March 22 – March 29, 2024

Friday, March 22

Matthew 23.1—24.2: Although individual verses of this chapter correspond to verses in the other gospels, this chapter’s construction as a whole and in its setting in the last week of Jesus’ life are peculiar to Matthew. It fittingly follows the long series of altercations between Jesus and His enemies in the two previous chapters.

The present chapter commences with a warning that the Lord’s disciples are not to imitate the hypocritical, self-absorbed religion of the Pharisees. It is instructive to observe that this censure is not extended to the chief priests, the Sadducees, the Herodians, and the elders. Only the scribes and Pharisees are criticized here.

This restriction of the censure indicates the setting in which Matthew wrote, sometime after the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, at which point the priests, the Sadducees, and the Herodians were no longer part of the Jewish leadership. The Judaism with which Matthew was dealing was that of the Pharisees and the scribes, the only ones left with the moral authority to lead the Jewish people. Those other social and religious elements, though powerful at an earlier period, were not of immediate concern to Matthew. Although the priestly class are Jesus’ chief enemies in the story of the Passion, they do not figure here in chapter 23, because Matthew has in mind his own contemporary circumstance, in which the priestly class is no longer significant.

This discourse is directed to Jesus’ disciples, who are warned not to follow the example of the scribes and Pharisees (verses 1-3). The “seat of Moses” is a metaphor for the teaching authority of these men. We observe that Matthew regards these men as still having authority, very much as we find the Apostle Paul recognizing the authority of the high priest and the Sanhedrin. This authority, says the Sacred Text, is to be respected. It is the men that hold that authority who are not to be imitated!

In what respect are they not to be imitated? They lay heavy burdens on men’s backs. In context these are the burdens of legalism, a weight that makes the service of God onerous and unbearable (verse 4). This is a form of religious oppression. These “heavy burdens,” which contrast with the “light burden” of the Gospel (11:30), consisted of the numerous rules, regulations, and rubrics that governed the lives of their fellow Jews. Matthew is at one with Paul that these myriad matters were no longer essential.

It is worth mentioning, in this context, that legalism tends to return to the Christian Church from time to time, though no longer associated with the Mosaic Law. We are seldom short of Christians who like to oppress their brethren with an endless recitation of rules and rubrics. This sort of mentality renders the service of God a dreadful burden. It constitutes a scandal in the strict sense of turning men from the love and service of God.

The real motive of the Pharisees, however, was nothing but unsubtle self-aggrandizement (verses 5-7). A phylactery is a small leather box containing passages from Holy Scripture. These were worn strapped to the forehead and the arm during morning prayers, a rather literal interpretation of Exodus 13:1-16; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; and 11:13-22. The rabbis referred to these as tefillin. The fringes are the tassels that adorn the prayer shawl, in accord with Numbers 15:38-39; Deuteronomy 22:12.

By implication Matthew encourages Christians to avoid this sort of preoccupation, and he explicitly rejects the use of certain honorific titles (verses 8-10). With respect to the title of “Rabbi” (“my lord”), it is worth noting that in Matthew’s Gospel only Judas addresses Jesus by this title (26:25,49).

For Christians, who are to serve one another humbly as members of the same family, these displays are negative examples.

Matthew then begins a series of “Woes” against the scribes and Pharisees (verse 13). Leaving out verse 14 (not found in the more reliable manuscripts and apparently borrowed from Mark 12:40 and Luke 20:47), there are seven “Woes” in this series, seven being the number signifying completion and fulfillment. That is to say, these hypocritical, self-satisfied men have brought to completion and fulfillment the myriad infidelities recorded in biblical history (verse 32). In denouncing them, therefore, the Lord uses the traditional formula of the prophets, whom their forefathers had murdered—“Woe!”

Lazarus Saturday, March 22

John 11:1—2:11: In this story John the Evangelist introduces his readers to the spiritual journey of the Apostle Thomas. I have always regarded Thomas as the original Puddleglum the Marshwiggle. He is a realist, in the sense that he has accustomed himself to taken a fairly bleak view of life. He is also an Existentialist, in the sense that he begins the processes of thought by taking stock of what he already knows—what is already present to his mind—before he starts the processes of thought.

Such a one places his trust in what he sees and touches. I will believe, he declares, when I put my finger into the wound made by the nail driven through Jesus’ hand.

Today he proposes, “Let us go, that we may die with him.” That is to say, death is inevitable. We may as well get on with it. Now is as good a time as any. It’s a bad deal, but we may as well put a good face on it. Nobody promised us the moon.

