Exclusively published to the Touchstone website each week, these Daily Reflections are brief commentaries on the lectionary readings contained in the St. James Daily Devotional Guide. The reflections are penned by Patrick Henry Reardon, editor of the Daily Devotional Guide and a senior editor of Touchstone. Father Reardon provides here a very brief directional clue for one of the texts each day. Long-time readers of the Daily Devotional Guide will find these reflections an additional help to their reading of Holy Scripture which they can print and keep with their Guide.
The Daily Reflections will be updated weekly.
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Friday, March 24
Matthew 20:1-16: The parable about the day-workers is probably found in this place because it does tell a narrative about the last called being the first paid, thus illustrating, as it were, the final verse of Chapter 19: ˝But many who are first will be last, and the last first.ţ The parable ends with the repetition of the theme of reversal (verse 16).
It is obvious, nonetheless, that this parable, found only in Matthew, is easily separable from that verse, and it touches only one aspect of the parable-namely the reversed order in which the payment to the workers is made. In fact, the parable itself is just as comprehensible without that theme.
The parable of the day workers was doubtless remembered among the early Christian because it did, in fact, address one of their early theological questions - How to regard the Gentiles who were ˝late-comersţ to the Church. The earlier comers to the field are all given a work contract, which may be interpreted as God's established covenant with His people. Those that come last, however, work without a contract; that is to say, they have been promised nothing specific. They are outside the ancient covenant (Ephesians 2:12).
But God's generosity rewards them anyway, and this parable is more descriptive of the Owner of the vineyard than of the workers. The Owner, of course, is God, who is described as merciful and generous with those who work for Him, as well as firm with those contemn His generosity. The vineyard is, of course, the People of God (cf. Isaiah 5:1-7; Jeremiah 12:10).
The grumblers, who are reprimanded at the end of the parable, are not rebuked for dissatisfaction with what they have received, but for their dissatisfaction with what the other people received. These grumblers may also become the enemies who have already commenced plotting against the Son of the field's Owner (21:33-46).
The workers themselves are day laborers, the sort especially needed at the harvest. This feature suggests the eschatological import of the story. These are the ˝last times,ţ and everything is settled ˝in the eveningţ (verse 8).
Saturday, March 25
The Mystery of the Incarnation: All seven of the Church's Ecumenical Councils were concerned with a single question: ˝Who is Jesus?ţ Indeed, according to the Gospels Jesus Himself posed this question several times in various forms: "But who do you say that I am?" (Mark 8:29) "What do you think about the Christ? Whose Son is He?" (Matthew 22:42)
The reason this question is important has to do with certain claims of Jesus, which indicate that the answer touches on the nature of God. When Jesus asserts, for instance, that He and the Father are one (John 10:30), when He affirms that He is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one comes to the Father except through Him (14:6), when He declares that those who see Him see the Father (14:9)--in all such assertions Jesus of Nazareth forces Himself on the conscience of every human being who has ever lived or ever will.
The radical nature of these claims implies that their validity concerns the very being of God and, hence, the meaning of human existence. If these assertions are true, then there really is no God except the God revealed as the Father of this Palestinian carpenter.
This is extremely important, because it implies that all other religions are intrinsically idolatrous. The others are but thieves and robbers (10:8). Every other religion is idol worship. What, after all, is idolatry but the worship of a false divinity? If the true God is known only in Jesus, then only Jesus can save mankind from bondage to false gods.
Truly, if Jesus of Nazareth is who He says He is, then He is history's only safeguard against idolatry. It is either Jesus or the idols. There is no other choice. Hence, the Apostle John, at the end of his brief treatise on the theme of Jesus' identity, abruptly sums up the alternative: ˝Little children, keep yourselves from idols (1 John 5:21).
