Friday, January 9

Matthew 5:21–32: 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 work from northern Syria 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.

The second contrast between Gospel righteousness and that of the scribes and Pharisees takes up the subject of adultery, which is treated in four logia, or sayings, of Jesus (verses 27-32).

Following the antithesis about murder, this contrast about adultery preserves the sequence of the Decalogue. It contains two parts, each devoted to a particular way in which Gospel righteousness, as it pertains to adultery, “exceeds” the earlier scribal reading of the Torah.

In the first part the prohibition of adultery is extended to include sins of the eyes, mind, and heart (verse 28). The mention of lust of the eyes invites the addition of the dominical logion about the eye becoming the occasion of sin (verse 29). To this latter saying of the Lord is logically attached the warning about the hand’s becoming an occasion of sin (verse 30). Thus, these three sayings of the Lord constitute a powerful admonition about the gravity of sexual sins and the radical nature of the Christian commitment to sexual morality.

The first of these three sayings (“anyone who looks at a woman with lust”) does not much extend the moral understanding of the Old Testament, which also proscribed lustful desires (cf. Deuteronomy 5:21; Job 31:1). Rabbinic teaching likewise followed suit in this respect.

However, the next two logia (verses 29-30), with their hyperbolic commands to gouge out an eye and cut off a hand, add a formal quality to the whole antithesis, a warning against any danger of compromise with respect to sex.

As in the antithesis about murder (verse 22), the threatened retribution is hell fire, here called “Gehenna,” named for the Valley of Hinnom, adjacent to Jerusalem, the valley where garbage was burned (verses 29,30; cf. 3:12; 13:30,42,50; 25:41).

The second half of the present antithesis relates adultery to the practice of divorce (verses 31-32). With respect to this latter, Jesus clearly goes beyond the obvious letter of the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 24:1) by forbidding divorce altogether. Later in the Gospel, Jesus will describe the Old Testament rule on divorce as a concession allowed by Moses (19:8).

Efforts to find in verse 32 an exception to the Lord’s prohibition of divorce are unfounded. The expression “except sexual immorality” (ektos logou porneias) does not refer to violations of the marriage vow. It simply means that the Lord is forbidding the dissolution of a true marriage, not the break-up of an illicit sexual liaison. It may be paraphrased: “Whoever divorces his wife — not his mistress — causes her to commit adultery.”

Saturday, January 10

Matthew 5:33-48: In this third contrast between Gospel righteousness and that of the scribe and Pharisee, the subject is the taking of oaths (verses 33-37). 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.

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 prohibition. 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.

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 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 “tr
uth 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).

Revenge and resistance form the theme of the fourth contrast between Gospel righteousness and that of the scribes and Pharisees (verses 38-42). 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).

This fifth and final contrast between Gospel righteousness and that of the scribes and Pharisees has to do with the love of one’s enemies (verses 43-48). 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.

Nor is the purpose of the love of enemies to feel good or virtuous. In fact, the Christian who loves his enemies may feel perfectly miserable about himself. The love of one’s enemies is not an exercise in self-fulfillment. It is, rather, an act of self-emptying. It is the Cross. It is to love as Christ loves, and as His Father loves.

Sunday, January 11

Hebrews 11:13-29: Moses is introduced as the rescuer of the Hebrews (cf. Acts 7:20-29). One observes especially that he chooses solidarity with the Hebrews rather than the Egyptians (verses 24-26).

On the other hand, the zest and spontaneity with which Moses throws himself into this action may be contrasted with his great reluctance, later on, when God gives him the difficult task of actually delivering His people. Because it is not pertinent to the picture of Moses as a champion of faith, however, this detail is not mentioned in Hebrews.

As was observed by Clement of Rome near the end of the first century (Epistle to the Corinthians 4), the animosity shown toward Moses in Exodus is paralleled by the animosity shown toward Joseph by his brethren in Genesis.

In the writings of the New Testament, the event especially served as a prefiguration and type of redemption, including all of the events narrated of that great week, both His death for our sins and His rising again for our justification.

There was no disagreement among the early Christians with respect to the deeper meaning of the paschal lamb. Israel was reminded of the Exodus every time a first-born son came into the world. Each such son would have to be “redeemed” by the sacrifice of a lamb.

