Archive for July, 2012

Matthew 1 (day 930) 18 July 2012

             1: The book itself does not claim to be the work of Matthew. It came to be accepted as “the gospel according to Matthew” as it circulated through the church in the early second century. I like to translate this verse, “A record of the life of Jesus the Messiah, who was directly descended through David from Abraham.” It is important to Matthew’s gospel that Jesus’ lineage be traced to both: from David because of the royal, or political, connection; from Abraham because of the spiritual power of God’s covenant with the Jewish people first established with Abraham.

             2-17: He traces the genealogy from the past to the present rather than the other way around, as in Luke’s gospel (Luke 3:23-38). The two genealogies do not match, curiously becoming more and more alike the more distant the ancestor. There is no explanation for the disparities other than to say that there was more than one attempt in the early church to give Jesus an impressive pedigree. The formula of 14/14/14 also is a bit off, and the actual number of generations listed from Abraham to David to Jesus is 14/14/13. We don’t know why, other than the possibility that a name got dropped accidentally as the list was copied. In general we can say that the first section covers the period from the call of Abraham to the establishment of the kingdom of David; the second section covers the period of the Judean monarchy, and the third section covers the period from the Babylonian exile to the birth of Jesus. Of special note is the mention of four women in the otherwise patriarchal record of lineage.

             18-25: Matthew skips the angel’s annunciation to Mary and lays out the resulting situation: Mary is found to be pregnant and her betrothed, Joseph, to whom she legally belongs in the betrothal, decides on the lesser of the two solutions – divorce or death. An angel appears to him, however, and straightens him out on the matter: Mary has not violated the terms of their betrothal; God has. Joseph, rather judiciously in my opinion, decides to go ahead with the marriage. Matthew is careful to preserve her virgin status, insisting that there were no sexual relations between them until after the child was born, making sure we understand that neither Joseph nor any other man is the father of the child.

 

Matthew 2 (day 931) 19 July 2012

             1-6: We can only imagine who the “wise men” were. Tradition holds that there were three of them, but the text only confirms that they brought three kinds of gifts to the baby Jesus (verse 11). That they were Persian astrologers seems the most likely guess, but their role in Matthew is to provide the background for Herod’s reaction and subsequent attempt to kill the child. Matthew is presenting a cosmic conflict between God and powers of this world, or simply between good and evil. He also uses the opportunity to quote from the scriptures (Micah 5:2).

             7-12: Herod, who is evil’s poster child, represents all the opposition to God’s will in this world. He is devious, deceitful, egotistical, paranoid and murderous. The wise men, representing good, are determined, generous, open and honest. They are not, however, wise. Their avoidance of Herod’s trap is a result of God intervening in the story through a dream. Dreams were thought to be windows into the world beyond this world.

             13-15: Again God uses a dream to direct the course of events and escape Herod’s evil plans. Matthew has Joseph taking his family to Egypt, a sojourn not mentioned in the other gospels, but in Matthew’s view a necessary journey to fulfill another prophecy that he believes relates to the career of the coming Messiah (Hosea 11:1).

             16-18: Herod does his damnedest to get rid of what he can only see as the competition. Although no other record of this awful event is known, it does fit what we know of Herod’s mental state during his last years. He died, we think, in 4 B.C., which means Jesus would actually have been born around 7 B.C. He suffered from paranoia and depression, and murdered some of his own children as well as his wife Miriamne. In addition, Matthew’s information about the “slaughter of the innocents” gives him another opportunity to authenticate Jesus’ claim to messiahship from the prophetic record (Jeremiah 31:15).

             19-23: Once again God steps in to direct the action through the medium of dreams. Joseph takes his family to Nazareth, giving Matthew another connection with the ancient prophesies, although this one (“He will be called a Nazorean”) cannot be found in what we know as the Old Testament, at least not as a direct quote. However, the Hebrew word for “branch,” one of the words thought to refer to the coming Messiah, is ”nezer,” which Matthew may have thought was a reference to Nazareth. Also, other sources mention Nazareth as Jesus’ hometown, (Luke 1:26, for example), so Matthew has to get him there, and his format calls for the mention of a prophecy (as at 2:6, 15, and 18). Archelaus, one of Herod’s sons, began his rule of Judea in 4 B.C.