Taking seriously the claims of Jesus, the New Testament four times speaks of Him as our ˝Mediator,ţ our Mesites. Thus, the Apostle Paul calls Him the ˝one Mediator between God and men, the Man Jesus Christţ (1 Timothy 2:5), while the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, refers to Jesus as ˝the Mediator of the new covenantţ (9:15; 12:24), the ˝Mediator of a better covenantţ (8:6).
Unfortunately, it is currently common to impoverish the meaning of this important word. One even hears nowadays the claim that it is wrong to ask the saints to pray for us, because such a request is at odds with the unique mediation of Jesus. This objection is clearly unfounded, because in the New Testament we constantly find the saints praying for one another and asking one another for the grace of their prayers.
I do not question for a moment, of course, that our one Mediator ˝always lives to make intercessionţ (Hebrews 7:25). The mediation of Jesus, however, is more radical than what He does; it pertains to who He is, which brings us back to the original question: Who is He?
Following the lead of the New Testament, the Church answers this question by saying that Jesus is God's Son who assumed our humanity and became thereby the one Mediator between God and Man. This is to say that in the person of Jesus both God's nature and man's are fixed forever in a unity that prompts us to speak of the God-Man. He joins both forms of existence in His own person. He thus mediates between them. He is what in Logic is called "the Distributed Middle."
Jesus' mediation means that He is both God rendered visible and Man rendered acceptable. For our salvation, the Church insists, He must be both. Were He only a man, His death on the cross would be unavailing. Were He only God, His resurrection from the dead would have no significance. If we are truly redeemed, He must be both.
This argument, inchoatively outlined in 1 John and the Epistle to the Hebrews, was consistently taken up by the Seven Ecumenical Councils and the bishops who attended those councils.
Christian theology loves to express Jesus' mediation in a rhetorical form known as the ˝communication of idioms,ţ which means that, because the person of the God-Man is one, it is theologically proper to speak of what He does in terms of ironic exchange. Thus, we say that God slept in the back of Peter's boat, and that a Man rose in that boat to command the wind and waves (Mark 4:38-39). God walked into Capernaum, and Man forgave the sins of the paralytic who lived there (2:1,9). All that we see Jesus doing in the gospels, He does as both fully God and fully Man, because in Him divinity and humanity are forever joined. He mediates them.
Sunday, March 26
Matthew 20:17-28: This section begins with the Lord's third and final prediction of the His coming Passion (verses 17-19; Mark 10:32-34; Luke 18:31-34). This prophecy is much more detailed than the earlier two (16:21; 17:22-23), mentioning the Lord's manumission to the chief priests (26:57), His condemnation by them (26:66), His handing over to Pilate (27:2), and the mockery and scourging (27:26-30). Unlike Mark (10:34), Matthew also specifies crucifixion (27:32-44), a form of execution practiced by the Romans.
Matthew (20:20-23) and Mark (10:35-40) follow this third prediction of the Lord's sufferings by recording the occasion on which the two sons of Zebedee, James and John, request of the Lord the privilege of sitting to his immediate right and left when he enters into his kingdom. Still worldly and without understanding, the two brothers are portrayed as resistant to the message of the Cross.
In both Gospel accounts the Lord's response to their request is to put back to the brothers a further query about their ability to ˝drink the cup whereof I am to drink,ţ and Mark's version contains yet another question about their being ˝baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized.ţ
Both images used by our Lord in this context, baptism and the cup, are found elsewhere in the New Testament as symbolic of the Lord's Passion (Luke 12:50; Matthew 26:39-42). Obviously, in the context of the New Testament churches the baptism and the cup referred symbolically to two of the sacraments, and it was understood, moreover, that these two sacraments place their communicants into a special relationship with the Lord's Passion (Romans 6:3f; Colossians 2:12; 1 Corinthians 11:26). The questions about baptism and the cup, then, were most instructive for the Christians attending divine worship where these Gospel texts were read and interpreted.