Monday, January 12

Matthew 6:16-24: This section of the Sermon on the Mount begins with a treatment of the third component of Matthew's ascetical triad, fasting (verses 16-16).

It should first be noted that Christians are given no discretion on whether or not to fast. It is when
you fast, not if you fast, and the early Christian would have been astounded at any notion that fasting was not required of him. Indeed, the Christian was certain he was expected to fast no less frequently than did the devout Jew.

The Jew at that time, as we know, fasted twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays. These two days, equally distant from the Sabbath, marked the first and last days of the forty-days fast of Moses on Mount Sinai. The twice-weekly fast, therefore, served to honor the Torah, on which all of Jewish piety was based.

The early Christians, on the other hand, not to be mistaken for Jews, but certainly determined to fast no less often, the changed those days to Wednesday, the day the Lord was sold for thirty pieces of silver, and Friday, the day that the Bridegroom was taken away. This discipline was common and in place well before the year 100 and possibly several decades earlier. Unlike the weekly fast days of the Jews, therefore, the two Christian fast days were concentrated on the Passion and Death of Christ. Their observance was a way of honoring the mystery of the Cross.

In addition, Christians fasted at other times, such as during the period before baptisms in the congregation. Gradually, these became the standard seasons of fasting in the Christian calendar, the major one being Lent.

The absolution of the apostles from the duty of fasting (9:14-15) pertained only to the period prior to the Lord's Passion.

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 (verses 19-24) maintain that theme, exhorting us not to burden our hearts with divided loyalties.

The sustained exhortation to purity of intention with respect to almsgiving, fasting, and prayer is not to be used (as it often has been used) to justify the neglect of almsgiving, fasting, and prayer. Indeed, done for the glory of God, and with the intention of pleasing the Father who sees in secret, these three things seem to be the content of what is called "treasure in heaven." The biblical caution against "works righteousness" must not be interpreted to preclude the reward (misthos) that God's children may expect from their Father in heaven (verses 4,6,18; cf. 10:41-42).
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).

Tuesday, January 13

Genesis 13: When Abram left Egypt, he and his family were very wealthy because of Pharaoh’s generosity to someone he was trying to gain as a brother-in-law! Now Abram and Lot find that the sheer size of their flocks requires them to live apart (verses 1-7). The story of their separation (verses 8-13) demonstrates Abram’s humility in giving his younger relative the choice of the land (verse 9), while he himself takes what is left. This humble action of Abram illustrates the meaning of the dominical saying that the meek shall inherit the earth. Abraham’s descendents, not Lot’s, will inherit all this land. In this story we discern the non-assertive quality of Abram’s faith. He is not only meek; he is also a peacemaker. Meekness and peacemaking are qualities of the man of faith.

Lot serves in this story as a kind of foil to Abram. The meek and peaceful Abram takes what is left, whereas Lot, obviously having failed to do a proper survey of the neighborhood, chooses to live in Sodom. This was to prove one of the worst real estate choices in history.

The present chapter closes with God’s solemn asseveration to Abram, promising him the land and the “seed” (verses 14-18). Unfortunately the rich ambivalence of this latter noun (zera‘ in Hebrew, sperma in Greek, semen in Latin) is lost in more recent translations that substitute the politically correct but entirely prosaic “descendents” for “seed” (verses 15-16).

Besides Sodom, two other important Canaanite cities are introduced in this chapter, Bethel (still called Luz at this period — cf. 28:19) and Hebron. Both of these cities will be extremely important in subsequent biblical history, and Abram is credited with making each of them a place of worship (verses 4,18).

Wednesday, January 14

Psalm 119:1-24: The longest of the psalms, of course, is Psalm 119 (Greek and Latin 118), which we begin today. It is constructed of twenty-two stanzas of eight lines each, and we take several weeks to pray it all, normally on Wednesdays. While there are several other psalms that are called “alphabetical,” in the sense that each verse, or pair of verses, begins with the next sequential letter in the Hebrew alphabet, Psalm 119 is alphabetical in a more extreme way. In this instance every verse in each stanza begins with the same letter of the alphabet. Thus, in the first stanza, each of the eight verses commences with the first Hebrew letter, aleph. Each line of the second stanza begins with beth, and so on, through all twenty-two letters of the alphabet.

