March 18 – March 25, 2022

Friday, March 18

Hebrews 8.1-13: Much of this passage is made up of a quotation from Jeremiah 31:31-34. Indeed, it is the longest Old Testament quotation found in the New Testament. By using the expression “new covenant” at the Last Supper (Matthew 26.28), Jesus implicitly invited Christians to consult Jeremiah’s description of it.

In addition to this long quotation in Hebrews, the passage from Jeremiah was referenced by St. Paul, who wrote that God “made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:6).

Paul had this Jeremian text in mind when he wrote: “You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men— clearly an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, of the heart” (2 Corinthians 3:2).

This text, often described as the best lines of Jeremiah, is also one of the most emphatic passages to come from his pen. It is emphatic in the sense of its repeated insistence that God is the one who speaks. Four times this text affirms, “says the Lord.”

The significance of this repetition become clear in a consideration of its context: the fall and destruction of Jerusalem.

Jeremiah, like the others citizens of the Holy City, saw the obliteration of everything connected with it: the temple, the priesthood, the worship, and so forth. What was left? Nothing but the covenant of the heart. Jeremiah still knew God in the heart.

This heart-knowledge of God, Jeremiah believed, would become the substance of a new covenant with the people of God. The Torah would be written in the heart, not on tables of stone. God would be known immediately, not simply as the content of someone else’s teaching. God would act with the sovereignty of His grace: “I will make . . . I will put . . . I will write . . .I will be . . . I will forgive.”

This new covenant is contrasted with the old: “not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers.” This contrast appealed to the author of Hebrews, who often uses the vocabulary of contrast when he speaks of Christ’s relationship to the Old Testament. He stresses this contrast here: “In that He says, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”

In context, this final comment apparently refers to the coming destruction of the temple by the Romans in the year 70. The prescribed worship in that temple was becoming obsolete and would soon be gone. Meanwhile, the God of the covenant had already fulfilled His promise to unite His people in a new covenant of the heart. This was the gift of the Holy Spirit, poured out on all believers, who knew the Lord in the forgiveness of their sins.

Saturday, March 19

Matthew 21.18-22: We detect 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.

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. 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.

1 Timothy 4.1-11: The opening verses of this chapter are concerned with what St. Paul saw as a general apostasy characteristic of his own times. He believed that he was living in the “latter times” predicted by the prophets (cf. also Acts 20:29-30; 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12; 1 Corinthians 10:11; 2 Timothy 3:1-9; 4:3-4), a view shared widely by other New Testament sources (Matthew 24:10-12; Hebrews 1:2; 1 John 2:18; 4:1-3; 2 John 7).

We believe, of course, that they were correct, because the “latter times” are the years that separate the first and second comings of Christ. We Christians do not regard these “latter times” as a period of progress, but as a season of trial, in which the faith of the saints is put to the test. All of this the Holy Spirit foretold through the prophets (verse 1).

It is not surprising that some of the proponents who followed “deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons,” such as Marcion, Tatian, and the Gnostics, did not accept the canonicity of First Timothy!

It is important to stress that doctrinal aberration comes from lying spirits, demons of deception and mendacity (cf. 2 Timothy 2:9-11; 2 Corinthians 2:11). Such doctrinal aberrations include prohibitions against marriage and the full range of the human diet (verses 3-5), both of which prohibitions have been common characteristics of some dualisms in all ages. (One thinks of Augustine’s conversion from Manichaeanism, for example, and his subsequent fights with them.)

Sunday, March 20

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 is associated 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.”

In Matthew’s version the parable, it 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).

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.

This is the context in which Jesus quotes Psalms 118 (Greek & Latin 117), a psalm prominent on Palm Sunday, beginning the final week of Jesus’ earthly life. It is a prophecy, in fact, of the Resurrection, because It is in the Resurrection that we perceive that the “stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” The detailed accounts of the Lord’s Passion are descriptions of His rejection by the builders, while the Gospel stories of the risen Jesus are the narratives of “the Lord’s doing” that is so “marvelous in our eyes.”

Psalm 118 is the canticle of the empty tomb. It is to the risen Jesus that we sing, with the Myrrh-bearing Women: “You are my God, and I will praise You; You are my God, and I will exalt You.” It is to the risen Jesus that we say with Mary Magdalene: “Rabboni!” It is to the risen Jesus that we address the words of the Apostle Thomas: “My Lord and my God.” Truly, in the Resurrection we see clearly that “God is the Lord, and He has given us light.”