Matthew's version, moreover, presents Zebedee's wife, the mother of the two brothers, approaching the Lord to make the request on their behalf. This woman, elsewhere known as Salome, Matthew calls simply ˝the mother of Zebedee's sons.ţ The detail is certainly significant, inasmuch as this designation, ˝mother of Zebedee's sons,ţ appears only twice in the entire New Testament, both times in Matthew: here in 20:20 and later, in 27:56, at the foot of the Cross.
In the first of these instances Zebedee's wife is portrayed as an enterprising and somewhat ambitious worldling who fails to grasp the message of the Cross, while in the later scene we find her standing vigil as her Lord dies, now a model of the converted and enlightened Christian who follows Jesus to the very end. This marvelous correspondence between the two scenes - a before and after - is proper to Matthew and points to a delicate nuance of his thought.
Monday, March 27
Matthew 20:29-34: This story, found also in Mark 10:46-52 and Luke 18:35-43, is linked to the city of Jericho, though in not exactly the same way in each gospel. In Mark's account Jesus has entered and is the course of leaving the city when the blind man invokes Him. In Luke's version this event occurs as Jesus is approaching Jericho. Indeed, in the Lukan story Jesus, on leaving Jericho, encounters the publican Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), a narrative not found in the other gospels. Here in Matthew, on the other hand, the meeting with the blind men occurs when Jesus is leaving Jericho. What is to be said about this threefold discrepancy?
First, it presents no problem from the perspective of history. The site of Jericho shifted about somewhat over the centuries, as archeologists have demonstrated. One of these shiftings took place during the very period under consideration, when Herod the Great constructed a winter palace near the ancient site of Jericho, and a new settlement rose around it. That is to say, it was possible to be both entering and leaving Jericho simultaneously.
Second, there appears to be no theological or literary significance to the differences among the three Evangelists on this point. If there is such a significance, the present writer has failed to discover it.
It appears that in Matthew's two accounts of blind men (here and in 9:27-31), both stories, as they were narrated in the Church's preaching prior to the written Gospels, came to be told in much the same way. This would account for the similarities between them, such as the identical use of certain expressions: passing through (parago), touching (hapto), and following (akoluo). We observe, for instance, that the first of these two verbs are not found in the parallel accounts in Mark and Luke.
The major difference of Matthew from Mark and Luke here is, of course, that Matthew has two blind men instead of one. This is surely another instance of Matthew combining the two accounts of the healing of blind men from Mark (8:22-26; 10:46-52) into a single story. Why does Matthew do this? Well, his construction effectively juxtaposes these two men with the two sons of Zebedee, who are symbolically healed of their spiritual blindness with respect to the mystery of the Cross. Thus healed, says the text, ˝they followed ˝himţ (20:34). They become part of the congregation that will accompany Israel's true King into Jerusalem to accomplish the mystery of Redemption.
To ˝followţ Christ means to live by the pattern of the Cross, to pursue the implications of Baptism and the Holy Eucharist, the one a mystic identification with His death and resurrection, the other a proclaiming of His death ˝until He comes.ţ These two men. cued of their blindness, accept the challenge just made to James and John.
These blind men, calling on Jesus with the Messianic title, ˝Son of David,ţ ask for the opening of their eyes, an expression which in prophetic literature is associated with the Messianic times (for example, Isaiah 29:18; 35:5).
In fact, one notes in Matthew a disposition to call Jesus the ˝Son of Davidţ (a title introduced in the very first verse of this Gospel), when He miraculously heals. We observe this in both healings of the blind men (here and in 9:30), the blind and mute demoniac (12:22-24), and the Canaanite woman's daughter (15:21-28). These healings are signs of the coming of the Messiah, foretold by the prophets (cf. 4:23; 9:35; 10:1).
In Matthew this scene is immedately followed by our Lord's triumphal entry into Jerusalem, but we will postpone this story until Palm Sunday.
