Friday, March 19

Matthew 20.29-34: It appears that in Matthew’s two accounts of blind men (here and in 9:27-31), both stories, as they were narrated in the Church’s preaching prior to the written Gospels, came to be told in much the same way. This would account for the similarities between them, such as the identical use of certain expressions: passing through (paragein), touching (hapto), and following (akoluo). We observe, for instance, that the first of these two verbs are not found in the parallel accounts in Mark and Luke.

The major difference of Matthew from Mark and Luke here is, of course, that Matthew has two blind men instead of one. This is surely another instance of Matthew combining two accounts of the healing of blind men from Mark (8:22-26; 10:46-52) into a single story. Why does Matthew do this? Well, his construction effectively juxtaposes these two men with the two sons of Zebedee, who are symbolically healed of their spiritual blindness with respect to the mystery of the Cross. Thus healed, says the text, “they followed “him” (20:34). They become part of the congregation that will accompany Israel’s true King into Jerusalem to accomplish the mystery of Redemption.

Proverbs 28: Among the characteristics of the righteous man is one not often mentioned in Proverbs, perhaps because it is too obvious — bravery (verse 1). The bravery mentioned here is the fruit of a righteous life, not the mere exertions of a strong will. Such bravery will be manifest in a variety of actions, not the least of which is the refusal to approve of wickedness or those who practice it (verses 4,21). Indeed, even the ability to recognize the difference between good and evil comes from being good; this distinction is lost on those who are not (verse 5).

Although prosperity is the expected fruit of a good, wise, and industrious life (verse 19), this is not invariably the case. Ultimately, it is not prosperity that is essential, but the righteousness that would deserve prosperity if life in this world were perfect (verses 6,11). Indeed, Proverbs warns against the inordinate desire for prosperity (verse 22), and no man may seek prosperity to the neglect of the poor (verse 27; 29:7).

The worst fate that can befall a nation is to be ruled by a fool (verses 2,15-16; 29:2), and the biblical histories of Judah and Israel prove the point.

Saturday, March 20

Matthew 21.20-32: We should distinguish among three levels of history in the transmission of the story of the cursed fig tree: the significance of the action of Jesus when it happened, the meaning that this incident took on as it was narrated in the Church’s preaching, and, finally, the significance of the event in the thought of the Gospel writer, specifically Matthew.

First, what did this action of our Lord mean to those who witnessed it? At this first level of meaning the fig tree was taken as a symbol of the fruitlessness of God’s people, which is a theme common throughout the Old Testament’s prophetic writings. Thus, we read in Hosea 2:12 the Lord says of Israel, “I will destroy her vines and her fig trees.” Again, in Jeremiah 8:13, “‘I will surely consume them,’ says the Lord. /‘No grapes shall be on the vine, /Nor figs on the fig tree.’” Just as He was fulfilling biblical prophecy in His purging of the Temple, the Lord here fulfills the ancient threat to dry up Israel’s fig tree.

As an element important to Matthew’s ecclesiology, this theme will continue in the stories that follow. Matthew is describing Israel’s rejection of the promised Messiah, a rejection that has important implications for ecclesiology. To borrow a metaphor that St. Paul uses to make the same point, Israel’s rejection of the Messiah meant that branches were being lopped off in order for the nations to be engrafted onto the ancient stock of Israel. This was still happening when Matthew wrote.

From the call of Abraham to the coming of Jesus nearly two thousand years had elapsed, during which time the Lord had cultivated this people symbolized in the fig tree. The Lord’s curse expresses God’s distress and wrath that His people have responded so poorly. In short, the fruitlessness of the fig tree corresponds in symbol to the story of the vineyard, which will presently follow (Matthew 22:33-46; Mark 12:1-12).

If we keep this significance in mind, we will not take seriously the objection that says Jesus acted irrationally in thus cursing the fig tree. For all we know, God may have created fig trees chiefly to enact this curse, which symbolizes the fruitlessness of Israel’s history and serves as a metaphor of her destiny. That is to say, this deed of Jesus was a prophetic act and should be assessed as such. It stands in a sequence with two other prophetic acts: His triumphal entry into Jerusalem and His purging of the Temple.

