May 23 – May 30

Friday, May 23

Matthew 21:1-11: The enthusiasm shown at our Lord’s entry into Jerusalem is partly to be explained, as a matter of history, as the people’s response to the raising of Lazarus, an event not recorded in the Synoptic Gospels.

Comparing the three Synoptics, we observe that Matthew explicitly interprets the Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem through the eyes of the prophet Zechariah, whom he quotes in verse 5: "Tell the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your King is coming to you, lowly and seated on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey’" (Zechariah 9:9).

This recourse to prophecy, which must have been obvious to others besides Matthew, guarantees that the event is not regarded as an isolated occurrence, because vision of prophecy places it into a larger, more panoramic historical perspective. Prophecy permits the event to be regarded as manifesting God’s purpose.

Prophecy reveals at once two things about what happened on the first Palm Sunday: first, the inner meaning of the event as God sees it, and second, the connection of the event with earlier biblical history.

The second of these points requires further elaboration. In the mind of Matthew, the biblical background or foreshadowing of this event was the story in 2 Samuel 15—17, where King David is portrayed fleeing from the rebellion of Absalom. Crossing the Kidron valley eastwards and ascending the Mount of Olives, David is the king rejected of his people, while a usurper is in full revolt. The King leaves the city in disgrace, riding on a donkey, the poor animal of the humble peasant. David is the very image of meekness in the face of defeat. In his heart is no bitterness; he bears all with patience and plans no revenge.

As he goes, David suffers further humiliation and deception from those who take advantage of his plight. One of his most trusted counselors, Ahitophel, betrays him to his enemies; another citizen curses and scorns him in his flight.

Moreover, in the description of David fleeing from Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, there is a striking contrast with the victorious Absalom, the usurper, who is driving "a chariot and horses with fifty men to run before him" (2 Samuel 15:1). Absalom represents worldly power and worldly wisdom, contrasted with the humility and meekness of the King.

Incorporating this image of David as a mystic prefiguration of the Messiah yet-to-come, the post-exilic prophet Zechariah foretold the triumphal entry of the Messiah into Zion, the story narrated by the Evangelists. The Savior arrives in Jerusalem by the very path that David used to flee from the Holy City. Riding the donkey, our Lord comes down westward from the Mount of Olives, crosses the Kidron Valley, and finally enters Jerusalem. He thus begins the week of His meekly-borne sufferings, including betrayal by a friend and rejection by His people.

Saturday, May 24

Matthew 21:12-22: This section of Matthew includes the purging of the temple and the withering of the fig tree.

The story of the purging of the temple is found in all four Gospels, but with significant differences in the narrative order. The most obvious of these differences is between John, where this story appears fairly early in the narrative (John 2:13-17)–right after Jesus’ first miracle (2:11)–and the Synoptics, all of which place the story in the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. There are further, less significant differences among the Synoptics. For example, whereas in Matthew the purging of the Temple immediately follows the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and apparently takes place on Palm Sunday itself, in Mark it is preceded by the cursing of the fig tree and takes place on Monday. In Luke the triumphal entry and the purging of the Temple are separated by Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem.

I propose to examine this story by considering it at three historical levels. First, we will reflect on the meaning of the event when it happened. Second, we will look at the meaning of the event in the narrative tradition of the early Church. Third, we will examine the features of the story that are particular to Matthew.

First, let us reflect on our Lord’s action in the Temple in its own immediate context. What significance did it have for those who were witnesses to its original setting?

We should begin by recalling that the coming Messiah was expected to purge the Temple. Earlier suggestions of this idea include Isaiah 56:7, which is quoted by the Gospels as a prophecy fulfilled on this occasion: “Even them I will bring to My holy mountain, /And make them joyful in My house of prayer. /Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices /Will be accepted on My altar; /For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.” In this text the Temple is “purged” in the sense of being rebuilt after its destruction by the defiling Babylonians.  Our Lord also indicates His fulfillment of prophecy on this occasion by justifying His action with a reference to Jeremiah 7:11: “‘Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of thieves in your eyes? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,’ says the Lord.”

