Sunday, March 28
Matthew 24:15-28: In going to the remembered past in order to prophesy about the near future, Jesus followed a pattern of historical interpretation common to the Old Testament prophets.
Thus, to describe the desolation to be visited on Jerusalem, Jesus alludes to an event in the fairly recent past, when the Seleucid king, Antiochus Epiphanes IV, violated the sanctity of the Temple in 168 B.C. by erecting there an altar to Zeus (1 Maccabees 1:54-64).
The prophet Daniel had referred to that desecration as the "abomination of desolation" (Daniel 9:27; 11:31; 12:11; also 1 Maccabees 1:54). The Temple itself was stripped of its adornments; other pagan altars were erected, and unclean animals were sacrificed upon them (Josephus, Antiquities 12.54). This had been a time of great persecution of the righteous Jews by the unrighteous, not only by pagans but by fellow Jews. All of this, and worse, says Jesus, will fall on the Holy City very shortly. This prophecy was directed to the Jewish Civil War against the Romans, which would climax in the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70 (cf. Josephus, The Jewish Wars 5.10).
Jesus also alluded to that Maccabean persecution when He warned, "And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath" (verse 20). During the Maccabean persecution, many Jews were slaughtered on the Sabbath, a day on which they were reluctant to fight back (1 Maccabees 2:29-41). In addition, a flight on the Sabbath day, if one kept the Sabbath day strictly, would not go very far. It would hardly be a flight at all.
The gathering of the "eagles," birds of prey who will come to devour the slain, bears an ironic reference to the battle standards of the Roman Legions, dominated by the figure of an eagle.
Monday, March 29
Matthew 24:29-42: That coming destruction of Jerusalem, foretold by Jesus, is seen by Matthew to be both a symbol and a first stage, as it were, of the final times of the world (as in the very last verse of MatthewŐs Gospel, 28:20), when Jesus will return in glory to judge. The sounding of the trumpet and the dispatching of the gathering angels (verse 31) were standard images of the worldŐs last judgment (Matthew 13:41,49), and we meet them in the New TestamentŐs earliest book (First Thessalonians 4:16). The coming judgment of the world will be the theme of the last part of MatthewŐs next chapter (25:31-46).
The Lord compares the circumstances of His future coming to those at the time of NoahŐs flood. All the signs were present, but only Noah was able to read them. According to the Epistle to the Hebrews, "By faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household, by which he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith" (11:7).
But Noah not only lived in righteousness; he also proclaimed righteousness. The Apostle Peter referred to him as "a preacher of righteousness" (2 Peter 2:5), and late in the first century Clement of Rome wrote that "Noah preached repentance, and those who heeded him were saved" (First Epistle 7.6).
This picture of Noah as a righteous preacher of repentance came to the early Christians from Jewish lore about that famous builder of the ark. Flavius Josephus wrote of NoahŐs relationship to his contemporaries in this way: "Noah was most uncomfortable with their actions, and, not at all happy with their conduct, he persuaded them to improve their dispositions and their actions. Seeing, nonetheless, that they did not obey him but remained slaves to their own wicked desires, he feared that they would slay him, together with his wife and children, as well as the spouses of the latter, so he departed out of that land" (Antiquities 13.1).
Unable to convert his contemporaries, Noah then followed the divine leading to build an ark for the delivery of his family. He knew that God intended to flood the earth and destroy its wicked. This is what things will be like, says our Lord, at the end of the world.
Tuesday, March 30
Matthew 24:42-51: Although Matthew encapsulates the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world into a single set of images, it would be wrong to interpret too literally the word "immediately" in verse 29. In the present verses, in fact, he suggests that the end of the world may still be some way off.
In these verse he describes the wicked servant who assures himself that he still has opportunity to neglect his stewardship. He is coaxed into this disposition precisely because there appears to be a delay in the return of his master. "My master is delaying His coming," he says to himself (verse 48). That is to say, the sense of a postponement is an essential part of the story. The failure of the servant has to do with his inability to deal with the prolonged passage of time. What he lacks is perseverance.