Second, how was this story used in the preaching of the early Church? This is a reasonable historical question, because it appears that it was the preaching and catechesis of the early Church that preserved the memory of this incident during the time between the event itself and the written Gospels. At the least (in the case of Mark) this time was a generation.

It would appear that this story of the fig tree, as it was told during the period of catechetical transmission, became joined to an exhortation to faith, and especially to prayer with faith. We find this significance in both Mark and Matthew. Indeed, in Matthew the story terminates in a general principle regarding the efficacy of prayer with faith: “And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive” (verse 22). This is clearly a secondary meaning, because the cursing of the fig tree involved no prayer at all.

As the story of the fig tree was told by early Christian preachers and catechists, however, this secondary meaning emerged, probably because the image itself resembled a metaphor that our Lord used with respect to the power of faith. Both Evangelists cite that metaphor in this context: “Amen, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ it will be done” (verse 21; Mark 11:23).

Why would we assume that this secondary meaning was attached to the story of the fig tree during the period of the catechetical transmission and did not come from the Evangelists themselves? This is, of course, possible, but it seems improbable, given the context in which the story appears in the Gospels. That is to say, in neither Gospel is this story found in a general didactic section, but in the context of the Lord’s impending Passion. In neither Gospel would we expect a teaching about the prayer of faith exactly where this story appears. Hence, it is reasonable to suppose that if the story of the fig tree is joined to an exhortation to the prayer of faith, the Gospel writers give it this way because they received it this way. In the case of Mark, in fact, the story was apparently inherited as part of a series of teaching on prayer (Mark 11:23-25).

This brings us to the story’s third level of meaning, its significance in the literary context in the Gospel accounts. As we have reflected, there is nothing in the structure of the story itself to indicate that the event took place during Holy Week. In that context, however, the story assumes a special poignancy. The discovery that the tree bears no fruit becomes a metaphor for the immediate situation, in which Israel’s own history is about to culminate in its official rejection of the Messiah. It becomes, in Matthew’s account, an early enactment of the curse that the Lord’s enemies invoke upon themselves on the day of His death: “And all the people [pas ho laos] answered and said, ‘His blood be on us and on our children’” (27:25). The cursing of the fig tree becomes a prophecy of that sad and tragic moment when that international assembly of Jews, gathered for Passover in city of Jerusalem, deliberately rejected the Messiah for whose arrival God had spent centuries preparing them. This was the tragedy that divided Jew from Christian, and Matthew was witness to the unfolding of the tragedy during the ensuing decades of the first century.

Sunday, March 21

Proverbs 30: This chapter contains the first of the book’s three final collections of wisdom maxims, a collection called “the words of Agur, the son of Jakeh.” The Hebrew text further identifies Agur and Jakeh as “of Massa,” the same place in northern Arabia (Genesis 25:14; 1 Chronicles 1:30) as King Lemuel in the next chapter. Agur, the son of Jakeh, is not called a king, however, nor is he otherwise identified. It is reasonable to suppose, therefore, that he must have been a figure of some renown among the readers for whom the Book of Proverbs was intended, requiring no further introduction.

What we have in this chapter is a philosophical discourse delivered by Agur and recorded by his two disciples, otherwise unknown, named Ithiel and Ucal (verse 1). Ancient history from places as diverse as China, India, Egypt, and Greece provides other examples of such discourses given by masters and transcribed by their disciples. One thinks, for instance, of the “Deer Park Sermon” of Siddhartha Gautama.

Unlike Siddhartha, however, whose recent enlightenment (Bodhi) enabled him to discern a relentless Chain of Causation in existence and to devise an ascetical system for dealing with it, Agur of Massa confessed himself completely bewildered by the whole thing: “Surely I am more stupid than any man, and do not have the understanding of a man. I neither learned wisdom, nor have knowledge of the Holy One” (verses 2-3).

Such a sentiment makes Agur resemble Socrates more than Siddhartha. Socrates, we recall, once identified by the Delphic oracle as the world’s wisest man, spent his life trying to prove the oracle wrong. Socrates finally concluded, however, that the oracle must be correct because he discovered all reputedly wise men to be just as ignorant as himself, except that they were not aware of being ignorant. Socrates concluded that it was as though the oracle had declared, “Among yourselves, oh men, that man is the wisest who recognizes, like Socrates, that he is truly nobody of worth (oudenos axsios) with respect to wisdom.” Socrates and Agur, then, both associate the quest of wisdom with a humble mind.