C. S. Lewis introduces Puddleglum in chapter five of The Silver Chair. He becomes the guide of Eustace and Jill, who set out on their search for the lost Prince Rilian. The children find Puddleglum a discouraging figure; they describe him as a “wet blanket,” the sort of covering that really does not comfort. He invariably sees the dark and discouraging side of every situation. Puddleglum, like Thomas the Apostle, does not believe life was designed to be comfortable.

In both men the chief virtue is fortitude. For such a person, every home is bleak house. I have ever suspected that Puddleglum, when he was an infant Marshwiggle, once cried out to his mother in the middle of the night. And his mother, when she came into his room, soothed him back to sleep by reading him some pages from Schopenhauer—in a Marshwiggle translation.

St. Thomas and Puddleglum adhere to the same philosophy. It declares that life is something to be endured, until the grave makes an end of it. An obedient apostle, like a faithful Marshwiggle, must learn to “man up.”

Puddleglum introduces himself to Jill: “Puddleglum’s my name. But it doesn’t matter if you forget it.” He tells the children, “I see you’re making the best of a bad job. That’s right. You’ve been well brought up, you have. You’ve learned to put a good face on things.”

In the end, however, it is Puddleglum who overcomes the spell cast by the Emerald Witch, the mistress of the Underworld. He is an Existentialist, who stamps out the fire with his bare, webbed foot. This fire, he demonstrates to himself, is real. He can feel it. And, like Thomas touching wounds of Christ, Puddleglum trusts his feelings.

Puddleglum is, in this respect, an Aristotelian. He trusts his senses. And he trusts his memory. He is incapable of denying either. Puddleglum is a true Existentialist.

The Apostle Thomas is introduced today. Like Puddleglum, Thomas will destroy the power of the Underworld. And he will do so by using good sense. Not long hence, his Aristotelianism will be put severely to the test when he touches the living flesh of Someone who had died for him.

Palm Sunday, March 24

Matthew 20,29—21,17: Matthew’s description of the Passion of Christ should be regarded as the consummate illustration of the teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. The dominant figure in the Sermon on the Mount—the One to whom most reference is made—is the heavenly Father. In the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, the believer’s consciousness of the heavenly Father is the formal, determining principle of the moral life.

The disciple’s constant thought and remembrance is the heavenly Father. In all things—whether in fasting, prayer, or almsgiving—he endeavors to please this Father, “who sees in secret” (6:4,6,18). It is in Him that the believer puts his entire trust, convinced that the heavenly Father knows his every need (6:8,32). It is the heavenly Father’s glory that he seeks above all things (5:16). The disciple’s love for others is simply his endeavor to imitate the perfection of his Father in heaven (5:48).

If he forgives, it is for the sake of being forgiven by his Father in heaven (6:14-15). His sole interest is in doing the will of the heavenly Father (6:10; 7:21), to whom he prays (6:9; 7:11). He does all of these things for the purpose of being a child of the heavenly Father (5:45). He seeks his reward only from the Father in heaven (6:1). The sustained consciousness of the heavenly Father—all through the three chapters of the Sermon on the Mount—is the formal, determining principle of the moral life. Christ’s teaching in that sermon cannot be abstracted from that formal principle.

The conscience formed by the Sermon on the Mount is not a conscience structured by a set of moral norms, but a conscience shaped by the sustained awareness of the Father in heaven. “Hallowed be Thy name” is the structural principle of the Christian conscience.

Now, it is a fact that such a preoccupation with the Father in heaven is exactly what we find in Matthew’s description of Jesus’ Passion. Throughout that narrative, as we shall hear, beginning this evening, Jesus walks under the gaze of this Father. He declares that the heavenly Father would answer his slightest wish to be supplied with twelve legions of angelic warriors, were he to request it (26:53). He does not request it, however, convinced that this is not the Father’s will.

Indeed, the resolve to do the will of his Father is obviously what most deeply moves and strengthens Jesus in the Passion. Having instructed His disciples—in the Sermon on the Mount—to pray that the Father’s will should be done on earth as it is in heaven, Jesus models this petition when he prays in the Garden on the eve of the Passion.

Monday, March 15

Matthew 21.12-32: It is not easy to imagine, at this great distance in time, the drama, solemnity, and historical significance of the event about which we read today. As the Gospels record it, Jesus cleansed the Temple in the context of the Passover, when its precincts were crowded with Jewish pilgrims (and even Gentiles) from all around the Mediterranean Basin and across the wise expanse of the Fertile Crescent. In short, the witnesses to this incident came from worldwide Judaism, that immense international family the prophets called kol Israel, “all Israel.”

