Sunday, January 4
Matthew 4:1-11: Two mountain scenes in Matthew's gospel are studied best, I believe, when studied together: the mountain where Jesus is tempted (4:8) and that on which He commissions the Apostles (28:16).
First, there is the mountain of the Lord's temptation. Matthew's account of Jesus' three temptations places the mountain scene last in the series, making it the climax of his whole temptation narrative: "Again, the devil took Him up on an exceeding high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to Him, 'All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me'" (Mt 4:8-9).
It is instructive to contrast Matthew with Luke with respect to the order in which those temptations appear. In Luke's temptation narrative the climactic third place is occupied by the scene, not on the mountain, but at the temple in Jerusalem: "Then he brought Him to Jerusalem, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, ‘If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down from here’" (Luke 4:9).
Why this difference of sequence between Matthew and Luke? On the presumption that both evangelists relied on a common source for their temptation stories, it is really quite impossible to say which one changed the original order of the temptations, because a special propriety attends the literary setting of that third temptation in each version. We may look at Luke and Matthew individually in this respect.
Luke’s placing the Lord's third temptation on the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem (4:9) is consistent with his usual pattern of making Jerusalem in general, and the temple in particular, the place of climax. Luke begins and ends his gospel in the temple (1:9; 24: 53). Not only does he treat the whole public ministry of Jesus as a journey to Jerusalem (cf. 9:31,51,53), he makes the temple itself the culminating point of his infancy narrative (2:27,41-46). It is hardly surprising, then, that Luke's temptation story also culminates at the temple. It may seem, then, that Luke’s arrangement of the temptation story was specifically crafted to fit this general pattern of his gospel.
On the other hand, a closer look at Matthew may prompt us to think that it was he, not Luke, who made the change in the temptation sequence. What would prompt Matthew to choose the mountain for the culminating temptation?
Adequately to address this question, let us go to the final mountain scene in Matthew, that Galilean mountain where the Lord commissions the apostles. Just as Luke's gospel ends in the temple, Matthew’s ends on the mountain. That is to say, in both cases, the gospels end exactly where the temptation sequences had ended: Luke at the temple, Matthew on the mountain. The internal consistency of each narrative could hardly be more striking.
In the case of Matthew, this consistency prompts a further comparison of his first and final mountain scenes. On Matthew's first mountain, as we observed, the temptation has to do with "all the kingdoms of the world and their glory." The Lord rejects the temptation to political power, in which Satan pledges to give Him "all these things."
Now it is remarkable that these same nations also appear on Matthew's final mountain, where the Lord sends out His Apostles with the mandate to "make disciples of all the nations" (28:19). In the first instance, Satan offers universal political power to Jesus. In the second, Jesus commissions the Apostles to a universal ministry founded in His own authority as the Son of Man prophesied by Daniel: "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations." Jesus' reception of this universal authority from God is thus contrasted with Satan's earlier offer of a universal gift of "the kingdoms of the earth and their glory."
Likewise, on both of these mountains there is a summons to worship. On the first mountain Satan calls on Jesus to "fall down and worship (proskyneses)" him (Matthew 4:9), and on the last mountain the eleven apostles worship (prosekynesan) Jesus (28:17). Rejection of the worship of Satan leads at length to the worship of Jesus.
The other mountains in Matthew are positioned between these first and last: the mountain of the Beatitudes (5:1; 8:1), the mountain of Jesus' prayer (14:23), the other mountain of His teaching and healing (15:29), the mountain of the Transfiguration (17:1,9), and the Mount of Olives on which He begins His passion (21:1; 24:3; 26:30). These mountains are all embraced within the ministry of Jesus, which begins with "all the kingdoms of the world" in thralldom to Satan, and ends with the apostolic commission to "make disciples of all the nations."
Monday, January 5
Matthew 4:12-17: This is the first of three sections about Jesus’ early ministry in Galilee (the next two being the calling of the disciples in verses 18-22 and a summary of the Galilean ministry in verses 23-25). Shortly after he baptizes Jesus, John is imprisoned by Herod Antipas (verse 12), the son of the same Herod that tried to kill Jesus in His infancy. This note of threat in the infancy narrative is, therefore, carried over into the section about the early ministry in Galilee. It appears in the Isaian words about "darkness" and "the shadow of death."
