Friday, March 1

Mathew 14:22-33: We know from John (6:14-15) that considerable messianic expectation among the crowd followed on the miracle of the loaves. Jesus, knowing the spiritual weakness and worldly ambition of His disciples, immediately sent them away by boat, so that they would not succumb to this dangerous enthusiasm on the part of the crowd (verses 22-23). Meanwhile Jesus himself went off to pray alone.

It had already been late in the day when the miracle of the loaves took place (verse 15), and it was well into the night when Jesus finished praying. The apostles were out in the middle of the lake, rowing against the wind (verse 24). Sometime between three and six o’clock in the morning (verse 25), while it was still quite dark, they suddenly beheld Jesus walking to them on the water. Indeed, he was “strolling” (peripaton)! The disciples took Jesus for a ghost or mirage (phantasma) and reacted accordingly (verse 26).

Although Mark (6:45-52) and (John 6:16-21) record this story, only Matthew includes the detail of Simon Peter’s semi-successful efforts to do the same. Reassured by Jesus (verse 27), he stepped off the boat and placed his foot solidly on a wave. His attempt was brought abruptly to finish when, taking his eyes off of Jesus, the apostle did what no Christian should ever do: he looked down! (Peter’s name means “rock,” and it has been remarked that this is the only scene in the gospels where we see him displaying a truly rock-like quality—he sank.) After attempting this “stroll” (peripatesan–verse 29), Peter found himself reprimanded for his inadequate faith (verse 31).

At the end, those “in the boat” confess Jesus as “truly the Son of God,” the defining confession of the Christian faith (see also Matthew 1:27; 16:16; 24:36; 26:63f, and, of course, 28:19). Like the Magi and so many other characters in Matthew’s gospel, they adore Him (14:33).

The boat eventually found land at Gennesaret, on the northwest of the Sea of Galilee, between Capernaum to the north, and Tiberias to the south (cf. John 6:23-24).
Romans 11:1-10: Paul has already suggested two considerations that qualify Israel’s rejection of the Gospel. First, the rejection was not complete, because a remnant of Israel remained faithful. Second, Israel’s defection proved to be a blessing for the Gentiles (much as Esau’s defection had proved a blessing for Jacob). The second of these considerations will receive a more ample treatment in the present chapter, as Paul subsumes it into an elaborate dialectic of history.
First, Israel’s falling away is only partial (verses 4-5), and Paul counts himself among the faithful remnant (verse 1; Philippians 3:5; Acts 13:21). Even during the ninth century before Christ, when all Israel seemed to have become devotees of Baal (“I alone am left, and they seek to take my life!” — 1 Kings 19:14), a remnant had been spared (verses 2-4). Even now, then, Paul was no more alone than Elijah had been. God had not abandoned Israel in those days; He would not abandon Israel now, because “the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” (verse 29).
The irrevocable nature of God’s election leads to Paul’s second consideration, namely, that the falling away of Israel is only temporary. God has future plans for Israel. For the moment, however, Israel is acting in blindness (verses 7-8), which is the source of Paul’s sadness (9:1-2; 10:1). He observes that Israel’s blindness had been commented on by others before himself, such as Isaiah (verse 8) and David (verses 9-10). That is to say, Israel’s current defection had no shortage of precedents in the past. If God remained faithful to Israel back then, He surely remains faithful to Israel now and will manifest that fidelity in days to come. The course of history will prove the Jews to be God’s elect and predestined people.
Saturday, March 2

Matthew 14:34—15:11: When Jesus finished the Sermon on the Mount, it was remarked that “He taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” It did not take long for the scribes to take note of this, so there soon began a series of debates about Jesus’ interpretation of the Torah (9:10-15; 12:1-4). The series continues here.

This material is largely taken from Mark 7:1-23, but Matthew does not share Mark’s perceived need to explain Jewish purification rituals to his readers. Matthew’s readers, apparently having much closer social ties to Judaism, do not need such information. Consequently, this section of Matthew is much less detailed than the corresponding text in Mark 7.