This is the first of three consecutive stories in Matthew, in which the passage of time is integral to the testing of GodŐs servants. A second story continues this theme; it is the story of the ten maidens awaiting the arrival of the Bridegroom. Everything is going just fine in the account, except for the delay involved: "But while the Bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept" (25:5). That is to say, they were not cautious about the warning, "Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect" (24:44). The difference between the five foolish maidens and the five prudent maidens is that the latter have prepared themselves to deal with the prolonged passage of time. They have provided oil for their lamps. They are able to "go the distance" with God.
In the third story, about the three stewards who receive "talents" from their Master, once again the passage of time is integral to their testing. "After a long time," says our Lord, "the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them" (25:20). There is no instant salvation in the Christian life, that is to say. Everything has to do with the ability to persevere through the passage of time.
After all, we do not remain the same through the passage of time. Time changes things, and we must cope. Events affect our thoughts and sentiments. This coping with the passing of time is an integral part of our testing before God.
Wednesday, March 31
Matthew 25:1-13: It is important to observe that all ten of these maidens are Christians. Some will be saved, and some will not. The difference between them is analogous to the difference between the wheat and the tares in Matthew 13:24-30,36-43. It is bracing to consider that some will be reprobate: "Amen, I say to you, I never knew you" (verse 12). These are very harsh words to be directed to Christians who had been waiting for their LordŐs return. They waited, but they did not do so wisely, and everything had to do with vigilance through the passage of time: "Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming" (verse 13). Five of these Christians failed the test of perseverance.
St. Gregory the Great interprets the sleep of the ten maidens as death. The cry, "Behold, the Bridegroom is coming," he interprets as the angelic voice that announces the end and judgment of the world. The five foolish maidens are those who died without preparing, through their lifetime, the oil necessary to accompany the Bridegroom. When they are aroused from the sleep of death, they have nothing to offer. Their resurrection from the dead, therefore, is not a resurrection unto life, but unto judgment (John 5:29).
Each of these four parables of the last judgment (24:45Ń25:46) ends with an emphasis on condemnation. The negligent servant is condemned after the faithful servant is rewarded (24:46-48). The five foolish maidens are condemned after the five prudent ones have been rewarded (25:10-12). The slothful steward is condemned after the industrious stewards have been rewarded (25:21-26). The goats are condemned after the sheep have been rewarded (25:40-41).
Two things are to be inferred from this sequence. First, it shows that the parables serve chiefly as warnings. The promised reward is spoken of first, in order to set up the warning. Second, it suggests that GodŐs punishment is an afterthought, as it were. It was not part of His original plan, so to speak. The reward was "prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (25:34), whereas the punishment was "prepared for the devil and his angels" (25:41). Punishment was never part of GodŐs original plan for mankind.
Thursday, April 1
Matthew 25:14-30 : A "talent" was a unit of money in Roman times. It was something to be invested, in order to make a profit. The metaphorical sense of "talent," meaning a natural gift with which a human being has been endowed, comes entirely from this parable. Indeed, the metaphorical use of this word has become so common that we do not realize that this usage was originally a metaphor.
This parable is an allegory. The master who departs is Christ our Lord, who has gone into heaven but will return in due course. The talents are the resources that He leaves to the stewardship of His servants, so that they may increase the yield thereof. His return is the end of history, and His calling to account is the final judgment. The differences among the five, two, and one talents, however, are probably not meant to be interpreted allegorically. It simply means that some of GodŐs servants are given more responsibilities than others. The essential moral concern is that each steward is to work with what he has been given. He is not responsible for what he has not been given.
St. Gregory the Great does see an allegorical meaning in the one stewardŐs hiding his talent "in the earth." He writes, "To hide oneŐs talent in the earth is to occupy our God-given intelligence in purely earthly matters, not to seek spiritual profit, never to lift our heart above earthly considerations. For there are some who received the gift of understanding, but who nonetheless understand only the flesh."
