Friday, February 9

Matthew 13.18-22: We have already reflected that the Parable of the Sower follows the outline of the Shema. Accordingly, the parable’s interpretation begins with the command, “Hear!” (verse 18) In the Greek wording, in fact, this command carries an emphatic pronoun, unusual with an imperative verb: “You!” This pronoun serves to emphasize the distinction between Jesus’ followers and the “others.”

The first group in this parable, symbolized in the seed sown by the wayside (verse 19), fails in the matter of the “heart” (a detail missing in Mark 4:15). These do not love God with their whole heart, a condition that renders them vulnerable to attack from the Evil One. Their hearts, which have grown dull, have no understanding (verses 14-15).

The second group, symbolized in the rocky ground, is shallow, so the Word cannot take root (verse 20). These will fall away at the first sign of trouble (verse 21). Matthew had already witnessed such trials in his own lifetime (10:18,21-23). Those who thus falter have failed to love God with their whole soul.

The third group, symbolized by the sowing among the thorns, permits the care for wealth and worldly concern to strangle the life from the Gospel (verse 22). They have failed to love God with all their might.

The fourth group, symbolized in the good ground that receives the seed, has the grace of “understanding,” because of which they bring forth fruit (verse 23). They have fruitful lives. They are later symbolized in the two productive servants in the Parable of the Talents (25:16-17).

In Matthew’s version of this parable-interpretation, we note his special emphasis on “understanding” in verses 19 and 23. According to Matthew, a special type of understanding is characteristic of true discipleship. Thus, Matthew omits both references to a failure of understanding on the part of the disciples in Mark 4:10, 13.

And at the end of the parables, in Matthew 13:51, the disciples admit that they do understand what the Lord has been saying. For more evidence of Matthew’s emphasis on understanding as a characteristic of discipleship, one may compare Mark 9:9-13 with Matthew 17:9-13; and Mark 9:30-32 with Matthew 17:22-23.

Romans 2.17-29: Paul continues talking to the imaginary “man” that he earlier addressed (verses 1,3). This man calls himself a Jew (verse 17). This man, whom he had earlier reprimanded for judging others, Paul now taunts with a series of claims that were commonly made by the Jews: knowledge of the true God and His will, confidence in the Law, a superior moral insight, and the consequent right to provide guidance to the rest of the world (verses 18-20).

Paul does not deny the validity of any of these claims, but they do raise in his mind a series of concomitant questions that he now puts to the Jew (verses 21-23). The latter’s behavior, after all, leaves a lot to be desired. Indeed, the bad conduct of the Jew, as Isaiah had long ago remarked, has brought reproach of the God of the Jews (verse 24; Isaiah 52:5 in LXX). Their defining sign, circumcision, has been rendered morally meaningless by their insouciance to the rest of the Torah (verse 25).

Saturday, February 10

Mathew 13.24-30: Matthew replaces the parable in Mark 4:21-25 with this parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, which is proper to his own gospel. It is joined to the parables that follow by the common image of growth. So much is this the case that Matthew postpones the explanation of the Wheat and the Weeds until after the parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven.

As we shall see in that delayed explanation, the first of these parables is about judgment, and in cases of judgment there is usually the danger of misjudging. The difficulty of distinguishing the weeds from the wheat is that, in their early stages, they look very much alike. So the Lord commands that both be allowed to grow to maturity, because only in their maturity are they easily distinguished. Thus, the point of the parable is that finality in judgment should be delayed until “all the facts are in.” Indeed, by delaying the explanation of this parable until verses 36-43, Matthew is illustrating its point.

The six parables that follow the Parable of the Sower should be regarded as commentaries on the latter. The first of these, the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, addresses a problem perceived in the seed sown by the wayside (verse 4). That seed, we recall, was snatched away by the Evil One (verse 19). This Evil One reappears in the present parable, where he is identified as the “enemy” and the “Devil” (verses 25,28,39). Those whose hearts are dull (verse 15) are especially under the influence of this “enemy,” even though they live side-by-side with the saints. The difference between the two will be settled at the end of time. (If Matthew intends the Weeds to represent the Jews–a view certainly consonant with this section of his gospel–then his view of salvation history is far less complex than that of Paul–cf. Romans 11:11-36).

