March 26 – April 2, 2021

Friday, March 26

Matthew 23:1-39: 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 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.

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.

Zechariah 6: This chapter contains both a vision and an oracle. In the vision (verses 1-8) the prophet sees four chariots drawn by horses, which are also four “winds” or “spirits,” as it were (verse 5). He saw them earlier (1:7-11). Like the “four winds” of common parlance, these horses go in four directions: the black northbound, the white westbound, the dappled southbound, and the red eastbound. They represent God’s providential “patrol,” as it were, of the whole universe. God is keeping an eye on things, Zechariah is reminded, even things that don’t seem to be going very well.

Although Babylon lies east of Jerusalem, one journeys there by leaving Jerusalem in a northerly direction and then following the contour of the Fertile Crescent. (If one journeyed straight east, he would simply have to pass through the Arabian Desert, an area best avoided.) Consequently, there is a special significance in the northbound horses in this vision, for they go to Babylon, where, God assures His prophet, He has everything under control (verse 8). This vision is related, then, to the woman in the basket in the previous chapter. The “Spirit” that guides world history, including geopolitical history, is the same Spirit proclaimed to Zerubbabel in 4:6.

The oracle in this chapter (verses 9-15), like the vision of the two olive trees in 4:11-14, pertains to the Lord’s two “sons of oil,” Zerubbabel and Jeshua, the priest and the governor, the religious and civil authority. Both are anointed by God and must work in common endeavor for the Lord (verse 13). The “branch” in verse 12, as in 3:8, refers to Zerubbabel, whose Akkadian name means “the branch of Babylon.” He is both a foreshadowing and a forefather (Matthew 1:12-13) of the One who combines in Himself the twin dignities of King and Priest.

Lazarus Saturday, March 27

John 11:1—12:11: Crucial to the understanding of today’s event is the dialogue that explains it, the discussion in which Jesus tells Martha that He is the Resurrection and the life of those who believe in Him. The raising of Lazarus is the demonstration—the revelation event—of that truth.

Now Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.”

Does Martha’s expression “even now” (kai nun) convey a request for the Lord to raise her brother right away? I believe it does, but the meaning is subtle and implicit. She does not press Jesus overtly, but her hint opens the dialogue to the experience of immediacy. Jesus fills this immediacy by His claim to be, “even now,” the Resurrection and the life. That is to say, the root of the final resurrection is planted in the here and now of faith (verses 25-26; cf. 6:40).

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to Him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” This word expresses the faith of the Maccabees and Pharisees. This was the hope of Israel.

In response to this affirmation, Jesus changes the tense from future to present: “I am the resurrection and the life.” He goes on: “He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

She said to Him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” Martha, invited to confess that faith, gives voice to the answer of the Church with respect to the identity of Jesus: “I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world” (verse 27; cf. 6:69). The dialogue ends with this declaration, and Martha must get busy on the basis of it.

Zechariah 7: This chapter has two parts. In the first (verses 1-7) , the prophet addresses a specific question about fasting. Since the fall of Jerusalem and its temple in 586, the Jews had adopted special fasting seasons during the year to commemorate their national disaster. Now that the temple in Jerusalem was being rebuilt, nearly seventy years later, should they keep those fast seasons any longer? Certain villagers in the Holy Land want to know, and the prophet answers them with a specific oracle from the Lord.

The second part of this chapter (verses 8-14) is probably situated here because it refers to the earlier prophets (verse 12), whom Zechariah had just mentioned (verse 7). The prophet reminds his contemporaries that their recent defeat and scattering had been foretold by the former prophets as a result of the sins of the nation. The specific precepts that Zechariah cites (verse 9-10) seem to indicate the social prophets of two centuries earlier: Amos, Micah, and Isaiah.

Palm Sunday, March 28

Matthew 21.1-17: Today, David’s distant Son, who is also David’s Lord, reverses the path of David; he comes down from the Mount of Olives and crosses the Brook Kedron, going westward.

Jerusalem was crowded when Jesus rode into it, because tens of thousands of pilgrims had arrived from the wide breadth of the Fertile Crescent and the full circumference of the Mediterranean Basin.

Almost none of these people had ever heard of Jesus. When they beheld the tumult that accompanied Jesus’ entry into the Holy City, they had to inquire, “Who is this?” They did not know who he was. What they learned on Palm Sunday they knew only by way of rumor and hearsay.

Jesus did seem to have a following, of sorts, mainly country folk from up north in Galilee. Some of these international visitors may have been impressed; we do not know.

One thing, however, we do know: Six days later this crowd was calling for Jesus to receive torture and capital punishment. We find them standing, early in the morning, before the tribunal of Pontius Pilate, screaming for his blood. Six days earlier they had never heard of Jesus of Nazareth; now they wanted him dead.