Moreover, in the decades preceding this event extensive restoration and embellishment, begun under Herod the Great, had further enhanced the Temple’s attraction, greatly swelling the crowds who milled around the four markets on the Mount of Olives, where birds and other animals were sold as victims to be sacrificed during the feast.

In addition to that traditional arrangement, the Temple’s Court of the Gentiles had very recently—perhaps as recently as A. D. 30—also been made available for such commerce; it appears that Caiaphas, the current High Priest, was responsible for this development.

That is to say, the energetic deed of Jesus was a reaction, not to an ancient custom, but to an innovation introduced by the leader of those who opposed him. Purging the Temple of these mercantile provisions, Jesus was overtly challenging the authority of the High Priest; he was accusing Caiaphas, the chief custodian of the Temple, of defiling the Temple. It is no wonder that “the scribes and chief priests heard it and devised how they might destroy him” (Mark 11:18).

It is most significant that the part of the Temple cleansed by Jesus was the Court of the Gentiles, that place set apart for those many non-Jews who had—not becoming Jews—had adopted Israel’s God as their own.

Such a group would never have existed without the Diaspora, the wide diffusion of Jewish congregations throughout the known world. In ever greater numbers, these people, called “fearers of God” attached themselves to local synagogues and observed as much of the Jewish piety as they were able. We know of one such man at Caesarea, named Cornelius, who kept the regular fasting days and hours of prayer.

It is hardly surprising that some of the “God-fearers” should also want to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem in order to celebrate the major feast days in the Temple. So, to accommodate them, Herod the Great had placed a large courtyard around the Second Temple, where they could gather and worship.

Caiaphas, therefore, by permitting this precinct to become a marketplace, created a scandal—a stumbling block—for these fearers of God; a house of prayer, specifically designed for them to worship Israel’s God, was thus defiled, and the devotion of faithful people was inhibited.

This, then, was the significance of Jesus’ purging of the Temple: When Jesus came there that day, he beheld the Gentiles gathered in preparation for the Passover on the coming weekend, and his indignation was aroused at beholding this affront to their piety. Today, he resolved, this must stop; this was the day prophesied by Zechariah, when “everyone who is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 14:16).

The Lord expressed his indignation that day by quoting the prophecy of Isaiah: “My house shall be a house of prayer for all the nations.”

Tuesday, March 26

Psalms 35 (Greek & Latin 34): The meaning of this psalm is not difficult to discern, because it is one of those psalms for which the New Testament explicitly provides the proper “voice” and setting. The voice speaking in Psalm 35 is the voice of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and the psalm’s theological context is the drama of His Passion and death.

Among the many truths that the Lord taught the fledgling Church on the night of His betrayal was the very sobering truth that believers would suffer persecution just as He did: “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you” (John 15:18). Thus began that night’s prediction of the coming sufferings of the Church for His sake. The Lord went on to say: “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (15:20).

The Passion of the Lord and the subsequent suffering of His Church are not mere historical phenomena, He told us; they are rooted, rather, in a point of theology—man’s deliberate ignorance of, even his resolved hatred of, God: “But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know Him who sent Me. . . . He who hates Me hates My Father also. . . . but now they have seen and also hated both Me and My Father” (John 15:21, 23, 24).

At this place in His discourse our Lord explicitly appealed to our psalm, Psalm 35, to show that this hatred and this persecution by the world are a realization of prophecy: “But this happened that the word might be fulfilled which is written in their law, ‘They hated Me without a cause’” (15:25). Thus Jesus Himself gave us His own interpretation of our psalm. Indeed, He here indicated the proper meaning of several psalms, because the reference to His being “hated without cause” appears two other times in the Psalter (68:4; 108:4).

These, then, are psalms in which the praying voice is that of Christ Himself, and, by reason of her sharing in the sufferings of Christ, the Church prays these psalms in His Person. Psalm 35 is a prayer of the Lord’s Passion and death, and it is therefore the prayer of anyone who in truth can say: “Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith: that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:8–11).

Psalm 35, a prayer descriptive of this spiritual struggle, is much concerned that the ignorance and hatred of God not ultimately prevail. In line after line it is a prayer for vindication: “Let them be put to shame and dishonor who seek after my life! Let them be turned back and confounded who devise evil against me!” In all such lines it is important to remember that it is the voice of Christ. It is Christ who prays, “Let them be like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the Lord driving them on! Let their way be dark and slippery, with the angel of the Lord pursuing them!” The prayer of Christ here is a battle prayer, for He wages war on the forces of sin, darkness, and destruction: “Let ruin come upon them unawares.”

