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).
Saturday, April 1
Matthew 22:23-33: The last three controversy stories in this series are concerned with correct interpretation of Holy Scripture. The first of these has to do with a passage in Exodus (3:6,15-16), the next (verses 34-40) with a text in Deuteronomy (6:5), and the last (verses 41-46) with a line from the Psalms (110 :1). Jesus, as He is about to fulfill all of the Hebrew Scriptures over the next few days, shows His enemies things in the Bible that they had either not noticed or seriously misunderstood.
Jesus' reading of Exodus 3 is arguably the most striking of all (verse 32). He finds, buried and concealed in the story of the Burning Bush, plain evidence of the doctrine of the Resurrection. In doing this, He demonstrates that the true meaning of Holy Scripture is not always on the surface. Would we otherwise have guessed that the doctrine of the Resurrection was proclaimed from the Burning Bush? This style of reading of Holy Scripture, which uncovers deeper meaning concealed in the Sacred Text and in the event narrated there, is the ˝teachingţ (didache--verse 33) of Jesus, and it has always flourished in the theology of the Christian Church.
In this section Matthew adds the Sadducees to the growing list of conspirators, which includes the chief priests (21;2,45), the elders (21:33), the Herodians (verse 16), and the Pharisees (verse 15; 21:15).
As for the Sadducees, they did not believe in a doctrine of the resurrection. It was the Pharisees' adherence to such a doctrine that rendered the latter party closer and more receptive to the Gospel (cf. Acts 23:6-9). The Sadducees' disbelief in a resurrection, which is reflected in today's reading from Matthew, came in part from their rejection of all the Hebrew Scriptures except the Pentateuch. The explicit doctrine of the Resurrection, which commences in the prophetic writings, was thus lost on them.
We may remark that Matthew shows considerable animosity toward the Sadducees, mentioning them in contexts where they are not mentioned by the other gospel writers, and always unfavorably (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) and rendered them comparatively unpopular with the people. Alone among the gospel writers, Matthew tells of the crowd's delight at their discomfiting by Jesus (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.
We may also remark that the ˝caseţ posed by the Sadducees actually is recorded in the story of Sarah contained in Tobit 3:8; 6:14. She really did outlive seven husbands!
It is further instructive to observe that the theme of the resurrection is introduced by the Lord's own enemies, by way of denying it. It is the doctrine of the resurrection that Jesus will prove within just a few days, to the consternation of these enemies.
Sunday, April 2
Matthew 22:34-46: The Pharisees, perhaps not entirely displeased with the discomfiting of the Sadducees, met again among themselves (verse 34). One of their number, likely representing the rest, approaches Jesus to test Him (verse 35).
Matthew's version of this story differs considerably in tone from the parallel text in Mark 12:28, where the questioner appears well disposed toward Jesus. The corresponding text in Luke 10:25 comes much earlier in the narrative, in a quite different setting, where it introduces the parable of the Good Samaritan.
In Matthew, however, the question put to Jesus is integral to the series of skirmishes between Jesus and His enemies (21:15-22:46), which precedes the Lord's lengthy denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees in the next chapter (which is also proper to Matthew). The present scene also takes up the theme of biblical interpretation, which was inaugurated in the previous story (verses 23-33).
Some manuscripts call the questioner in this story a ˝lawyerţ (nomikos). Inasmuch as this word is not elsewhere found in Matthew, it is possible that an early copyist borrowed the term from the parallel account in Luke 10:25.
Jesus answered the questioner by reciting, and slightly altering (˝mind,ţ or dianoia, instead of ˝strength,ţ or dynamis), part of the Shema, which devout Jews recited several times each day. As the Sadducees had failed to notice the implications of Exodus 3:14-15, so the Pharisees had somehow missed the true meaning of (and relationship between) Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. Not really loving God, they have also not loved their neighbor, whom they were currently plotting to kill. They were not rendering unto God the things that are God's (verse 21).
We should also read the account of these two commandments as addressing a practical pastoral question posed in the church for which Matthew wrote. In that Jewish Christian congregation it was of great importance to know how the Lord wanted the Law to be observed. All the Law, says Jesus' answer, hangs on (krematai) these two commandments. Since this was the Lord's own perspective on the matter, it is not surprising that His answer is essentially what we find in the various writers of the New Testament (cf. Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8). Since Matthew places these two verses of the Torah in the context of a dispute with the Pharisees, we suspect that on this point (˝which is the greatest commandmentţ) such a dispute continued between the Pharisees and Matthew's Christians.
While the Pharisees are still gathered in Jesus' presence, He poses for them an additional exegetical problem: To whom was David referring when he spoke of his ˝Lordţ in Psalm 110 (Greek and Latin 109)? If it was the Messiah, who must be David's own son, how could he be David's ˝Lordţ? Jesus thus teases the mind to ask a deeper question of the Psalm, just as He earlier (verse 32) indicated a concealed meaning in Exodus 3. In each case this deeper meaning is verified and validated in His person.
As Christians grasped the point of Jesus' question here, this psalm became ever more important in the development of early Christology (cf. Mark 16:19; Acts 2:34-35; 1 Corinthians 15:25; Hebrews 1:3; 8:1; 10:12).
Monday, April 3
Matthew 23:1-22: Although individual verses of this chapter correspond to verses in the other gospels, this chapter's construction as a whole and its setting in the last week of Jesus' life are peculiar to Matthew. It fittingly follows the long series of altercations between Jesus and His enemies in the two previous chapters.
