April 3 – April 10, 2020

Friday, April 3

Matthew 23:23-39: The seven (or eight) “woes” in this, the Lord’s last discourse in Matthew, are to be contrasted with the seven (or eight) “blesseds” 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 “woe” 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,” 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,” 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 “generation” (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.

Lamentations 1: This very sorrowful book describes Israel’s darkest hour: the invasion of the merciless Babylonians, the sacking of the city and the massacre of the innocent, the deliberate destruction of the Temple and the plundering of its sacred vessels, the forced deportation of its citizens to a foreign country, the particular difficulties that this placed on women, children, and old people, and so forth. It corresponds perfectly to what Jesus described as “your hour and the power of darkness.”

Saturday, April 4

Psalms 81 (Greek & Latin 8): In the normal circumstances of our daily lives, the abrupt, loud blowing of a horn can serve as a notable stimulant to advertence, a feature that explains why we equip our automobiles, boats, and trains with such a device. This rousing quality of the horn is also the reason we sometimes introduce “events” with what is called a fanfare. Whatever the musical value of the thing, the shrill blast of a horn is likely to attract some measure of attention.

If, however, a number of other extraordinary, distracting phenomena are taking place at the same time, it is possible to miss even the loud sounding of a horn. Thus, when we read of all the marvels that accompanied Moses’ reception of the Law on Mount Sinai, it is altogether possible for us not to notice the sustained and sonorous wail of a ram’s horn. Nonetheless, it was not lost on the Israelites who were present (Ex. 19:16, 19) nor on the early Christian reader who commented on the “sound of a trumpet” that accompanied that event (Heb. 12:19).

Likewise, today’s morning psalm, which prescribes the blowing of this ram’s trumpet in the context of liturgical worship, links this context to the singular events of the Exodus: “Rejoice in God our helper, raise an ovation to the God of Jacob. Raise the song and roll the drum; strum the dulcet lyre and play the lute. Intone the trumpet of the New Moon, the famed day of your festival. For a command is ordained unto Israel, a decree of the God of Jacob. He made it a statute to Joseph, when he went out of the land of Egypt and heard a tongue he did not know.”

Whatever specific liturgical feast day formed the original context of this psalm, it suffices to know that our theme is the Exodus from Egyptian servitude. All our prayer, after all, is the fruit of the Exodus. That is to say, all our worship of God is rooted in our deliverance from demonic slavery by His gracious redemptive hand. It is “to the praise of the glory of His grace” (Eph. 1:6) that He has saved us. Of each of us, then, it is proper to say that God “unfettered his back from the burdens and took from his hands the basket of bondage.”

According to Exodus (2:23–25; 3:8–10; 4:31, etc.), our deliverance is itself God’s response to prayer. Likewise in this psalm the Lord says: “You called upon Me in distress, and I delivered you. I answered you from the eye of the storm.” These words, which resonate with the tempestuous scene in Exodus 19:18 and 20:18, are uniquely and perhaps more forcefully expressed in the original Hebrew: ’e‘nka bseter ra‘am—“I heard you in the hiding place of thunder.”

God then goes on to speak of His leading and feeding us in the desert of Sinai: “I tested you at the water of conflict. Listen, My people, and I will exhort you. O Israel, if only you would hearken to Me. You shall have no new god, nor shall you worship an alien god. For I am the Lord your God, who conducted you up from the land of Egypt. Open wide your mouth and I will fill it.”

Israel’s infidelity to the covenant during that lengthy desert wandering subsequent to her Exodus from Egypt remains the Bible’s perpetual admonition to the Church (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1–11; Heb. 3:12—4:2). Therefore this psalm contains both promise and warning for God’s people: “But My people heard not My voice, nor did Israel give heed to Me. So I dismissed them to their hearts’ desires; they shall walk in their own pursuits. If only My people would hear Me, and Israel would walk in My ways, I would humble their enemies at once, and take in hand their tormenters. The foes of the Lord will fawn before Him, and their doom will be eternal. But these folk has He fed with the finest of wheat, and with honey from the rock has He filled them.”

Palm Sunday, April 5

Matthew 20:29—21:17: 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.