Whatever his resemblance to that wise Athenian, nonetheless, Agur more readily puts us in mind of the Psalmist, who confessed to God, “I was so foolish and ignorant, I was like a beast before You” (Psalms 72 [73]:22) and “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it” (138 [139]:6).

Whereas the philosophical humility of Socrates was spawned of epistemology—that is, the accepted limitations of the human being’s ability to know—that of Agur was inspired, rather, by cosmology; he considered the sheer vastness of the varied things to be known: “Who has ascended in heaven, or descended? Who has gathered the wind in His fists? Who has bound the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth?” (verse 4) Agur’s are the sorts of reflections we associate with God’s final answer to Job (Job 38-39).

With scant confidence in his own intelligence, then, Agur began the quest of wisdom by trusting in “every word of God” (kol ’imrath ’Eloah), which word he described, exactly like the Psalmist, as “pure,” seruphah (verses 5-6; Psalms 17 [18]:31). He then turned to prayer—the only explicit prayer in the whole Book of Proverbs—in which he begged God for a modest life, free of falsehood. The life that Agur craved from on high would be neither wealthy nor poor, in order to avoid both arrogance and desperation, either of which might lead him into sin (verses 7-9).

Agur did not think very highly of his contemporaries, whom he described as disrespectful of authority and tradition, morally dissolute and socially irresponsible, insatiable in their appetites, and entertaining too high an opinion of themselves (verses 11-14). If one looks closely at the criticism, it is clear that Augur’s complaint had a fourfold structure. In fact, he was especially fond of maxims based on the number four: four things that are never satisfied (verses 15-16), four things too hard to understand (verses 18-19), four things the world cannot endure verses 21-23), four small but wise animals from whom men can learn useful traits (verses 24-28), and four things “which are stately in walk” (verses 29-31).

Agur’s was, in short, the simple, observant philosophy of a humble man, content to live in this world by the purity of God’s word and a prayerful reliance on God’s gifts, offending the Almighty by neither the food he put into his mouth nor the words he caused to come forth from it.

Monday, March 22

Zechariah 2: Jerusalem’s wall would not be reconstructed until the time of Nehemiah. During these prophecies of Zechariah, around 520, Jerusalem is still only a little village without walls. There is no slight irony, then, when an angel proposes to measure the length and breadth of it (verse 2). The irony itself is prophetic, because the day will come when Jerusalem will be too large to measure, “for the multitude of men and cattle therein” (verse 4).

More than the earthly Jerusalem is involved here, of course. The perspective of this prophecy is turned, rather, to that Jerusalem yet to come, “when many nations shall be joined to the Lord” (verse 11). The Jerusalem where Zechariah lived had already been destroyed once, and less than six centuries later it would be destroyed again.

None of the promises made to that ancient Jerusalem were completely fulfilled in this regard, because that Jerusalem was a type and prefiguration of the more ample and catholic Jerusalem to whom the pledge was made, “Behold, I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world” Matthew 28:20). This is the Jerusalem where God’s Exodus-presence is fulfilled: “For I, says the Lord, will be unto her as a wall of fire round about, and will be the glory in the midst of her” (verse 5).

This protecting presence of the Lord is the chapter’s major theme (cf. verse 11,13). In verse 12 we have the first occurrence of the expression “Holy Land” with reference to the land of promise. The expression will later appear in the Wisdom of Solomon 12:3 and 2 Maccabees 1:7.

Proverbs 31: Although Proverbs several times encourages a young man to pay attention to the teaching of his mother (1:8; 6:20; 15:20), verses1-9 of this chapter, wisdom from Lemuel’s mother, are the only example of maternal teaching explicitly contained in this book. And, on reading this material, one has the impression that it is not much different, on the whole, from the instruction that a young man received from his father. There are warnings against lust (verse 3) and drinking alcohol (verse 4), along with an exhortation to take care of the oppressed and the poor (verses 5-9).

The final twenty-two verses of Proverbs (verses 10-31) form an acrostic, the verses all beginning with the sequential letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The theme is the good wife, a blessing often remarked on throughout this book (5:15;11:16; 12:4; 18:22; 19:14; cf. Sirach 7:19; 26:1-4,13-18). Here, however, the ideal wife is elaborately described in terms of her industry, economics, stewardship, discipline, labor, charity, wisdom and piety.

