March 1 – March 8, 2024

Friday, March 1

Matthew 18.1-9: Here begin the sayings that form the fourth great dominical discourse in Matthew; this one is devoted to what may be called “rules for the congregation.” It begins by the memorable scene in which Jesus holds up the faith of children as a model for adults. Far from refusing children access to Jesus until they arrive at the explicit and doctrinal faith of adults, Jesus admonishes adults to model their own faith on the more elementary faith of the child. Because children are the most in danger of being scandalized, this topic of children leads naturally into the subject of scandal, and in this connection come the Lord’s statements about millstones and self-mutilation. The latter are certainly to be understood by way of hyperbole.

Going through in more detail, we begin with the question of which of the disciples is the greatest (verses 1-5). In the parallel text in Mark 9:33-37, the disciples themselves argued which of themselves was the greatest. Matthew not only changes the question, then, he changes also the context of the question. It is no longer a debate among competing apostles; it is a question put to Jesus, as though a point of speculation. The question becomes spiritual and theological; it pertains to the Kingdom of Heaven. When the question is answered in verse 4, it is still about the Kingdom of Heaven.

The “child” held up as a model here is a paidion, roughly meaning someone under the age of twelve, someone who has not yet made the bar mitzvah. That is to say, it is a “kid,” someone not quite taken seriously. Hence, the lesson is one of humility. Elaborating on the point (verses 3-4, for which there are no parallels in the accounts of Mark and Luke), Jesus says that unless one becomes a paidion, he will not even enter the Kingdom, much less be contender for “greatest” cf. 20:26-27; 23:11-12).

Then Jesus asserts in a positive way (verse 4) what He has just affirmed negatively (verse 3). This disregard for power and social status elaborates what Jesus said about the poor in spirit in 5:3.

At first, verse 5, about receiving the “little one,” seems to have nothing to do with the context. In place of the childlike quality of humility, our attention is drawn to the children themselves and how they are to be treated.

In Mark’s version, in fact, this action and the words of Jesus do not appear, at first sight, even to address the question about which the Apostles have been arguing.

This impression is misleading. In telling the Church how to receive children, Matthew is preparing for the next section, on scandal. Verse 5 sets the positive stage for the coming warning about scandal. Jesus affirms that those who receive children, receive Him. He identifies Himself with children.

And how are we to receive children? From the hand of God. Anytime there is an “unwanted child,” somebody can expect to render an answer at the throne of God. Receptivity is the Christian’s fundamental response to the appearance of children in this world (cf. 10:40; 25:31-46). This is all Jesus has to say on the subject of birth control.

Then Matthew (but not Mark and Luke) begins the section on scandal (verses 6-9), which follows immediately on the appearance of the child. It begins with a solemn warning not to scandalize the “little believers” (micros pistevon).

Here we have some of the toughest, harshest verses in the New Testament: violent image—drowning, cutting off a hand, gouging out an eye—all suggesting the difficulty of getting into the Kingdom of Heaven.

To give scandal, in the biblical sense, does not mean to shock. It means to cause spiritual harm (even though shock does sometimes accompany scandal). Scandal means to hurt someone spiritually, to cause to sin, to degrade someone’s conscience. In the present text the word is found six times, whether as a verb or a noun.

Saturday, March 2

Romans 11.22-36: It has long been common to distinguish between God’s mercy and His justice, the former being the source of salvation, the latter the basis for punishment. This distinction, however, is overly simple, and consequently misleading.

In Holy Scripture the justice of God, His righteousness—dikaiosyne—is also the fount of salvation. It is not that Christ, by His passion and death, reconciled us to God’s justice. God’s justice, His righteousness, is the very cause of our redemption. He redeemed us in His righteousness. He redeemed us, furthermore, in order to manifest His righteousness by showing mercy.

The righteousness of God is not an abstract quality in God that obliges man to measure up. The righteousness of God is, rather, that activity of God that causes man to measure up. In dying on the cross, Jesus did not address Himself to God’s righteousness. On the contrary, He Himself expressed God’s righteousness. He was the expression, the very embodiment, of God’s righteousness.

Nonetheless, that popular distinction between God’s mercy and His justice, even though inadequate and misleading, seems to be an attempt to express a real difference, and that difference appears to be what Paul has in mind by distinguishing between God’s kindness and His severity (verse 22).

The continuance of God’s kindness, though unmerited and freely bestowed, does depend on human perseverance. “Otherwise you also will be cut off,” writes St. Paul. This apostle knows nothing about a level of grace that precludes the possibility of the believer’s defection. Even as he holds the winning hand, foolish man may still choose to discard. God’s grace never removes the freedom of man’s choice.

