Sunday, March 21
Matthew 22:15-33: There are two stories in today’s Gospel reading, and each story presents us with a different set of Jesus’ enemies.
First, there is the account about paying taxes, a theme that we met not long ago in Matthew 17:24-27 (in that instance, however, the "temple tax," which was not made in Roman coin). This question is put to our Lord by the Herodians, the pro-Roman party in Judea, who are named for King Herod, Rome’s first protégé in the Holy Land. The purpose of their question is "entangle Him in His talk" (verse 15); it was part of the plot to kill Jesus. If the Lord failed to uphold the right of the Roman government to tax the Jews, then His enemies could make a case against Him as a political radical and agitator, a possible revolutionary threat to the Roman government.
Second, Jesus encounters the Sadducees, Israel’s priestly party, and their question (which in our schedule comes exactly three weeks before the feast of the Lord’s Resurrection) has to do with the Sadducees’ denial of the resurrection from the dead. They too hope to trap Jesus into saying something incriminating, so that He could be put on trial. Failing to accomplish this, they will eventually decide to take matters further (26:3).
Although Matthew is no great friend of the Pharisees, he has even less use for the Sadducees, their chief political rival. Indeed, Matthew shows considerable animosity toward the Sadducees, mentioning them in contexts where they are not mentioned by the other gospel writers (cf. Matthew 3:7; 16:1,6,11,12; 22:34). The policy of the Sadducees to side with the Roman overlords (which the Pharisees did not) rendered them comparatively unpopular with the people. Matthew (alone among the gospel writers) tells of the crowd’s delight at their discomfiting (verse 33). After Jerusalem’s destruction at the hand of the Romans in A.D. 70, the prestige of the Sadducees disappeared completely, and, because they were a priestly party, their services were no longer required after the loss of the temple.
Monday, March 22
Matthew 22:34-46: "The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand, until I make Your enemies Your footstool.’" From all of the Psalter, no other line enjoys in the New Testament a prominence equal to these opening words of Psalm 110 (Greek and Latin 109). We find it in today’s Gospel reading in the context of Jesus arguing with His opponents (Matthew 22:44; cf. Mark 12:36; Luke 20:42).
The context for this citation from the Psalter was the decisive and great kerygmatic question of the Lord’s identity: "What do you think about the Christ? Whose Son is He?" (Matthew 22:42) In these few words of David, "The Lord said to my Lord," Christians learned that Jesus is not only David’s descendent but also his pre-existing Lord. He is the Son, not only of David, but of God.
Having mysteriously addressed the identity of Christ, this same line of our psalm goes on to speak of his triumph and enthronement, with the solemn proclamation: "Sit at My right hand." These majestic words were quoted in the first sermon of the Christian Church, that of Pentecost morning at the third hour (cf. Acts 2:34), and became the foundation of some of the most important Christological and soteriological statements of the New Testament (cf. Mark 16:19; Romans 8:34; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:3, 8:1, 10:12, 12:2.).
In this one line of the psalm, then, we profess, in summary form, those profound doctrines at the foundation of our whole relationship to God — the eternal identity of Jesus Christ, His triumph over sin and death, and His glorification at God’s right hand: "God . . . has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, . . . who . . , when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high . . " (Hebrews 1:1-3).
The psalm immediately goes on to speak of those who oppose the triumph of Christ: " ‘. . . till I make Your enemies Your footstool.’ The Lord shall send the rod of Your strength out of Zion. Rule in the midst of Your enemies." These are the enemies that Jesus addresses in today’s reading from the Gospel, those who oppose the Lord and His Anointed.
Tuesday, March 23
Matthew 23:1-13: As we shall see, the present chapter, which begins the Lord’s final great discourse in Matthew, stands in a sort of contrasting parallel with the Sermon on the Mount, which was His first great discourse. The present verses, which introduce this final discourse, contrast Israel’s official teachers with Jesus, Israel’s true Teacher.
Israel’s pharisaic teachers are forever thinking up new ways to make the Law ever stricter and more narrowly interpreted. Thus, they lay heavier and heavier burdens on the backs of those who listen to them (verse 4), whereas Israel’s true Teacher does not burden His disciples (literally "learners") with burdens too heavy to bear. On the contrary, His yoke is easy, and His burden is light (11:28,30). The scribes and Pharisees are haughty and proud (verses 5-12), whereas Jesus is meek and humble of heart (11:29). The dominant contrast in these verses is between humility and self-exaltation (verse 12), a contrast that will be illustrated in the account of the Lord’s Passion, which is very soon to follow.
