Friday, April 7

Matthew 23:37—24:2: In his lament over Jerusalem, our Lord speaks of the persecution of the prophets and sages, a subject mentioned in earlier parable in this Gospel (cf. 21:34-35; 22:6).

The reference to “Zechariah, the son of Barachiah,” which has never been pinned down with precision, seems to include elements of the biblical prophet Zechariah, Jehoiada’s son in 2 Chronicles 24:20-22, and the son of Beeis, whose story in narrated in Josephus (Wars 4:334-344).

All this just blood, unjustly spilt, will fall on the present “generation” (verse 36; cf. 11:16; 12:39,41; 16:4; 17:17; 24:34). Matthew saw the fulfillment of that threat in the events associated with Jerusalem’s fall in the year 70.

The expression, “this generation,” when it appears in the Gospel stories, evokes the “generation” of those Israelites who perished in the wilderness. That ancient “generation” served as the chief example of unbelief by which the People of God many still forfeit their inheritance.

Zechariah 7: This chapter has two parts. In the first (verses 1-7) , the prophet addresses a specific question about fasting. Since the fall of Jerusalem and its temple in 586, the Jews had adopted special fasting seasons during the year to commemorate their national disaster. Now that the temple in Jerusalem was being rebuilt, nearly seventy years later, should they keep those fast seasons any longer? Certain villagers in the Holy Land want to know, and the prophet answers them with a specific oracle from the Lord.

The second part of this chapter (verses 8-14) is probably situated here because it refers to the earlier prophets (verse 12), whom Zechariah had just mentioned (verse 7). The prophet reminds his contemporaries that their recent defeat and scattering had been foretold by the former prophets as a result of the sins of the nation. The specific precepts that Zechariah cites (verse 9-10) seem to indicate the social prophets of two centuries earlier: Amos, Micah, and Isaiah.

Psalms 141 (Greek & Latin 140): We pray this psalm at evening prayer, the office traditionally names “Vespers,” the Christian version of the evening sacrifice of the lamb in the Temple. We recognize this psalm as a component in that ancient ceremony: “Let my prayer arise in Thy sight as the incense, and let the lifting of my hands be the evening sacrifice.”

Our psalm’s references to those vesperal rituals are clear enough, both the rising incense smoke and the evening sacrifice. Each of these deserves further comment.

First, the Old Testament’s “evening sacrifice” was a type of and preparation for that true oblation rendered at the evening of the world, when the Lamb of God, nailed to the Cross, lifted His hands to the Father in sacrificial prayer for the salvation of mankind. This was the true raising of the hands, the definitive evening sacrifice offered on Golgotha, by which God marked His seal on human destiny.

Whenever, then, we Christians raise our hands in prayer, as St. Paul tells us to do (cf. 1 Tim. 2:8), it is to symbolize that our prayer, our entire relationship to God, is founded in the power of the Cross. We are thereby proclaiming that we have no access to God except through the Cross of the Lord. The raising of our hands in prayer is acceptable to God only because of its relationship to that true evening sacrifice through which we draw near.

Second, the rising incense smoke as symbolic of prayer is most vividly portrayed in the vision of the heavenly throne room in Revelation: “Then another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand” (8:3, 4).

In short, the evening hour of prayer unites us daily to two places: the throne room of the Lamb and the hill on which He took away the sins of the world.

Saturday, April 8

John 11:1-44: The Greek of the verb “loved” in verse 5 (“Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus”) is in the imperfect tense, indicating Jesus’ sustained, habitual affection for this family (egapa; Vulgate diligebat). The wording of verse 6 suggests that the Lord’s delay in going to Bethany was intended to demonstrate (hos oun; Vulgate ut ergo) that love!

Following a pattern pervasive in John (3:4; 4:15,33; 6:52; 8:18,33), the disciples misunderstand the Lord’s reference to the “sleep” of Lazarus (verses 11-13; Mark 5:19; 1 Thessalonians 4:14). The Christian reader will recognize, nonetheless, that their misunderstanding expresses as the very thesis of the story, as of the Gospel itself: “If Lazarus has fallen asleep, then he will be saved”—sothesetai.

