Friday, April 12

Philippians 2:5-11: Paul wanted the Philippians to adopt the self-emptying of
God’s Son. His moral intent here is very much like that of the Apostle Peter, who reminded his readers, “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow His steps” (1 Peter 2:21–23). And, just as Peter illustrated his point by citing a biblical source (Is. 53:7–9), so Paul cites a well-known Christian hymn to make the same point.

Indeed, the hymn cited by Paul sounded a note identical to that Old Testament text cited by Peter: Christ emptied Himself, taking on the condition of a slave, the very Suffering Slave (’eved, doulos) of the Book of Isaiah. When God’s Son took on “the form of a slave,” it was this specific slave foreseen and foretold by the prophet.

This Isaian theme—God’s Slave suffering for the sins of men—gave shape to early Christian preaching, as we see in Philip’s discourse to the Ethiopian (Acts 8:32–35) and Paul’s evangelizing of the Corinthians (1 Cor. 15:3). Here in Philippians we observe its appearance in early Christian hymnography.

In addition, at least part of the content of this hymnic insertion clearly relies on a contrast between Christ and Adam. Whereas Adam was disobedient
in trying to become like God. This was implied in what the serpent told Eve with respect to the forbidden fruit: “For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God” (Gen. 3:5). That is to say, disobedient Adam “regarded equality with God as robbery [or a thing to be grasped],” God’s true Son, in contrast, being “in the form of God,” was already “equal to God”; He had no need to grasp or covet this equality. Yet He emptied Himself and assumed “the form of a slave,” becoming obedient to death on the Cross. This is the model of obedience Paul holds out to Christians, telling them, “Have this mind among yourselves.” Believers are exhorted to abandon the example of Adam and pursue the standard of Christ.

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.

Lazarus Saturday, April 13

John 11:1—12:11: The sickness of Lazarus, Jesus declares, will not finish in death—death will not have the final word—-but in “the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (verse 4). The theme of the divine glory in this chapter (verse 40) ties the raising of Lazarus to the first of Jesus’ Signs, the miracle at Cana (2:11).

In seeking the intervention of Jesus, the sisters of Lazarus simply state the gravity of the situation (verse 3). Their restraint closely resembles that of the Mother of Jesus at Cana (2:3), and just as Jesus at first showed an apparent indifference on that earlier occasion (2:4), so here He delays His response to the sisters’ request (verse 6). The manifestation of the divine glory will not be rushed.

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.

Does Martha’s expression “even now” (kai nun) convey a request for the Lord to raise her brother right away? I believe it does, but the meaning is subtle and implicit. She does not press Jesus overtly, but her hint opens the dialogue to the experience of immediacy. Jesus fills this immediacy by His claim to be, “even now,” the Resurrection and the life. That is to say, the root of the final resurrection is planted in the here and now of faith (verses 25-26; cf. 6:40).

Zechariah 8: Now, seventy years after God’s departure from Jerusalem had left it completely vulnerable to the attack of the Babylonians, God is about to return and make it once again His holy city. Indeed, the chapter following this one will describe His return as Israel’s anointed King seated on the foal of an ass.

Jerusalem will once again be a “city of faith” (verse 3: ‘ir ha’emeth) where God will dwell. Both sexes and all ages will dwell there securely (verses 4-5). The Lord will once again gather the scattered (verse 7) and dwell in their midst (verse 8). All of this is promised in the rebuilding of the temple (verses 9-13). The reason things have changed, says Zechariah, is that God has relented from His wrath (verses11,14), and the prophet goes on to insist on the maintenance of those social virtues (verses 16-17) of which he had spoken in the previous chapter (7:9-10). The special seasons of fasting, about which Zechariah had been consulted earlier (7:1-7), will be turned into times of joy (verses 18-19). Jerusalem will once again become a place of pilgrimage (verses 20-22), even for the gentiles (verse 23). The whole world will be converted to the God of the Jews (cf. John 4:22).

These prophecies, only imperfectly realized with respect to Jerusalem’s second temple, are properly interpreted in their Christian fulfillment in the message of the Gospel. The salvation truly accomplished in Jerusalem is that fulfilled in the dramatic events of the last week of the earthly life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Palm Sunday, April 14

Zechariah 9: These latter chapters of the Book of Zechariah are so different in tone from the chronologically dated prophecies of the first eight chapters that some historians express doubt that this final part of the book even comes from the hand of Zechariah. They speak of this section as “Second Zechariah.”