The temporary co-existence of the wheat and the weeds will appear later in the co-existence of the good and bad fish (verses 47-50), the wise and foolish maidens (25:1-13), and the sheep and the goats (25:31-46). In all of these parables the separation does not come until the end, the time of the judgment and harvest.

These latter images do convey the sense of delay and the passage of time, exactly as in the Lord’s Final Discourse (24:48; 25:5,19).

Romans 3:1-8: To say (as Paul has been saying) that both the Gentile and the Jew are called to repentance is not to deny the historical advantage of the Jews, because “to them were committed the oracles of God” (verse 2). Later in this same epistle (11:11-23) Paul will argue at greater length that God still keeps His eye on the Jews; they will still have their important role to play in the outcome of history. The Jews’ current displacement from their native root (which is Christ, we perhaps need to insist, and not real estate in the land of Palestine) is only temporary, “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (11:25).

Meanwhile, in fact, only “some” of the Jews have failed (verse 3), only “some of the branches have been broken off” (11:17). In these assertions Paul seems to have in mind not only his contemporary situation but all of Jewish history. That is to say, the Old Testament itself testifies that there have always been both faithful and unfaithful Jews. Those very “oracles of God,” which were committed to the Jews, also bear witness to the failure of some Jews to take God’s word seriously. No matter, says Paul, because God Himself is faithful, even to an unfaithful people (verses 3-4).

The divine fidelity also is recorded in the “oracles of God.” This expression, ta logia tou Theou (Psalms 107 [106]:11; Numbers 24:4,16), includes the whole corpus of Sacred Scripture, not simply the prophetic utterances (Hebrews 5:12; 1 Peter 4:11). The whole Old Testament testifies to God’s fidelity in the face of man’s infidelity (3:26; Exodus 34:6; Numbers 23:19; Isaiah 55:11; Hosea 3:26).

Sunday, February 11

Matthew 13.31-35: Our third parable, that of the Mustard Seed (verses 31-32) is also about growth. Unlike the previous parable, it is found in the other Synoptics (Mark 4:30-32; Luke 13:18-19).

This parable and the one that follows it—the Leaven in verse 33—address the second part of the Parable of the Sower; to wit, the seed that falls on rocky ground (verses 5-6). That rocky ground, we recall, symbolized those shallow folk unable to love God with the whole soul. The seed that fell there, unable to bring forth fruit, is now contrasted with the growth of the mustard seed and the leaven.

The mustard seed is sown, says Matthew, “in his field,” an expression not found in this place in Mark and Luke. It appears that this field represents the world, into which God’s Son entered, along with His missionaries who continue to sow the seed. This image of the field also ties the present parable back to the one before it (verses 24,27).

When the very tiny mustard seed grows, its bush becomes a veritable tree, where birds may live. These birds, in turn, represent those who take shelter in the Church through the apostolic preaching. In his own day Matthew saw this happening.

The theme of growth is sustained in our fourth parable, that of the Leaven (verse 33). This leaven is said to be “concealed,” somewhat as the mustard seed is concealed in the earth. In both parables there is an emphasis on something rather little becoming something rather large.

The Parable of the Leaven is followed by an explanation of why Jesus speaks in this symbolic language (verses 34-35). Matthew finds this explanation in the “fulfillment” (hopos plerothe) of a line of the Psalter (Psalms 77 [78]:2). Such speech is “hidden” (kekrymmena), rather like the leaven was “hidden” (enekrypsen) in the dough.

Romans 3.9-20: After the diatribe that begins this chapter (verses 3-8), Paul returns to the theme introduced in chapter two, the alleged moral advantage of the Jew over the Gentile. Even though God’s fidelity to the Jews, in spite of their infidelities to Him, does ironically manifest the privileged position of the Jews in salvation history, from a moral perspective this fact hardly warrants any boasting on the part of the Jews. Indeed, it shows them up rather badly. In short, Paul is arguing, “we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin” (verse 9).

This is, in truth, man’s concrete position under God—he is “under sin” (hyph’ hamartian). Such is Paul’s repeated contention in Romans (verse 23; 5:5:12). Let us note he uses the word “sin” here for the first time in this epistle.

In support of his thesis about man’s subjection to sin, Paul quotes (along with other sources) the Book of Psalms 14 (13):1-3; 53 (52):1-3. These two psalms both begin with the fool’s assertion that “there is no God.” In citing these psalms, therefore, Paul is once again taking up, from chapter one, the denial of God by the “fools” (1:22), whose “foolish hearts were darkened” (1:21). The “fools” in these psalms, Paul is suggesting, are not simply Gentiles, because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (verse 23).