But just as it is possible for a believer to fall, it is also possible for an unbeliever to rise. The defection of the Jews, therefore, is not necessarily final (verse 23). Their return to the ancient tree would seem especially fitting (verse 24). Indeed, this is what God has in mind (verse 25). It is the “mystery” (mysterion) of His plan for the Jews, when history has run the proper measure of its course.

The “all Israel” that will be saved appears to refer to the fullness of the Church, drawn from both Jews and Gentiles. This return to the Gospel, Paul believed, was prophesied by Isaiah (verses 26-27).

God’s guidance of history is complex, not because God is complex, but because man’s infidelities have complicated the process. Far from being the mere unfolding of the divine foreknowledge—and even less the enactment of a divine decree—history is the encounter of man’s freedom with God’s, an encounter in which God subsumes human mistakes into a more ample redemptive pattern. The format of this pattern is dialectical, in that the human resistance to God’s will (sin, disobedience) become part of that will’s very application. This is the pattern that God followed with the Gentiles. It is now the pattern that He will follow with the Jews.

Truly, God’s plans for the Jews have never changed, because God keeps faith with the patriarchs, to whom He made so many promises. The Jewish people are still the apple of His eye (verses 28-29).

In the sin of Adam, God consigned (synekleisen) all to disobedience. This has been the history of the human race. God’s wisdom, however, and His fathomless counsel have so directed man’s disobedience as to bring about his redemption. All of this history He has guided in the direction of mercy (verse 32). All that He does He does in mercy. Paul finishes this chapter with a brief doxology to the divine mercy (verses 33-36).

Sunday, March 3

Psalms 1: Like the Sermon on the Mount, the Book of Psalms commences with a “beatitude,” a pronunciation of the blessings of God on the just man. The original Hebrew is delicious to pronounce at this point—“oh, the blessings of the man who walks not. . . .”—’ashrei ha’ish ’asher lo halak.

Three postures are considered: walking, standing, and sitting. There are three places the just man will not be found: following the counsel of the godless, standing in the way that sinners go, seated among the scoffers. Warnings against these three categories are found all through the Bible’s wisdom literature, but the scoffers (letsim) appear here as the very climax of evil. Outside of this verse and Isaiah 29:20, “scoffer” is found only in the Book of Proverbs (14 times) and is a synonym for the consummate fool.

What is warned against in verse 1 is evil counsel (etsah), an idea that appears all through Proverbs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Job, as well as in many narrative passages, such as “the counsel of Ahithophel” in 2 Samuel 16—17, the “counsel of the young men” in 1 Kings 12:14, etc. Many individuals in the Bible are led astray by following evil counsel: Absalom, Rehoboam, Sennacherib (cf. 2 Kin. 18:20; Is. 36:5), Zedekiah, Ahaziah (2 Chr. 22:5), Amnon (counseled by Jonadab in 2 Sam. 13), the Sanhedrin under Caiaphas, and so on.

It is significant, then, that the Book of Psalms commences with a consideration of certain wisdom themes. So far, the emphasis is entirely negative—that is, we are told what the just man does not do. Now just what does the just man do?

“He delights in the law of the Lord, and on that Law does he meditate day and night.” Here is our program for the week: at various times during the day and even the night to enjoy (hepets) meditation on God’s Law. (St. Paul also speaks of “delighting” in the Law of the Lord—Romans 7:22). The “meditation” could also be translated as “musing,” and it is a source of pleasure—“amusing.” This is how the week of prayer will be spent, our psalm is saying: in the enjoyment of meditation.

And to what does this constant meditation lead? “And he shall be like the tree planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth his fruit in his season.” Already, in the opening lines of the liturgical week, we are told that this is a matter of observing seasons. The habit of prayer, this incessant meditation on God’s Law, is not supposed to be something immediately useful. Trees do not bear fruit right away. They first must eat amply of the earth and drink deeply of its water. Such nourishment must serve first to build up the tree. The fruit will come later on, when it is supposed to. The life of Christian prayer and meditation knows nothing of instant holiness; it is all a matter of perseverance and patience. Some trees do not even begin to bear fruit for many years.

Monday, March 4

Matthew 20:17-28: This section begins with the Lord’s third and final prediction of the His coming Passion (verses 17-19; Mark 10:32-34; Luke 18:31-34). This prophecy is much more detailed than the earlier two (16:21; 17:22-23), mentioning the Lord’s manumission to the chief priests (26:57), His condemnation by them (26:66), His handing over to Pilate (27:2), and the mockery and scourging (27:26-30). Unlike Mark (10:34), Matthew also specifies crucifixion (27:32-44), a form of execution practiced by the Romans.