How could this possibly have happened? Very simply, any crowd of people can become a mob. If certain people can control a crowd—and people like this are always available—it can become a lynch mob.

What we learn in this story is not, in the first instance, a theological truth. We learn a very simple non-theological lesson; we learn never to trust a crowd to make a decision about anything. Clear thinking does not take place in a crowd. It is arguable that the most dangerous place in the world is a rally or what is known as a demonstration. When crowds come together, people are invariably moved by emotion; there is no such thing as a mob mentality, because the mens, the mind, is alien to its experience. The only safe street gatherings are those dominated by prayer and enforced silence.

This is not a theological lesson. This is simple homespun, practical wisdom. Let us never degrade our minds by subjecting them to group-thought. Let none of us ever trust a crowd on any subject more serious than a tennis match.

Crowds are invariably the enemy of personal freedom responsibility. Few truths of Holy Scripture have been so misunderstood as Christian freedom.

Even in New Testament times there were occasionally those who took it to mean liberation from all restraint and principle, and this heresy has shown its head from time to time throughout Christian history. In modern times some Christians have confused it with political history, mixing Christian freedom with Marxist liberation theories. Great spiritual harm has come from such confusions.

Monday, March 29

Matthew 21:18-32: 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.

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 can 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.

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. 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—tax collectors and 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. 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).

Jesus begins the parable by asking, “What do you think? Or “How does it seem to you?” That is to say, He is asking His listeners to do what the repentant brother did. To reflect. To reconsider. To take stock of. To assess. To examine. In short, to think.

Tuesday, March 30

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).

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).

Like the parable that comes before it and the two that will follow, this is a study in contrasts. It portrays the antithesis between those who think wisely and those who don’t think at all. This contrast indicates an essential component of the life in Christ, because wise reflection is necessary to “going the distance.” Critical, reflective thought is not optional in the Christian life; it is a moral imperative.

It is important to observe that all ten of these maidens are Christians. Some will be saved, and some will not. The difference between them is somewhat analogous to the difference between the wheat and the tares in Matthew 13:24-30,36-43. It is bracing to consider that some will be reprobate: “Amen, I say to you, I never knew you” (verse 12). These are very harsh words to be directed to Christians who had been waiting for their Lord’s return. They waited, but they did not do so wisely, and everything had to do with vigilance through the passage of time: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming” (verse 13). Five of these Christians failed the test of perseverance.

Spy Wednesday, March 31

Zechariah 11: Another passage from Zechariah invoked by Matthew in connection with the Lord’s Passion is Zechariah 11:13: “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the value of Him who was priced, whom they of the children of Israel priced, and gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me” (Matthew 27:9f). Matthew cited this text as a prophecy fulfilled by Judas Iscariot in his betrayal of the Lord for 30 pieces of silver, the prescribed price of a slave (Exodus 21:32).

There is a curious confusion of words in this text of Zechariah, however, apparently seen by Matthew as pointing to a deeper layer of meaning. In the traditional Hebrew reading, the Lord tells the prophet: “Cast it to the potter (el-hayoser).” Zechariah goes on to say, “So I cast it, in the house of the Lord, to the potter,” a reading reflected in several modern translations. With the change of only one letter, however, the Hebrew text would read: “Cast it into the treasury (el-hahoser)” and “So I cast it, in the house of the Lord, into the treasury.” This latter reading is followed by other translations.

Rather than choose between these two possible readings, however, the Gospel of Matthew conflates them, maintaining both the Temple treasury and the potter. Thus, Judas Iscariot, realizing the gravity of his betrayal but despairing of God’s mercy, returns to the Temple and throws in the 30 shekels. The clinking of those silver coins, bouncing and rolling across the stone floor of the Temple, has been resounding in the ears of the Church for the past 2000 years, summoning every sinful soul back from the perils of final despair.

The Temple officials collect the coins. Their first thought is to put them into the Temple treasury (hahoser), but they are afflicted by a hypocritical scruple about such a use of blood-money. Instead, they take the coins and purchase the “field of the potter (hayoser).” The double disposition of these coins of Judas, the inspired Evangelist saw clearly, was a fulfillment of a prophetic word spoken centuries earlier in that mystic text of Zechariah.

This “field of the potter,” perhaps so named because of broken sherds lying about in it, came to be known as the “field of blood,” says Matthew, because it was purchased with blood-money. As such this field is a very rich symbol of Redemption. This obscure piece of real estate, bought with the price of the blood of Christ, became a sort of down payment on that ultimate Redemption by which “the Lord’s is the earth and the fullness thereof.” By the price of His blood, Christ became the “Landlord,” the Lord of the earth. All this Matthew saw in the prophecy of Zechariah.

