Sunday, February 29
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, the narrative of todayŐs reading from the gospels. 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, ÔIf You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down from hereŐ" (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.
LukeŐs 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 LukeŐs 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, MatthewŐs 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 (Mt 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, March 1
Matthew 5:27-32: These verses, which deal chiefly with sexual morality, provide the second and third antitheses that further illustrate the "exceeding" righteousness to which, according to the Sermon on the Mount, Christians are called and obliged (5:20). These two antitheses also illustrate the sixth of the Beatitudes, the pure of heart (5:8).
The second antithesis (verses 27-30) urges a very strict attitude toward sexual ethics. Just as the LordŐs first antithesis forbade any indulgence of anger (5:21-22), this second one forbids any indulgence of lust. In both cases, the superior righteousness of the Gospel represents an intensification of the righteousness of the Mosaic Law.
As in the case of anger, the content of the LordŐs command against internal lust is not entirely new; one finds it also in the Old Testament (cf. Deuteronomy 5:21; Job 31:1).
The command to excise our hands and limbs (verses 29-30) is, of course, to be interpreted as a metaphor for the extreme efforts required to control the sexual appetite. Such directives are to be understood in a hyperbolic sense, indicating the gravity of the matter. They are no more to be taken literally than the later prohibition of addressing our fathers by the name "father." Here again, as with respect to anger (verse 22), Jesus refers to the fire of eternal damnation as the punishment to be considered. The mere loss of a hand or an eye is as nothing in comparison with hell and the loss of eternal life.
The third antithesis (verses 31-32) has to do with divorce, included here because of it obvious relationship to chastity. The LordŐs command here is not, as in the two previous antitheses, an intensification of the Mosaic Law; it is, rather, a contradiction of the Mosaic Law (Deuteronomy 24:1), a contradiction that the Lord will eventually explain in Matthew 19:8.
This prohibition against divorce is one of the clearest of the LordŐs commandments; a Christian may not divorce his or her spouse for the purpose of taking another. Period. Such a divorce is adulterous. This dominical ban allows of no exceptions, and the efforts to discover an exception in verse 32 are misplaced. There is no "adultery loophole" in the Christian obligation to maintain the integrity of the marriage bond. The expression "except sexual immorality" does not refer to violations of the marriage vow. It simply means that what is forbidden is the dissolution of a true marriage, not the break-up of an illicit sexual liaison. It may be paraphrased: "Whoever divorces his wife Ń not his mistress Ń causes her to commit adultery."
Tuesday, March 2
Matthew 16:21-28: In the verses immediately preceding this section, the Apostle Peter made the defining proclamation of Christological faith in answer to the first great question of the Gospel ("Just who is Jesus?"). Now, however, he now starts to disgrace himself by resisting the correct answer to the second great question of the Gospel: "What does Jesus do?" Peter fails the transition from orthodox Christology to orthodox Soteriology.
This contrast in PeterŐs responses is part of a theme that Matthew has inherited from the underlying structure in the Gospel of Mark. In Matthew, however, it is enhanced because of the greater attention that MatthewŐs account gives to the character of Peter.
In spite of being reprimanded here by the Lord, and notwithstanding the solemn warning that Jesus will give him at the Last Supper, Peter will continue to resist this "word of the Cross" right through to the LordŐs Passion, finally denying Him three times under the pressure of questioning. It is no small thing for a man to be called "Satan" by the One whom he has just identified as "the Son of the living God." Nor would this be the last occasion on which Peter would be obliged to suffer a public rebuke (cf. Galatians 2:11).
It is most significant, surely, that that event, so embarrassing to the chief of the Twelve Apostles, is narrated in detail in each of the four canonical Gospels, for it is thus made to stand fixed forever in the memory of Holy Church. From this story, all believers down through the ages are to learn two lessons that they must never forget:
First, anyone may fall, at any time. If Simon Peter could deny Jesus, any one of us could do so. Simon, after all, had not believed himself capable of such a thing. "Even if all are made to stumble," he boasted, "yet I will not be" (Mark 14:29). He was so utterly resolved on the matter that, when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus in the garden, Simon had attacked them with violence. Alas, he was neither the first man nor the last to confuse human excitement with divine strength, nor to mistake the pumping of adrenaline for the infusion of grace. Within a very short time after he swung his sword at the unsuspecting Malchus (cf. John 18:10), we find Peter backing down embarrassed before the pointing finger of a servant girl. The Holy Spirit took particular care that Christians throughout the ages would never forget that falling away remains a real possibility for any of them. In the words of yet another converted sinner, "Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Corinthians 10:12).