Similarly, the scribes and Pharisees pretend to the fathers and rabbis ("teachers") of Israel (verse 7), whereas Israel’s true Father is the One who sent His Son to be the true Teacher (verses 9-10). In this contrast, Jesus touches the heart of His own mystery, for He is the revelation of the Father. Indeed, "no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him" (11:27).
This underlying contrast between the false teachers in chapter 23 and the true Teacher in chapter 11 also serves to introduce the seven Woes with which the rest of chapter 23 will be filled. We recall that the earlier description of the true Teacher had immediately followed a Woe against the cities of Galilee (11:21-24). Matthew 23:13 does, in fact, begin a series of Woes, on which we shall reflect shortly.
Some Christians make much hay of the prohibition against calling anyone on earth "father" (verse 9). Taken very literally, this could be interpreted as forbidding us to call our own fathers "father." In fact, however, almost no Christians have ever thought it to mean such a thing. In fact, this very literal interpretation of Matthew 23:9 is of fairly recent origin and does not correspond to the ancient and traditional understanding of that verse.
We know, moreover, that the relations among Christians often takes the form of a spiritual paternity, as when Paul calls Timothy his son and child, and when he says that he became the father of Onesimus. Like so many of the dominical exhortations in Matthew, therefore, this one should best be interpreted, according to the irony of its context, as hyperbole, very much as we see hyperbole in Matthew 5:29-30 and 19:12). Generally speaking, some measure of Christian common sense should govern such interpretations, a common sense largely learned from the Christians who lived before us in ages past.
Wednesday, March 24
Matthew 23:14-26: In the Gospel of Luke, the list of four Beatitudes is followed immediately by a corresponding list of four Woes (Luke 6:20-26). In Matthew, however, the eight Woes corresponding to the eight Beatitudes do not appear until eighteen chapters later. Thus, Matthew’s first great dominical discourse, the Sermon on the Mount, begins with the Beatitudes (5:1-12), and the last great dominical discourse begins with the Woes (23:1-36).
There is also an underlying opposition implied in this correspondence, contrasting the hypocrisy, meanness, and spiritual blindness of the Lord’s enemies with the meekness, mercy, and purity of heart of those who hear and abide in His word.
In the eight Woes of chapter 23 we may discern several obvious points of contrast with the Beatitudes of chapter 5. Thus, the first Woe has to do with a shutting up of the Kingdom of Heaven (verse 13); the Beatitudes speak of the Kingdom of Heaven as open to the poor in spirit and those who suffer persecution (5:3,10). Likewise, the Pharisees’ lack of mercy (verses 14,23) is opposed to the mercy of those who, showing mercy, will receive mercy (5:7). Similarly, the inner corruption of the scribes and Pharisees (verses 25-28) stands in contrast to the purity of heart of those who will see God (5:8). Whereas Jesus declares blessed those who suffer persecution for the sake of righteousness (5:10-11), the scribes and Pharisees are described as persecutors (verses 31-35).
These points of opposition between the Beatitudes and the Woes illustrate a deeper contrast, which involves the literary function of each discourse. In the Sermon on the Mount, the new Kingdom is being inaugurated, involving a new ethical code that Jesus explicitly contrasts with that inherited by the Jews (cf. 5:21-22,27-28,34-35,38-39,43-44). Having inaugurated that new Law ("whatsoever things I have commanded you") in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus now begins to foretell the downfall of the old order, including the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (23:37-39; 24:2).
Jesus sat on a mount in that first sermon (5:1), and He sits on a mount in this last one (24:3). Indeed, as we have noticed several times, Matthew’s whole story will end with the Great Commission, which will be delivered from a mount (28:16).
Thursday, March 25
Psalm 85 (Greek and Latin 84): This psalm is highly appropriate for the day in which the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. When the Holy Spirit overshadowed the Virgin Mary and the Power of the Most High came upon her, the prophecy of this psalm was truly fulfilled. God most certainly did bless His land and turn back the captivity of Jacob. Indeed, in today’s words of Gabriel to Mary, Jesus "will reign over the house of Jacob forever. In the Incarnation of our Lord, His assumption of Mary’s own flesh to become His own, "mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed."
These blessings of reconciliation between two realms were accomplished, when the Father sent His only-begotten Son, "that in the dispensation of the fullness of times, He might gather in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth — in Him" (Ephesians 1:10).
Psalm 85 celebrates this "fullness of time," in which "God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons" (Galatians 4:4-5). In this text, wrote John Chrysostom, the Apostle Paul "states two purposes and effects of the Incarnation: the deliverance from the evil and the supplying of the good."
Both of these blessings are spoken of in the present psalm. With respect to deliverance from evil, this psalm says that the Lord has brought back the captivity of Jacob, forgiven the iniquity of His people, covered all their sins, taken away His wrath, and turned from the fierceness of His anger. With respect to the supplying of the good, this psalm proclaims that the Lord will speak peace to His people and give salvation to those who are near Him."