Matthew (20:20-23) and Mark (10:35-40) follow this third prediction of the Lord’s sufferings by recording the occasion on which the two sons of Zebedee, James and John, request of the Lord the privilege of sitting to his immediate right and left when he enters into his kingdom. Still worldly and without understanding, the two brothers are portrayed as resistant to the message of the Cross.

In both Gospel accounts the Lord’s response to their request is to put back to the brothers a further query about their ability to “drink the cup whereof I am to drink,” and Mark’s version contains yet another question about their being “baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized.”

Both images used by our Lord in this context, baptism and the cup, are found elsewhere in the New Testament as symbolic of the Lord’s Passion (Luke 12:50; Matthew 26:39-42). Obviously, in the context of the New Testament churches the baptism and the cup referred symbolically to two of the sacraments, and it was understood, moreover, that these two sacraments place their communicants into a special relationship with the Lord’s Passion (Romans 6:3f; Colossians 2:12; 1 Corinthians 11:26). The questions about baptism and the cup, then, were most instructive for the Christians attending divine worship where these Gospel texts were read and interpreted.

Matthew’s version, moreover, presents Zebedee’s wife, the mother of the two brothers, approaching the Lord to make the request on their behalf. This woman, elsewhere known as Salome, Matthew calls simply “the mother of Zebedee’s sons.” The detail is certainly significant, inasmuch as this designation, “mother of Zebedee’s sons,” appears only twice in the entire New Testament, both times in Matthew: here in 20:20 and later, in 27:56, at the foot of the Cross.

In the first of these instances Zebedee’s wife is portrayed as an enterprising and somewhat ambitious worldling who fails to grasp the message of the Cross, while in the later scene we find her standing vigil as her Lord dies, now a model of the converted and enlightened Christian who follows Jesus to the very end. This marvelous correspondence between the two scenes — a before and after — is proper to Matthew and points to a delicate nuance of his thought.

Tuesday, March 5

Romans 13.1-10: Beginning with the believer’s relationship to other believers, and going on with respect to those outside the community of faith in chapter 12 , Paul now addresses the Christian’s relationship to the political order.

One is impressed by Paul’s attitude of respect, deference, and obedience toward the civil authority, not simply because that authority carries the power to exact such an attitude, but also because such an attitude is required by conscience. To respect and obey the State, in Paul’s view, is demanded by God’s own ordinance, because ultimately the State hold its authority from God. (Contrast this view with that of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson.) The State is “God’s minister” (verse 4).

Generally speaking, then, and proper exception being made for laws that violate the moral order, the dictates and decisions of government are binding in conscience. They are not simply penal laws. That is to say, in those instances where the State does not contravene God’s own law, the State speaks for God and is a valid channel for the discovery of God’s will. Needless to say, this is a very high view of the political order. There is no such thing as “Christian anarchy.”

Lest we be too quick to imagine that Paul is thinking of the State in very idealistic terms, we may bear in mind that the emperor at that time was Nero, and the “State” of Paul’s reference was the Roman Empire. Imperial authority had earlier expelled the Jews, including Christians, from Rome only a decade before, and about four years after writing this epistle Paul himself would be executed by this same authority. Three years later, moreover, the full weight of the imperial government would come down hard on the Christians at Rome in a fearful persecution. In other words, Paul’s attitude toward Rome was not one of convenience, but of principle.

Paul’s affirmations here bear witness to an important feature of Christian anthropology. They testify that man’s relationship to God is not limited to the specifically religious and cultic sphere. Man is also related to God in the political, social, cultural, and economic spheres of his existence in this world. Man’s relationship to God, in other words, is inseparable from his relationship to everything else.

In the last three verses of this reading, Paul returns briefly to the Christian’s relationship to the Mosaic Law (verses 8-10). Does Christian freedom imply that believers are no longer bound by the Decalogue? Hardly, says Paul, but the general Christian command to love one’s neighbour as oneself more than adequately summarizes those components of the Decalogue that concern our fellow man. That is to say, even the Decalogue is now read through a new lens. This transformation of love is the direct fruit of justification through faith.

Wednesday, March 6

Psalms 8: From the very earliest translations of the Creed into the English language, the mystery of the Incarnation has been expressed in a rather puzzling way, even if our long familiarity with the words has reduced our sense of their grammatical enigma. We say of the Son of God that He “became [or “was made”] man.”