 

Matthew 3 (day 932) 20 July 2012

             1-6: Matthew continues to accumulate the prophetic witness which points to Jesus as the Messiah, but now he has left Jesus as a toddler with Mary and Joseph in Nazareth and moved ahead some thirty years to the Judean wilderness. The introduction of John the Baptizer is abrupt. The description of him reminds us of Elijah, who is described at 2 Kings 1:8 as“A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.” For Matthew, of course, John’s appearance is a fulfillment of prophecy (Isaiah 62:10, Malachi 3:1).

             7-10: Matthew continues to set the stage for Jesus’ ministry with the introduction of Pharisees and Sadducees. Jesus will have a number of conflicts with the Pharisees, the legal rigorists of the day (see 5:20, 9:11, 9:34, 12:14, 16:6, 27:62 for a few examples), and with the Sadducees, the more liberal upper-class Jewish sect (see 16:1, 16:6, 22:23). John’s point here is that what you do is more important than who you are. We would say, “Handsome is as handsome does.”

             11-12: John has instituted a revival movement, baptizing people in the river Jordan as a sign of their commitment to live in accordance with the will of God. Matthew is clear that John’s role is simply to herald the coming of the Messiah, and has John announcing Jesus’ arrival in self-deprecating oratory.

             13-17: Jesus comes to be baptized, and it is immediately clear that this presents a bit of a problem. Matthew carefully points out that Jesus, who did not need to repent, was simply authenticating John’s message about the importance of doing good and John, initially reluctant, performs the baptism. The appearance of the dove adds God’s approval and reminds us of Noah’s dove which returned to the ark with evidence of nearby land. It is Matthew’s way of interpreting the ministry of Jesus as the beginning of a new world.

 

Matthew 4 (day 933) 21 July 2012

             1-4: But, new worlds don’t just happen. There are preparations to be made. All three synoptic gospels report the temptation of Jesus. In Mark it is only mentioned in passing, (Mark 1:12-13), but in Matthew and Luke (Luke 4:1-13) there are exchanges between Jesus and the devil (“Satan” in Mark). The three temptations are presented in a different order in Luke. They are usually interpreted by commentators as Jesus wrestling with questions of how his messiahship will be manifested. The first temptation is to bypass creation’s way of providing food. Jesus insists that it is not the food that counts, but the way one lives one’s life. The Messiah will not accept special consideration.

             5-7: The second temptation is to make a demonstration of his special status by making a public display of angelic powers. Jesus insists that to do so would be testing God, and he has no need to test God. The Messiah must trust in God the way everyone else should.

             8-11: Notice that the first two temptations were prefaced with the challenge, “If you are the Son of God.” Now the devil unabashedly offers all the power and wealth in the world if Jesus will worship him. Jesus points out that only God is worthy of worship. The devil leaves him, and angels come to succor him. Thus, Matthew has made it clear that Jesus from the very beginning of his ministry did not seek wealth or power or acclaim.

             12-17: John’s arrest prompts Jesus to move to Capernaum on the northern coast of the Sea of Galilee. Matthew, of course, sees this move as the fulfillment of a prophecy (Isaiah 9:2). He begins to proclaim the message of John the Baptizer; “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (3:2).

             18-22: Jesus calls his first followers (they are not called disciples here), a pair of brothers – Peter and Andrew, James and John. It is not necessary for us to imagine these men had never seen or heard of Jesus before. The more plausible scenario is that they knew him and were waiting on him to announce his first mission to the surrounding territory. I can imagine the phrase “fishers of men” was one they had heard Jesus use to describe the work he was preparing to launch.

             23-25: And so off they go on their first mission together. He teaches, as a rabbi would be expected to do, proclaims the good news of the kingdom of God (the “good news” at this point is simply that the kingdom is near), and cures the sick. Crowds gather from near and far. I would have gone, too.

 

Matthew 5 (day 934) 22 July 2012

             1-12: The Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7) has often been called the Christian Manifesto, and the Beatitudesthe platform on which Jesus’ ministry is based: the entire focus is on the outcasts in this world – the poor, the bereft, the powerless, the seekers, the peacemakers and the persecuted.

             13-16: Jesus empowers the crowd by telling them that they are the world’s salt (which was used primarily as a preservative) and light. It is their responsibility not only to preserve that which is good and spiritually nourishing, but to hold it up in their own lives so that others can see it clearly displayed.