Perhaps even more to the purpose, however, were the words of Malachi, referring to the Messiah’s coming to the Temple in order to purge it: “‘Behold, I send My messenger, /And he will prepare the way before Me. /And the Lord, whom you seek, /Will suddenly come to His temple, /Even the Messenger of the covenant, /In whom you delight. /Behold, He is coming,’ /Says the Lord of hosts. /‘But who can endure the day of His coming? /And who can stand when He appears? /For He is like a refiner’s fire /And like launderers’ soap. /He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver; /He will purify the sons of Levi, /And purge them as gold and silver, /That they may offer to the Lord /An offering in righteousness. /Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem /Will be pleasant to the Lord, /As in the days of old, /As in former years” (Malachi 3:1-4).  The context of this purging foreseen by Malachi was the sad state of Israel’s worship, to which he was witness (1:6-10,12-14).

The Temple’s expected “purging” by the Messiah had mainly to do with ritual and moral defilements, much as those Judas Maccabaeus had cleansed from the Lord’s house after its defilement by Antiochus Epiphanes IV. This purging was completed with the Temple’s rededication on December 14, 164 B. C. (1 Maccabees 4:52).

As described in the New Testament, however, the “defilement” does not appear to have been so severe. It apparently consisted of the noise and distractions occasioned by the buying and selling of sacrificial animals necessary for the Temple’s ritual sacrifice. John describes the scene in greater detail: “And He found in the temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers doing business. When He had made a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen, and poured out the changers’ money and overturned the tables” (John 2:14-15).

To grasp this context we should bear in mind that the greater part of the people in the Temple during the major feasts (and all the Evangelists place this incident near Passover) came from great distances. Naturally they brought no sacrificial animals with them, reasonably expecting that local vendors on the scene would meet their needs. These vendors brought the necessary herds and kept them in the immediate vicinity of the Temple. Indeed, without their mercantile provision, the ritual sacrifices of the Temple would have been rendered impossible. The activity associated with this arrangement was considered part of the normal business of the Temple, rather much as the sale of Bibles, prayer books, icons, and rosaries found in the shops near St. Peter’s in Rome. The action of Jesus, then, was not directed against ritual and moral pollutions but against the normal business of the Temple.

Hence, what the Lord did in this respect was more symbolic than practical. There is no evidence that this action of Jesus amounted to more than a slight disturbance in the daily activity of the Temple, nor does Jesus seem to have persisted in it. He intended, rather, to enact a prophecy, much in line with sundry similar actions by the Old Testament prophets. Those who were witnesses to the event discerned this significance, recognizing it as a “Messianic sign.” This recognition explains the menacing reaction of the Lord’s enemies (Mark 11:18; Luke 19:47).

Second, with respect to the later historical context of the first century, let us consider the circumstances in which this story was conveyed in the preaching of the Church prior to finding a place in the canonical Gospels. In this context it is reasonable to suppose that the Christians related this event of the Temple’s purging to that definitive “purging” of the Lord’s house when Titus destroyed it in A.D. 70. In fact, in the Synoptic accounts this story of the Lord’s action is placed near His predictions of that later catastrophe. If what Jesus did on that day did not actually disrupt the daily routine of ritual sacrifice, the later action of the Romans most certainly did. Jesus’ prophetic act, therefore, foreshadowed the Temple’s destruction and the cessation of Israel’s sacrificial cultus, which has never been restored.

Third, let us consider the components of this story that are proper to Matthew and peculiar to his interpretation of it. These consist chiefly in appeals to two Old Testament texts that Matthew perceives to be “fulfilled” in what the Lord did in the Temple.

In the first of these instances, Matthew says, “Then the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them” (verse 14). Matthew alone includes this striking detail, which is full of theological significance and advances the Messianic theme that dominates his version of the story. The background of this detail is 2 Samuel 5, which tells the story of David’s taking of Jerusalem from the Jebusites in 992 B.C. When the king and his army laid siege to the city, the Jebusites taunted David that their blind and lame would suffice to defend it (2 Samuel 5:6). This taunt led to David’s enemies being metaphorically referred to as “the blind and the lame,” and this metaphor in turn led to a popular proverb, “the blind and lame must stay outside.” More literally, the proverb ran, “the blind and the lame may not come into the house.”