The present chapter commences with a warning that the Lord's disciples are not to imitate the hypocritical, self=absorbed religion of the Pharisees (verses 1-10). It is instructive to observe that this censure is not extended to the chief priests, the Sadducees, the Herodians, and the elders. Only the scribes and Pharisees are criticized here.
This restriction of the censure indicates the setting in which Matthew wrote, sometime after the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, at which point the priests, the Sadducees, and the Herodians were not longer part of the Jewish leadership. The Judaism with which Matthew was dealing was that of the Pharisees and the scribes, the only ones left with the moral authority to lead the Jewish people. Those other social and religious elements, though powerful at an earlier period, were not of immediate concern to Matthew.
The hypocrisy of the Pharisees was expressed, says the Lord, in their oppression. Their ˝heavy burdens,ţ which contrast with the ˝light burdenţ of the Gospel (11:30), consisted of the numerous rules, regulations, and rubrics that governed the lives of their fellow Jews. Matthew is at one with Paul that these myriad matters were no longer essential.
The real motive of the Pharisees, however, was nothing but unsubtle self-aggrandizement (verses 5-7). By implication Matthew encourages Christians to avoid this sort of preoccupation, and he explicitly rejects the use of certain honorific titles (verses 8-10). For Christians, who are to serve one another humbly as members of the same family, these displays are negative examples.
Matthew then begins a series of ˝Woesţ against the scribes and Pharisees (verse 13). Leaving out verse 14 (not found in the more reliable manuscripts and apparently borrowed from Mark 12:40 and Luke 20:47), there are seven ˝Woesţ in this series, seven being the number signifying completion and fulfillment. That is to say, these hypocritical, self-satisfied men have brought to completion and fulfillment the myriad infidelities recorded in biblical history (verse 32). In denouncing them, therefore, the Lord uses the traditional formula of the prophets, whom their forefathers had murdered--˝Woe!ţ
Tuesday, April 4
Matthew 23:23-39: Much of the material in this section corresponds to Luke 11:37-52, though it is differently structured.
The seven (or eight) ˝woesţ in this, the Lord's last discourse in Matthew, are to be contrasted with the seven (or eight) ˝blessedsţ with which the first discourse began (5:3-12).
The scribes and Pharisees are censured for neglecting the weightier matters of the Torah while concentrating on small particulars of lesser moment (verse 23). The comparison of the camel and the gnat (verse 24) is reminiscent of the camel and the needle's eye (19:24).
The burden of the Lord's judgment falls on the failure of these hypocrites to go deeper than the mere surface letter of observance-deeper in the Torah, deeper into their own hearts, where all is corruption and death (verse 27). They clean the outside, but the neglected inside is in sorry shape (verse 25). They stay away from an interior transformation that would render valuable the observance of the Torah: judgment, mercy, and faith. This criticism, with its accent on interiority, is an echo and summary of what Israel's prophets taught over the centuries.
Hence, these leaders deserve the ˝woeţ that those prophets spoke against earlier infidelities (just to limit ourselves to the 8th century, cf. Amos 5:18-20; 6:1-7; Isaiah, 5 passim; 19:1-3; 28:1-4,15; 30:1-3; 31:1-4; Micah 2:1-4).
The gulf between external observance and internal corruption, which is the very essence of hypocrisy, is the chief and unifying complaint that the Lord voices against these Jewish leaders.
In addressing these hypocrites as ˝serpents, offspring of vipers,ţ the Lord takes up the early censure by John the Baptist near the Gospel's beginning (3:7).
Their persecution of the prophets and sages (verse 34) throughout history had recently been mentioned in two parables (21:34-35; 22:6). The reference to crucifixion, alien to the Holy Land before the coming of the Romans, seems to reflect Matthew's own time, when Jews had ill treated Christian missionaries, a thing we see repeatedly in the Acts of the Apostles, The Martyrdom of Polycarp, and other sources.
The reference to ˝Zechariah, the son of Barachiah,ţ which has never been pinned down with precision, seems to include elements of the biblical prophet Zechariah, Jehoiada's son in 2 Chronicles 24:20-22, and the son of Beeis, whose story in narrated in Josephus (Wars 4:334-344).
All this just blood, unjustly spilt, will fall on the present ˝generationţ (verse 36; 11:16; 12:39,41; 16:4; 17:17; 24:34). Matthew saw the fulfillment of that threat in the events associated with Jerusalem's fall in the year 70.
Wednesday, April 5
Matthew 24:1-28: 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 that 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.
Thursday, April 6
Matthew 24:29-51: 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 Matthew's 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 world's last judgment (Matthew 13:41,49), and we meet them in the New Testament's earliest book (1 Thessalonians 4:16). The coming judgment of the world will be the theme of the last part of Matthew's next chapter (25:31-46).
The Lord compares the circumstances of His future coming to those at the time of Noah's 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 Noah's 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.
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 following verses (verses 42-51), in fact, he suggests that the end of the world may still be some way off.
In these verses 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 story of the two servants is the first of three consecutive stories in Matthew, in which the passage of time is integral to the testing of God's servants. A second story (which we will read next week) will continue this theme; it is the account 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 (which we will read tomorrow), the narrative 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.
Friday, April 7
Matthew 25:14-46: 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 first parable (verses 14-30) 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 God's 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 steward's hiding his talent "in the earth." He writes, "To hide one's 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 of the judgment, 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 Lord's joy (25:21,23). He becomes a "ruler" (24:47; 25:21,23). He inherits a kingdom (25:34).
The second parable (verses 31-46) 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 Jesus' 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 God's 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.