Sunday, March 13
Psalm 145 (Greek and Latin 144): This psalm of most exuberant praise is also the last one composed (in the original Hebrew) as an alphabetic acrostic, and perhaps it is the one that best illustrates the intent of that rhetorical medium. To begin each successive line of a psalm with the next letter of the alphabet is more than a literary trick. In the Book of Psalms this device serves, rather, to state an aspiration to a truth — namely, that God is to be praised by every sort of sound, that every conceivable formulation of our throat and tongue and lips is to be directed to the divine glory, that no kind of intonation should be deprived of His presence.
And Psalm 145 conveys this verity in grand style. Indeed, this psalm so overflows with rich, resonating magnificence that it is nearly a crime simply to recite it. The very luxury of the sounds needs to be tasted, the mouth and throat filled by its glory.
The dominating ideas appear repeatedly, variously combined and in endless replications: benediction, magnificence, glory, abundance, majesty. To speak of “restraints” imposed on this psalm by reason of its acrostic form (as one curiously benighted commentator does) is a judgment belied by every line. There are no discernible restraints in this most prodigal of psalms. Psalm 145 is sumptuous and extravagant. It is an earthly taste of the very joy of heaven.
Psalm 145 is the voice of the new life within us, that life of which Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). Each mounting crescendo of this psalm abounds with the life of the victorious Christ: “Generation after generation will praise Your deeds, and make declaration of Your might. The magnificence of the glory of Your holiness they will tell, and Your wonders will they proclaim. They will speak the power of Your fearsome deeds, and expound on your magnificence. They will herald the remembrance of Your goodness, and in Your righteousness will they exult.”
The God praised in this psalm is praised chiefly for His great and rich mercy: “Compassionate is the Lord and merciful, long-suffering and abounding in mercy. Gracious is the Lord to all alike; His compassions rest on all His works.”
The kingdom of Christ is not of this world; it is truly eternal and transcendent and belongs to heaven. Accordingly, the words and sentiments of our psalm repeatedly raise the mind above earthly things to the realm of eternal life. Several expressions of eternity appear in its lines: “from age to age,” “for ever and ever,” and so forth. Its emphasis thus goes beyond specific and individual deeds. Accordingly, it is one of a short series of psalms, near the end, that forms a final doxology to the whole psalter.
Monday, March 14
Matthew 21:33-46: In Matthew, as well as in Mark and Luke, the parable of the Wicked Vinedressers comes as a climax to a series of controversy stories involving Jesus and his enemies just a few days before his arrest, and each account ends with the comment that this parable is what determined the purpose of the Lord’s enemies to kill him. It is obvious to them that in this parable Jesus is giving his own interpretation of the entire history of the Chosen People, culminating in their rejection of him and their resolve to put him to death.
Jesus here identifies himself as the Son, and, as Son, the Heir. The outline of this parable is followed very closely in the opening lines of the Epistle to the Hebrews: “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners, hath spoken in times past to the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by a Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things.”
This parable is also one of the Gospel accounts where it is possible to discern the Lord’s original, spoken Aramaic clearly shining through the inspired Greek text. He calls himself “Son” rejected by the vinedressers and then goes on immediately to speak of himself as the “stone” rejected by the builders. Actually this was a play on words, the Aramaic word for “son” being ben, and the word for “stone” being eben. The drama of that moment is still preserved in this striking detail.
This parable bears another resemblance to the Epistle to the Hebrews. Matthew’s version, for instance, includes the detail that the Son was murdered outside of the vineyard (verse 39). That is to say, outside of Jerusalem. The Epistle to the Hebrews makes the same point and then draws a moral lesson from it. Speaking of the Mosaic ordinance requiring that the bodies of the beasts sacrificed as sin offering be burned outside of the camp, the author of Hebrews comments: “Therefore, Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore, let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach” (Hebrews 13:12-13).
Tuesday, March 15
Psalm 125 (Greek and Latin 124): Whereas Psalm 124 (Greek and Latin 123) describes God as “among us,” Psalm 125 (Greek and Latin 124) speaks of Him as “surrounding us.” In both cases the reference is to the Lord’s protection of His people, a security symbolized in the elevated, walled city of Jerusalem.