             17-20: The law and the prophets are the resources for living a righteous life. Jesus makes it clear that he is not replacing them or setting them aside. The problem is that the leaders who are supposed to be living exemplary lives – the scribes and Pharisees – are failing in their leadership. He is calling the common people to take over the task of showing what righteousness looks like.

             21-26: Jesus begins a series of contrasts between statements that reflect the letter of the law (“You have heard that it was said”) and true righteousness. The law is not to be used for the purpose of condemning others, but rather as a guide for living in right relationship with them. “The council” is a reference to a Sanhedrin, religious courts that oversaw legal matters. Conflicts between two people should be resolved peacefully, without being drawn out in litigation.

             27-30: In the same way, instead of rushing to punish those guilty of adultery, examine the way you yourself look at others. Adultery, after all, begins with a lustful eye.

             31-32: The importance of relationships means being slow to dissolve the marriage covenant. Really, outside of adultery, what is there that can dissolve the sacred union of marriage? Today, perhaps, we might add physical abuse. Anything else?

             33-37: The practice of making sacred vows dates back to the time of Moses. Jesus is saying that, if you live the way you’re supposed to live, such vows are unnecessary.

             38-42: Jesus tells the crowds to treat everyone as a friend regardless of how they treat you. Non-violence is a hallmark of his ministry and his message.

             43-48: Loving the enemy is difficult, but reflects God’s own way of dealing with us; our needs are provided regardless of how good or bad we are. Loving friends and hating enemies is the way of the world; it is not the way of God’s people or of the followers of Jesus.

 

Matthew 6 (day 935) 23 July 2012

             1: Verse 1 introduces this section of the sermon, which covers the spiritual practices of almsgiving, prayer and fasting. In each case, Jesus makes the point that spiritual practices are strictly between God and the practitioner.

             2-4: Almsgiving, or giving to the poor, is the first practice, and emphasizes the individual’s responsibility to the greater community by seeing to it that the poor are not bereft of the bounty that belongs to the whole. By giving to the poor, we are thus helping to assure the health and wellbeing of the entire community.

             5-6: Prayer is the primary way in which the believer can nourish his or her relationship with God. Again, Jesus emphasizes the need to pray in private because to do otherwise begs the question of whether you are really speaking to God or just giving a performance.

             7-15: Jesus introduces a model prayer which at first sight appears to highlight the needs of the individual supplicant for daily bread, forgiveness for sins and protection against evil. However, Jesus then lifts out the connection that each believer has with other believers by insisting that forgiveness is a community activity.

             16-18: Fasting, a spiritual discipline by which the believer voluntarily gives up the sustenance he or she needs daily, is an act of submission to God. Whereas the emphasis on prayer had to do with the good of the community, the emphasis on fasting has to do with the good of the individual. If fasting is done as a private act of submission to God, God will specifically reward the one who is fasting.

             19-24: These verses are a small collection of wisdom sayings that stand alone within the body of the sermon, but are grouped together because they have to do with our attitude toward wealth. Spiritual treasures are more valuable than material treasures (19-21). The things to which your gaze is attracted will have an effect on your spiritual well-being (22-23); in other words, don’t let the pretty glitter of gold make you spiritually blind. God or glitter – you can really only choose one or the other (24).

             25-34: Jesus zeroes in on three things by which the rich separate themselves from the poor; food, drink and clothing. He points out that God is perfectly able to provide for all our needs, so for me to pretend to be better than someone else because I eat rich foods or drink the best wines or wear the snazziest outfits is sheer folly on my part. On the other hand, if I am one of those who seldom have a choice of what to eat, drink or wear (like 99% of Jesus’ hearers), I need to remember that God provides those things and I have no cause to covet what anyone else might have, and no cause to worry. If I am in a community of Jesus’ followers there will never be any need to worry about not having enough. There is more to this paragraph than, “Don’t worry; be happy.”

 

Matthew 7 (day 936) 24 July 2012

             1-5: Verse one is probably the most misused and misapplied verse in the Gospels. It would better be translated “Do not condemn, so that you may not be condemned.” It is not good advice to never judge anyone. How can you yourself know how to behave if you don’t judge a particular behavior you see in others to be bad or good? How can Jesus possibly mean that we should never assess the actions and motives of others when he himself just pronounced judgment on the Pharisees and scribes? The point he is trying to make here is simply that we need to be more vigilant of our own words and deeds than we are of others’.