Thus, this critical question about the Book of Zechariah is parallel to the question of the literary unity of the Book of Isaiah. Beginning with Chapter 40 of the Book of Isaiah, the author’s literary style and evident historical circumstances are so profoundly changed that some historians of the text speak of “Second Isaiah.”

It is foreign to the intent of these notes to investigate those critical questions. However they are to be answered, it is a fact that the books of Isaiah and Zechariah have come down to us as unified works, whatever the historical background of the material they contain. Consequently, each of these books is interpreted in these notes within the context of its own literary integrity. Rather than dissecting either book on the basis of literary perceptions that may be massively subjective, it seems more useful to interpret each part of each book within the context of that book’s integrity, just as the Sacred Text has come down to us.

That procedure declared, it is worth observing that this 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.

Monday, April 15

Matthew 21:12-27: Only Matthew’s version of this story includes the note, “Then the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them” (verse 14). 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.

Zechariah 10: Israel’s worst enemies, over the years, had been the kings who failed properly to shepherd the people, along with the false prophets who abetted them (verse 2-3). These were the men chiefly responsible for the scattering of God’s flock at the time of Jerusalem’s downfall. This distinction between Israel and its rulers will be important over the next two chapters. Whereas the Lord will punish the latter, He Himself will undertake to provide for the former. From them will emanate the cornerstone, the tent peg, the bow of battle — all metaphors associated with the covenanted Davidic kingship (verse 4).

This is a prophecy, of course, of Israel’s true King to come, identified with God Himself. This is the King whose entrance into Jerusalem was celebrated yesterday. He will restore the scattered (verses 8-11). In particular He will deliver them from their enemies, symbolized by the two powers traditionally governing the two ends of the Fertile Crescent, Assyria and Egypt (verse 11). In contrast to the wandering with which the chapter began (verse 2), God’s people will “walk in His name” (verse 12).

Tuesday, April 16

Matthew 25:1-13: 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).

The prudent, thoughtful maidens enter into the wedding festivities, and the door is closed (verse 10). This closing of the door represents the end of history; the deed represents finality. In an earlier parable Matthew had narrated the exclusion of a man from a wedding festival because of his failure to take it seriously (22:11-14).

Like the parable that comes before it and the two that will follow, this is a study in contrasts. It portrays the antithesis between those who think wisely and those who don’t think at all. This contrast indicates an essential component of the life in Christ, because wise reflection is necessary to “going the distance.” Critical, reflective thought is not optional in the Christian life; it is a moral imperative.

Spy Wednesday, April 17

Zechariah 11: Another passage from Zechariah invoked by Matthew in connection with the Lord’s Passion is Zechariah 11:13: “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the value of Him who was priced, whom they of the children of Israel priced, and gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me” (Matthew 27:9f). Matthew cited this text as a prophecy fulfilled by Judas Iscariot in his betrayal of the Lord for 30 pieces of silver, the prescribed price of a slave (Exodus 21:32).

There is a curious confusion of words in this text of Zechariah, however, apparently seen by Matthew as pointing to a deeper layer of meaning. In the traditional Hebrew reading, the Lord tells the prophet: “Cast it to the potter (el-hayoser).” Zechariah goes on to say, “So I cast it, in the house of the Lord, to the potter,” a reading reflected in several modern translations. With the change of only one letter, however, the Hebrew text would read: “Cast it into the treasury (el-hahoser)” and “So I cast it, in the house of the Lord, into the treasury.” This latter reading is followed by other translations.

Rather than choose between these two possible readings, however, the Gospel of Matthew conflates them, maintaining both the Temple treasury and the potter. Thus, Judas Iscariot, realizing the gravity of his betrayal but despairing of God’s mercy, returns to the Temple and throws in the 30 shekels. The clinking of those silver coins, bouncing and rolling across the stone floor of the Temple, has been resounding in the ears of the Church for the past 2000 years, summoning every sinful soul back from the perils of final despair.

The Temple officials collect the coins. Their first thought is to put them into the Temple treasury (hahoser), but they are afflicted by a hypocritical scruple about such a use of blood-money. Instead, they take the coins and purchase the “field of the potter (hayoser).” The double disposition of these coins of Judas, the inspired Evangelist saw clearly, was a fulfillment of a prophetic word spoken centuries earlier in that mystic text of Zechariah.