Monday, March 21

Matthew 21.23-32: We now come to the first of five controversy stories in which Jesus is confronted by various of His enemies. Matthew has inherited this series from Mark.

As we have seen, 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. We earlier considered the Lord’s reference to this hypocrisy with respect to their relations to both Himself and John the Baptist (11:16-19).

The question, then, has to do with Jesus’ “authority” (exsousia), a word that appears four times in this story, twice in the first verse. This is an important idea in Matthew’s Christology; it appears among the last words of Jesus in this Gospel (28:18). The presence of this term in the parallel accounts of Mark and Luke, however, indicate that this was a word commonly used of the ministry and person of Jesus.

Nonetheless, in the versions of Matthew and Luke there is a detail that adds a special nuance to Jesus’ authority; namely, Jesus is portrayed as “teaching” in the Temple. Indeed, a few days later the Lord will refer to this fact at the time of His arrest (26:55; Luke 22:53). That is to say, it is specifically as the Teacher in the Temple that Jesus is challenged.

Jesus’ exsousia has to do with His ministry as a Teacher. It was earlier observed that “He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (7:29). We should see in this Matthew’s ongoing polemic against the rabbinical teachers of his own day.

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 (verse 24). 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 (verses 25-26). 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.

1 Timothy 4.12-16: The word “reading” (anagnosis) in verse 13 refers to the public proclamation of Holy Scripture, a synagogue practice (Luke 4:16-21; Acts 13:14-16) taken over by the Christian Church and continued to the present day.

Such reading was followed by “exhortation” (called halachah by the rabbis) and “doctrine” (known to the rabbis as haggadah), that is, a sermon or homily that was both practical and expository (cf. Justin Martyr, First Apology 67). For such ministry was Timothy ordained (verse 14; cf. Acts 6:6; 2 Timothy 1:6).

Tuesday, March 22

Matthew 22.1-14: 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).

1 Timothy 5.1-16: Pastoring a congregation requires not only didactic discipline and skills, such as those treated in the previous chapter, but also social discipline and skills, because a successful pastorate involves dealing with a considerable variety of people and needs. St. Paul speaks of this variety in the present chapter.

Sometimes a pastor must reprimand, but the Apostle forbids him to do it with violence. Older men and women in particular are to be treated with a special deference (verses 1-2), a deference all the more necessary Timothy’s case, in view of his young age (4:12). Young men and women are to be treated as brothers and sisters. In sum, the Christian congregation is to resemble an extended family, and Timothy is to “conduct [himself] in the house of God” (3:15).

A singular care is to be taken for those widows who are wards of the congregation (verse 6; Acts 6:1). This is a reference to consecrated women resolved to live in celibacy, prayer, and Christian service. These, along with consecrated virgins (1 Corinthians 7:32-38), are our earliest examples of Christian nuns, pursuing a special vocation that has been with the Church since the very beginning. Like the pastors and deacons, such consecrated widows should have been married only once (verse 9), and apparently for the same reason. In addition to constant prayer (verse 5; Luke 2:36-37), those women were to work at a variety of useful ministries on behalf of the Church (verse 10). Younger widows, out of fear for their immaturity, were not to receive this consecration (verses 11-14).

Wednesday, March 23

Matthew 22.15-22: 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 a 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 obliges them to identify the head and name on the coin, namely, Tiberius Caesar (A.D. 14-37). Obviously the coin belongs to the emperor, so they can continue doing what they have always done—pay the tax. Caesar minted and distributed the coin. It is his.

1 Timothy 5.17-25: The “adversary” here seems to be Satan (verse 15), known to be especially vicious against those devoted in an intense way to the service of God (Job 1:6-12; 2:1-7; Zechariah 3:1-2).

The presbyteroi, “elders,” of verses 17-19 are identical to the episkopoi, “overseers,” of 3:1-7. The congregation is to recompense them for their ministry (verse 18), and Timothy is to be slow to accept an accusation against them (verse 19). With respect to a man’s qualifications for ordained ministry, only time will tell (verses 24-25). So Timothy is not to take the step of ordaining them hastily. If Timothy ordains an unworthy pastor, he will partake of that pastor’s sins (verse 22).

Timothy must take better care of his own health, says Paul (verse 23). Here we gain a genuine insight into the young man’s character. This verse informs us, first, that Timothy, throughout his many labors, also suffered from a poor constitution. It also indicates that Timothy was an ascetical man, whose self-denial and mortification were sufficiently austere to raise the concerns of even so disciplined an ascetic as Paul. Timothy, in short, lived a life of mortified habits and self-control, even to the point of causing alarm to his spiritual father.