The vindication sought by this psalm is not some sort of petty revenge. This is the prayer of Christ doing battle with the forces of sin and death, looking forward to the hour of His victory, when His very body, brought down to the grave, will rise again in the paschal victory: “And my soul shall be joyful in the Lord; it shall rejoice in His salvation. All my bones shall say, ‘Lord, who is like You, delivering the poor from him who is too strong for him.’”

Salvation, as understood by Christians, is attained by God’s vindication of His own righteousness in the Resurrection of Christ, “who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification” (Rom. 4:25). This truth is the key to our psalm. It is the prayer of those, in Christ, still struggling as they fill up in their flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ (Col. 1:24). In Christ theirs is this prayer for victory over sinful ignorance, hatred, and death: “Do not keep silence. O Lord, do not be far from me. Stir up Yourself, and awake to my vindication, to my cause, my God and my Lord. . . . And my tongue shall speak of Your righteousness and of Your praise all the day long.”

Spy Wednesday, March 27

Luke 20.9-19: The parable of the vine-growers—listed prominently in Jesus’ teaching during the last week of his earthly life—provides a sharp, defining outline of how he came to understand, not only his ministry to his contemporaries, but also his larger significance in the history of Israel. It illustrates how Jesus thought about his mission and destiny. No other of his parables, I believe, contains such an obviously “autobiographical” perspective.

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

Jesus identifies himself as God’s Son, whom He sends into the world to inaugurate the final stage of history. “Then last of all,” declares the parable, “He sent His Son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my Son.’” God has never left Himself without witness in this world. He has spoken to the human race through the wisdom and power manifest in His Creation. He has addressed Himself to men through the testimony of conscience. In special times and circumstances, God has “spoken in past time to the fathers by the prophets.”

In this last stage of history, however, God has revealed Himself to the human race by the appearance of His own Son, “the brightness of His glory and the express icon of His person.”

It is the eternal Father who reveals His Son and draws the human heart and mind to that Son. Recall the words of the stern Pharisee who gave a brief account of his own conversion: “. . . it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, to reveal His Son in me . . .”

Who was the God who did this? What God spoke to Saul of Tarsus and revealed His Son? It was the same God whom Paul had served as a serious, devout, and conscientious Jew. It was not a God different from the God who spoke in times past by the prophets. It was not a God different from the God who speaks to the human conscience in wisdom. It was not a God different from the God who made all things out of nothing. It was the identical God ever present in the conscience of that loyal Pharisee. This very God spoke to the heart of Saul and said, “This is My beloved Son.”

No one comes to Christ the Lord unless the Father draws him. The identity of Jesus is known only as the Father reveals him, because “no one knows the Son except the Father.”

When Simon Peter confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” how does Jesus answer him? “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” Flesh and blood—human power—is not adequate to identify Jesus as God’s Son. We make this confession because the eternal God reveals His Son to our hearts and minds. We listen to His voice on the mountain of the Transfiguration: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

In Luke’s version of the parable, the son is described as “my beloved,” the same expression the Father used to address Jesus at both his baptism and his Transfiguration. It is to him that the vineyard truly belongs, because he is the heir. He is the son with regard to God, and the heir with regard to Israel’s history.

Maundy Thursday, March 28

Matthew 26.17-56: We come now to Holy Thursday and the evening of the Last Supper. The traditions behind the four gospels attach several stories to the narrative of the Last Supper. These include the story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, a saying of Jesus relative to His coming betrayal, a prophecy of Peter’s threefold denial, various exhortations and admonitions by Jesus, and a description of the institution of the Holy Eucharist.

There are considerable differences among the four evangelists with respect to their inclusion of these components. Thus, only John describes the foot-washing, though Luke 22:24-30 includes a dominical admonition which would readily fit such a context. With respect to the actual teachings and exhortations of Jesus during the supper, John’s account is by far the longest, stretching over several chapters.

Only two of the stories are told in all four gospels. First, there is some reference by Jesus to His betrayal. In Matthew and Mark this comes before the institution of the Holy Eucharist; in Luke it comes afterwards, in John it immediately follows the foot-washing. Only in Matthew and John is Judas actually identified by Jesus. Luke and John ascribe the betrayal to the influence of Satan.