The use of the expression “this people” to designate the Jewish opponents of Jesus reflects the actual situation at the time Matthew wrote. Alone among the four Evangelists, Matthew habitually refers to “their synagogues” (43:23 9:35; 10:17; 12:9, 13:54), a usage that testifies to the situation after the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. After that date, the Jewish Christians, expelled from the synagogues controlled by the Pharisees, were obliged to establish synagogues of their own. It is striking that the only time James uses the word “synagogue” (in 2:2), he is referring to a Christian gathering.

The question about washing hands before eating bread (verse 2), we observe, follows closely on the story of the miraculous bread (14:13-21). In addition, it is soon followed by Jesus’ reference to the “children’s bread” (verse 26), a second account of miraculous loaves (verses 29-37), and another discussion about bread (16:5-12).

Whereas the scribes and Pharisees accuse the disciples of violating “the traditions of the elders” (verse 2), Jesus’ counter-question goes much further, indicting the accusers of violating the Law of God. This indictment elevates the seriousness of the debate. Indeed, Jesus sets that “tradition” in opposition to God’s commandment, and by reason of this opposition He calls the accusers “hypocrites” (verse 7), citing Isaiah (29:13 LXX) to enforce the point.

In making this argument, Matthew has recourse to prophecy as a means to interpret the Torah. It seems likely that this approach characterized the early Church’s polemic against Pharisaic Judaism.

Addressing those who heard this debate, Jesus summons them to “understand” (syniete–verse 10). We recall that “understanding” is the essential requirement for a profitable hearing of the Word (13:13,15,19,23,51).

Sunday, March 3

Matthew 15:12-20: Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and scribes left unanswered the question of the washing of hands before eating. It is now taken up (verse 11), as it is a question of importance to Matthew’s Jewish Christians. The dominical principle is clear: Real purity is an internal reality, not a ritual compliance.

Although the reference to “blind guides” is also found in Luke 6:39, the context of this metaphor in Matthew 15:12-15 is proper to Matthew alone. The reference to their blindness will also appear in 23:16 (cf. 7:5), when the Lord once again takes up His case against the scribes and Pharisees at greater length. The irony of the metaphor has to do with the habit of the rabbis of regarding the Jews—because of their possession of the Torah—as the “leaders” of the blinded human race (cf. also John 9:40f; Romans 2:19).

Once again the disciples, observing the offense given by the teaching of Jesus (verse 12), need further instruction (verse 15). Are they, too, without understanding (asynetoi–verse 16)? Are they as blind as the Pharisees (verse 14)?

The problem, of course, lies in the condition of the heart. An evil heart, the radical source of all evil in man (verse 19), is the reason the disciples do not yet understand God’s Word (13:15,19). An evil heart is recognized by its infidelity to the Torah, of which the second tablet of the Decalogue receives special attention here (verse 19).

Romans 11:25-36: The “all Israel” that will be saved appears to refer to the fullness of the Church, drawn from both Jews and Gentiles. This return to the Gospel, Paul believed, was prophesied by Isaiah (verses 26-27).

God’s guidance of history is complex, not because God is complex, but because man’s infidelities have complicated the process. Far from being the mere unfolding of the divine foreknowledge—and even less the enactment of a divine decree—history is the encounter of man’s freedom with God’s, an encounter in which God subsumes human mistakes into a more ample redemptive pattern. The format of this pattern is dialectical, in that the human resistance to God’s will (sin, disobedience) become part of that will’s very application. This is the pattern that God followed with the Gentiles. It is now the pattern that He will follow with the Jews.

Truly, God’s plans for the Jews have never changed, because God keeps faith with the patriarchs, to whom He made so many promises. The Jewish people are still the apple of His eye (verses 28-29).