This “field of the potter,” perhaps so named because of broken sherds lying about in it, came to be known as the “field of blood,” says Matthew, because it was purchased with blood-money. As such this field is a very rich symbol of Redemption. This obscure piece of real estate, bought with the price of the blood of Christ, became a sort of down payment on that ultimate Redemption by which “the Lord’s is the earth and the fullness thereof.” By the price of His blood, Christ became the “Landlord,” the Lord of the earth. All this Matthew saw in the prophecy of Zechariah.

Maundy Thursday, April 18

Matthew 26:17-56: Matthew introduces the “timing” of this event. Jesus has His own “time”–kairos (verse 18). This kairos of Jesus has to do with God’s plan, though its implementation subsumes the “opportunity” (eukaria) of the Lord’s enemies (verse 16).

This kairos of Matthew (missing in Mark 14:14) is identical with the “hour” in John (2:4; 7:30; 8:20; 12:23,27; 13:1; 16:21,32; 17:1). Both terms are references to God’s control of history—Divine Providence as it pertained to Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is obviously quite conscious of this.

The Lord’s knowledge of the kairos is of a piece with His knowledge of the betrayer. He is able to read both times and hearts. The scene in the Upper Room grows dramatically tense as Jesus announces what is to transpire that night.

When the Apostles question Jesus on this announcement, they address Him as “Lord”–Kyrios (verse 22). Only Judas fails to do so (verse 25). Upon His betrayer Jesus pronounces a “woe” (verse 24), prophetic of what will transpire in 27:1-10. We recall the series of seven “woes” pronounced against the scribes and Pharisees in chapter 23.

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). Indeed, 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.

Good Friday, April 19

Psalms 22 (Greek & Latin 21): There is no doubt about the importance of this psalm in reference to the Lord’s suffering and death. Not only did Jesus pray this psalm’s opening line on His gibbet of pain; other lines of it are also interpreted by the Church, even by the Evangelists themselves, as prophetic references to details in the drama of Holy Friday.

Consider, for instance, this verse: “All who gazed at Me derided Me. With their lips they spoke and wagged their heads: ‘He hoped on the Lord. Let Him deliver him. Let Him save him, since He approves of him.’” One can hardly read this verse without recalling what is described in Matthew: “And those who passed by blasphemed Him, wagging their heads and saying, . . . ‘If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross.’ Likewise the chief priests also, mocking with the scribes and elders, said, . . . ‘He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now if He will have Him’” (27:39–43).

The Gospels likewise tell of the soldiers dividing the garments of Jesus at the time of His Crucifixion. St. John’s description of this event actually quotes our psalm verbatim as a fulfilled prophecy (John 19:23-24).

Moreover, if Holy Church thinks of the Lord Himself as praying this psalm on the Cross, such an interpretation is amply justified by a later verse that says: “Like a potsherd has my strength been scorched, and my tongue cleaved to my palate.” Hardly can the Church read this line without calling to mind the Lord who said from the Cross: “I thirst” (John 19:28).

And as she thinks of the nails supporting the Lord’s body on the tree of redemption, the Church recognizes the voice that speaks yet another line of our psalm: “They have pierced my hands and feet; they have numbered all my bones.”

Zechariah 13: Maintaining his emphasis on the Lord’s Passion and Death, the prophet goes on to speak of the striking of the Shepherd and the consequent dispersal of His disciples (verse 7), a text interpreted for us in Matthew 26:31 (cf. Mark 14:27; John 16:31).

This is the event by which the false gods are defeated (verse 1). These are the demonic forces brought to naught by the death of the First Born. Questioned about the marks of the wounds in His flesh, the Lord responds, “These wounds I received in the house of My friends” (verse 6).

Cyril of Alexandria wrote in the fifth century: “when the Only Begotten Word of God ascended into the heavens in the flesh to which He was united, there was something new to be seen in the heavens. The multitude of holy angels was astounded, seeing the King of glory and the Lord of hosts being made in a form like ourselves. . . . Then the angels asked this, ‘What are these wounds in Your hands?’ And He said to them, ‘These wounds I received in the house of My friends.’” These are the wounds that He will show to His disciples after His resurrection. He bears these wounds in his glorified flesh forever, as He stands before the Father, “as though slain,” being the one Mediator between God and Man (Revelation 5:6).