Even though, as we have seen, these four parables all emphasize the negative aspect, the aspect of warning, it is encouraging to observe the terms in which they describe the reward of the righteous. The faithful man is called "blessed" (24:46; 25:34). He becomes a guest at the wedding (25:10) and enters into the LordŐs joy (25:21,23). He becomes a "ruler" (24:47; 25:21,23). He inherits a kingdom (25:34).
Friday, April 2
Matthew 25:31-46: This parable makes it very clear, if we needed further clarity, that "a man is justified by works, not be faith alone" and that "faith without works is dead" (James 2:24,26).
Especially to be noted in this parable is JesusŐ association with all mankind, especially the poor, the destitute, and the neglected. To serve the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the sick, and the imprisoned is to serve Jesus, who identifies Himself with them. This is the basis for all Christian service to suffering humanity. This is not a negligible aspect of the Gospel; it pertains to the very subject matter of the final judgment.
The dominant idea of this parable, in fact, is the divine judgment. God really does judge. He really does discriminate. He will not confuse a just man and an unjust man. He discerns the difference, and that difference means a great deal to Him. He does not take difference lightly. He assigns eternal destinies to men on the basis of that difference. It is imperative to observe that the last activity ascribed to Christ in the Nicene Creed is that "He will come again in glory to judge."
This is what we see in the present parable. Sheep and goats are spread asunder, just as wise and unwise maidens are separated one from another, and wheat is distinguished from chaff. In this world the generous and the mean have existed side by side, but at the judgment it will be so no more.
How can we know where we stand with respect to that judgment? In a sense, we cannot know. In a sense, it is not important that we know. We might become complacent. God will not have a Christian feel so secure that he neglects his duties in this world.
In the present parable the just are not preoccupied with themselves. They are preoccupied with the needs of the poor. Their lives are spent addressing those needs. They have no leisure nor inclination to think about themselves, even about their eternal security. They are too busy doing GodŐs will with respect to their fellow men.
Thus, at the final judgment, they arrive unaware that they have ever served Christ at all. They imagined all along that they were taking care of the poor, simply because the poor needed to be cared for. At the judgment, then, the righteous are even surprised that they have been serving Christ all along. Their thoughts have been solely for the crying needs of their fellow men. They have had no time nor opportunity to think about themselves.
Saturday, April 3
John 11:1-46: The Gospels contain three accounts of the LordŐs raising of someone from the dead, and if we look at them closely we will discern a kind of progression among the three.
First, there is the account of the raising of JairusŐs daughter (Matthew 9:23-26; Mark 5:35-43; Luke 8:49-56). In this story Jesus arrives just after the girl has died. Her spirit has barely departed, as it were.
Second, there is the account of the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-17). In this instance, the young man has been dead for a somewhat longer period. His body has been prepared for burial, and he is being carried to the cemetery.
Third, there is the present account of the raising of Lazarus. In this case, the dead man has already lain four days in the tomb. Comparing these three stories in order we note that Jesus progressively demonstrates His dominion over death. He can reverse the reign of death at any stage, even that of corruption (verse 39).
In all three cases, moreover, the effective instrument of the raising is the LordŐs own voice: "Little girl, I say to you, arise" and "Young man, I say to you, arise," and "Lazarus, come forth." It is the voice of Christ that brings about the resurrection. "Do not marvel at this," He tells us, "for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth" (John 5:28-29).
The story of Lazarus is traditionally read just prior to Holy Week, which corresponds to the place it has in the Gospel of John. In the Eastern Orthodox Church it is the first day after the forty days of the Lenten fast and is combined with the following Sunday to form "The Feast of Palms." Thus, LazarusŐs coming forth from the tomb precedes and foreshadows that of Jesus one week later. It is the promise of what is about to ensue. By means of His voice, Jesus bears witness to what He is soon to accomplish in His fleshŃHe demonstrates His power over death. In doing so, He identifies Himself as "the Resurrection and the Life."