Tuesday, March 23

Matthew 24.1-35: 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, March 24

Matthew 24:36-51: This picture of Noah as a righteous preacher of repentance came to the early Christians from Jewish lore about that famous builder of the ark. Flavius Josephus wrote of Noah’s relationship to his contemporaries in this way: “Noah was most uncomfortable with their actions, and, not at all happy with their conduct, he persuaded them to improve their dispositions and their actions. Seeing, nonetheless, that they did not obey him but remained slaves to their own wicked desires, he feared that they would slay him, together with his wife and children, as well as the spouses of the latter, so he departed out of that land” (Antiquities 13.1).

Unable to convert his contemporaries, Noah then followed the divine leading to build an ark for the delivery of his family. He knew that God intended to flood the earth and destroy its wicked. This is what things will be like, says our Lord, at the end of the world.

The similarity between “days of Noah” and the “advent” (parousia–verses 3,27,37,39) of the Son of Man consists in the suddenness of the crisis. Not until it is actually upon them do men realize what is happening. It is literally a kataklysmos (verses 38,39), from the verb klyzo, “to wash over,” “to wash away.” The people in Noah’s time, like those at the beginning of The Plague, by Albert Camus, were living what they thought were normal lives, not expecting the catastrophe about to befall them. This is how it will be when the Son of Man returns.

Among those people living normal lives will be believers. They will be living with the unbelievers, working in the fields, grinding at the mill (verses 40-41). Yet, God will distinguish between the believer and the unbeliever. He will take the one and leave the other.

Zechariah 4: As in other prophetic accounts (cf. Amos 7:8; 8:2), a dialogue of questions and answers accompanies this vision of Zechariah. This is apparently necessary, as the vision is complex and detailed.

The image of the lamp stand is surely related to the lamp stand in the Mosaic tabernacle (Exodus 25:31-37) and in the Solomonic temple (1 Kings 7:49). From the bas relief on the Arch of Titus in Rome, we know that the second temple also had such a lamp stand. The lamp stand of Zechariah’s vision is not entirely identified with these, however. Being visionary, it is differently contoured. The seven lamps represent the fullness of the God’s providential knowledge of the world (verse 10), of which the constant worship in God’s temple at Jerusalem served as a sign.

These lamps were nourished by the oil provided by the two ministries of the secular ruler and the priest, Zerubbabel and Jeshua (verses 10-14). We recall that both the kings and the priests of Israel were anointed with the same oil that burned in the seven-branch lamp stand (Exodus 27:20; 30:23-24; Leviticus 24:2). They are “sons of oil.”

In their historical context, the efforts of these men seemed weak, but they acted by the power of God’s Spirit (verse 6). Consequently, no matter how tiny appeared their efforts, let no one despise “the day of small things” (verse 10), which refers to their laying of the foundation for the new temple (verse 9). This foundation stone of God’s house (verse 7), which is mystically identical with the seven-faceted stone in 3:9, should be viewed as a Christological prophetic reference. Much of the imagery of this chapter will appear later in Revelation 11.

Thursday, March 25

Hebrews 2.5-18: According to the author of Hebrews, the reliable way towards a correct anthropology—the accurate response to the question, “What is a human being?”—depends on the answer to a prior theological question: “What do you think of the Christ? Whose son in He?” In other words, the proper address to anthropology is through the gate of Christology.

The most correct wording of the dogma of the Incarnation is the one to which we are accustomed: “He became man.” This translation, which leaves the implied article undetermined, means Christ is the archetype of man, bearing all of humanity in Himself. “It was for the new man that human nature was established from the beginning,” wrote St. Nicholas Kavasilas; “the old Adam was not the model of the new, it was the new Adam that was the model of the old.” Christ is how the author of Hebrews approaches the subject of human beings.

This approach to anthropology, taken from Holy Scripture, is normative in Christian thought. According to the Christian faith, when God gave our forefather Adam dominion over the earth and its fullness, that act was a prophecy of the universal subjection of creation to the reign of Christ. Such is the true meaning of Psalm 8: “You have made Him to have dominion over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under His feet.”

