July 31 – August 7, 2015

Friday, July 31

Mark 11:27-33: Jesus, upon entering Jerusalem, immediately began to behave as though the place belonged to Him. Right after his triumphal entry into the city with the acclamations of the crowd, he proceeded to purge the Temple and then curse the fig tree. All of this was an exercise of “authority” (exsousia).

His enemies, who have already shown themselves nervous about these events, now approach Him in the Temple to challenge this “authority” implicitly claimed in what has happened. The reader already knows, of course, the source of Jesus’ authority, so the Gospel writers do not tell this story in order to inform the reader on this point. The story is told to show, rather, the Lord’s complete control of the situation, especially His deft discomfiting of these hypocritical enemies.

The purpose of the hostile question makes it what is sometimes called “a lawyer’s question,” indicating a question asked for the purpose of making the respondent say too much, a question asked in order to find something recriminating to be used later in a courtroom.

Knowing this, of course, Jesus is not disposed to answer the question. he responds, rather, with a question of his own, along with a pledge to answer the first question if his opponents will answer the second. This recourse to the counter-question is common in rabbinic style, and Jesus seems often to have used it.

The priests and elders immediately perceive their dilemma. They are unwilling to express themselves honestly about the baptism of John, which is a symbol of John’s entire ministry. They are being asked, with respect to John, exactly the question they had posed with respect to Jesus. They had never been obliged to deal with that problem before, because Herod had taken care of it for them. Now they are put on the spot.

Caught thus on the horns of a dilemma, they plead ignorance, and the Lord responds by declining to answer the question they had put to him. They are thus effectively foiled in the presence of those gathered to hear Jesus in the Temple.

There is an important point of theology contained in this story. All through the Gospel Jesus has presented men with a choice, a decision, a yes-or-no, but his enemies have everywhere resorted to evasion and hostility. They have never inquired with sincerity, and the time for them has now run out. There is no more place of discourse, and certainly no more place for lawyers’ questions. These men are not seekers of the truth; their hearts are hard. They have already ascribed to Satan those generous, benevolent deeds by which Jesus showered his blessings on the blind, the lame, the suffering. Never have they responded positively to so many manifestations of the power of God in the ministry of Jesus. They have made no effort to humble their minds to understanding.

And now Jesus becomes evasive! His opponents meet complete silence on his part of Jesus: “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” Why bother? They will not hear him. They do not genuinely want to know. He will not answer them. They have never bothered truly to attend to him. Now he will trouble them no more.

This is a picture of the final retribution. There comes a point in the career of the unrepentant sinner when God says, “Forget it! I have said enough. You will not hear from Me again,” and there ensues the vast silence of the God who is weary of speaking to deaf ears and hard hearts.

Saturday, August 1

Mark 12:1-12: The parable of the vine-growers—listed prominently in Jesus’ teaching during the last week of his earthly life—provides a sharp, defining outline of how he came to understand, not only his ministry to his contemporaries, but also his larger significance in the history of Israel. It illustrates how Jesus thought about his mission and destiny. No other of his parables, I believe, contains such an obviously “autobiographical” perspective.

This parable of the vine-growers, in which the sending of God’s Son is presented as the defining moment of history, may be regarded as an extension of what Jesus said when he first preached on Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth: “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). In the story of the vine-growers, we see the clearest evidence that Jesus addressed, in his own heart, the large dimensions of his destiny.

As to the meaning of the “vineyard,” the explanatory note in Isaiah left no doubt: “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, / And the men of Judah are His pleasant plant” (Isaiah 5:7). The “vineyard” has the same meaning in Jesus’ parable.

The parable arrives at its culminating point, which is the mission of the Son: “Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son. Probably they will respect him when they see him’” (Luke 20:13).

This, then, is Jesus’ interpretation of both his mission and his coming death: He is the “heir” of the ancient ministry of the prophets. Because of this, says Jesus, the unfaithful vine-growers “cast him out of the vineyard and killed him” (20:15). He sees that his own murder will be the culminating crime in Israel’s continued rejection of God and His messengers.

The parable’s identification of Jesus as Son and Heir—the fulfillment of prophetic history—passed into Christian theology very early, as we see in the Epistle to the Hebrews:

God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by a Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things (1:1-2).

Sunday, August 2

Mark 12:18-27: 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 either had not noticed or had seriously misunderstood.