In this section, Matthew sets the stage for the Galilean ministry by showing it as a fulfillment of prophecy (verses 14-16). This prophecy from Isaiah 9:1-2, has to do with Gentiles finding the light, thus taking up the same theme as the earlier story of the pagan Magi following the star.
The tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali (verses 13,15), in the north of the Promised Land, lie closest to Gentile territory. Indeed, much of the population of that area was inhabited by Gentiles, after it was made an Assyrian province in 734. This latter circumstance was, in fact, the context of Isaiah’s original message. He had been called as a prophet in 742 (cf. Isaiah 5:1), just eight years before it happened.
The "way of the sea" (or "coastal highway") is a reference to the maritime road that runs from Syria down to Egypt and served as the link holding together the last western part of the Fertile Crescent. As such, it was the road trod by most invading armies that came through the Holy Land, from the Assyrians in the eighth century all the way down to Alexander the Great in 333 B.C. After his defeat of Darius III at the Battle of Issus that year, Alexander followed this "way of the sea" down to Egypt. It was also the road normally taken by the Seleucid armies who came south to do battle with Judas Maccabaeus and the Hasmoneans in the second century before Christ. It was likewise the road followed by the Romans after their military defeat of Galilee in A.D. 67. More significant to Christian history, it was the road walked by Philip in his coastal missionary trip (cf. Acts 8:40).
At the end of Matthew (in striking contrast to Luke) the revelation of the risen Christ to the Church will take place in this same "Galilee of the Gentiles" (28:7,10,16). It will be from a mountain in Galilee that Jesus will give the mandate to "make disciples of all nations." Like Jesus, the Church will commence her own ministry of repentance in Galilee.
In this—His initial ministry in Galilee—Jesus preaches repentance (verse 17), announcing that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Indeed, if one does not repent, the kingdom of heaven is a message of doom, not good news.
Tuesday, January 6
Matthew 2:1-12: Among the notable features proper to the Gospel according to St. Matthew is the way it includes the verb "to adore" (proskyneo) in passages where that verb does not appear in parallel accounts in the other Gospels. Thus, Matthew describes various people falling in adoration before Christ in scenes where they are not said to be doing so in the other Gospel versions of the same stories. These instances include the accounts of the cleansing of the leper (8:2), the petition of Jairus (9:18), the walking on the water (14:33), the prayer of the Canaanite woman (15:25), and the request of Zebedee’s wife for her two sons (20:20). A pronounced emphasis on Christward adoration, then, is a distinguishing characteristic of Matthew’s narrative.
There is, furthermore, a special parallelism between the first and last instances of this verb in Matthew’s composition. These are the two scenes of the coming of the Magi, near the beginning of the Gospel, and the Great Commission to the Church at the very end. In the former of these, the verb proskyneo, "to adore," is found three times (2:2, 8, 11), which is Matthew’s highest concentration of that word in a single scene. A literal reading of the Great Commission passage makes it appear that the Eleven Apostles are actually bowed over in adoration before the risen Jesus at the very time when the Great Commission is given to them (28:9). Thus, not only does Matthew portray various individuals adoring the Lord, but his entire Gospel can be said to begin and to end with that picture in mind.
There is a further important parallelism between the Christmas story of the Magi and the account of Great Commission; namely, the theme of the Church’s universal calling. Whereas Matthew ends his story with the Apostles’ being sent forth with the command, "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations" (28:19), he begins his whole account with a kind of foreshadowing of that final mission by the arrival of the Magi, those wise searchers from the East who come to adore the newborn King of Israel. These two passages, then, thus embrace Matthew’s entire story of Jesus.
There is more suggested by the juxtaposition of these parallel texts, however, for the very purpose of the Great Commission is to transform the whole of humanity as the rightful heirs of the Magi. Like the stars themselves, the Apostles are sent forth to lead all nations into that path first followed by the wise men from the East.
Indeed, St. Paul compared the Apostles to those very heavens that "declare the glory of God," quoting in their regard the Psalmist’s affirmation that "Their line has gone out through all the earth, / And their words to the ends of the world" (Psalm 18:4; Romans 10:18). The stars and the Apostles proclaim the same universal message, and that message is the Gospel.
These Magi have come to the Messiah, moreover, precisely because they are star-watchers. "For we have seen His star in the East," they affirm, "and have come to worship [or adore] Him" (Matthew 2:2). Likewise, the mission of the Apostles is to bring all nations even unto Bethlehem, that "house of the Bread" (for such is the meaning of "Bethlehem"), where all who eat the one loaf are one body in Christ, to join with the Magi in their eternal adoration.