In the sin of Adam, God consigned (synekleisen) all to disobedience. This has been the history of the human race. God’s wisdom, however, and His fathomless counsel have so directed man’s disobedience as to bring about his redemption. All of this history He has guided in the direction of mercy (verse 32). All that He does He does in mercy. Paul finishes this chapter with a brief doxology to the divine mercy (verses 33-36).

Monday, March 4

Proverbs 10: We now come to the central core of this book (Chapters 10-22), the 375 aphorisms gathered by Solomon (verse 1). In this respect, it is surely significant that 375 is exactly the numerical value of the Hebrew letters that make up the name “Solomon.”

This central core of Proverbs is divided into two parts, a division based on both literary style and philosophical outlook.

In the first section, Chapters 10 through 15, most of the aphorisms (10:19, for instance, is an exception to this rule) are structured on an antithetical couplet, in which there is a contrast between components in the first and second lines: just/wicked, prudent/foolish, wealth/poverty, accept/refuse, and so forth. In this first section the outlook of the aphorisms is not openly religious, as a rule, but simply “true to life.”

In the second section, Chapters 16 through 22, the couplets are synthetic and complementary, not antithetical, as a rule. In each couplet, rather, the second line completes or extends some component in the first line: the refinement of silver/the testing of souls, loving friend/constant brother, and so on. In this second section, likewise, the outlook or tone is “preachy,” or exhortatory, and more explicitly religious.

Within each section, smaller groups sometimes bind the aphorisms together by either theme or by some rhetorical device. These latter include, for instance, simple expressions common to each maxim, even though the maxims themselves deal with different subjects. An example is 10:16-17.

Considerable stress is laid throughout on the control of the tongue (for instance, verses 19-21,31-32), in terms that will remind us of James 1:9 and 3:2-12.

All through this central core we observe that wisdom is identified with righteousness, suggesting that Solomon would have no trouble with Socrates’ identification of knowledge with virtue. The knowledge itself is moral, the wisdom derived from acting wisely. Folly, likewise, is not a lack of IQ, but a moral failing.

Tuesday, March 5

Romans 12:10-21: The love to be cultivated by Christians is not only the spiritual love called agape, but includes also those more common qualities of philadelphia (fraternal love), philostorge (affection), time (esteem), and philoxenia (hospitality) (verses 10,13).

Such things are impossible except by the personal cultivation of patience, hope, and prayer (verse 12). This prayer will embrace one’s enemies (verse 14; Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27-28) and require the forgiveness of wrongs (verse 17; Matthew 6:12-15). Paul tells these Romans not to hold grudges against persecutors. In view of the terrible persecution of Christians that will break out in Rome during the next decade, this was uncommonly timely counsel.

Paul’s wording of the quotation from Deuteronomy 32:35 in verse 19 differs from both the Septuagint and the extant (Massoretic) Hebrew text, but it is identical with the quotation in Hebrews 10:30. Was there another version of this passage common among the early Christians? The meaning, in any case, is clear enough. Christians are to leave to God all revenge and settling of scores. They are always to pursue good, never evil. Evil is the Christian’s only true enemy (verse 21).

Proverbs 11: In the midst of this practical, somewhat ‘secular’ wisdom, we do find some maxims of a religious nature (verse 20; cf. also 10:3,22; 12:2; 15:3,8,33; 16:1-7,9). Because the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, even secular prudence in the Bible has a religious basis (verse 1). Biblical practicality, however, is not the same thing as modern pragmatism, which is intrinsically skeptical and essentially selfish. Skepticism and selfishness are really not very practical.

The wisdom of the Book of Proverbs comes from outside this world, but it is not other-worldly. It is this-worldly, in the sense that God formed the structures in this world, according to which man must live. The divine law is written into the composition of this world, so that those who live in accordance with the divine law are the ones who are most in touch with the reality of this world itself. Since the whole world is founded on the wisdom of God, those who live in accord with this wisdom will be the world’s most practical people.