The puzzle posed by this construction is exactly how to classify the predicate nominative “man” in this instance. Is the sense of the expression indefinite—“a man,” much as we might say that “Fred became a farmer”? But if so, why didn’t the translators simply say that? “He became a man” would not only make sense; it would be both grammatically and theologically correct.

Or is the meaning of the expression merely descriptive—“he became human,” much as we might say “Fred became agrarian”? Here again, the translators could easily have said that, if that is what they meant, because God’s Son most certainly did become human.

No, neither of these translations was deemed adequate. Rendering very literally from the underlying Latin (and not directly from the original Greek, by the way), the translators said that He “became man,” leaving us with this stylistic puzzle. One can hardly think of an occasion, after all, in which we might properly say “Fred became farmer.”

What the translators gave us here is an idiom, which is to say a form of expression unique to a particular setting and standing outside of expected usage. On reflection, their recourse to idiom in this case is hardly surprising, for the event under discussion, the Incarnation, is itself “idiomatic” in the extreme, in the sense of being completely unique, utterly unexpected, and standing free of normal patterns of acquiescence. How better, after all, to speak of an incomparable and unparalleled event than by recourse to an idiomatic improvisation?

God’s Son did not only “become human,” though it is true that He did. Nor did He simply “become a man,” though this likewise is a correct statement of the fact. He “became man,” rather, in a sense defying grammatical precision as thoroughly as it confounds also the expectations of biology, psychology, metaphysics, and other aspects of the human enterprise, thereby shocked and left reeling, all its vaunted resources now massively strained and overcharged at the infusion of unspeakable glory.

The most correct formulation of the Incarnation is the one to which we are accustomed: “He became man.” Christ is the archetype of man, bearing all of humanity in Himself. “It was for the new man that human nature was established from the beginning,” wrote St. Nicholas Kavasilas; “the old Adam was not the model of the new, it was the new Adam that was the model of the old.”

The wise English translators of the Creed were taking their cue here from Psalm 8: “What is man (’enosh) that You are mindful of him? Or the son of man (ben-adam) that you care for him?” According to Hebrews 2, which is our oldest extant Christian commentary on Psalm 8, the word “man” in this text refers to Christ our Lord, and the entire psalm is a description of His saving work.

By the Incarnation, our psalm says to God, “You have made Him a little lower than the angels, and You have crowned Him with honor and glory,” in explanation of which Hebrews replies that “we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor” (2:9).

When God gave our forefather Adam dominion over the earth and its fullness, that act was a prophecy of the universal subjection of creation to the reign of Christ. Such is the true meaning of Psalm 8: “You have made Him to have dominion over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under His feet.”

Christ is no afterthought; He is the original meaning of humanity. Christ is what God had in mind when He reached down and formed that first lump of mud into a man. Again in the words of St Nicholas Kavasilas: “It was towards Christ that man’s mind and desire were oriented. We were given a mind that we might know Christ, and desire, that we might run to Him; and memory, that we might remember Him, because even at the time of creation it was He who was the archetype.”

The mystery of the Incarnation is the theme of Psalm 8. Christ is the reason for our singing out: “O Lord, our Lord, how sublime is Your name in all the earth, for You have set Your glory above the heavens.”

Thursday, March 7

Mathew 19.1-12: At this point Matthew rejoins the narrative sequence in Mark, which he will follow for the rest of the book. However, as this section begins with Jesus’ move from Galilee, in the north, to Judea, in the south, Matthew and Luke begin to follow separate sequences, Luke inserting many stories that have no parallel in the other gospels (cf. Luke 9:51—18:14).

Matthew introduces his own narrative by mentioning the end (etelesen–verse 1) of Jesus’ previous discourse—namely, the preceding chapter on life in the Church. Each of Jesus’ five large discourses in ended in the same way (cf. 7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 26:1).

Jesus, moving south, goes somewhat eastward across the Jordan, avoiding a trip through Samaria. He is followed by “large” crowds (contrast with Mark 10:1), “to follow” being the normal word for discipleship.

In Mark’s parallel account (10:1), it is said that Jesus taught these crowds, whereas Matthew says that He “healed” them (etherapeusen–verse 2). The significance of this change is to be found in the light it sheds on the teaching that immediately follows. The following section deals with matters that we may call “domestic,” in the sense of having to do with the home (domus in Latin). This subject will include sex, children, and money, and on these matters Jesus will “heal” the people of common but fallacious opinions. These subjects—sex, child-raising, and finances—are the ones on which the views of the world are likely to be sick and in want of healing.