Monday, April 6

Matthew 21:18-22: In this story we can distinguish, I believe, three levels of historical transmission: 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.

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.

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.

Tuesday, April 7

Matthew 25>1-13: The ten maidens are divided between those who are “foolish” (morai) and those who are wise, prudent, or thoughtful. However we are to translate this latter adjective, phronimoi, it has just been used to describe the faithful servant that awaits his master’s return (24:45). Matthew is fond of this adjective, which he uses seven times. He uses the adjective moros six times—the only Synoptic evangelist to do so.

In addition, the distinction between moros and phronimos comes in the final parable of the Sermon on the Mount: “Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a phronimos who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a moros who built his house on the sand” (7:24-26).

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. Not considering the possibility of delay, the foolish maidens have not provided oil for their lamps. They are unable to “go the distance” with God.

In context, then, the prudence required is a kind of thoughtfulness, the habit of critical reflection, a cultivated ability to think in terms of the passage of time, a sensitivity to the movement of history. These wise maidens are not creatures of the moment. Consequently, they carry along their little jugs of oil, to make sure that their lamps will not be extinguished. They are able to “go the distance,” because they have thoughtfully made provision.

Time is the test of all these women, because the Bridegroom is “delayed”–chronizontos tou Nymphiou. This is the same verb, chronizo, previously used of the wicked servant: “My master is delayed”–chronizei mou ho Kyrios (24:48).

We also observe that the prudent maidens are unable to help the foolish (verse 9). They are not being cruel or insensitive in this refusal. They are simply recognizing the limitations that come with responsibility. It is a plain fact that there are some things that one Christian cannot do for another. This limitation pertains to the structure of reality, and the foolish maidens have brought their problem upon themselves.

The prudent, thoughtful maidens enter into the wedding festivities, and the door is closed (verse 10). This closing of the door represents the end of history; the deed represents finality. In an earlier parable Matthew had narrated the exclusion of a man from a wedding festival because of his failure to take it seriously (22:11-14).

This parable ends with an exhortation to vigilance (verse 13). John Calvin captured the spirit of this parable when he wrote, “the Lord would have us keep in constant watch for Him in such a way as not to limit Him in any way to a particular time” (On Second Thessalonians 2.2).

Spy Wednesday, April 8

Matthew 26:1=16: There are four brief scenes in these sixteen verses. These scenes alternate back and forth between Jesus’ friends and Jesus’ enemies. This part of Matthew is filled with irony and contrasts. The irony, worked out in four short scenes, consists in the antithesis between the intention of Jesus’ enemies and what they actually accomplished. Not wanting to provoke a riot by arresting Jesus during the Passover, they set in motion a train of events that would, in due course, lead to the destruction of their Holy City. Hoping to dispose of a troublesome religious teacher, they unwittingly implemented a divine determination to supplant their own religious authority. Judas, complaining of the loss of 300 coins from his purse, sells Jesus for one-tenth of that number.

This first section (verses 1-2), unlike the other gospels, includes a fourth prophecy of the Passion, specifying that it will happen “after two days” (verse 2). Since our Lord has already prophesied the Passion on three earlier occasions (16:21; 17:22-23; 20:18-19), He can preface this fourth prophecy with, “You know.” This is the only prophecy of our Lord that links His Passion with the Passover.

In the second scene (verses 3-5) the action shifts to a conspiracy of Jesus’ enemies assembled in the courtyard of the high priest (verse 3)–the very place where Peter will soon deny knowing Jesus (verse 69). Caiaphas was the high priest from A.D. 18 to 36. His whole family was involved in opposition to Jesus and the Church (Acts 4:6).

In spite of their decision to wait until after the Passover before arresting Jesus (verse 5), the Lord’s enemies will take advantage of an opportunity provided for them by Judas Iscariot (verses 14-16). Matthew and Mark demonstrate how the betrayal of Judas was associated with an event, which both evangelists next proceed to describe; this is the third scene, Jesus’ anointing at Bethany (verses 6-13; Mark 14:3-9; cf. John 12:1-8).

In the story of the anointing in Bethany, it is clear that our Lord’s disciples were not completely “with” Him. Failing to grasp the implications of this most recent prophecy of the coming Passion, they are unable to grasp the dramatic significance of what transpires at Bethany (verses 8-12).