The Septuagint augmented this proverb by a single word, Kyriou, so that it ran, “the blind and the lame shall not come into the house of the Lord.” It is possible that the LXX’s version of the proverb reflects a later rule against begging inside the Temple, so as not to disturb the people who went there to pray. Many of the mendicants, if not most, were either blind or lame, and such a rule would have obliged them to stay outside the Temple gates in order to do their begging (cf. Acts 3:12).

Matthew’s account, therefore, is seen to reverse this exclusion of the blind and the lame. The blind and the lame, once the symbols of David’s enemies, are now received in the Temple by David’s Son, who heals them. This detail is an ironical Messianic sign. The Messiah, having entered His Temple and purged it, brings in those who had been excluded, and this, too, is an ironic fulfillment of Holy Scripture.

In the second instance of biblical fulfillment, Matthew’s Gospel refers to Psalm 8, which is seen to be fulfilled in the shouting of the children at the Lord’s entry into the city (verses 15-16). Jesus cites this psalm in reference to Himself, a point on which He is followed by the authors of the New Testament (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:27; Hebrews 2:6-8).

In short, Matthew’s account of the purging of the Temple lays special emphasis on the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures.

We come now to the cursing of the fig tree (verses 18-22). Mark tells the story of the cursing of the fig tree as taking place on Monday, prior to the purging of the Temple, with the discovery of the withering of the fig tree on Tuesday of Holy Week (Mark 11:12-24). In Matthew this sequence is greatly abbreviated and rearranged.

With respect to the question of historicity it is difficult to determine which narrative is closer to the original order. Indeed, there is nothing intrinsic to the story itself that demands its being placed in proximity to either the Lord’s triumphal entry or to His purging of the Temple. If we examine the bare structure of the account, the incident could have taken place anywhere and at any time in the course of the Lord’s ministry. It is possible that the theme of impending judgment, which is certainly implied in the incident of the fig tree, caused this story to be remembered in connection with the purging in the Temple, or it may be the case that the two Evangelists placed it in that context simply because it was remembered to have happened in that context. It is impossible to be apodictic on this point.

That said, it does appear that Matthew has shortened and rearranged Mark’s narrative sequence in this account. In the Gospel of Mark, each of the days of Holy Week is noted and accounted for (cf. the chronological notations in Mark 11:11,12,20; 14:1.12). Specific stories are assigned to each day. In Matthew, however, the chronological structure of the Holy Week narrative is less structured.

Once again, we will distinguish among three levels of history in the transmission of this story: the significance of the action of Jesus when it happened, the meaning that this incident took on as it was narrated in the Church’s preaching, and, finally, the significance of the event in the thought of the Gospel writer.

First, what did this action of our Lord mean to those who witnessed it? At this first level of meaning the fig tree was taken as a symbol of the fruitlessness of God’s people, which is a theme common throughout the Old Testament’s prophetic writings. Thus, we read in Hosea 2:12 the Lord says of Israel, “I will destroy her vines and her fig trees.” Again, in Jeremiah 8:13, “‘I will surely consume them,’ says the Lord. /‘No grapes shall be on the vine, /Nor figs on the fig tree.’” Just as He was fulfilling biblical prophecy in His purging of the Temple, the Lord here fulfills the ancient threat to dry up Israel’s fig tree.

As an important component in Matthew’s ecclesiology, this theme will continue in the stories that follow. Matthew is describing Israel’s rejection of the promised Messiah, a rejection that has important implications for ecclesiology. To borrow a metaphor that St. Paul uses to make the same point, Israel’s rejection of the Messiah meant that branches were being lopped off in order for the nations to be engrafted onto the ancient stock of Israel. This was still happening when Matthew wrote.