             6: Remember that the Sermon on the Mount is basically a tutorial in right living. For first century Jews that included ritual practices foreign to modern readers. “What is holy” is a reference to meat that has been offered as a sacrifice to God; there were restrictive rules regarding who could eat it and when. The admonition about “pearls before swine” is more obscure. It is surely metaphorical, but exactly what “pearls” is meant to communicate, or “swine,” is difficult to guess. I take it to mean something like, “Don’t bother sharing pearls of wisdom (about holiness or righteousness) with people who are unholy; they’ll only make fun of it and perhaps even do you harm.”

             7-11: “You can trust God to provide your needs” would be a good summary of these verses. Small loaves of bread resemble stones and some fish resemble snakes in appearance; just so, there will always be people who will try to cheat you, especially in the marketplace. God never deceives or teases in providing for us. Note that verse 11 seems to presume the sinfulness of everyone (except Jesus, for he says “you,” not “we”).

             12: Compare Luke 6:31. Matthew emphasizes “in everything,” making the general rule even more universally applicable.

             13-14: The sermon moves now to general observations that draw a distinction between this world and the coming Kingdom of God. The first distinction is that those who abide by the rules of this world will never find the Kingdom of God.

             15-20: Yet there are some things in this world which point to the next. The fruit-bearing function of trees is an example of the fidelity which will mark the next world. In this world so-called prophets can deceive. Not so in the world to come.

             21-23: In the same vein, in this world people may claim to be followers of Jesus. In God’s kingdom words and deeds must resemble each other.

             24-27: The famous conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount: those who follow the instructions of Jesus will be able to weather all the storms of life. Those who do not will find themselves blown here and there.

             28-29: Finally, Matthew points out that the crowds recognize the difference between what Jesus is telling them and what the scribes have been telling them.

 

Matthew 8 (day 937) 25 July 2012

             1-4: Chapter 8 will present five miracle stories, interrupted by an account of would-be discipleship. The first miracle, which may not be a miracle, has to do with the cleansing of a leper. There is some debate about whether Jesus healed the man of the disease. It may be that the man had been pronounced unclean but his condition proved to be temporary and he sought Jesus to pronounce him clean. If Matthew meant to present it as a miracle of healing the point would simply be that Jesus was possessed of uncommon powers. If Matthew meant it as an incident of ritual cleansing the point would be that this inflicted man believed Jesus had the authority to restore him to a right relationship with God.

             5-13: We are back in Capernaum where Jesus is known to some degree (see 4:13). This appears to be an incident in which Jesus does cure a serious ailment, although we are at a loss to know exactly what illness the unnamed servant (or son) might have had. The main point to this story is that the centurion, a Gentile military official, has enough faith in Jesus to ask him to heal the servant, and Jesus exceeds his expectation by doing so without even seeing the ailing servant.

             14-17: Peter was the first disciple Jesus called (4:18). Jesus heals his mother-in-law of a fever, and that act combined with the healing of the centurion’s son generates enough interest that people began to line up at the door, and Jesus casts out demons and heals diseases. The casting out of demons is first mentioned here. Note that Matthew again cites a prophecy, this time specifying the prophet Isaiah (53:4).

             18-22: The scene changes to the lakeside, where Jesus has given orders (apparently to Peter, Andrew, James and John, who were fishermen) to go to the other side of the lake. He is approached by a scribe who declares that he will follow Jesus anywhere, but is rebuffed. Jesus is not a rabbi who takes on students, but calls those whom he wishes to teach. He chooses who will be his disciples, not the other way around. The second confrontation is with someone who is already a disciple, though otherwise unidentified. This one asks leave to bury his father before they head across the lake. Clearly his father’s death has just occurred. Jesus’ reply is brusque. The call to discipleship is more important than any other responsibility, even the duty of a son to bury his father in a timely manner.

             23-27: Verse 23 Implies that the disciple in verse 21 does indeed “leave the dead to bury their own dead,” and climbs into the boat with the others. At sea a storm blows in and the boat is threatened. Jesus, who has fallen asleep, is awakened and orders the storm to abate, which it does. They are amazed, but they obviously thought he had the power to save them because that’s why they awakened him. Perhaps they thought he would save them by giving the order to turn back.