The totality, the completeness, of man’s sinful condition is indicated here by Paul’s scriptural references to the various body parts that contribute to the sin: throat, tongue, lips, mouth, feet, eyes (verses 13-5). Man is, in short, completely sinful, sinful in all his parts.

Tuesday, February 13

Romans 4.1-12: When St. Paul asserted, at the end of the previous chapter, that by the proclamation of the Gospel “we establish the Law,” it is clear that he understood the latter term in the sense of the whole content of the Torah, including the narratives that it contains. He apparently intended even the entire Old Testament under this heading. That is to say, the proclamation of the Gospel provides the proper basis for that entire body of divinely inspired literature that the Christian Church has received from the Jews. The Gospel is the key to the Law; it provides the correct understanding of that literature.

In the present chapter the apostle illustrates and demonstrates that the principle of justification through faith lies at the heart of the Old Testament. He goes to this Gospel principle as illustrated in the lives of Abraham and David.

In the case of David, who had violated at least two articles of the Decalogue, justification came from the forgiveness of his sins. David had not observed the Law, but God had forgiven his lawless deeds and not imputed his sins unto him (verses 7-8).

In this non-imputation of sin, the verb employed is logizesthai, which Paul uses with respect to both David and Abraham. Such imputation is not some sort of legal fiction. This verb, in its normal and literal meaning, comes from the practice of accounting, bookkeeping, and the maintenance of ledgers. In the Greek Bible it is used metaphorically in the sense of a recorded account of man’s moral conduct, as though God and the angels were “keeping tabs” on him (Deuteronomy 24:13; Psalms 106 [105]:31; Daniel 7:10; Revelation 20:12). This figurative use of the verb in a theological sense seems to be an extension of its figurative use in a legal and forensic sense, such as in court records and similar official archives (cf. Esther 6:1-3).

Thus, when David writes that a forgiven man’s sins are not “imputed” to him, the meaning is that those sins are no longer kept on the ledger, so to speak. They have been erased or “whited over.” Our sins are removed from the divine calculation, as it were. Our sins are “covered” (verse 7), not in the sense that they still remain in the soul, but in the sense that God has put them out of His mind. They are over and done with. He remembers them no more. The blood of the Lamb has washed them away, and a man never again needs to remember things that God has forgotten.

In addition to David, Paul writes of Abraham, “our forefather according to the flesh,” which means “our biological ancestor” (verse 1; Matthew 3:9; Luke 3:8). Abraham lived in a period long before the Sinai Covenant and the Mosaic Law. Yet, he was justified in God’s sight, not by his observance of the Law, but through his faith in God’s word, a faith manifest in his obedience to God’s call (verses 2-5).

When the Sacred Text asserts that Abraham’s faith was “accounted [elogisthe] to him for righteousness” (verse 3), it means that God was never in Abraham’s debt. God did not owe Abraham anything. The initiative of salvation in the story of Abraham was entirely God’s. God sought out Abraham, not the other way around. Abraham’s task was to believe, to trust, to obey. In faith he left his justification in God’s hands.

The biblical assertion of Abraham’s righteousness in Genesis 15 not only preceded the giving of the Mosaic Law in the Book of Exodus, it also preceded Abraham’s circumcision in Genesis 17. Indeed, Abraham received the circumcision as a “sign” (semeion) and “seal” (sphragis) of the righteousness he already had through faith. He is the father, therefore, not only of the circumcised Jew but also of the uncircumcised Gentile (verses 9-12).

Ash Wednesday, February 14

The Beginning of Lent: All the earliest references to the observance of Lent claim that the Apostles themselves taught the Church to maintain a period of fasting in preparation for the Lord’s Resurrection, the most normal day for doing Baptisms.

In the Eastern Church the forty days of Lent extend from a Monday all the way to the Friday of the sixth week, making a neat total of 40 days.

In the West, however, the Lenten fast does not include Sundays. Hence, there are six weeks with only six days of fasting in each week, making a total of 36 days. Thus, 4 extra days were added to the beginning, bringing the first day of the fast to a Wednesday.

he day before Ash Wednesday is called Shrove Tuesday because of the custom of making one’s Confession of sins before the beginning of the Lenten fast. (To “shrive” means to cleanse.)