Thomas’s comment—“Let us also go, that we may die with Him”—is prompted by the danger awaiting them at Jerusalem. The detail, “die with him,” in which Thomas apparently meant Lazarus, ironically points also to the death of Jesus. Thomas thus gives voice to a fundamental thesis of the Christian faith, according to which we die and rise with Christ (cf. Galatians 2:19-20).

Jesus comes to Bethany, the ancient site of the modern town El-Azariyeh, on the east side of the Mount of Olives, nearly two miles southeast of Jerusalem. This Arabic name, El-Azariyeh, is an obvious corruption of “Lazarus.” Bethany is not to be confused with a city of the same name in 10:40.

John heightens the extraordinary nature of what Jesus does by mentioning that Lazarus has been in the tomb four days (verse 17). Such a long period—-beyond the three days that Jewish lore believed the soul to hover near a corpse—rendered it probable that the body of Lazarus had begun to rot (verse 39).

These four days, combined with the earlier two (verse 6), also evoke the completion of Creation. It is in the raising of Lazarus that the Lord finishes “all His works” (Genesis 2:3).

We recall that the Jews normally devoted one week to mourning a person’s death, a fact that explains the presence of a large crowd at this time (verse 19). The evangelist remarks on this circumstance to set the stage for the very public display of this seventh sign.

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

Palm Sunday, April 9

Zechariah 9: latter part of the Book of Zechariah, like the second part of the Book of Isaiah, contains more explicit prophecies of the Passion of our Lord, a circumstance indicating the propriety of reading these texts during Holy Week.

Today’s passage is such a text. Verse 9 declares, “Tell the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your King is coming to you, lowly and seated on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey,’” a passage that the Gospel according to Matthew understands as prophetic of the Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem (21:5). The background of this passage is the story in 2 Samuel 15—17, where King David is portrayed fleeing from the rebellion of Absalom. Crossing the Kidron valley eastwards and ascending the Mount of Olives, David is the king rejected of his people, while a usurper is in full revolt. The King leaves in disgrace, riding on a donkey, the poor animal of the humble peasant. David is the very image of meekness in the face of defeat. In his heart is no bitterness; he bears all with patience and plans no revenge.

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

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

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

Matthew explicitly interprets the Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem through the eyes of the prophet Zechariah, whom he (along among the Synoptic Gospels) quotes: “Tell the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your King is coming to you, lowly and seated on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

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

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

Monday, April 10

Matthew 21:12-27: We may distinguish three historical levels in this story:

First, there is Lord’s action in the Temple in its own immediate context. The coming Messiah was expected to purge the Temple. Earlier suggestions of this idea include Isaiah 56:7, which is quoted by the Gospels as a prophecy fulfilled on this occasion: “Even them I will bring to My holy mountain, / And make them joyful in My house of prayer. /Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices / Will be accepted on My altar; /For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.”

Even more to the purpose, however, were the words of Malachi, referring to the Messiah’s coming to the Temple in order to purge it: “‘Behold, I send My messenger, / And he will prepare the way before Me. / And the Lord, whom you seek, / Will suddenly come to His temple, / Even the Messenger of the covenant, / In whom you delight. / Behold, He is coming,’ / Says the Lord of hosts. / ‘But who can endure the day of His coming? / And who can stand when He appears? / For He is like a refiner’s fire / And like launderers’ soap. / He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver; / He will purify the sons of Levi, / And purge them as gold and silver, / That they may offer to the Lord / An offering in righteousness. / Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem / Will be pleasant to the Lord, /As in the days of old, / As in former years” (Malachi 3:1-4). The context of this purging foreseen by Malachi was the sad state of Israel’s worship, to which he was witness (1:6-10,12-14).