Second, Christians were also to learn from this story that, as long as they are alive, repentance and a return to forgiveness are always live options. In this respect, the repentance of Simon Peter is to be contrasted with the despair of Judas. Thus, the Gospel stories tell us, until our very last breath, it is never too late to return to God in answer to the summons of His grace. It is probably LukeŐs Gospel that gives the most poignant description of this conversion: "And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. . . . So Peter went out and wept bitterly" (22:61f).
Wednesday, March 3
Matthew 17:1-13: The LordŐs transfiguration enacts, as it were, and renders visible the truth in the great confession that the Apostle Peter has just made in MatthewŐs account: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (16:16). At that time, Jesus asserted that this truth had been revealed to Peter by the heavenly Father (16:17; cf. John 6:65). In the story of the Transfiguration, the voice of the Father, as He identifies His Son, is audible to everyone, especially the reader.
This scene also repeats the revelation made at JesusŐ baptism, where the FatherŐs voice identified His Son. This revelation of JesusŐ unique relationship to God is the primary substance of the Christian faith. The confession of it is the rock on which the Church is built. This emphasis is very important, because it roots the nature of the Church in the substance of her Christological confession. The rock, the foundation stone of the Christian Church, is her recognition of the true identity of Jesus Christ. The confession of Jesus as the Son of God is not simply one of the things that the Church does. It is the defining thing that the Church does. The true identity of Jesus Christ is not just one of the truths held and professed by the Christian Church; it is the defining truth held and professed by the Christian Church. That is to say, Christology is the foundation stone of Ecclesiology.
Matthew has already treated this matter in 11:25-27, and he continues the theme here. This relationship of Jesus to God is the source of the "authority" (exsousia) with which Jesus teaches and heals and forgives sins and sends forth the Church in mission at the end of this gospel. In other words, Christology is the foundation stone of Missiology.
While MatthewŐs account of the Transfiguration is substantially identical to that of Mark (and both are quite different from LukeŐs in emphasis), he does omit MarkŐs (9:9f) reference to the disciplesŐ lack of "understanding" with respect to the return of Elijah. This omission is in keeping with MatthewŐs concept of discipleship, which underlines the importance of "understanding" (cf. 13:14,19,23).
This "understanding" particularly pertains to the recognition of the identity of Jesus, and it is in the LordŐs Transfiguration that His identity becomes, both in sight and sound, "transparent." The scene of the Transfiguration, then, has always been dear to Christian sentiment, especially in the context of prayer. Thus, Gregory of Nyssa wrote in the 4th century, "I proclaim the Lord as the Son of God because the Gospel from heaven, given through the bright cloud, thus proclaimed him" (Treatise Against Eunomius 4.1). His contemporary, Gregory Nazianzen, went on to see the Transfiguration as a promise of the vision that awaits the Church in glory: "On the mountain he was bright as the lightening and became more luminous than the sun, initiating us into the mystery of the future" (Theological Orations 4.19).
Thursday, March 4
Matthew 17:14-21: Whereas Matthew greatly simplifies and shortens MarkŐs version of this story in the details of the narrative, he actually amplifies the "saying" part of the story in verse 20.
He does this in two ways. First, He inserts here the LordŐs reference to faith as a mustard seed, a dominical saying found in quite another context in Luke 17:6.
Second, Jesus here speaks of the disciplesŐ "small faith" (oligopistia). We saw earlier that this New Testament expression, "small faith," either as a noun (here only) or an adjective, is found almost exclusively in Matthew; cf. 6:6; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8 (otherwise only in Luke 12:28).
In earlier scenes in Matthew, the accusation of being "of little faith" was found in the immediate context of some mention of JesusŐ identity. For instance, it appeared in 8:26 just prior to the question of the Apostles, "Who can this be?" (8:27). Like the father in the present story of the little boy, the Apostles had failed to trust Jesus, because they were uncertain about who He was. Similarly, in 14:31, the word appeared immediately before the ApostlesŐ confession of Jesus identity, "Truly, You are the Son of God" (14:33). The word appeared again in 16:8, just before PeterŐs confession of Jesus, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (16:16).
In the present scene, Jesus, having just been revealed as GodŐs Son in the scene of the Transfiguration, comes down into the valley below the Mount of the Transfiguration. Like Moses, who came down from the glory of Mount Sinai and found a scene of great chaos surrounding a golden calf, Jesus finds in the valley a great deal of chaos and confusion. He promptly gives a reprimand, as Moses had done, and assumes total command of the chaotic situation, exerting His authority to drive out the demons that torment the little boy.
