Friday, April 4
Jeremiah 52: The Book of Jeremiah ends with fall of Jerusalem and the willful destruction of Solomon’s Temple. The futility Ecclesiastes sensed within human experience in general comes to Jeremiah in a specific historical form. Exiled by the rivers of Babylon all the children of the covenant will be obliged to come to grips with that tragedy and the centuries of rank infidelity that led to it.
Arguably, however, Jeremiah was the man in whose soul the loss of the Temple was most singular and poignant. It represented the defining hour of his extremely lonely life. Most of Jerusalem’s citizens, suffering from chronic shallowness and terminal optimism, had always thought him something of an oddity and a nuisance, maybe even a public menace.
They accused him (Jeremiah 37:14), conspired against him (18:18), seized him (26:8), sought his life (11:21), struck him and put him in stocks (20:2), imprisoned him (32:3), kidnapped him (chs. 42—43), threw him in a deep pit where he nearly died from hunger (38:6–9). In short, Jeremiah was obliged to “go it alone.” Jeremiah’s was a more than ordinary personal desolation, inasmuch as he embraced a life of consecrated celibacy and asceticism as a prophetic sign of Jerusalem’s approaching devastation (16:1–5).
Interpreting that approaching doom of 587 was the very substance of
Jeremiah’s ministry, and his prayer was integral to that interpretation.
The Lord was on the point of destroying the very institutions that He had, for centuries, cultivated and sustained, and in the heart of Jeremiah the city’s looming destruction assumed metaphysical dimensions. It suggested to his mind both the overthrow of nature and the dissolution of history.
Thus, it was Jeremiah’s destiny to assume the impending tragedy of Israel into the fabric of his own heart, an experience that filled him with a deep feeling of radical alienation from God. He struggled in the darkness:
O the Hope of Israel, his Savior in time of trouble, /
Why should You be like a stranger in the land, / And like a traveler who
turns aside to tarry for a night? (14:8) . . . “Will you surely be to me
like an unreliable stream, / As waters that fail? (15:18) . . . Do not be
a terror to me; / You are my hope in the day of doom (17:17).
Jeremiah’s prayer was shaped, therefore, by the contours of Israel’s tragedy:
Oh, that my head were waters, / And my eyes a fountain of
tears, / That I might weep day and night / For the slain of the daughter
of my people!” (9:1) . . . Woe is me, my mother, / That you have borne
me, / A man of strife and a man of contention to the whole earth!
(15:10) . . . But His word was in my heart like a burning fire / Shut up
in my bones; / I was weary of holding it back (20:9).
Saturday, April 5
Matthew 29-36: The original listeners to these imprecations of the Lord are, even now, plotting his death. Upon them, therefore, shall descend all the bloodguilt of history, beginning with Abel, history’s first victim of murder. The key to the discernment of that first murder is the prior moral fissure dividing the two brothers, Cain and Abel. Murder was the fruit, not the root, of Cain’s offense. It is the same in the case of Jesus and his own murders.
St. John tells us, “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer” (1 John 3:15). Antecedent to the killing itself, then, the killer was already “of the wicked one” (1 John 3:12). According to Theophilus of Antioch in the second century, it was Satan who “moved his brother, called Cain, and made him kill his brother Abel. And thus the beginning of death (arche thanatou) came into this world” (To Autolycus 2.29).
In the following century, the Alexandrian Origen remarked, “evil did not begin in Cain when he slew his brother.” On the contrary, he said, he was a bad man all along, and “God read his heart.” It was simply the case that Cain’s “evil became manifest (eis phaneron elthen) when he slew Abel” (On Prayer 29.18).
While we easily perceive that Cain killed because he was a bad man, it is important to see also that Abel was slain precisely because he was a good man. His goodness was the very reason that Cain took his life. St. John affirms it: “And why did he murder him? Because his works were evil and his brother’s righteous” (1 John 3:12).
While it is said of Cain that “he perished in anger for murdering his brother”
(Wisdom of Solomon 10:3), of Abel we are told, “he obtained witness that he was righteous” (Hebrews 11:4).
Thus commences the Bible’s reading of history as a prolonged chronicle of “all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel” (Matthew 23:35). The saga of persecution begins with “The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10) and ends with “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10)
The author of Hebrews, who described Abel’s blood crying out to God from the earth, went on to invoke this same image with respect to Jesus’ own blood. The blood of Jesus, he wrote, “speaks better things than that of Abel” (12:24). Whereas Abel’s blood cried out demanding revenge, the blood of Jesus, who is called here “the Mediator of the new covenant,” invokes the divine mercy for sinners. Such is the blood in which we have access to “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (12:22).
Sunday, April 6
Matthew 25:31-46: This parable makes it very clear, if we needed further clarity, that “a man is justified by works, not by faith alone” and that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:24,26).