The Apostles, especially Judas Iscariot (John 12:4-6), are indignant at what they regard as a waste of resources. Clearly they are insensitive to the drama unfolding before their eyes. For them the Gospel has been reduced to a social ministry aimed at caring for the poor. It is obvious that the person of Jesus—Jesus Himself–is not central to their view of things. They are anxious to serve Christ in the poor, evidently in response to the final parable of the previous chapter—the parable of the Last Judgment—but they forget about the more immediate Christ right in front of them. They separate the message of Jesus from the person of Jesus.

Consequently, in His response to the disciples, Jesus makes the matter “personal”: “She has done a beautiful thing for Me . . . You do not always have Me.” Jesus “knows” (gnous–verse 10) what these men are made of; He is aware of the weakness of their loyalty to Him.

Jesus then explains the meaning of what has just transpired: This woman has done a prophetic thing—she had prepared His body for burial (verse 12). It is worth noting that Matthew, thus understanding the event at Bethany, will later omit mention of the anointing of Jesus’ body in the tomb (Contrast 28:1 with Mark 16:1).

This deed pertains to the “Gospel,” says Jesus (verse 13). The Gospel, after all, is about Jesus; it is not about social concerns separable from His own person. The woman in this story is concentrated on Jesus, and such concentration pertains to the essence of the Gospel.

Judas, at least, seems to understand this, and in the fourth scene he makes his move (verses 14-16). Alone among the New Testament writers, Matthew names the actual price of the transaction: thirty silver pieces, the price of a slave (Exodus 21:32), the low wages of the shepherd in Zechariah 11:12 (cf. Matthew 27:3-10).

The chief contrast in the story is between the gracious anointer on the one hand and all the cruel, or insensitive, or treacherous individuals on the other.

Maundy Thursday, April 9

Matthew 26:17-56: The reader knows that, while Jesus shares the Seder with His disciples, final preparations for his impending arrest are being conducted at the house of Caiaphas. The arresting party arms itself and waits the return of Judas Iscariot, who will lead them to where Jesus will be. Judas leaves the Seder early: “Having received the piece of bread, he then went out immediately. And it was night” (John 13:30).

While the plot is in progress, Jesus comes to that part of the Seder where the Berakah, the blessing of God, is prayed at the breaking of the unleavened loaf. Jesus, after praying the traditional Berakah, breaks the loaf and mysteriously identifies it as His body: “Take, eat; this is My body” (verse 26).

Because the Greek noun for “body,” soma, has no adequate equivalent in Aramaic or Hebrew, we presume that Jesus used the noun basar (sarxs in Greek), which means “flesh.” Indeed, this is the noun we find all through John’s Bread of Life discourse (6:51-56). In the traditions inherited by St. Paul and the Synoptic Gospels, the noun had been changed to “body.”

Then, when Jesus comes to the blessing to be prayed at the drinking of the cup of wine, He further identifies the cup: “Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (verses 27:28). Although Matthew uses the verb “blessed” (evlogesas) with respect to the bread, he shifts to its equivalent “gave thanks” (evcharistesas) with reference to the chalice. We find both terms used interchangeably in early Eucharistic vocabulary.

Jesus identifies the wine in the chalice as His covenant blood. It is the blood of atonement and sanctification, originally modeled in the blood of Exodus 24:8—“And Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you according to all these words’” (cf. Hebrews 13:20; 1 Peter 1:2). Matthew alone includes the words from Isaiah 53:12: “which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (verse 28; cf. the entire context in Isaiah 53:13—53:12). We recall Matthew lays great stress on the forgiveness of sins (cf. 1:21; 5:23-24; 6:12,14,15; 9:6; 18:21-35).

In biblical thought the soul, or life, is contained in the blood. Thus, those who share this chalice of the Lord’s blood participate in the very soul, the life, of Christ.

There are four verbs associated with the Lord’s action with the bread: taking, blessing, breaking, and giving. These four verbs, which are part of the narrative itself, provided the early Church with a structural outline for the Eucharistic service. This outline has been maintained to the present day. Each verb indicates a part of the Eucharistic service. To wit:

First, the “taking” of the bread became a distinct part of the service. Just past the middle of the second century, Justin Martyr wrote, “Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought” (First Apology 67).