Psalm 85 also speaks of the glory that will dwell in God’s land. This is the glory of which the Apostle John says "the Word was made flesh and dwelt (eskenosen) among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. . . . No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him" (John1:14,18).
Christ, then, "is our peace" (Ephesians 2:14), and likewise our "righteousness and sanctification and redemption" (1 Corinthians 1:30). It is of these things that our psalm says: "Righteousness shall go before Him, and He will set His foot-steps in the way." This is the Christ who "came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near" (Ephesians 2:17).
Friday, March 26
Matthew 23:27-39: This section of Matthew’s Gospel finishes up the eight Woes that we have already considered and goes on to give Jesus lament over Jerusalem. In popular Christian imagination, it is customary to place this great lament over the Holy City in the context of Jesus seated on the Mount of Olives, looking across the Kidron Valley toward the Temple.
In fact, however, there is nothing in the Scriptures to indicate this. No particular place is assigned to this lament in the Gospel of Luke (13:34-35) and, in fact, according to Luke’s chronology the lament is made long before Jesus arrives in the vicinity of Jerusalem. In Matthew, moreover, this lament occurs just prior to Jesus’ sitting down on the Mount of Olives (24:3). Indeed, in Matthew this lament takes place within the Temple itself (24:1).
Our Lord’s lament over Jerusalem touches on the theme of the Jewish rejection of Jesus, which was a major theological problem for the early Christians, perhaps especially for Jewish Christians. Matthew himself was certainly a Jewish Christian, writing for a predominantly Jewish Christian church. Likewise was it a Jewish Christian who wrote of "the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and their own prophets and have persecuted us" (1 Thessalonians 2:14-15 —Unfortunately the New King James Bible, unwisely followed in the Orthodox Study Bible, alters the translation here to read "Judeans" here instead of "Jews." It has become very unfashionable, after all, to appear to blame the Jews for the death of Jesus. Nonetheless, the authors of the New Testament clearly do put the immediate historical blame mainly on the Jews and secondarily on the Roman authorities. This textual change in 1 Thessalonians, clearly contrived to appear politically correct, set a very bad precedent. There are many troublesome passages in Holy Scripture, passages that are difficult to handle and properly interpret. It does not help this arduous process, however, if translators take it upon themselves to alter the Sacred Text itself. It radically falsifies the Christian witness.)
Does Matthew intend here a prophecy of the final conversion of Israel, such as we have in Romans 11. This could very well be the case. Likewise, when Matthew records that the Jewish crowds cried out "His blood be on us and on our children" (27:25), he probably intends the statement to be understood in an ironical sense. That is, as an unintended prayer that the Jews themselves will be brought "under the Blood," covered in due course by the redemption that Jesus brought to the world.
Saturday, March 27
Psalm 33 (Greek and Latin 32): Now then, for the first time, the Book of Psalms uses an important expression — "new song," shir chadash — which will later appear 4 more times in the Psalter and once in Isaiah: "Sing to Him a new song." The praise of the righteous, of the just man to whom the Lord imputes no guilt and in whose mouth is no deceit, is characterized by a particular kind of newness, of renewal, of new life, inasmuch as "He who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new’" (Revelation 21:5).
The song of the believers is always a new song, because it springs from an inner divine font. It is the song of those who are born again in Christ and therefore "walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:4). The song of the Lord’s redeemed is a new song, for they adhere to the new covenant in Christ’s blood and "serve in the newness of the Spirit" (7:6).
All Christian praise of God is a participation in the liturgy of heaven where the saints gather in glory about the Lamb in the presence of the Throne. According to Revelation 5:9, our "new song" has to do with the opening of the seals of the great scroll by the Lamb who gave his life for our redemption: "You are worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals; for you were slain and have redeemed us to God by Your blood." The new song is for those who have been made "kings and priests to our God" (5:10). The new song is "the song of the Lamb" (15:3). The new song, according to Revelation 14:1-3, is sung by the redeemed as they gather about the Lamb on Mount Zion. This is the folk of whom our psalm says: "Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people He has chosen as His own inheritance."
Therefore, when the present psalm summons us to the "new" praise of God, it is to a newness that will never grow old. Indeed, it will grow ever newer as, day by day, we "are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory" (2 Corinthians 4:18), and our "youth is renewed like the eagle’s" (Psalm 102:5).
This is the newness of the Paschal season that approaches us. It is the newness of life experienced by Lazarus, whose raising from the dead we will be considering in exactly one week, the very model of which is the resurrection of Jesus, which we will be celebrating in exactly two weeks.