Second, with respect to the later historical context of the first century, let us consider the circumstances in which this story was conveyed in the preaching of the Church prior to finding a place in the canonical Gospels. In this context, it is reasonable to suppose that the Christians related this event of the Temple’s purging to that definitive “purging” of the Lord’s house when Titus destroyed it in A.D. 70. In fact, in the Synoptic accounts this story of the Lord’s action is placed near His predictions of that later catastrophe. If what Jesus did on that day did not actually disrupt the daily routine of ritual sacrifice, the later action of the Romans most certainly did. Jesus’ prophetic act, therefore, foreshadowed the Temple’s destruction and the cessation of Israel’s sacrificial cultus, which has never been restored.

Third, let us consider the components of this story that are proper to Matthew and peculiar to his interpretation of it. These consist chiefly in appeals to two Old Testament texts that Matthew perceives to be “fulfilled” in what the Lord did in the Temple.

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 11

Matthew 25:1-13: Everything is going just fine in the account, except for the delay involved: “But while the Bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept” (25:5). That is to say, they were not cautious about the warning, “Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (24:44).

The “coming” of the Bridegroom in this parable is identical to the parousia of the Son of Man mentioned several times in the preceding chapter (24:39,44,50).

The ten maidens are divided between those who are “foolish” (morai) and those who are wise, prudent, or thoughtful. However we are to translate this latter adjective, phronimoi, it has just been used to describe the faithful servant that awaits his master’s return (24:45). Matthew is fond of this adjective, which he uses seven times. He uses the adjective moros six times—the only Synoptic evangelist to do so.

In addition, the distinction between moros and phronimos comes in the final parable of the Sermon on the Mount: “Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a phronimos who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a moros who built his house on the sand” (7:24-26).

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

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

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

Spy Wednesday, April 12

Matthew 26:1-16: The first verse of this chapter indicates that Jesus has now finished “all” five of the great discourses in Matthew (Compare 7:28; 11;1; 13:53; 19:1). Matthew’s wording here (“when Jesus had finished all these sayings”) puts the reader in mind of the end of the five books (Chumash) of Moses: “When Moses finished speaking all these words” (Deuteronomy 32:45).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maundy Thursday, April 13

Zechariah 12: The prophecies in this chapter begin with the great catastrophe of which the epicenter is Jerusalem. Jerusalem becomes the instrument of the divine wrath (verse 2). It is at Jerusalem that the Lord defeats His enemies (verses 3-6; Psalms 45 [46]; 47 [48]; 76 [75]; Isaiah 17:12-14; Joel 2:1-20). In deed, this is the very week when He defeats them. It is at Jerusalem that the House of David has its definitive triumph over its truest enemies (verse 7), being made like unto God (verse 8).

At the same time, there will be weeping in the Holy City, lamentation as though for an Only Son, who has been pierced with a spear on the Cross (verse 10). It is in His defeat that the House of David claims its defining victory over sin and death. This is the prophecy fulfilled in John 19:37 and remembered again in Revelation 1:7.

Commenting on this chapter of Zechariah in the third century, Hippolytus of Rome wrote: “For the people of the Hebrews shall see Him in human form, as He appeared to them when He came by the holy Virgin in the flesh and as they crucified Him. And He will show them the prints of the nails in His hands and His feet, and His side pierced by the spear, and His head crowned with thorns, and His honorable Cross.” This chapter thus continues the theme of the Lord’s Passion and Death.

Matthew 26:17-25: We come now to Holy Thursday and the evening of the Last Supper. The traditions behind the four gospels attach several stories to the narrative of the Last Supper. These include the story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, a saying of Jesus relative to His coming betrayal, a prophecy of Peter’s threefold denial, various exhortations and admonitions by Jesus, and a description of the institution of the Holy Eucharist.