This adoration takes place within the "house," which is the Church formed by those who break and share the one Bread: "And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped [or adored] Him" (Matthew 2:11). That is to say, when the Magi entered the house, they found what we all find portrayed on a central icon up near the altar, the mother holding and presenting the Child for the adoration of those who have followed the star into the house of the Bread.
For this reason, it was entirely proper that the Apostles, as they were being commissioned for the great work of universal evangelism, should manifest in their very posture the Christward adoration which is the final goal of that evangelism (Matthew 28:9).
Finally, while the Magi were instructed by what they read in those heavens that declare the glory of God, they did not pursue their quest among the stars but upon the earth. They found the answer to their quest, that is to say, in a particular place and at a particular time. They accepted the spatial/temporal, fleshly limitations that God Himself assumed.
Wednesday, January 7
Matthew 4:18-25: The second pericope (18-22) about the ministry in Galilee is the calling of the first Apostles. As fishermen, these follow a profession with a playful analogy with the ministry of the Church. That is, they become "fishers of men," drawing the whole world into the Holy Spirit’s net, which is the Church. This image of the Church’s ministry as a fishing net will appear later as a parable in 13:47.
Jesus begins now to assemble the Twelve, to whose hands He will, in the very last scene in Matthew’s Gospel, commit the care of His Church. Although John’s Gospel testifies that Andrew was the first of the Twelve to be called, his brother Simon is habitually named first (cf. 10:2), as in the present story. Simon is here already called by his symbolic name "Rock" (Kephas in Aramaic, Peter in Greek), which the Lord will confer upon this apostle when the latter gives voice to the Church’s confession of Jesus as the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16-18). Throughout the New Testament we observe a primacy of Simon Peter among the Twelve, as their leader and spokesman.
If the fishermen’s net is symbolic of the mission of the Church, the act of James and John in "repairing" that net also lends itself to a symbolic meaning. In truth, the verb employed here to designate that act of "repairing" (katartizo) appears in the New Testament in reference to mending, or making whole, the Church, which is frequently threatened by the danger of divisions (1 Thessalonians 3:10)Ephesians 4:12; Hebrews 13:21; 1 Peter 5:10). Thus we find this verb in the context of the potential schism at Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:10; 2 Corinthians 13:11) and the crisis in Galatia (Galatians 6:1).
In his description of the calling of these two sets of brothers, Matthew stresses that their following (akolouthein, an extremely important verb in Matthew, a word to which we will return) of the Lord was immediate.
In the third Galilean pericope (verses 23-25), the fishing activity is extended to the larger region of the Decapolis and Syria. The Church’s fishing net is being spread to cover a larger area. This text is a step in preparation for the Great Commission, given in Matthew’s final chapter, about the disciplizing of "all nations." The people are gathering here at the end of chapter 4, of course, to hear the Sermon on the Mount, which will fill the next three chapters of Matthew.
In these three verses (23-25) we are also given a summary of what is about to happen. Jesus is portrayed as a teacher (compare verse 23 with Mark 1:39, which does not have the participle didaskon) and preacher, and then as a healer. His teaching and preaching will fill chapters 5-7, and the healings mentioned here will be detailed in chapters 8-9. Indeed, Matthew 4:23 and 9:35 seem to form the two book ends, as it were, of this section.
Thursday, January 8
Matthew 5:1-16: This section of Matthew, which begins with the Beatitudes, finishes once again of the theme of universal "light of the world," the city set on a mountain. This is the same "mountain" in Galilee from which the Great Commission will be given at the end of Matthew (28:16-20). Matthew also introduces, in this section, the "Father in heaven," who will be the dominant figure through the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. It is this same "Father" who will be spoken of also in the Great Commission.
One cannot fail to note the great solemnity with which Matthew describes the Lord’s opening of this first discourse. Jesus here teaches as one "having authority" (7:29). In this first of His five great discourses in Matthew, Jesus sits down to teach, as He will also do in the final great discourse (cf. 24:3). In both cases, "His disciples came to Him."
Like the Mosaic Law, this new law of Jesus (this "all things whatsoever I have commanded you" of 28:20) is promulgated on a mountain. Similarly, the last of the five great discourses in Matthew will take place on the Mount of Olives (24:3). Jesus is not a new Moses here, however. Moses received a law on Mount Sinai; he did not promulgate one. Jesus does not receive a law on the Mountain; He promulgates one. He speaks with the authority of God.