Thursday, March 24

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 either had not noticed or had 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).

1 Timothy 6:1-10: Besides those social relations created by the structure of the Church itself, there were specific social relations that were brought into the Church from outside. One of these was the relationship between slave and master, a relationship potentially problematic and sufficiently complex to be addressed several times in the New Testament (verses 1-2; 1 Corinthians 7:21-22; Ephesians 6:5-8; Colossians 3:22-25; Titus, 2:9-10; Philemon, passim; 1 Peter 2:18-21).

In the present text, verse 1 deals with Christian slaves under pagan masters, and verse 2 treats of Christian slaves under Christian masters. We cannot fail to note that Paul is not offended by the social inequalities inherent in slavery. Indeed, he takes these inequalities for granted, because the Gospel contains no mandate to dissolve all the political and social inequalities in the world.

Paul endeavors, rather, to apply the principles of the Gospel to the world as he finds it, not as a social reformer might want it to be. Although Paul affirmed that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28), he showed not the slightest democratic impulse. Although he insisted that “you are all one in Christ Jesus,” this truth never posed itself to his mind as a basis for an egalitarian political or social system.

In the present instance Paul was concerned that the Christian slave does not bring the Church into disrepute by disrespecting his pagan master, and that the Christian slave does not use his standing in the Church as an excuse for disrespecting his Christian master.

Friday, March 25

The Incarnation: The assertion that the Word became flesh, whatever else it implies, certainly creates an entirely new and unexpected context in which to pose the question, “What does it mean to be a human being?” It is not logically possible to affirm, “God became man,” and then go on to consider humanity apart from that affirmation. In short, the doctrine of the Incarnation must dominate—have complete lordship over—anthropology.

Indeed, the arrival of Jesus of Nazareth on the scene of history necessarily divides the human race regarding its most elementary anthropological assumptions. Those who confess that the Son of God is now a human being are obliged to consider the concept of humanity in a way different from those who deny that confession. There is no possible reconciliation between the two. We who make that confession are not capable of viewing humanity except through a “Jesus lens.”

The secular society in which we live makes a number of anthropological assumptions that we Christians must renounce and, when appropriate, must refute. For example, there is prevalent today an interpretation of “human” as a branch of kinetic chemistry. According to this theory, the human being and all human activity find their adequate and correct explanation in physical laws, mathematical theorems, and chemical reactions.

This secular assumption, which is taught to American children today—from elementary grades through graduate school—has been around for quite a while, at least since the Encyclopedists of the mid-18th century.

Since then, however, the theory has grown more rotten. The Encyclopedists had some sense, at least, that human existence could be morally improved. Although Diderot and d’Alembert were pure materialists, they did recognize a difference between good and evil. Indeed, they were full of plans for the reform of human society by education and social engineering.

I think the problem with this kind of anthropology should be obvious: If the human being is only a product of biochemistry, then the only way to improve him is by some biochemical process.

It is a simple fact, however, that there is no such thing as a moral principle derived from mathematics, physics, and chemistry. It is pointless to look to these disciplines for moral guidance. That is to say, even as a mass murderer plots his next assault, he can appreciate the merits of “better living through chemistry.”

I take an example from literature. In his long detective story, The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins paints the unforgettable portrait of a character named Count Fosco. This unsavory individual, who is arguably the worst villain in the story, was trained as a chemist, and he believes that the human race—as well as each human being and all human behavior—can be explained by the laws of chemistry.

I quote from Count Fosco: “The best years of my life have been passed in the ardent study of medical and chemical science. Chemistry especially has always had irresistible attractions for me from the enormous, the illimitable power which the knowledge of it confers. Chemists—I assert it emphatically—might sway, if they pleased, the destinies of humanity.

The laws of chemistry, however, place no moral restrictions on him. Even the human conscience, Fosco imagines, is the product of chemical forces, which can be adjusted. It so happens, however, that chemistry expresses no views relative to the telling of a lie, the violation of a confidence, the defrauding of an inheritance, the degradation of spouse, or the taking of a life. Chemistry, in the hands of the wrong person, is the science of poison and explosives.

For this reason, the Christian reader breathes an understandable sigh of relief when the chemical remains of Count Fosco—near the end of the story—are found floating with the flotsam of the Seine River and then put on display in the Paris morgue.