From the call of Abraham to the coming of Jesus nearly two thousand years had elapsed, during which time the Lord had cultivated this people symbolized in the fig tree. The Lord’s curse expresses God’s distress and wrath that His people have responded so poorly. In short, the fruitlessness of the fig tree corresponds in symbol to the story of the vineyard, which will presently follow (Matthew 22:33-46; Mark 12:1-12).

If we keep this significance in mind, we will not take seriously the objection that says Jesus acted irrationally in thus cursing the fig tree. For all we know, God may have created fig trees chiefly to enact this curse, which symbolizes the fruitlessness of Israel’s history and serves as a metaphor of her destiny. That is to say, this deed of Jesus was a prophetic act and should be assessed as such. It stands in a sequence with two other prophetic acts: His triumphal entry into Jerusalem and His purging of the Temple.

Second, how was this story used in the preaching of the early Church? This is a reasonable historical question, because it appears that it was the preaching and catechesis of the early Church that preserved the memory of this incident during the time between the event itself and the written Gospels. At the least (in the case of Mark) this time was a generation.

It would appear that this story of the fig tree, as it was told during the period of catechetical transmission, became joined to an exhortation to faith, and especially to prayer with faith. We find this significance in both Mark and Matthew. Indeed, in Matthew the story terminates in a general principle regarding the efficacy of prayer with faith: “And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive” (verse 22). This is clearly a secondary meaning, because the cursing of the fig tree involved no prayer at all.

As the story of the fig tree was told by early Christian preachers and catechists, however, this secondary meaning emerged, probably because the image itself resembled a metaphor that our Lord used with respect to the power of faith. Both Evangelists cite that metaphor in this context: “Amen, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ it will be done” (verse 21; Mark 11:23).

Why would we assume that this secondary meaning was attached to the story of the fig tree during the period of the catechetical transmission and did not come from the Evangelists themselves? This is, of course, possible, but it seems improbable, given the context in which the story appears in the Gospels. That is to say, in neither Gospel is this story found in a general didactic section, but in the context of the Lord’s impending Passion. In neither Gospel would we expect a teaching about the prayer of faith exactly where this story appears. Hence, it is reasonable to suppose that if the story of the fig tree is joined to an exhortation to the prayer of faith, the Gospel writers give it this way because they received it this way.  In the case of Mark, in fact, the story was apparently inherited as part of a series of teaching on prayer (Mark 11:23-25).

This brings us to the story’s third level of meaning, its significance in the literary context in the Gospel accounts. As we have reflected, there is nothing in the structure of the story itself to indicate that the event took place during Holy Week. In that context, however, the story assumes a special poignancy. The discovery that the tree bears no fruit becomes a metaphor for the immediate situation, in which Israel’s own history is about to culminate in its official rejection of the Messiah. It becomes, in Matthew’s account, an early enactment of the curse that the Lord’s enemies invoke upon themselves on the day of His death: “And all the people [pas ho laos] answered and said, ‘His blood be on us and on our children’” (27:25). The cursing of the fig tree becomes a prophecy of that sad and tragic moment when that international assembly of Jews, gathered for Passover in city of Jerusalem, deliberately rejected the Messiah for whose arrival God had spent centuries preparing them. This was the tragedy that divided Jew from Christian, and Matthew was witness to the unfolding of the tragedy during the ensuing decades of the first century.

Sunday, May 25

Matthew 21:23-32: The parable in the latter part of this section–a parable without parallel in Mark and Luke–is a study in contrast between two brothers. Matthew inserts it here as a “link” 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).

This contrasting story of two brothers is of a kind with which the Bible abounds. We think, for instance, of the contrast between Ishmael and Isaac, or between Esau and Jacob. Indeed, the special place of this motif in Holy Scripture is indicated by the contrast between Cain and Abel near the beginning of it.

Likewise, this was not the only occasion on which Jesus contrasted two brothers. A better known instance is found in Luke 15:11-32.

Before examining the present parable in Matthew, we do well to reflect the more general significance of these biblical stories of fraternal contrast. Aside from the sense conveyed by any one of them, is there a more universally applicable message common to all of them?