In the first part of this discourse, the Beatitudes, we do not have an abstract treatment of human ethics. Poverty of spirit, meekness, purity of heart, and so on, make sense only in the context of being "in Christ." They have no standing on their own. They are not morally significant on their own. They make sense only as expressions of the Christian’s new identity in Christ.
The poverty of spirit, in the first beatitude is not an economic description, but a reference to an inner abjection of soul. The poor in spirit are those who rely on God’s mercy and grace, not their own virtue and righteousness. The meek, the mournful, the poor of heart, and the peace-makers are identical to the poor in spirit. They are the very ones who hunger and thirst after righteousness, having none of their own.
The merciful may expect—themselves—the mercy of
God. This theme will be taken up in the next chapter in the Lord’s Prayer and in various parables later in the Gospel.
Both the poor of spirit and the persecuted are said to inherit the kingdom of God. This latter statement, then, establishes both the beginning and the end of the Beatitudes.
Although Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes is not, like Luke’s, followed by a corresponding series of Woes, there does immediately appear a negative note to balance the blessings promised in the Beatitudes. The salt in verse 13 is thrown out and trampled under foot—that is to say, rejected. Such rejection will later be the lot of the tares sown into the wheat field (13:30,41-42)and the worthless sea life captured in the dragnet (13:47-50).
For the first time in Matthew, God is called "your Father in heaven" in verse 16. This will become the dominant reference to God in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. Contrary to current popular opinion, the Jews of Jesus’ time quite normally addressed God as "our Father." Indeed, the address Abinu, Malkinu, "our Father, our King" was common in the worship of the synagogue. The term "Father" to refer to God did not begin with the Jesus or the Christian Church; it was already traditional in Judaism. What was new was the Trinitarian reference in that title. When Matthew uses this title in the Sermon on the Mount, he intends it to be understood in that Trinitarian reference with which he ends his Gospel (28:19).
Friday, January 9
Matthew 5:17-26: In addition to the fulfillment of prophecy (which is certainly a strong motif in Matthew), Jesus also fulfills the Law. Indeed, much more than other author of the New Testament, Matthew stresses Jesus’ teaching as the "fulfillment" of the Law.
The notion has been around for some time that Christ came to abolish the Law. It is certainly true that the Law, completely on its own, carries a curse by reason of man’s inability to fulfill it (Galatians 3:10, and it is certainly true that in Christ we are redeemed from that curse (3:13), but it is a distortion to imagine that Christians are bound by less law than were the Jews. On the contrary, Christians are to be taught to "observe all things that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:20). "If you love Me," said Jesus, "keep My commandments" (John 14:15), and He announces here that He did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.
This Christian fulfillment of the Law does not weaken the Law; it strengthens it. Christians are not called to a lesser righteousness, but to a superior—an exceeding—righteousness. In their conduct they are summoned to exceed the righteousness of those who maintained merely the letter of the Mosaic Law. This moral summons is still "Gospel," however; it is still grace. It is possible only because of Jesus. It is not the Mosaic Law, as such, that Christians are called to obey, but the Mosaic Law as it viewed through the lens of Jesus. For Christians, in fact, the Mosaic Law has no application except in Jesus. Consequently, a simple and sustained contrast between Law and Gospel appears to provide an inadequate key to the interpretation of Christian moral duty.
The appropriate contrast is, rather, between Christian moral duty and the righteousness of "the scribes and Pharisees," a combination that Matthew uses seven times to designate the moral norms accepted by official Judaism. (The expression "enter the kingdom of heaven" also appears here for the first of many times in Matthew.)
This principle of a superior righteousness, enunciated here in verses 17-20, is illustrated in the six antitheses that immediately follow. Each of these is based on some form of "you have heard it said of old . . . but I say unto you." The difference pertains to both theology and history. Theologically, the importance words are "but I say," which means that the new law has to do with the person of Jesus. Historically, the new situation revealed in the person of Jesus renders everything else "old." The appearance of Jesus in this world divides history into a before and an after. The "I say" places Jesus on the same level as the Voice that Moses heard on Mount Sinai.
The first of these six antitheses, beginning in verses 21, has to do with anger. As such, it serves also to illustrate the patience required to fulfill the final two of the Beatitudes, the peacemakers and those suffering persecution for justice’s sake (5:9-11).