If the artificiality of this alphabetic arrangement is not the stuff of powerful poetic impulse, it does serve, nonetheless, an important theological purpose. Psalm 119 is concerned entirely with the Law of God, the Torah, and its structural use of the alphabet serves here the purpose of asserting that the Law of God is the inner core and essential substance of human language. This is a very deep reflection. Language is the gift of God. Its primary function, in the Bible (cf. Gen. 2:19, for example), is the formation of thought in accord with reality, and the world’s deepest created reality, according to the rabbis, is the Torah, the eternal Law of God, on which the inner being of all created reality is based. The eternal Law of God, the Torah, reflects in turn the very being of God, and the final purpose of language is to lead man’s thought to the knowledge of God. Language and Torah, thus, are inseparable. In Psalm 119 Law and Word tend to be used interchangeably

The Christian will, of course, want to assert something further. The Christian will insist that the eternal Law is really derived from God’s eternal thought, and that God’s eternal thought is His Word, that same Word that for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven. The Torah, that is to say, speaks of Christ; the Law of God points to Christ and is fulfilled in Christ. The final purpose of language is that men may know Christ. He is, after all, the Word, the very Word that was in the beginning. He is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and end of language (cf. Rev. 1:8; 21:6; 22:13), both human and divine.

Christ, as the Latin Fathers called Him, is the verbum abbreviatum, God’s Word abbreviated, in the sense that all that God has to say is summed up in Christ. Christ is likewise the goal of man’s own language, because the purpose of human language is that men may know the truth, and Christ is the truth, the very truth that makes true all things that are true.

All through this psalm, then, the Law of God is described as the path to knowledge of the truth. It is the Law of God that “is a lamp unto my feet,” that “gives light to my eyes,” “my meditation all the day,” “sweeter than honey to my mouth,” and “better unto me than thousands of gold and silver.”

There are several possible ways of praying this psalm. For example, one may pray it as the prayer of Jesus to His Father, filled with the resolve to do in all things the Father’s will, the faithful Servant of God, obedient unto death; in the psalm Jesus appears as the model and author of our own faith.

Or one may pray Psalm 119 as a psalm about Jesus Himself, each of the psalm’s testimonials to the Law, the precepts, the commandments, etc., referring to Him of whom the Law itself prophesies and in whom it is fulfilled. Thus, every line speaks of Jesus.

Thursday, January 15

Hebrews 13:1-16: The first sacrifice of priestly ordination in the Old Testament was the immolation of a bull as a sin offering (Exodus 29:1-14; Leviticus 4:1-12). This was a substitutionary sacrifice, in which the sins of the new priests were symbolically transferred to the animal by the imposition of hands. Most of the animal was burned outside the camp.

As Christians believe, Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophetic dimension of the Old Testament sin-offering, as of all the Old Testament sacrifices. In this case, the burning of the sin-offering “outside the camp” was seen in the early Church as particularly symbolic, inasmuch as “the bodies of those animals, whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach” (verses 11-13 ).

Historically, of course, Jesus was executed outside the city because that was the prescribed place of execution (cf. Leviticus 24:14; Numbers 15:35f; 1 Kings 21:13; Acts 7:58), but the author of Hebrews saw that, notwithstanding what His executioners intended, this circumstance of Jesus’ death was the fulfillment of biblical prophecy (cf. also Matthew 21:39; Luke 20:15; John 19:20).

Friday, January 16

Matthew 8:1-13: Here are the first two of the Ten Miracles that Matthew, following his standard pattern of comparing Moses and Jesus, sets in parallel to the Ten Plagues visited on Egypt.

In the first of these, the curing of the leper, the Lord invokes the authority of Moses (8:4), and in the second he extends the blessing of the Chosen People to the faith of the Gentiles (8:11). Matthew 7:29 introduced the theme of the Lord’s “authority” (exsousia), which appears here again in 8:9. It will reappear presently in the matter of the forgiveness of sins (9:6), where we will learn that this authority is s
hared with the Church (9:8).

All of these Ten Miracles illustrate this authority of Christ: over sickness and paralysis, over the demons, and over the forces of nature. Just as the Lord teaches with authority (7:29), we also find Him healing with authority; unlike the prophets and rabbis, Jesus heals by command, not by intercessory prayer.