In many other languages of Western Christianity the word for Lent is some variant of “forty,” derived from the Latin quadragesimale. Russians call it simply The Great Fast—Veliki Post. Traditionally this is a period of 40 days of fasting in imitation of the Lord himself, who observed exactly that length of time in fasting prior to the beginning of his earthly ministry. It was also associated with the 40-day fast of Moses on Mount Sinai and of Elijah as he journeyed to that same mountain.

As early as the second century we already find Easter being the preferred time for the baptism of new Christians. The reasons are rather obvious. It is in the Sacrament of Baptism, after all, that Christians are mystically buried and rise with Christ (cf. Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12).

It was important to earlier believers that some period of prayer and fasting, by way of preparation, should precede the ritual of baptism. Even the Apostle Paul prayed and fasted for three days prior to being baptized (Acts 9:9,11,18). In The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (Didache), a work from Syria before A.D. 100, there is the prescription that says: “Prior to Baptism, both he who is baptizing and he who is being baptized should fast, along with any others who can. And be sure that the one who is to be baptized fasts for one or two days beforehand” (7.4). One notes in this context that this fasting is a community effort, involving more than the personal devotion of the one being baptized.

That communal aspect of the pre-baptismal fasting is even clearer in a text some half-century or so later. Writing a defense of the Christians to the Emperor Antoninus Pius, the Christian apologist Justin described how newcomers to the faith went about getting themselves baptized: “As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their past sins, while we pray and fast with them. Then they are brought by us to where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated” (First Apology 61). Written in Rome, this text also shows that the pre-baptismal fast was not a practice limited to Syria.

Indeed, within the next half-century we find that discipline referred to in North Africa. In chapter 20 of his treatise On Baptism, the Christian apologist Tertullian remarks: “They who are about to be baptized ought to pray with repeated prayers, fasts, and bending of the knee, and vigils all the night through, along with the confession of all their prior sins.” Tertullian does not explicitly say that the fasting period should last 40 days, but he does link it to the 40-day fast of Jesus recorded in the Gospels.

Gradually the Christians did settle on a period of 40 days, and the custom was so firmly in place by year 325 that the Council of Nicaea, the same council that definitively fixed the canon of the New Testament, also determined that the 40 days preceding Easter should be a special time of prayer and fasting in preparation for the baptisms to be done on that day. Such were the origins of the season of Lent, which Christians from the fourth century onwards were very convinced were rooted in the time and teaching of the apostles themselves.

The fasting observed during this season is not, needless to say, total. Over the centuries it especially came to mean simply a tougher, more disciplined diet, excluding more “substantial” foods like meat, eggs, and dairy products. Such fasting is accompanied by other practices of restraint, to encourage concentration on the things of God and the health of the soul. For example, many Christians foreswear watching television during this season. These disciplines are normally part of a stricter seasonal regimen, of which the most important components are spending more time in worship and devoting more attention to the study of Holy Scripture.

Since almsgiving is supposed to be a normal part of Lent as well, many Christians give as alms the money saved from the restricted Lenten diet. In this way, all three traditional ascetical practices (prayer, fasting, almsgiving – cf. Matthew 6) receive special attention during Lent.

Thursday, February 15

Matthew 13:53-58: Nazareth’s negative response to Jesus indicates a new level of resistance among the Jews with respect to the Gospel. We will see this resistance intensify through chapters 14-16.

This section begins with the normal formula that ends each of the five dominical discourses in Matthew (verse 53; cf. 7:28; 11:1; 19:1; 26:1): “When Jesus had ended these sayings . .”

The reaction of the Nazarenes is expressed by their wonder at Jesus’ unexpected authority. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount the wonder of the people expressed a positive tone (7:28-29), but now it becomes an expression of skepticism (verse 56), scandal (verse 57), and unbelief (verse 58). They do not even refer to Jesus by name but speak contemptuously of “this man” (verses 54,56). Commenting on this verse, Father Augustine Stock remarked, “Jesus, the final prophet of God, experiences the definitive rejection of Israel; thus does he recapitulate the rejection of all of the persecuted prophets before him.”