According to this perspective, Christ is no divine afterthought; He is the original meaning of humanity. Christ is what God had in mind when He reached down and formed that first lump of mud into a man. Again in the words of St Nicholas Kavasilas: “It was towards Christ that man’s mind and desire were oriented. We were given a mind that we might know Christ, and desire, that we might run to Him; and memory, that we might remember Him, because even at the time of creation it was He who was the archetype.”

Zechariah 5: In this chapter, which also uses dialogue to interpret what is seen, there are two visions. In the first (verses 1-4), the prophet sees a flying scroll considerably larger than one would expect; indeed, it is the same size as the portico in Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6:3). This scroll contains the curses attendant on those who violate the terms of God’s covenant (cf. Deuteronomy 29:18-20). This scroll represents a permanent warning of the dangers of infidelity.

In the second vision (verses 5-11), the prophet sees “Wickedness” portrayed as a woman carried in a basket. Unlike the very large scroll in the first vision, the present vision gives us a very small basket. It holds only an ephah, yet this woman can fit into it. She must be a pretty insignificant woman—this Wickedness—and the angelic figures contemptuously shove her down into the basket and enclose it with a leaden lid. Representing the power of Babylon, which the Bible holds in contempt, the woman and her basket are deposited in the Babylonian plain (verse 11; cf. Genesis 11:2). This is the same woman, by the way, who looks so much larger and more impressive in Revelation 17.

Friday, March 26

Matthew 23:1-39: The seven (or eight) “woes” in this, the Lord’s last discourse in Matthew, are to be contrasted with the seven (or eight) “blesseds” with which the first discourse began (5:3-12).

The scribes and Pharisees are censured for neglecting the weightier matters of the Torah while concentrating on small particulars of lesser moment (verse 23). The comparison of the camel and the gnat (verse 24) is reminiscent of the camel and the needle’s eye (19:24).

The gulf between external observance and internal corruption, which is the very essence of hypocrisy, is the chief and unifying complaint that the Lord voices against these Jewish leaders.

In addressing these hypocrites as “serpents, offspring of vipers,” the Lord takes up the early censure by John the Baptist near the Gospel’s beginning (3:7).

Their persecution of the prophets and sages (verse 34) throughout history had recently been mentioned in two parables (21:34-35; 22:6). The reference to crucifixion, alien to the Holy Land before the coming of the Romans, seems to reflect Matthew’s own time, when Jews had ill treated Christian missionaries, a thing we see repeatedly in the Acts of the Apostles, The Martyrdom of Polycarp, and other sources.

All this just blood, unjustly spilt, will fall on the present “generation” (verse 36; 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.

Zechariah 6: This chapter contains both a vision and an oracle. In the vision (verses 1-8) the prophet sees four chariots drawn by horses, which are also four “winds” or “spirits,” as it were (verse 5). He saw them earlier (1:7-11). Like the “four winds” of common parlance, these horses go in four directions: the black northbound, the white westbound, the dappled southbound, and the red eastbound. They represent God’s providential “patrol,” as it were, of the whole universe. God is keeping an eye on things, Zechariah is reminded, even things that don’t seem to be going very well.

Although Babylon lies east of Jerusalem, one journeys there by leaving Jerusalem in a northerly direction and then following the contour of the Fertile Crescent. (If one journeyed straight east, he would simply have to pass through the Arabian Desert, an area best avoided.) Consequently, there is a special significance in the northbound horses in this vision, for they go to Babylon, where, God assures His prophet, He has everything under control (verse 8). This vision is related, then, to the woman in the basket in the previous chapter. The “Spirit” that guides world history, including geopolitical history, is the same Spirit proclaimed to Zerubbabel in 4:6.

The oracle in this chapter (verses 9-15), like the vision of the two olive trees in 4:11-14, pertains to the Lord’s two “sons of oil,” Zerubbabel and Jeshua, the priest and the governor, the religious and civil authority. Both are anointed by God and must work in common endeavor for the Lord (verse 13). The “branch” in verse 12, as in 3:8, refers to Zerubbabel, whose Akkadian name means “the branch of Babylon.” He is both a foreshadowing and a forefather (Matthew 1:12-13) of the One who combines in Himself the twin dignities of King and Priest.