Second, all four gospels include a prophecy of Peter’s threefold denial. All of them, likewise, narrate the fulfillment of that prophecy.

The Church chiefly remembers the Last Supper, however, as the occasion of the instituting of the Holy Eucharist, and it seems a point of irony that this story does not appear in John. Perhaps he felt that this important subject had been adequately treated in the Bread of Life discourse in chapter 6.

To the three Synoptic accounts of the Holy Eucharist we must add that in 1 Corinthians 11, which is at least a decade older than the earliest of the four gospels. Indeed, this narrative recorded by St. Paul links the institution of the Eucharist explicitly to the betrayal by Judas: “I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the night in which He was betrayed took bread . . .” This text provides clear evidence that the traditional narrative contained in the Eucharistic prayer, as it was already known to Paul when he founded the Corinthian church about A.D. 50, made mention of Judas’s betrayal. That same formula or its equivalent—“on the night He was betrayed”—is found in both the liturgies of St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom.

The Church’s testimony on this point is remarkable. It is as though some deep impulse discourages Christians from celebrating the Holy Communion without some reference to the betrayal by Judas. This reference serves to remind Christians of the terrible judgment that surrounds the Mystery of the Altar: “Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body” (1 Corinthians 11:27-29).

In spite of their manifest shortcomings in discipleship, the Twelve obey Jesus, making the necessary preparations for the Seder (verses 17-19), as they had earlier prepared for His triumphal entry in Jerusalem (21:2-7). In this brief dialogue we observe that the Passover and the Unleavened Bread are fused together, as they were in practice. On the day of the Seder (Thursday of Holy Week), all leavened bread was thrown out, so that only unleavened bread would be in the house that evening. Like Mark (14:12), Matthew refers to that Thursday as “the first day of unleavened bread” (verses 17; Mark 14:1).

In this same dialogue Matthew introduces another view of the “timing” of this event. Jesus has His own “time”–kairos (verse 18). This kairos of Jesus has to do with God’s plan, though its implementation subsumes the “opportunity” (eukaria) of the Lord’s enemies (verse 16). This kairos of Matthew (missing in Mark 14:14) is identical with the “hour” in John (2:4; 7:30; 8:20; 12:23,27; 13:1; 16:21,32; 17:1). Both terms are references to God’s control of history—Divine Providence as it pertained to Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is obviously quite conscious of this.

Good Friday, March 29

Psalms 2 (Greek & Latin 21): This psalm figures significantly in Matthew’s account of the death of Jesus. It is quoted, in fact, three times: once by the Evangelist, once by Jesus’ tormentors, and once by Jesus himself.
The first quotation comes in the way Matthew describes the distribution of Jesus’ garments: “Then they crucified Him, and divided His garments, casting lots, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet: ‘They divided My garments among them and for My clothing they cast lots.’” Matthew indicates his theological perspective on the crucifixion by this citation from Psalm 22. He identifies Jesus as the suffering Just Man in the Psalter.

By citing this psalm at the beginning of the crucifixion scene, Matthew invites his readers to consider the psalm as a whole. The immediate context of the cited verse, for example, includes the Psalmist’s words, “They pierced My hands and My feet.” Matthew feels no compulsion to quote this line from the same psalm; he presumed its relevance to be obvious.

Matthew’s second quotation from this same psalm is found on the lips of Jesus’ tormentors: “And those who passed by blasphemed Him, wagging their heads and saying, ‘You who destroy the temple and build it in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross.’ ?Likewise the chief priests also, mocking with the scribes and elders, said, “He saved others; Himself He cannot save. If He is the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him. He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now if He will have Him; for He said, “I am the Son of God.”’”

Once again, the significance of Psalm 22 in Matthew’s description is not exhausted by his direct quotation from that psalm. He expects his readers to be familiar with the surrounding verses of the psalm: “I am a worm, and no man, a reproach unto men, and despised by the people. All those who see Me ridicule Me; They shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying, ‘He trusted in the Lord, let Him rescue Him; Let Him deliver Him, since He delights in Him!’”

Finally, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus himself quotes Psalm 22: “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”

Like Mark, Matthew gives a Greek translation of these words after citing them in the original language heard from the Cross. The language of this quotation—a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic—indicates that we are hearing the very words spoken by Jesus.

When, therefore, Matthew views the crucifixion through the lens of Psalm 22, he follows the lead of Jesus, who took this psalm on His own lips as a dying prayer. Jesus knew himself to be the authentic voice of the persecuted Just Man of the Psalter.