Each of these three subjects is introduced by certain individuals or groups who approach Jesus: the Pharisees, the mothers bringing their children, and the wealthy inquirer. It would seem that Matthew has arranged this material in a sequence that was usual in the catechetical practice of the Christian Church. In fact, these three subjects are likewise treated together by St. Paul (cf. Ephesians 5:22—6:9; Colossians 3:18-25). The similarity of order between Matthew and Paul suggests these dominical sayings have been organized according to a standard and recognizable format.

There immediately follows, then, a teaching about sex, which includes marriage, divorce, and celibacy (verses 3-12), for which there is a partial parallel section in Mark 10:2-12.

The treatment of marriage and divorce comes in response to the question that the Pharisees put to Jesus, which question Matthew (alone) says was meant to “try” Him (peirazontes–verse 3). The context of the teaching, that is to say, was one of controversy. It is well known that the various rabbinical schools were distinguished from one another by what restrictions they placed on divorce—some stricter, some not so strict. Jesus was being invited to enter that controversy.

Instead, He went straight to the creation account in Genesis, using it to forbid all divorce (cf. also 5:32). Jesus mentions no exceptions. Even the expression “not including fornication” (me epi porneia), which is often taken as a reason for divorce, is no exception to the rule. It simply means, “I am not talking about fornication.” That is to say, the prohibition against divorce applies only to a true marriage, not cases where a man and woman are living together in sin.

What is most striking about Jesus’ prohibition is that our Lord thereby abrogates the application of Deuteronomy 24:1, which did provide for divorce. Jesus would have none of it. Divorce for the purpose of remarriage with someone else is adultery.

It is unfortunate that many readers find in this text only another species of legalism with respect to marriage. In fact, this biblical passage has as much to say of Christology as of marriage. However, when this page is “consulted,” some question about marriage is usually the reason for the consultation, so the important Christological weight of the text is simply overlooked. Inspected more carefully, however, the Christological significance of the passage could hardly be weightier. Jesus, boldly abrogating a concession given in the Mosaic Law, laid claim to immense authority—truly, “all authority”–pasa exsousia, as He will say at the end of Matthew (28:18). This authority is nothing less than divine, and it is in recognition of this total authority that we find so many people in Matthew’s stories falling prostrate before Jesus.

It is curious that those who objected to Jesus’ prohibition against divorce were not his enemies, but his disciples. They wondered, if divorce was not permitted, whether remaining celibate might not be a more attractive option (verse 10). (We wonder why the prospect of a happy marriage did not cross their minds!)

Perhaps to their surprise, Jesus agreed with them, not because of the indissolubility of marriage, but because celibacy is a superior expression of the Kingdom of Heaven (verse 12). Nonetheless, Jesus declared, celibacy is a gift from God, a grace not accorded to all men (verse 11).

Friday, March 8

Romans 14:14-23: Paul continues the theme from the previous section, going on to exhort believers to peace-making and edification (verse 19). In these verses, however, his exhortation is directed to the stronger, more confident Christians who may, even by mere inadvertence, create crises of conscience for their fellow believers.

The example chosen by Paul to illustrate this point is the eating of certain foods, particularly meats, which the Mosaic Law classifies as common (koinon) or unclean, foods that are not kosher. Paul is certain that Christians may eat such foods with a safe conscience (verses 1-5; Acts 10:9-15).

The Apostle recognized, nonetheless, that some Christians, from habits long adhered to, could not really eat such food with a safe conscience, because they had not arrived at a level of faith and Christian maturity that would enable them to do so. (Here he is not talking about the faith through which a Christian is justified, of course, but of faith as an effective principle in making moral decisions.)

If these latter Christians, then, were recklessly to follow the example of stronger, more mature believers, there was a genuine danger of their violating their own consciences. They would be eating for some reason other than faith, perhaps human respect or perceived social pressure, and this would constitute sin (verse 23). In short, it is never a safe of laudable thing to act against one’s conscience.

What should the stronger Christian do in such a case? He should forego his own freedom in the matter, says Paul, in order not to lead the weaker brother into sin, even inadvertently (verses 15,20-23). Peace and charity, that is to say, take precedence over the exercise of freedom (verses 17-18). Freedom, as the result of charity, must never be exercised at the expense of charity.
Moreover, a Christian should relinquish his freedom even in those instances when the exercise thereof would bring distress to another Christian (verse 15). In other words, a Christian must go out of his way, if need be, to avoid distressing fellow believers. The proper motive is love, inspired by the death of Jesus (verse 15).

In all these comments Paul enunciates essentially the same thesis he defended in Galatians 2:11-17, and which will appear later in Colossians 2:20-22 and Mark 7:19.