Tuesday, March 28
Matthew 21:28-32: This parable, which has no parallel in Mark (12:1-12) and Luke (Luke 20:9-19, is a study in contrast between the actions of an elder and a younger brother. Matthew inserts it here as a ˝linkţ story, and in fact it serves that literary function perfectly. First, its reference to John the Baptist (verse 32) links the parable to the foregoing discussion in 21:23-27. Second, its reference to the vineyard prepares for the parable that is to follow (verses 33-46). In addition, the parable of the two sons fits admirably into Matthew's long series of controversial encounters between Jesus and those that are preparing to kill Him (21:23-22:46).
Jesus begins by inviting reflection on what He is about to say: ˝How does it seem to you? -- Ti de hymin dokei?ţ The elder son in the story ˝talks a good game.ţ He assents to the father's instruction, but he fails to comply. The younger son resists and rebels, but he obey after thinking the matter over more carefully.
We are not left to guess about the parable's application. After receiving the correct answer about which son in fact obeyed the father, Jesus points an accusing finger at those represented by the elder son.
The two classes represented in the younger son, the tax collectors and the whores, were closely associated with the Romans, whose army occupied the Holy Land at that time. The taxes were collected for the Roman government, and the whores sold their services to the Roman soldiers. Both groups, because they repented at the preaching of John the Baptist, were preferable to the Lord's enemies, who were plotting His murder.
Obedience to the father is expressed as doing his will (epoiesen to thelema tou patros). This expression, of course, ties the parable to the central petition of the Lord's Prayer (6:10). It also ties it to the Lord's imminent Passion (26:39,42).
Certain discrepancies slipped into the manuscript traditions about which son ended up doing the father's will and which son did not. Some manuscripts ascribe obedience to the elder son, and some (those that I have followed) to the younger. I suspect that this variation arose when some copyists attempted to smooth over the seemingly awkward transition to the parable's interpretation, in which the disobedient did not repent, whereas the obedient repented immediately (verse 32). This would not be the only time a biblical copyist tried to improve on our Lord's rhetorical style.
Wednesday, March 29
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.
In Matthew's version, this parable bears yet another resemblance to the Epistle to the Hebrews, by including the detail that the Son was murdered outside of the vineyard (verse 39, contrasted with Mark 12:8). 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 animals sacrificed as sin offerings 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).
We may remark, regarding this section, that the preferable manuscripts omit verse 44, which appears to have been borrowed from Luke 20:18.
Thursday, March 30
Matthew 22:1-14: Comparing Matthew's version of this parable with that of Luke (14:15-24), we note striking differences.
The first is the historical setting. In Luke the story comes much earlier, long before Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem, whereas here in Matthew it is contained among the controversy stories that immediately precede the Lord's sufferings and Death.
The second is the literary setting. Whereas in Luke this is simply the story of a great supper hosted by ˝a certain man,ţ in Matthew it is the wedding celebration of the king's son. This context, of course, links the parable to the one preceding, which was also concerned with the ˝sonţ of the owner of the vineyard.
The present parable, as it appears in Matthew, is tied to the previous parable in other ways. Once again, for example, a series of servants is sent, and in this parable too the servants are badly received and ill treated. The treatment and death of these servants is unique to Matthew's account and bears the same historical meaning as verses 35-36. These servants are the prophets.
Likewise, Matthew's version of the parable emphasizes the detailed, meticulous preparations for the festivities (verses 4 and 8, contrasted with Luke 14:18). This thorough, extensive preparation corresponds to the detailed appointments of the vineyard in the previous parable (21:33, contrasted with Luke 20:9).
Similarly, in the present parable the king punishes the offenders and burns down their city (verse 7, contrasted with Luke 14:21), just as the owner of the vineyard punished the offender in the earlier parable (21:41). Both descriptions of the punishment and destruction are prophecies of the downfall of Jerusalem to the Romans in A.D. 70.
Just as the vineyard is given to new vine-growers in the previous parable (21:41), so here the invitation to the marriage feast, declined by the first recipients of it, is extended to new people that are glad to receive it (verses 9-10). In both cases we are dealing with prophecies of the calling of the Gentiles to the Church (28:18-20).