This psalm’s final blessing, “peace be upon Israel,” is part of the prayer that the Apostle Paul offers for the Church at the end of his argument in the Epistle to the Galatians: “And as many as walk according to this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God” (6:16). This is the peace that comes of living, by faith, under the protection of God.
This protection and this peace, however, are essentially matters of the spirit. One of ancient Israel’s great mistakes, exemplified during the lifetime of Jeremiah and vigorously condemned by him, was to regard these blessings of protection and peace in a political sense, as though Jerusalem benefited from some kind of automatic geopolitical immunity from harm, no matter how wicked its ways and unrighteous the lives of its inhabitants.
Indeed, even when the Lord did grant political protection to Jerusalem, as in the case of the Assyrian invasions near the end of the eighth century (during the ministry of Isaiah), the purpose of such intervention was spiritual. No matter how destructive the Assyrian army, the worship of Assyrian gods was far worse.
Likewise, in our psalm the reason that “the Lord will not suffer the rod of sinners over the inheritance of the righteous” is a concern “lest the righteous reach out their hands unto evil.” The Lord’s concern, that is to say, is chiefly for the safety of our souls. He extends no promises of protection nor guarantees of peace except “to the good, and to the upright in heart.”
Life in God’s Church is no different. The protection He promises us is a matter of the spirit, not necessarily a deliverance from those who can kill the body. On the contrary, the Lord solemnly assured us, “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33), the particulars of which are spelled out in several places. For example, “But before all these things they will lay hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to synagogues and prisons. You will be brought before kings and rulers for My name’s sake” (Luke 21:12).
Thus, when Jesus promises us, “not a hair of you head will be lost” (21:18), His promise must be understood in some sense compatible with the various persecutions predicted in the same context. The Bible knows nothing about a “rapture” that would spare the faithful from the manifold sufferings that come upon the whole world. Nor should the Lord’s assurance, “not a hair of you head will perish,” be understood as a protection against baldness. All these things are matters of the spirit.
Wednesday, March 16
Matthew 22:15-22: Here is the first of two stories of Jesus encountering two different groups of His enemies, the Herodians and the Sadducees.
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.
It is no surprise, certainly, that the Herodians want to kill Jesus. Indeed, near the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, it was King Herod himself who sought the life of the newborn Child, whom the Magi recognized as the true King of the Jews (2:1-15). These adherents to the royal house of Herod, therefore, are simply carrying forward a plot that began with King Herod many years before.
When at last their plot succeeds, the title on Jesus’ cross will proclaim that He Himself is the “King of the Jews,” the name by which the Magi had sought Him.
Thursday, March 17
Matthew 22:23-33: Jesus now encounters the Sadducees, Israel’s priestly party, and addresses their 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 the other Gospel writers do not mention them (cf. Matthew 3:7; 16:1,6,11,12; 22:34). Like the Herodians, the Sadducees sided with the Roman overlords (which the Pharisees did not), a policy that 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.
Friday, March 18
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.
Lazarus Saturday, March 19
Lazarus Saturday: Jesus' raising of Lazarus from the dead is the last of his great "signs" and the one that seals the resolve of his enemies to put him to death. At the same time, nonetheless, Lazarus' "resurrection" serves as prophecy and promise of the Lord's own rising from the dead.
Moreover, the raising of Lazarus points to what is in store for all who live by faith in Jesus. This is the thrust of the Lord's discourses to the two sisters of the dead man just prior to the event. Once again, this is an important theme in John's gospel: "Amen, amen, I say unto you: The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and they that hear shall live" (John 5:25). The voice that the dead man hears in his tomb is the same that all of us buried in Jesus are confident to hear, summoning us forth from our many graves on the day that his great appearing ushers in the world's final hour: "Awake, sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light" (Ephesians 5:14).
In addition, traditional ascetical literature throughout Christian history has also seen in the raising of Lazarus a symbol of the rebirth of anyone who, by faith in Jesus, passes from spiritual death to a godly life. One of the most memorable literary examples of this motif is found in the novel Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevski. An essential component in the structure of that wonderful story is the scene where Sonya reads the account of the raising of Lazarus to the murderer Raskolnikov and brings him to repentance and the bearing of his cross.