh. This is the sacrifice by which we have access to God.