Among the themes touched on in this chapter are commercial honesty (verse 1; cf. 16:11; 20:10; Leviticus 19:35-36; Deuteronomy 25:13-16; Amos 8:5-6; 12:8; Micah 6:10-11), the dangers of pride (verse 2), integrity as a guide (verse 3), the salvific fruit of righteousness (verses 4-9,18-19), control of the tongue (verses 12-13), the importance of a breadth of views (verse 14), and the value of a generous spirit (verses 24-26).

Ash Wednesday, March 6

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-24: Because our Lord Himself authoritatively juxtaposes prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, it is normal to think of them together as constituting a kind of ascetical standard. In truth, for a very long time Christians (for example, Hermas and Leo I of Rome, John Chrysostom, Maximus the Confessor) have habitually spoken of the three together as sort of a paradigm or outline of biblical ascetical life. In pre-Christian biblical literature, however, that specific triad of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving is found in only one place: Tobit 12:8. It was through Matthew’s Gospel that this triad passed into Christian—and, especially, Lenten—piety.

Joel 1:13—2:2: It is significant that the message of Joel, proclaimed at both the beginning of Lent and at Pentecost (Acts 2:14-21), sets the tone for the whole Paschal season, the most important period of the Church’s liturgical year.

Proverbs 12: The chapter continues the series of couplets containing contrasts: love/hate (verse 1), good/wicked (verse 2), wickedness/righteousness (verse 3), virtuous wife/shameful wife (verse 4), and so on.

Such sustained emphasis on contrasts and distinctions should put to rest the recent idea that biblical teaching is non-analytical and non-critical. For several generations some of those who dislike classical philosophy have pretended that “Semitic thinking” is unlike “Greek thinking” in this respect. They have told us that the Greeks applied critical distinctions to dissect ideas and look at them in an objective, detached way that separated the knower from the known. On the other hand, the Semites (so the story goes) took a unitive approach to knowledge, in which the knower became identified with what was known.

This version of the matter, however, involves an oversimplification that does justice to neither the Semites nor the Greeks. While it is true that the common Semitic verb for knowing, yada‘, implies union rather than division (as in “Adam knew his wife”), another common Semitic verb for knowing, bin, means knowledge of a discursive, critical sort. Both aspects of knowledge, that is to say, are contained in Semitic epistemology. Similarly, with respect to the Greeks, the application of critical, objective distinctions, of the sort characteristic of dialectics, should not be taken as the goal of classical Greek philosophy. Dialectics is a means, rather, of arriving at metaphysical contemplation, gnosis (the Sanskrit jnana), in which the knower and the known are united.

In short, the differences between Greek and Semitic approaches to knowledge cannot be reduced to the elementary distinction between analytical and contemplative knowledge. Nor can either approach be reduced to a single, simple description.

Thursday, March 7

Matthew 15:32-39: Like Mark, Matthew has a second account of the multiplication of the loaves. This account is often called “the multiplication for the Gentiles,” because of several elements in the story suggesting its transmission in a largely Gentile setting. For example, the Lord’s reluctance to send the people away suggests that they have come “from afar” (as indeed Mark 6:3 explicitly says), a common way in which the early Christians spoke of the calling of the Gentiles. Thus, Jesus is here portrayed as multiplying for the Gentiles the “crumbs” that the Gentile woman begged for in Matthew 15:27.

This bread is food for a journey—“on the way,” en te hodo–verse 32). The Lord feeds His people “in the wilderness” (en eremia–verse 33), as He did after their deliverance from Egypt. This bread, then, is the equivalent of the Manna that fell from heaven.

We also observe that this food—which He “takes” and “breaks” with “thanksgiving” (evcharistesas)—Jesus “gives” to His disciples, that they may feed the multitude (verse 36; cf. 26:26). This format of activity is a paradigm of the Eucharistic rite of the Church, in which we perceive the importance of the apostolic ministry and mediation.