It is clear that Jesus expects a much stronger control of one’s anger than did the Mosaic Law, which prohibited only murder and physical harm. The understood context of these verses, as in most of the Sermon on the Mount, is not that formed of Jesus’ immediate listeners. It is, rather, the Christian congregation to whom Matthew is aiming this Gospel. That is to say, in these verses Matthew is addressing situations that may arise within the Christian congregation; his field of concern is thus identical to that of the discourse in chapter 18. Hence, the emphasis here on the "brother."
With respect to anger itself, the content of the command of Jesus is not entirely new. The Old Testament already contained prohibitions against anger, especially in the Wisdom literature, where the angry person was contrasted with the wise person (cf. Proverbs 6:34; 15:1, and so on). One finds this contrast in the New Testament as well (cf. James 1:19-20).
To the anger of man is contrasted the wrath of God. According to Matthew, the wrath of God is directed against all anger of man, all insulting speech, all offenses against Christian brotherhood (6:14-15; 18:35; 25:41). It is always the Christian congregation that Matthew has in mind. Thus, it seems certain that in verses 23-24 Matthew is thinking of participation in the Holy Eucharist; this interpretation of this saying of Jesus was already explicit in the first century, as we discern in the Didache 14.2.
Saturday, January 10
Matthew 5:33-48: In this text the "exceeding" righteousness of the Gospel (5:20) is contrasted with the limited righteousness of the Mosaic Law by means of a fourth, a fifth, and a sixth antithesis.
The content of the fourth antithesis verses 33-37), prohibiting the taking of oaths, is identical to that in James 5:12 cf. comments of Justin Martyr, First Apology 16.5; Clement of Alexandria, stromata 5.99.1). This prohibition too represents an injunction stricter than the Mosaic Law. Nonetheless, as in the cases of anger and lust, the content of this dominical prohibition was not entirely new, inasmuch as one finds the same attitude toward oaths in Jewish sources as well (cf. Sirach 23:9-11; Philo, Decalogue 17-19).
How literally are we to understand the prohibition against the oaths? Not all Christians have been in agreement on this point, and it is certainly clear that the apostle Paul did not understand the prohibition in a radical, uncompromising sense, because he does, in fact, call God to witness on occasion (Romans 1:9, 2 Corinthians 1:23; Philippians 1:8; 1 Thessalonians 2:5). Should Christians refuse to take an oath in a secular court of law? The history of biblical interpretation indicates that the prohibition is not necessarily to be understood in this way. Just as a Christian’s patriotic responsibility to the State may oblige him to bear arms in its defense, his civic responsibility to the State may oblige him to take an oath in court. This line of interpretation will be no comfort to those who imagine that their adherence to the Gospel dispenses them from civic and political duties to the State.
The fifth and sixth antitheses illustrate the Beatitude about mercy (5:5).
The fifth antithesis (verses 38-42), which enjoins on Christians an attitude of non-resistance to harm and injustice, goes far beyond anything indicated in the Law of Moses. The Old Testament regulates retaliation; the New Testament forbids it.
Two further points of interpretation must be borne in mind in the application of this antithesis: First, these directives are based on the Lordship of Christ, not some theory about the political effectiveness of non-violent activity. There is no trace of Gandhi here. Second, these directives have to do with personal and congregational morality, not the conduct of a nation’s foreign policy. These verses provide no support for a pacifist political ethic, nor can they be applied to the geopolitical conduct of nations without serious caveats and qualifications. These verses do not release Christian men from their plain obligations as men, particularly the obligation to defend the women and children committed to their care.
Matthew is especially concerned here with the attitude of Christians who are persecuted by non-Christians (cf. 1 Peter 2:20-23; 3:14; 5:9). The motive governing this attitude is one of love. Christians are genuinely to love their persecutors.
Hence, the sixth antithesis (verses 43-48) is concerned with love. With respect to one’s duties to his neighbor, the Gospel emphasis is positive love (5:44), which more than fulfills all the negative prescriptions of the Mosaic Law (cf. Romans 13:8-10). It amplifies but does not abrogate the Mosaic Law (cf. Leviticus 19:18).
The love of one’s enemies is enjoined in other religions as well, of course. What is new here is the context of the Lordship of Jesus, in which the love of enemies is validated by the mystery of the Cross. It makes no Christian sense apart from the Cross.