There appears to be. In each such story the two brothers are raised in the same family. They grow up in more or less identical conditions, subject to the same influences, or, as modern behavioral scientists like to say, in the same environment. Neither has a “home court advantage” over the other. Yet, in each instance the two brothers turn out very differently from one another.

This repeated contrast tends to foster a general impression: namely, that the behavior of human beings is not determined—is not fixed—by either nature or nurture. It is determined, rather, by personal choices that each man makes. Men born of the same parents and raised in the same home grow up very differently from one another, a fact illustrating the truth that men make their own decisions, for good or ill, and set the course for their own destiny.

That is to say, the Bible gives no support to the notion that the fate of human beings is determined by the circumstances of their birth or upbringing. The Bible does not countenance the thesis that human beings are no more than the sum total of the influences brought to bear upon them. A human being becomes, rather, what he makes himself to be, and this takes place through his choices.

Moreover, the truth of this assertion is compatible with the burden of the present parable, in which each son makes a personal choice of obedience or disobedience, repentance or hardness of heart.

Jesus begins by inviting reflection on what He is about to say: “How does it seem to you? — Ti de hymin dokei?” The first son in the story “talks a good game.” He assents to the father’s instruction, but he fails to comply. The second son resists and rebels, but he obeys after thinking the matter over more carefully. The answer about which is the obedient son is not lost on Jesus’ listeners (verse 31).

Jesus goes on to apply this lesson to His current situation. These Jewish leaders have already shown their hand by their unwillingness to commit themselves with respect to John the Baptist. Now Jesus brings John the Baptist back into the picture. Sinners—those who have declared that they will not obey—have repented at the preaching of John, whereas the Law-observing Jewish leaders, who proclaimed themselves obedient, have failed to repent (verse 32; Luke 7:29-30). Which group is truly obedient to the Father? This parable was a powerful accusation against the Lord’s enemies, the men currently plotting to murder Him.

The two classes represented in the second 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).

A derived understanding of this text, common among the Church Fathers, makes the first son refer to disobedient, unrepentant Israel, and the second son refer to the repentant Gentiles, who replaced them in the vineyard. This understanding of the parable is entirely consonant with the meaning that it bears in the context of Jesus’ own life. It may also have been the understanding of the story during the pre-scriptural period of its oral transmission. It may likewise have been in the mind of Matthew himself. Such an interpretation of this parable fits well, for example, with the contrast that Matthew makes between the Gentile Magi and the murderous leaders of Israel at the beginning of the story, and also with the contrast that he draws between the Gentile wife of Pilate and the Jewish leaders somewhat later in the account of the Lord’s Passion.

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 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.

Monday, May 26

Matthew 21:33-46: In Matthew, as well as in Mark (12:1-12) and Luke (20:9-19), 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.

Tuesday, May 27

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. In Luke it follows other teaching about sitting at table (“When you are invited by anyone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in the best place, lest one more honorable than you be invited by him”) and inviting the poor to meals (“when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind”). Indeed, the parable of the invited guests is immediately preceded by a verse that reads: “Now when one of those who sat at the table with Him heard these things, he said to Him, ‘Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!’” All this is to say, Luke represents a tradition in which various teachings of Jesus about meals were handed on in a sequence determined by subject.

In Matthew, on the other hand, this parable immediately follows the parable of the servants sent to the vineyard. The link between these two parables is clearly the repeated sending of the servants. There are other similarities between the two parables, as we shall see presently.

The third difference is in the details of the parable. Whereas in Luke this is simply the story of a great supper hosted by “a certain man,” 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 “son” 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 “servants” (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), both parables found only in Matthew. This feature of a “mix” also corresponds to the experience of the Church known to Matthew, which contained, like the Church at all times, “both bad and good” (verse 10, contrasted with Luke 14:23).

When the king approaches the offender, He addresses him as “friend” (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 darkness” and the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (verse 13) are Matthew’s standard metaphors for eternal damnation (8:12; 13:42,50; 24:51; 25:30).

Matthew’s distinction between “called” and “chosen” (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).