Proverbs 13: Wisdom is not something that a young man can discover on his own. He either has the good sense to receive it as an inheritance or he will simply never have it. He must, therefore, listen and pay attention. It will be difficult, however, to listen and pay attention if he is forever running his mouth (verse 3). Custody of one’s tongue, then, is absolutely required for the attaining of wisdom.

This habit of guarding one’s tongue, in order the better to hear and learn instruction, can become a life-long habit, a distinguishing characteristic of the wise man even when he grows older. We see this phenomenon in a special way in the traditions of ancient Egypt, where the “silent just man” became a moral ideal of Egyptian culture, exemplified in The Instructions of Ani in the second millennium before Christ all the way to the ascetical literature of the Christian monks of the Egyptian desert. The “silent just man” maintained strict control over his tongue, and in order to maintain control over his tongue he was obliged to keep guard also over his emotions. His speech, when he did speak, would bear wise counsel and insight. Such a man could be trusted. To him could be given responsibilities over serious matters, even the destiny of nations.

It was proverbial in antiquity, and not only in Egypt, that no man could safely govern anything outside of himself until he had learned to govern his own soul (16:32). And a man began to learn this discipline in his youth, by not opening his mouth except to ask questions and to seek instruction.

Friday, March 8

Matthew 16:1-4: The tension between Jesus and His antagonists rises to a new height in chapter 16, beginning with their renewed demand for a sign (verses 1-4; cf. 12:8). This demand is the occasion of the Lord’s criticism of them (verses 5-12) and the first prophecy of their role in the Passion (verse 21). In demanding this sign, these enemies copy the example of the devil (4:2,6). In contrast to the faith of the recent Canaanite woman (15:28), this demand indicates unbelief.

We likewise note here Matthew’s inclusion of the Sadducees among the enemies of Jesus (verses 1,6,11,12). Once again Matthew’s text here reflects certain concerns that arose in Judaism (and consequently among Jewish Christians) after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Foremost among the Jewish groups who lost credibility in the aftermath of that event was the party of the Sadducees. This group, it was generally believed, had been excessively compliant with the Roman powers for over a century, too compromising, too little disposed to speak up for the people as the Pharisees had done. Consequently, after the year 70 the Sadducees came into bad odor among rank-and-file Jews.

Moreover, this party was bound to lose power, because their power had been concentrated in the temple priesthood, which was put out of business by the destruction of the temple.

Proverbs 14: Wisdom is the foundation of homes and households (verse 1). This is the inherited wisdom of the ages, conservatively handed down in the tradition of “families and villages” (to borrow Aristotle’s coupling).

Since the experience of family necessarily involves the transmission of identity, the tradition or inherited wisdom is not peripheral to family life. Unassailable tradition, based on perceived absolutes, is not something with which a family can dispense. It is of the essence, and it is this sense of tradition’s essential character that injects a note of urgency into the rhetoric of the Book of Proverbs. The exhortations in Proverbs are matters of life or death. Hence, this sense of urgency goes far to account for the toughness of discipline inculcated throughout the book.

Consequently, moral indifference or relativism, based on skepticism and an overly critical spirit, spell the death of wisdom and therefore the death of family life (verse 11). Nowhere does the Bible tolerate the relativism and despair (including a sympathy for suicide) that characterized some primitive writings of Mesopotamia, such as the ancient Dialogue of Pessimism. The latter work, written over three thousand years ago, reads today like a work of recent Existentialism. If such attitudes were characteristic of the philosophy of Mesopotamia, it is no wonder that Proverbs 15 Abraham insisted that Isaac should not go back there (Genesis 24:5-6).

The Book of Proverbs, in mighty contrast, represents the voice of moral and metaphysical absolutes, a wisdom based on the sense of the scrutiny and presence of God (verses 2,26-27; cf. 13:14; 15:39,11,29).