Jesus’ reading of Exodus 3 is arguably the most striking of all. 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) of Jesus, and it has always flourished in the theology of the Christian Church.

In this section Mark adds the Sadducees to the growing list of conspirators, which includes the chief priests, the elders, the Herodians, and the Pharisees.

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 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.

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.

Monday, August 3

Mark 12:28-34: Mark 12:28-34: The Pharisees, perhaps not entirely displeased with the discomfiting of the Sadducees, meet again among themselves. One of their number, likely representing the rest, approaches Jesus to test him.

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. They 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). 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.

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.

Tuesday, August 4

Mark 12:35-37: Since the Lord’s enemies, completely foiled by his answers, dared not ask him any more questions (verse 34), Jesus turns the tables by putting to them a question of His own. Indeed, this question, which touches his true identity, evokes the theological problem at the heart of this whole chapter: Just who is Jesus? Jesus has been picking at that point in several of his confrontation with these enemies: the matter of his “authority” (11:27,33), his sonship with respect to God (12:6,10), and his oblique claim to divine honor (12:17).

Since the Messianic hope in Israel expected that the coming Messiah would be of the lineage of King David, how comes it that David referred to the Messiah as his “Lord”? The answer to this question, as Mark well knew, was obvious to his Christian readers, who understood the word “Lord” in its full confessional significance (cf. Acts 2:29-34; 13:23-39; Hebrews 1:5-13). To the enemies of Jesus, however, his question was provocative beyond measure, because they sensed what the Questioner was driving at without overtly claiming to be the Messiah.

Our Lord’s citation from this Psalm, in a context dealing with His own identity, laid the foundation for the Christological praying of the Psalms. Within the NT there are more references or allusions to this verse than to any other OT passage. In these few words of the Psalter, “The Lord said to my Lord,” Christians learned that Jesus is not only David’s descendant but also his preexisting Lord. He is the Son, not only of David, but of God.

Having mysteriously addressed the identity of Christ, this same line of the psalm goes on to speak of his triumph and enthronement, with the solemn proclamation: “Sit at My right hand.” These majestic words were quoted in the first sermon of the Christian Church, that of Pentecost morning at the third hour (cf. Acts 2:34), and became the foundation of some of the most important Christological and soteriological statements of the New Testament (cf. Mark 16:19; Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2.).

In this one line of the psalm, then, we profess, in summary form, those profound doctrines at the foundation of our whole relationship to God—the eternal identity of Jesus Christ, his triumph over sin and death, and his glorification at God’s right hand: “God . . . has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, . . . who . . , when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:1–3).

Wednesday, August 5

Matthew 17:1-13: In Matthew’s narrative Simon Peter does not address Jesus as “Rabbi” (as in Mark), but as “Lord,” Kyrie (Matthew 17:4). I suggest two ways in which this change is significant.

First, it conforms to a pattern found all through Matthew, who avoids the title “Rabbi” with respect to Jesus. While Jesus was surely called “Rabbi” (“teacher”) during his earthly time with the apostles, and although we do find him addressed this way in Mark and John (never in Luke), Matthew is more circumspect in his use of this title. Indeed, in Matthew the only person to address Jesus with the Semitic title “Rabbi” is Judas Iscariot, and then only in the context of the Passion (26:25,49).

Thus, when Jesus is addressed at “teacher” in Matthew, it is always through the Greek word didaskalos. This is likewise the title by which Jesus refers to himself (26:18). Here in the Transfiguration scene Matthew avoids the term “teacher” altogether.

This brings us to a second consideration: In this scene Jesus is vastly more than a teacher. He is “the Lord,” ho Kyrios, the name signifying the Church’s fully articulated faith in the risen Christ. As Kyrios, Jesus is the recipient of worship, and Matthew describes the Transfiguration as a scene of worship, which is why Jesus is addressed in his full, post-Resurrection title.

This theological intent is the key to understanding other features in Matthew’s portrayal of the Transfiguration. For example, the posture of the apostles. Only in Matthew’s account do we read, “And when the disciples heard [the voice from the cloud], they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid” (17:6). This is an important detail, because throughout Matthew this full prostration is the proper Christian response to the revelation of God’s Son.