It is imperative to observe that the last activity ascribed to Christ in the Nicene Creed is that “He will come again in glory to judge.” This is Matthew’s fourth straight parable about the parousia of the Son of Man for the purpose of judgment. He had introduced this theme of final judgment much earlier, among the parables of the Kingdom (13:41), and in the coming trial before the Sanhedrin in the next chapter the Lord will speak very solemnly on this subject by way of warning to Israel’s official leaders: “I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven” (26:64).
Let us also observe that the Son of Man does not return to earth alone; He is accompanied by the angels, who have a distinct function in the coming trial (verse 31; 13:41,49; 16:27; cf. Zechariah 14:5; 1 Thessalonians 3:13).
The Son of Man will sit in judgment over “all the nations”–panta ta ethne (verse 32; 24:14; 28:19). Israel is numbered among these nations. As in any trial, a verdict will be given, leading to a division, the latter symbolized by the sheep and the goats.
The Son of Man is identified as the King (verses 34;40), an image that goes back to the beginning of Matthew’s narrative (1:1,20; 2:2,13-14) and appears again at the Lord’s trial and crucifixion (27:11,29,37,42).
The elect are addressed as the “blessed of my Father” (verse 24). The inherited Kingdom has been planned and prepared since the beginning of Creation; it has been in the divine mind all along.
Then comes the criterion of the judgment, in which we recognize the components of Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan (10:29-37).
Especially to be noted in this parable is Jesus’ association with all mankind, in particular the poor, the destitute, and the neglected. To serve the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the sick, and the imprisoned is to serve Jesus, who identifies Himself with them. This is the basis for all Christian service to suffering humanity. This is not a negligible aspect of the Gospel; it pertains to the very subject matter of the Final Judgment.
The dominant idea of this parable, in fact, is the divine judgment. God really does judge; He really does discriminate. He will not confuse a just man and an unjust man. He discerns the difference, and that difference means a great deal to Him. He does not take difference lightly. He assigns eternal destinies to men on the basis of that difference.
This is what we see in the present parable: sheep and goats are spread asunder, just as wise and unwise maidens are separated one from another, and wheat is distinguished from chaff. In this world the generous and the mean exist side by side, but at the Judgment it will be so no more.
How can we know where we stand with respect to that Judgment? In a sense, we cannot know. In a sense, it is not important that we know. We might become complacent. God will not have a Christian feel so secure that he neglects his duties in this world.
Monday, April 7
Psalm 31 (Greek & Latin 30): The correct sense of Psalm 30 (Hebrew 31) is indicated in verse 5: “Into Your hand I commend my spirit.” This verse, according to Luke 23:46, was the final prayer of our Lord from the Cross, and I take it to indicate the proper “voice” of this whole psalm. It is the prayer of “Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb. 12:2), speaking to His Father in the context of His sufferings and death. This psalm is part of His prayer of faith.
In making this psalm our own, we Christians are subsumed into the voice and prayer of Christ. We partake of His relationship to the Father. No one, after all, knows the Father except the Son and the one “to whom the Son wills to reveal Him” (Matt. 11:27). Our only access to God is through Christ and the mediation of His atoning blood. Our incorporation into Christ is the foundation of all our prayer. Only in Christ do we call God our Father. The only prayer that passes beyond the veil, to His very throne, is prayer saturated with the redeeming blood of Christ. This is the prayer that cries out more eloquently than the blood of Abel.
In this psalm, then, the voice of Christ becomes our own voice:
In You, O Lord, I put my trust, let me never be put to shame. Deliver me in Your righteousness. . . . You have redeemed me, Lord God of truth. . . . But I trust in the Lord. I will be glad and rejoice in Your mercy. . . . But as for me, I trust in You, O Lord; I say ‘You are my God.’ . . . Oh, how great is Your goodness, which You have laid up for those who fear You, which You have prepared for those who trust in You.
This committing of our souls to God in loving trust is not just one of the various things we do as Christians; it is the essential feature of our life in Christ: “Therefore let those who suffer according to the will of God commit their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator” (1 Pet. 4:19).
In this psalm we enter into the sentiments and thoughts of Jesus in His sufferings. We see the Passion “from the inside,” as it were. There is the plot, recorded in the Gospels, to take His life (cf. Mark 3:6; 14:1):
Pull me out of the net that they have secretly laid for me. . . . Fear is on every side; while they take counsel together against me, they scheme to take away my life.
There are the false witnesses rising against Him (cf. Mark 14:55–59): “Let the lying lips be put to silence, which speak insolent things proudly and contemptuously against the righteous.” We learn of the flight of His friends and the mockery of His enemies (cf. Mark 14:50; 15:29–32):
I am a reproach among all my enemies, but especially among my neighbors, and am repulsive to my acquaintances; those who see me outside flee from me. I am forgotten like a dead man, out of mind.