In context, the words of Jesus to the father are a summons for him to place his complete trust in Jesus, small as that trust might be (verse 20). Faith according to Matthew, then, is understood as trust in the authority (exsousia) of Jesus (8:9-13; 9:2). Miracles are said to be worked by faith (9:20-22, 28f). In three scenes where Mark and Luke do not do so, Matthew portrays Jesus as saying, "as you have believed, so be it done to you" (8:13; 9:29; 15:8), so that faith becomes, as it were, the medium of the miracle itself.
Friday, March 5
Matthew 17:22-27: There are two stories here. First, we have second of the LordŐs three predictions of the coming Passion (cf. 16:21; 20:17-19). All of this material comes from the Gospel of Mark. In the present instance, however, Matthew has altered the context of the LordŐs prediction. In Mark, this particular prediction of the Passion immediately preceded a discussion of the disciples, in which they argued among themselves which of them was the greatest. Their argument, therefore, demonstrated that they did not understand the meaning of JesusŐ words about His suffering and death. Indeed, Mark explicitly says so: "But they did not understand this saying, and were afraid to ask Him" (9:32).
When we turn to Matthew, however, we first observe that he separates the LordŐs prediction from the argument of the disciples. He does this with the simple device of inserting another story (verses 24-27). Next, he omits MarkŐs reference to the disciplesŐ failure to understand. In place of it he simply says, "And they were exceedingly sorrowful" (verse 23). This verse seems to indicate that the disciples did understand what Jesus was saying. Once again, then, Matthew emphasizes that correct understanding is a component of true discipleship. That is to say, the reprimand received by Simon Peter in 16:23 was taken to heart. MatthewŐs accent here falls quite differently than the accent in Mark.
The second story in these verses is an account, found only in Matthew, that once again shows a special solidarity between Jesus and Peter. The taxes of both are paid by the same coin. In spite of his being called "Satan" by the Lord, then, Peter did not fall from the LordŐs favor; indeed, he was chosen as one of the three disciples who witnessed the LordŐs transfiguration at the beginning of this chapter. In this text, as in every other New Testament text that speaks of his fishing, we may wonder about PeterŐs skills as a fisherman. In every single gospel account, whenever Peter catches a fish, the event is regarded as a miracle.
This attention to the paying of taxes is consistent with JesusŐ instruction on the point later in Matthew (2:15-22) and with the teaching of the Apostle Paul (Romans 13:7).
Saturday, March 6
Matthew 18:1-9: Here begins the fourth of the five great dominical discourse in Matthew; this one is devoted to what may be called "rules for the congregation."
This discourse commences with the memorable scene in which Jesus holds up the faith of children as a model for adults. As we have already considered, Matthew deliberately isolates this scene from the LordŐs second prediction of His coming Passion, the context in which it is found in Mark. Instead, he attaches the scene of the children to the "rules for the congregation." This permits him to begin these rules by contrasting them with the shabby attitude of the disciples, who are arguing among themselves which of them is the greatest (verse 18).
MatthewŐs interest here, we should note, is doctrinal/moral, not personal. Thus, he omits MarkŐs embarrassing comment that "they kept silent, for on the road they had disputed among themselves who would be the greatest" (Mark 9:34). This personal comment, coming right after MarkŐs reference to the disciplesŐ failure to understand the word of the Cross (9:32), draws a very unfavorable attention to the disciples. Matthew, while not disguising the shabby conversation that the disciples had among themselves, does not draw special attention to it. For Matthew it provides only the context of the LordŐs doctrinal/moral discourse on the "rules for the congregation."
With respect to the children Jesus, far from refusing children access until they arrive at the explicit and doctrinal faith of adults, admonishes adults to model their own faith on the more elementary faith of the child. Because children are the most in danger of being scandalized, this topic of children leads naturally into the subject of scandal, and in this connection come the LordŐs statements about millstones and self-mutilation. The latter, by the way, are certainly to be understood as hyperbole, pointing to the radical nature of the discipleŐs commitment.
Christian morality is not an individual enterprise. In its every aspect it bears a communal reference. That is to say, Matthew knows nothing about Christian morality or experience outside of the context of the Christian Church. Within that context, which is the only and proper context of Christian morality, the worst sin is that of giving scandal.