As the ancient Fathers of the Christian Church were careful to remark —along with the entire Roman and Eastern traditions, as well as Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and all of the major 16th century Protestant Reformers without exception—the reference to Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” is no evidence that these persons were children of Mary. Because neither Hebrew nor Aramaic (the language spoken by Jesus and the apostles) has a special word for “cousin” or a generic word for blood relative, the words “brother” and “sister” do not necessarily mean what we would mean by these words in English.

In fact, because individuals usually have more cousins and other relatives than they do actual brothers and sisters, these words in Hebrew and Aramaic do not even normally mean what we would mean by them in English. Unless there is clear evidence to the contrary, the expressions “brother and sister” in Hebrew and Aramaic only rarely mean what these terms mean in English.

In addition, that idiomatic feature of Hebrew and Aramaic also influences the Greek text of Holy Scripture, including the New Testament. (Those of us today who have friends from the Middle East and North Africa know that this characteristic of their native Arabic has also permeated their use of English. Someone from Egypt or the Sudan, when he speaks of his “brother” or “sister” almost never means what we native English-speakers mean by those terms.)

It should not be a matter of wonder, consequently, that the Lord, as He was about to die, entrusted the care of His mother to someone outside of His immediate family (John 19:27), for there is no evidence that He had any other immediate family.

Friday, February 16

Romans 5.12-21: Having earlier treated of Abraham and David in regard to justification, Paul now turns to a consideration of Adam, whose sin introduced death into the world. Our mortality is the Fall that we sinners inherit from Adam. If, apart from Christ, sins reigns, “sin reigns in death” (verse 21). By reason of Adam’s Fall, man without Christ is under the reign of death and corruption, because “the reign of death operates only in the corruption of the flesh” (Tertullian, On the Resurrection 47).

In the death and resurrection of Christ, on the other hand, are unleashed the energies of life and incorruption. This is the foundation of Paul’s antithetical comparison of Christ and Adam.

Paul goes to Genesis 3 to explain what he calls “the reign of death” (verses 14,17). In the Bible death is not natural, nor is it merely biological, and certainly it is not neutral. Apart from Christ, death represents man’s final separation from God (verse 21; 6:21,23; 8:2,6,38). The corruption of death is sin incarnate and rendered visible. When this “last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:56) has finally been vanquished, then may we most correctly speak of “salvation.” This is why the vocabulary of salvation normally appears in Romans in the future tense.

Because of men’s inheritance of Adam’s Fall, “all sinned.” (Paul is not considering infants here, but this consideration makes no difference to the principle. What has been handed on in Adam’s Fall is not, in the first instance, a sense of personal guilt, but the reign of death. “Sin reigns in death” [verse 21]. Infants, alas, are also the heirs of death, and therefore of Adam’s Fall.)

The reign of death was present from Adam to Moses, but because the Law had not yet been given, men were not held invariably held accountable for their transgressions (verse 13; 3:20; 4:15). No matter—they still died! Death reigned (verse 14).

Did the coming of the Mosaic Law improve the situation? Of course not. The Law not only did not take away the reign of death, it made men more consciously aware of their fallen state (verse 20; Galatians 3:13,19). “For as the Law was spiritual, it emphasized sin but did not destroy it” (Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3.18.7).

It was by way of antithesis that Adam prefigured Christ, the new Head of humanity, who introduces a life more abundant, more extensive, more powerful than Adam’s Fall (verses 15-21). No matter how much sin abounded, grace and mercy abound the more. That is to say, Christ has more than made up the “shortfall” of Adam. The abundant mercy of God is demonstrated by the fact that the whole blighted history of man’s transgressions culminates, because of Christ, in man’s acquittal.

The reign of death, then, is replaced by the reign of the saints. In contrast to the reign of death, this is a reign “in life” (verse 17), “justification of life” (verse 18, clearly an appositional genitive), even “eternal life” (verse 21).

The contrast between the obedience of Christ and the disobedience of Adam (verse 19) was evidently a theme of early pre-Pauline hymnography (cf. Philippians 2:5-10).

In what sense did Adam’s sin make all men sinners? By the transmission of death as the human inheritance. “Sin reigns in death” (verse 21). In the Bible, death apart from Christ is man’s final and definitive separation from God, which is the essence of sin. Men are conceived and born as sinners because death reigns in their very being. Death is the essence of Adam’s legacy to the human race. It is from the reign of death that Christ came to set us free. Our salvation will be complete when our bodies themselves have been set free from the tyranny of death.