Second, the “blessing” (evlogia) or “thanksgiving” (evcharistia) gave its name to the service as a whole. This long prayer, commonly called the Anaphora, came to include an invocation of the Holy Spirit over the bread and wine, an invocation born from the clear sense that only God can do what we believe to be done on the Eucharistic altar.

Third, the “breaking” of the bread, which symbolizes the Lord’s Passion, was early joined to a recitation of the Our Father, probably because of its petition to be given the “supersubstantial bread” (arton epiousion in 6:11). The loaf was traditionally broken at the end of the Our Father, and the reception of Holy Communion followed immediately. In recent times the mixing of the Holy Communion in the chalice causes a bit of a delay in this process, and some other prayers and chants have been added in the interval.

Fourth, the Holy Communion is “given.” After that, the service ends rather quickly—almost abruptly.

Good Friday, April 10

Matthew 26:57—27:61: Jesus is tried before two different tribunals: a Jewish trial by the Sanhedrin and a Roman trial before Pilate. Matthew joins the first of these to the denials by Peter, and the second to the suicide of Judas.

Matthew’s double construction accomplishes two things: First, it varies the narrative by alternating stages: the story begins with Jesus, goes to Peter, comes back to Jesus, goes to Judas, and finally returns to Jesus once again.

Second, because Matthew joins a specific disciple to each of Jesus’ interrogations, he indicates the dimension of discipleship in the Passion narrative. Thus, the drama of the Cross is not isolated from the trial and trauma of the soul. That is to say, what transpires in the salvation wrought by God in Jesus finds a resonating correspondence in the human struggle of failure and repentance, treachery and despair. The ironic tragedy of the Cross is reflected in the inner battle of the disciple’s soul.

Third, Matthew’s narrative construction encourages the reader to contrast Peter and Judas as two types of response to sin and redemption. In fact, Christians over the centuries have followed Matthew’s encouragement in this respect.

Although the judicial inquiry during the night had determined Jesus to merit death, it appears that the formal decision to make this determination was reached only toward the morning.

It is not hard to understand why this was the case: Although the Sanhedrin found Jesus guilty of blasphemy, it was very doubtful that the Roman authorities would be much impressed by this charge. This morning session of the Sanhedrin, therefore, involved further legal counsel (symboulion) to decide exactly what charge would be made against Jesus when He was presented before Pilate. In fact, according to Matthew, the accusation was altered from blasphemy to sedition and revolution: Jesus, it was alleged, had claimed to be the rightful “King of the Jews” (27:11).

Pontius Pilate, now appearing for the first time in Matthew, is identified by his title of hegemon, meaning governor, procurator, or prefect (27:2). Pilate held this office from A.D. 26 to 36. Residing and ruling at Caesarea, he was currently in Jerusalem to help keep order in the city during the Passover, when much larger crowds sometimes occasioned disturbances.

Jesus’ enemies “hand Him over” (paredokan) to this Gentile ruler, thus fulfilling the prophecy of Jesus (20:19). This manumission was necessary, because the Roman government reserved the death penalty specifically to its own authority (John 18:31).

In handing Jesus over to the authority of the Gentiles, the Jewish leaders were explicitly rejecting Jesus and His messianic claims. In due course, Matthew will explain that the Jewish people as such, represented in the crowd that gathered before Pilate, consents to that rejection (27:25). That action in Pilate’s presence was a decisive turning point in salvation history. It represented what St. Paul described as the cutting off of branches from the ancient tree of Israel (Romans 11:16-24).

Even from a secular view of Jewish history, moreover, that repudiation of Jesus was decisive. From that hour, the history of the Jewish people took a different and profoundly altered direction. Even though theology insists that the Jews have never ceased to be God’s people (Romans 9:11), the historical condition of their calling was changed beyond anything imaginable prior to that time. Within the space of a few years the Jews lost their temple and the worship associated with that temple. That loss, which would have bewildered all the prophets and sages of the Hebrew Bible, has now lasted almost two millennia.