Indeed, this is a distinguishing characteristic of Matthew’s Gospel, where the life of Jesus begins and ends with believers prostrate before him (2:11; 28:17). Only in Matthew is prostration in the presence of Jesus described with respect to the leper (8:2), Jairus (9:18), the apostles in the boat (14:33), the Canaanite woman (15:25), the wife of Zebedee (20:20), and the myrrh-bearing women at the empty tomb (28:9).

Here in the Transfiguration, as the Church’s affirmation of the divinity of Jesus, such prostration fittingly responds to the voice that proclaims, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (17:6). When the apostles respond to this proclamation by falling down in reverence, the whole Church prostrates with them. In Matthew these are not Jews on their faces before Jesus; they are Christians, who recognize the truth proclaimed by the Voice from the cloud.

Thursday, August 6

Mark 9:2-13: Mark says, “Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and led them up on a high mountain apart by themselves; and he was transfigured before them.” To understand the reference to “six days” we should consult Moses’ ascent of Mount Sinai, as recorded in the Book of Exodus: “Now the glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day He called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud” (24:16).

This reference to the six days of waiting (a correspondence to the days of Creation) provides the best reason why, in Mark’s account (copied later by Matthew), the Transfiguration takes place six days after the Lord’s prophetic words, “Amen, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power” (Mark 9:1-2). That is to say, Mark’s reference to the six days interval begins to establish parallel lines of correspondence between Mount Sinai and the mountain of Transfiguration.

Mark says, “Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and led them up on a high mountain apart by themselves.” This inclusion of the three disciples further extends the Exodus theme, inasmuch as Moses, too, is described as taking three close companions with him when he climbed the mountain: “Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel” (Exodus 24:1).

We observe that two of Moses’ companions, Nadab and Abihu, are brothers; this is an exact parallel to the Lord’s Transfiguration: the brothers, James and John, correspond to Nadab and Abihu.

Mark’s other details of the Transfiguration, such as the mountain (9:2), the glorious light (9:3), and the divine voice coming from the cloud (9:7), correspond to identical particulars in the scene on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:1-2,15-16). In short, Mark understands the Transfiguration to be strictly theophanic, an appearance of God.

In this respect the true correspondence to Mount Sinai is Jesus himself, who has now become the place of God’s presence and revelation.

Peter’s reference to the “three tents” puts the reader in mind of the feast of Tabernacles, which was also celebrated as a feast of lights. Indeed, it was on Mount Sinai that Moses received instructions to construct the Tabernacle of the Lord’s presence (Exodus 26), that same Tabernacle that would be filled with the cloud of the divine glory (Exodus 40:34-38).

Friday, August 7

Mark 12:38-44: We may distinguish three layers of meaning in this story: First, what did the event mean at the time it happened? Second, what did it mean in the preaching of the early Church? Third, what does it mean in the literary context of the Gospel according to Mark?

With respect to the first inquiry—What did the event mean when it happened?—we consider three subheadings: What did it mean to the woman herself? What did it mean to the passers-by? What did it mean to Jesus?

First, what did it mean to the widow? We may start with the consideration that these two small coins were her last resources. It was all she had, and the amount was divisible. She could have put in only one of those coins. Even that gift would have amounted to five times her tithe! No one would have blamed her for keeping back one of those coins.

In fact, it may have occurred to this woman that she need not have given anything. The Temple certainly did not need that gift. Moreover, the gospels tell us that rich people were putting large amounts into the Temple treasury. The woman could see this as well as Jesus did.

This woman’s gift scarcely affected the Temple’s annual budget. There would be no shortage of candles, if she failed to put in her two cents’ worth.

It may have occurred to the woman to consider that her own gift was relatively unimportant, because those who counted the collection would not miss it.

All these considerations may have been going through her mind, by way of temptation. After all, she was a widow with no one to care for her. Every penny counted, as in the parable of the woman who lost just one of her ten coins.

Moreover, we observe that Jesus did not say anything to this woman. She was left to settle the matter on her own, with only the judgment of her own conscience in the presence of God.

What did her gift mean to the passers-by? Probably nothing. Being poor, she was socially insignificant. Only Jesus sees her.

What did her gift mean to Jesus? Well, he tells us, drawing attention to the completeness of her gift and its relationship to her life. This woman would suffer because of this gift. Already poor, she thereby became poorer. Jesus saw in this woman’s deed the completeness of self-giving. It embodied the drama of Holy Week itself. This woman, like Jesus, gave “her whole life” to God.