Tuesday, April 8
Matthew 24:1-14: In all three Synoptics this eschatological discourse is the link between the public teaching of Jesus, culminating in His repeated conflicts with the Jewish authorities, and the account of His Passion. Indeed, it was Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the Temple (verses 1-2) that provided the accusations brought forth at His trial before the Sanhedrin (26:16), and it was the subject of the jeers that His enemies hurled at Him as He hung on the cross. Moreover, the position occupied by our Lord’s prophecy here indicates the relationship between the death of Jesus and the downfall of Jerusalem. We observe that in both Mark and Matthew this prophecy follows immediately on Jesus’ lament over the holy city.
With respect to Matthew 24 as a whole (as well as Mark 13 and Luke 21), this discourse forms a sort of last testimony of Jesus, in which the Church is provided with a final injunction and moral exhortation. In this respect it is similar to the farewell discourses of Jacob (Genesis 49), Moses (Deuteronomy 33), Joshua (Joshua 23), and Samuel (1 Samuel 12). That is to say, the present chapter serves the purpose of instructing the Christian Church how to live during the period (literally “eon” in Greek) that will last until the Lord’s second coming.
This conduct will be especially marked by vigilance, so that believers may not be “deceived” (verse 4). They will suffer persecution, Jesus foretells, and He goes on to make two points with respect to this persecution. First, they must not lose heart, and second, it does not mean that the end is near. They must persevere to the end (verse 14).
The original remarks of the Apostles, which prompted this prophecy, were inspired by Herod’s fairly recent renovation of the Temple (cf. John 2:20). According to Flavius Josephus (Antiquities, 15.11.3), “the Temple was constructed of hard, white stones, each of which was about 25 cubits in length, 8 in height, and 12 in depth.” That is to say, the walls of this mountain of marble, towering 450 feet above the Kidron Valley, were 12 cubits, roughly 15 feet, thick! The various buildings of the Temple complex were colonnaded and elaborately adorned. Its surface area covered about one-sixth of the old city. The Roman historian Tacitus described it as “a temple of immense wealth.” (Histories 5.8). It was because of the Temple that Josephus remarked, “he that has not seen Jerusalem in her splendor has never in his life seen a desirable city. He who has not seen the Temple has never in his life seen a glorious edifice.”
This splendid building, said Jesus, would be utterly destroyed (verse 2). In making this prophecy our Lord steps into the path earlier trodden by Jeremiah (7:14; 9:11), who also suffered for making the same prediction.
When the disciples approached Jesus with their question, He was looking across the Kidron Valley from the Mount of Olives (verse 3), an especially appropriate place to discuss the “last things” (cf. Zechariah 14:4). The question posed by the disciples seems to combine the Temple’s destruction with the end of the world. Only Matthew speaks of “the end of the world” here. This expression will, in due course, be the last words in his Gospel (28:20).
Wednesday, April 9
Matthew 24:15-31: Jesus our Lord, describing the last days prior to the second appearance of the Son of Man, spoke of “false messiahs and false prophets” as signs of that time (Matthew 24:24). In fact, as historians are prompt to mention, false messiahs and false prophets were the signs of Jesus’ own time as well (cf. Acts 535-39; 21:38; Josephus, Antiquities 17.271-285).
Virtually all periods of subsequent history, likewise, provided further examples of false messiahs and false prophets, so that just about any age could feel justified in calling itself the “last days,” and in most ages some folks have done so.
Our own time is hardly an exception. False prophecy, after all, includes any ideology that attempts to interpret the future on the basis of a flawed understanding of history. Likewise, false messianism includes any movement that attempts to hasten or bring about a future based on false prophecy. Now, a simple regard for the major wars and great social disruptions of the previous century makes it abundantly evident that those dreadful trials, some of which have but recently come to an end, were mostly spawned by the false prophetic movements and false messianisms that had managed to find a sufficient political agency.
It is arguable that no age surpasses the twentieth century in the social and moral harm done by false messiahs and false prophets. No other time in history produced so much political oppression, or so much destruction by war, or so many deaths by starvation, or such massive displacements of people—an abundance of stark tragedy produced by false interpretations of history that had coalesced into stubborn political movements and institutions.
These include, for example, dialectical materialism, a political philosophy so corrosive of everything human that only with difficulty can we see it as the product of human thought. This attempt to read the future became messianic when it was adopted to form the political program of large nations, particularly Russia and China. In its name, millions were imprisoned, millions starved to death.
Such too was nationalist socialism in its several forms. Germany’s proposed “thousand year Reich,” a demonic parody of the millennium of the saints, embodied a philosophy of political totalitarianism that was both prophetic and messianic. The mind is numbed with the thought of the human and social harm inflicted by such an ideology.