Wednesday, May 28

Matthew 22:15-22: From a purely material perspective, this series of conflict stories, all of them placed during the final week of our Lord’s earthly life, is nearly identical in the three Synoptic Gospels. This fact offers strong testimony that the final chapters in these three Gospels reflect the preaching of the early Church, which apparently knew a standard narrative structure respecting the last week of Jesus’ life on earth.

Matthew follows this structure. In this series of conflict stories he has already begun to introduce those persons 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 He introduces the Pharisees again, the Herodians, and the Roman government, the latter symbolized in the coin of taxation.

In the story that follows this one 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 Jews” 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 “plot” (symboulion). His enemies want to “trap” 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.

This conspiracy of God’s enemies made a deep impression on the early Christians. Indeed, they saw it as the fulfillment of a prophecy in Psalm 2 (cf. Acts 4:23-30).

The Lord’s enemies commence with manifest flattery, evidently to put Jesus off His guard before springing their loaded question (verse 16). All three of the Synoptics mention this detail.

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. If Jesus forbade the paying of this tax, He would offend the Herodians. If He approved of it, He would further offend the Pharisees. Either way, He would give offense.                                           

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 do, in fact, have the coin and do pay the tax (verse 19).

That point established, He then obliged them to identify the head and name on the coin, namely, Tiberius Caesar (A.D. 14-37). Obviously the coin belonged to the emperor, so they could continue doing what they have always done—pay the tax. Caesar minted and distributed the coin. It was his.

Separated from its literary context, this story answers a practical question for Christians, and it has always served that purpose. Considered thus, it is consonant with the general teaching about taxation that we find elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. Romans 13:7; 1 Peter 2:13-19).

But then Jesus goes on. 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).

It is important, however, to keep this story in the context where the Gospels place it, the context of the Lord’s impending death. The question posed to Jesus is not a theoretical question. Indeed, it is not even a practical question. It is a loaded question–a question with an evil ulterior motive. It is a sword aimed at the Lord’s life.

And this is the sense in which we should understand Jesus’ response. Understood in this way, the Lord’s directive is full of irony. He tells His enemies to give back to God that which belongs to Him. And, in context, just what is that? It is Jesus Himself, whose life they will steal, and in their act of murder that which belongs to God will be rendered unto God.

Thursday, May 29

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 [109]: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 “teaching” (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) had 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. Because they were a priestly party, their services were no longer required after the loss of the temple.

We may also remark that the “case” 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.

Friday, May 30

Matthew 22:34-46: The Pharisees, perhaps not entirely displeased with the discomfiting of the Sadducees, meet 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 “lawyer” (nomikos). Inasmuch as this word is not found in Matthew elsewhere and is missing in the better manuscripts of this passage, it is possible that an early copyist borrowed the term from the parallel account in Luke 10:25.

The rabbinic tradition counted up to 613 Commandments in the Torah, 248 of them positive (“you shall”) and 365 of them negative (“you shall not”)–one for each day of the year. The were not considered all to be of the same weight. The prohibition against idolatry, for instance, clearly carried more weight than laws about the maintenance of a man’s sideburns.

Jesus answers the questioner by reciting part of the Shema, which devout Jews recited several times each day (Deuteronomy 6:5). As Matthew cites the text, he slightly alters it (“mind,” or dianoia, instead of “strength,” or dynamis), which is the LXX reading. We notice that Mark’s text includes the whole Shema.

Jesus cites only two positive commandments, not the prohibitions. Love is the fundamental commandment on which all the others rest.

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).

Matthew’s version of the second commandment is more strongly expressed than in Mark. It is “like unto” the first.

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 (unlike Mark and Luke) 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 commandment”) such a dispute continued between the Pharisees and Matthew’s Christians.

The Apostle John reverses the order of these two commandments, not in an absolute sense, but in the sense that the second commandment is the easier to check on. He writes, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also” (1 John 4:20-21).

The inquirer had asked only about the Torah, but Jesus says that these two commandments dominate not only the Torah but also the prophets (verse 40).

While the Pharisees are still gathered in Jesus’ presence, He poses for them an additional exegetical problem (verses 34-46): To whom was David referring when he spoke of his “Lord” 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 “Lord”? 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).