Our earliest written account of this event is found 1 Corinthians 11, which is at least a decade older than the earliest of the four gospels. Indeed, this narrative recorded by St. Paul links the institution of the Eucharist explicitly to the betrayal by Judas: “I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the night in which He was betrayed took bread . . .” This text provides clear evidence that the traditional narrative contained in the Eucharistic prayer, as it was already known to Paul when he founded the Corinthian church about A.D. 50, made mention of Judas’s betrayal. That same formula or its equivalent—“on the night He was betrayed”—is found in both the liturgies of St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom.

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

Good Friday, April 14

Matthew 26:57—27:61: Since the story of Pilate’s wife is found only in the Gospel of Matthew, it seems reasonable to examine it specifically through the perspective of Matthew. What function is served by that very short narrative in that particular Gospel?

Commentators have remarked that Pilate’s wife, a Gentile woman who pleads the innocence of Jesus (“that just man”) serves as a literary foil to the Jewish leaders who clamor for his crucifixion (27:23). This comment is surely accurate, but it does not indicate a larger context nor an intention specific to Matthew.

Indeed, this is the sort of story we might more readily have expected in Luke. The latter, after all, is rather preoccupied with showing that the Roman authorities regarded Jesus as innocent (Luke 23:4,14-15,20,47), and among the four evangelist he is certainly the one that writes most often about women, whether in Jesus’ parables or in actual associates of our Lord.

It seems, then, that a closer examination of Matthew 27:19 is required. The text says that while Pilate “was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent to him, saying, ‘Have nothing to do with that just Man, for I have suffered many things today in a dream because of Him.'”

This woman is portrayed, not only as resistant to the official plot to murder Jesus, but as having “suffered many things today in a dream because of Him.” The most striking item here, I suggest, is her dream. The dream, then, is the place to start.

This Gentile’s dream near the end of Matthew clearly forms a literary inclusion with the dream of certain other Gentiles near that Gospel’s beginning. There we are told, with respect to the Magi, that “being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way” (2:12). That is the last appearance of the Magi.

The contexts of these two dreams are strikingly similar. In each case the dream takes place in connection with an official plot to kill Jesus. In the instance of the Magi this plot includes the official representative of the Roman government, King Herod, who has “gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together” (2:4). In the instance of Pilate’s wife, the murderous plot involves “all the chief priests and elders of the people” (27:1,12,20; the scribes are included in 27:41). In both cases the dreams of the Gentiles are contrasted with the plots of Jesus’ enemies. Pilate’s wife near the end of Matthew stands parallel to the Magi near its beginning.

In each case, moreover, the plot to murder Jesus has to do with His kingship, His status as the Messiah. In the example of the Magi, these come from the East “to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?'” (2:1-2). The usurping Herod, threatened by the suspected appearance of Israel’s true king, takes all the necessary precautions, including the murder of “all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under” (2:16).

The expression “King of the Jews” does not appear in Matthew again until the final plot against Jesus. It is while Pilate officiates in his judgment seat, and just before receiving the message from his wife, that he inquires, “Are You the King of the Jews?” (27:11). The source of Pilate’s question here is indicated in the next verse, which tells us that “He was being accused by the chief priests and elders” (27:12). These chief priests and others correspond to the group that Herod summoned earlier when he made his own inquiry about the King of the Jews.

Matthew tells us that Pilate “knew that they had handed Him over because of envy.” Indeed, he mentions this in the verse immediately preceding the message from his wife (27:18-19). This envy of Jesus’ enemies readily puts the reader in mind of the earlier envy of Herod, when he too was confronted with the real King of the Jews.

There is a special irony, then, to the title by which Pilate’s soldiers address Jesus in their mockery: “Hail, King of the Jews” (27:29). Pilate, moreover, apparently with a view to mocking the Jews themselves, attaches to the cross the official accusation against Jesus: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (27:39). At last is answered that question first put by the Magi, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” (2:2:2) He is on the cross, the just Man dying for the sins of the world.

Thus, the dream of Pilate’s wife, which had revealed Jesus to be a just Man, completes the earlier dream of the Magi. The testimony from the East is matched by the testimony from the West, both cases representing those regarding whom Jesus commanded His Church, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (28:19.