To continue the allegory that is manifest in Matthew's version of the parable, this final group of ˝servantsţ (verse 10) should be identified with the Apostles themselves, who traveled all the highways and byways of the world's mission field, extending to all nations the King's invitation to the wedding. Matthew, then, clearly discerned in this parable a narrative of the history of the Church in his own lifetime, the second half of the first century.
But Matthew is, as usual, especially interested in life within the Church, and for this reason he attaches to the present parable a shorter one (verses 1-13), not found in Luke. This is an account of an unworthy recipient of the invitation to the wedding feast, who is found improperly dressed. As the banquet begins, this unworthy person is mixed in with the rest of the guests, like the tares among the wheat (13:36-40), a bad fish among the good (13:47-50). This feature of a ˝mixţ also corresponds to the experience of the Church known to Matthew, which contained, like the Church at all times, ˝both bad and goodţ (verse 10, contrasted with Luke 14:23).
When the king approaches the offender, He addresses him as ˝friendţ (hetaire -- verse 12), the same word used by the employer to address his unjust critics (20:13) and the Savior to address His betrayer (26:50). In all these cases the address is met with silence.
Those charged with expelling this unworthy person should be seen as the angels of judgment (13:49). Only at the end is the judgment expected, separating good from bad (13:30; 25:32).
The ˝outer darknessţ and the ˝weeping and gnashing of teethţ (verse 13) are Matthew's standard metaphors for eternal damnation (8:12; 13:42,50; 24:51; 25:30).
Matthew's distinction between ˝calledţ and ˝chosenţ (verse 14) suggests that he may be using these terms somewhat differently from the apostles Peter (cf. 2 Peter 1:10) and John (Revelation 17:14).
Friday, March 31
Matthew 22:15-22: In this series of conflict stories Matthew has begun to introduce those who will play an active hand in the drama of the crucifixion. Already he has introduced the chief priests, the elders, and the Pharisees (21:23,45). Now introduces the Pharisees again, the Herodians, and the Roman government, the latter symbolized in the coin of taxation. In the story to follow he will introduce the Sadducees, the party of the priesthood (verse 23). Throughout these stories, then, Matthew is bringing back once again that confluence of enemies that were intent on killing ˝the King of the Jewsţ at the beginning of this Gospel (2:3-4).
The evil intent of the Pharisees' question is noted at the beginning of the story (verse 15). This question is part of a ˝plotţ (symboulion). His enemies want to ˝trapţ Jesus (padigevo, a verb that appears only here in the New Testament). Pharisees and Herodians have no use for one another, but their common hatred of Jesus unites their efforts to spring a trap on Him.
They commenced with manifest flattery, evidently to put Jesus off His guard before springing their loaded question. The payment of the head tax to the Roman government was a source of resentment and occasional rebellion among the Jews, both because it was a sign of their subjection to Rome and because they disliked handling the graven image of the emperor on the coin. To this question, then, either a yes or no answer could provide the basis for a political accusation against Jesus, or at least could gain Him new enemies.
Reading their hearts (verse 18; 9:4) and reprimanding their hypocrisy, the Lord obliges them to produce the coin in question, thereby making it clear that they all did, in fact, have the coin and pay the tax (verse 19). That point established, He then obliges them to identify the head and name on the coin, namely, Tiberius Caesar (A.D. 14-37). Obviously the coin belongs to the emperor, so they can continue doing what they have always done-pay the tax. The coin, after all, belongs to Caesar; he minted and distributed the coin. It is his.
The concern of Jesus, however, is not identical with that of His enemies. He is not concerned about what is owed to Caesar, but what is owed to God. This too must be paid, and Jesus is about to pay it. Rendering unto God the things of God refers to our Lord's approaching sufferings and death. Thus, what began as a mundane political question is transformed into a theological matter of great moment, leaving them all amazed (verse 22).
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