Arguably the most persistent form of false prophecy in all of history, on the other hand, is scarcely new. It comes from a man whose followers since the early seventh century have referred to him simply as El Rasul, “the Prophet.” Almost immediately that man’s prophecies assumed a militant political shape that set out to conquer much of the earth at sword point. His false prophecies are still very much with us, and in the faction that currently rules ancient Persia that movement has recently taken on a more manifestly messianic character that is outright astonishing. No great gift of prophecy is needed, I think, nor heightened sense of alarm required, to foresee and fear serious trouble from this source in the not-too-distant future.
Thursday, April 10
Matthew 24:43-44: In what sense, then, did “this generation”—Jesus’ generation—see “all these things”? After all, “this generation” had largely died off by the time that Matthew wrote. Yet Matthew includes this saying of Jesus.
In fact this was a puzzle for the first Christians no less than for us. Indeed, it was probably a greater puzzle for them than for us. We know that many Christians apparently presumed that they would be alive to witness the return of Christ. Notice how Paul described the Lord’s return in his first epistle: “For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep” (First Thessalonians 4:15). It is “we,” says Paul, who will witness the event. He goes on to speak with considerable assurance on the matter:
For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord” (4:16-17).
As Paul’s epistles are studied chronologically, it is interesting to observe how the Apostle becomes less certain on this point. By the time of Second Timothy it is gone all together, as Paul prepares for his imminent death.
When Christ did not return within the limits of “this generation,” as the earliest Christians seemed to have understood this expression, they were obliged to re-think the question of the imminence of that return. Such a rethinking continues to the present day, it may be said; the Church continues to ponder the signs of history under the guidance of the Lord’s prophetic word.
The great temptation, when a prophecy has not been completely understood, is to become skeptical of the prophecy itself. This also happened during New Testament times, and the phenomenon became yet another sign of the final times. Thus, St. Peter exhorted believers to
be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us, the apostles of the Lord and Savior, knowing this first: that scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts, and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as from the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:2-4).
Jesus is emphatic on the point: God has not shared His plan. The explicit and detailed nature of the Lord’s prophecy—even the imminence of its fulfillment—do not remove the secret nature of its content. Its fulfillment is still concealed in the mind of God; it has not been shared with the angels, nor has it been disclosed even to Jesus. It remains the unrevealed mystery.
What Jesus does know, however, he shares with us, and this is the practical point to which we cling: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will by no means pass away” (verse 35). His words are more reliable than heaven and earth.
Friday, April 11
Matthew 24:45-51: This is the first of three consecutive stories in Matthew, in which the passage of time is integral to the testing of God’s servants. The next two are the parables of the ten virgins (25:1-13) and the talents entrusted to three servants (25:14-30).
Although Matthew encapsulates the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world into a consistent set of images, it would be wrong to interpret too literally the word “immediately” in verse 29. These next three parables, in fact, suggest that the end of the world may still be some way off.
Nonetheless, the Lord’s return in judgment must be constantly looked for, and the anticipation of it becomes a formative principle of Christian morality. Hence, this parable distinguishing the loyal and unfaithful servant is the first of four parables about the Final Judgment. All four end in punishment for those who are unfaithful (Matthew 24: 51; 25:12, 30, 41, 46).
In this parable Jesus describes one servant as “faithful and wise” (verse 45). In the present context “faithful” (pistos) probably bears the meaning of “loyal” rather than “believing.” Several times St. Paul uses this very adjective to describe the ideal pastor, missionary, or Christian leader (1 Corinthians 4:1-12; Ephesians 6:21; Colossians 1:7; Titus 1:9). In the present text, we observe that the vocation of this servant is to feed the others in the household.
He is also called phronimos, often translated as “prudent” or “wise,” but perhaps better rendered here as “thoughtful” or “reflective.” It is the same adjective used to describe five of the maidens in the next parable (25:2,4,8,9). Matthew also uses it to describe the man who builds his house on a rock foundation (7:24). It is the characteristic that Christians are to share with snakes! (10:16)
The wicked servant, on the other hand, assures himself that he still has opportunity to neglect his stewardship. He is coaxed into this disposition precisely because there appears to be a delay in the return of his master. “My master is delaying His coming,” he says to himself (verse 48). That is to say, the sense of a postponement is an essential part of the story. The failure of the servant has to do with his inability to deal with the prolonged passage of time. What he lacks is perseverance. The Son of Man will come when the slackers do not expect him.
Whereas in Luke (12:46) the punishment of the unfaithful servant places him among “unbelievers,” in Matthew he shares the lot of the “hypocrites” (verse 57). Matthew thus sounds again the repeated condemnation of the hypocrites in the previous chapter (23:13,14,15,23,25,27,28). Also unlike Luke, Matthew here refers to “weeping and gnashing of teeth” as an element of the final condemnation. This expression is fairly often found in Matthew as a concluding statement of judgment (8:12; 13:42,50; 22:13).