Maundy Thursday, April 1

Matthew 26.17-56: Seamlessly the gospels go from the Lord’s agony in the garden to his arrest. Jesus is still speaking when his enemies arrive (verse 47), This company comes armed and in force, apparently prepared to meet a stern resistance. Some of them, at least, are the very people whom Jesus taught daily in the temple (verse 55). The gospels indicate that Jesus never trusted these crowds who came to hear Him teach, any more than He trusted Judas, identified here by all the Synoptics as “one of the Twelve.”

Although there is a full moon—and John (18:3) says that the soldiers are carrying torches and lanterns—it is still sufficiently dark to make a mistake in the arrest. Consequently, Judas has given his company a sign to help them recognize Jesus: He will greet Jesus with a kiss (verse 48). A kiss on the hand is a customary way for a disciple to greet a religious teacher. Thus, a sign of affection and respect is turned into a deed of hostility and deception (verse 49).

Jesus addresses Judas as “friend” (verse 50). He does not react to the betrayal in anger or accusation. He is completely aware why Judas has come (verse 46), but He nonetheless inquires on this point. Jesus’ question “Why have you come?” is not intended to elicit information but to prompt Judas, even now, to consider the gravity of what he does. Judas, even in his treachery, is the object of Jesus’ concern; He calls him “friend.” Matthew alone narrates this detail, as well as the question.

Zechariah 12: The prophecies in this chapter begin with the great catastrophe of which the epicenter is Jerusalem. Jerusalem becomes the instrument of the divine wrath (verse 2). It is at Jerusalem that the Lord defeats His enemies (verses 3-6; Psalms 45 [46]; 47 [48]; 76 [75]; Isaiah 17:12-14; Joel 2:1-20). In deed, this is the very week when He defeats them. It is at Jerusalem that the House of David has its definitive triumph over its truest enemies (verse 7), being made like unto God (verse 8).

At the same time, there will be weeping in the Holy City, lamentation as though for an Only Son, who has been pierced with a spear on the Cross (verse 10). It is in His defeat that the House of David claims its defining victory over sin and death. This is the prophecy fulfilled in John 19:37 and remembered again in Revelation 1:7.

Commenting on this chapter of Zechariah in the third century, Hippolytus of Rome wrote: “For the people of the Hebrews shall see Him in human form, as He appeared to them when He came by the holy Virgin in the flesh and as they crucified Him. And He will show them the prints of the nails in His hands and His feet, and His side pierced by the spear, and His head crowned with thorns, and His honorable Cross.” This chapter thus continues the theme of the Lord’s Passion and Death.

Good Friday, April 2

Matthew 27.11-61: 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.

The centurion beneath the Cross, in confessing Jesus as God’s Son, stands in contrast to Satan as Matthew describes him in account of Jesus’ temptations. The first of those temptations, which followed immediately on the Father’s declaration of Jesus as His Son (3:17) began by a challenge to that declaration: “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread” (4:3 emphasis added). In opposition to that challenge, our centurion confesses at the cross, “Truly this was the Son of God” (27:54).

Matthew’s centurion illustrates, in addition, the principle that Jesus enunciated earlier with respect to the recognition of His own identity, namely, that “no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him” (11:27). As the recipient of this divine revelation, Matthew’s centurion is a spokesman for the Church, sharing in Simon Peter’s confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (16:16).

Zechariah 13: Maintaining his emphasis on the Lord’s Passion and Death, the prophet goes on to speak of the striking of the Shepherd and the consequent dispersal of His disciples (verse 7), a text interpreted for us in Matthew 26:31 (cf. Mark 14:27; John 16:31).

This is the event by which the false gods are defeated (verse 1). These are the demonic forces brought to naught by the death of the First Born. Questioned about the marks of the wounds in His flesh, the Lord responds, “These wounds I received in the house of My friends” (verse 6).

Cyril of Alexandria wrote in the fifth century: “when the Only Begotten Word of God ascended into the heavens in the flesh to which He was united, there was something new to be seen in the heavens. The multitude of holy angels was astounded, seeing the King of glory and the Lord of hosts being made in a form like ourselves. . . . Then the angels asked this, ‘What are these wounds in Your hands?’ And He said to them, ‘These wounds I received in the house of My friends.’” These are the wounds that He will show to His disciples after His resurrection. He bears these wounds in his glorified flesh forever, as He stands before the Father, “as though slain,” being the one Mediator between God and Man (Revelation 5:6).