             28-34: The exact location is unknown, but clearly they are on the Gentile side of the lake. When they beach the boat they are met by two men who are said to be demon-possessed. They, unlike the disciples, recognize Jesus as the Son of God. Their question implies that there will be a time when all the forces of evil will be overthrown, and so their healing represents the breaking in of the Kingdom of God. The demons are cast into a herd of swine and destroyed when the herd plunges headlong into the lake. There is a sense in which the lake represents the waters of chaos present before creation, waters that Jesus has just brought into order. In the new order that which is unholy is destroyed. The Gentile citizens of the area have the opposite response to Jesus’ power. Instead of bringing him others to heal they beg him to leave.

 

Matthew 9 (day 938) 26 July 2012

             1-8: Back in Capernaum Jesus forgives a paralyzed man and challenges the scribes’ reaction by healing the man of his paralysis. The same story in Mark (2:3-12) and Luke (5:17-26) has the man’s porters lowering him through the roof. Matthew, however, tells the story as if it occurred outdoors and Jesus instigated the encounter rather than the sick man’s attendants.

             9-13: This gospel is the only one that tells the story of Jesus calling Matthew the tax collector as a disciple; Mark and Luke only mention his name in their lists of Jesus’ disciples. The gathering at his home with tax collectors in attendance gives rise to another criticism, this time from the Pharisees. Matthew tells the story as a setting for a saying of Jesus: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick,” and another quote from the prophets (Hosea 6:6).

             14-17: A situation is presented that contrasts Jesus with John the Baptizer. John’s disciples fast as a spiritual discipline but Jesus’ disciples do not. It is unlikely that Jesus forbade the practice among his followers, but rather that he simply did not emphasize or require it. Also, his teachings on fasting would have required them to practice that discipline in secret (see 6:16-18), so we cannot say for certain that they did not fast. Jesus again uses the occasion to teach. He tells them that fasting is primarily a serious ritual, and thus has no place in a celebratory setting.

             The bridegroom is a rich metaphor that has almost innumerous interpretations. What does it mean that the disciples of Jesus have been invited to a “wedding?” If Jesus is the bridegroom, who is the bride? Later interpretations assign the church as the bride of Christ, but how would the Pharisees and the disciples have heard Jesus’ statement?

             The cloth patch and the new wine are both images of something new; Jesus is telling them that he is bringing a new thing into being. A cloth patch can’t be made from new cloth because it will shrink. Old wineskins don’t stretch, so new wine that is still fermenting will cause an old skin to crack open. The old forms and structures of their faith cannot “hold” what Jesus is bringing.

             18-26: This story is presented more elaborately in Mark (5:21-43), who tells us that the leader of the synagogue was a man named Jairus. Matthew likes to emphasize the role of faith in the healing stories. He says, “Your faith has made you well,” to the hemorrhagic woman, and the leader of the synagogue expresses confidence that Jesus’ touch will raise his daughter from the dead. (In Mark’s account the little girl dies while Jesus is on the way to heal her.)

             27-31: This story is unique to Matthew, although the restoration of sight is a major theme in the other gospels. It seems that Matthew tells the same story twice in slightly different settings (see 20:30-34) and with a different emphasis. Here, the two blind men receive their sight “according to their faith.” In the later scene two blind men are healed because Jesus is “moved with compassion” – a poignant detail to include considering he is about to enter Jerusalem to face his crucifixion.

             32-34: The next healing story is of a man who is mute. Note the progression of the healing stories: stopping a hemorrhage of blood, raising a little girl from the dead, recovery of sight, the exorcism of a demon accompanied by the recovery of the power to vocalize. Note as well that it isn’t until he gives speech to the maniac that the Pharisees become alarmed.

             35-38: This section of Matthew’s gospel is now concluded and summarized: Jesus travels around Galilee teaching, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every kind of affliction. This is the first time Matthew tells us Jesus was moved with compassion, but will not be the last for Jesus is more compassionate in Matthew than in the other gospels (see also 14:14, 15:32, and 20:34).

 

Matthew 10 (day 939) 27 July 2012

             1-4: Matthew finally gets around to naming the 12 disciples. In the other books the list is given earlier – Mark 3:18-19, Luke 6:14-15, Acts 1:13-14, with some variation in the names.

             5-15: The mission of the twelve is only to Jewish towns and villages. The people of Israel must be the first to hear the good news, and those who are unwilling to hear it will come to an ignominious end. (It is often said that Jesus never judged or condemned anyone, but it is said only by those who are not familiar with the gospels.) Their mission is accompanied by specific instructions as to where to go, what to take, and how to react to their reception, warm or cold.

             16-25: Jesus also gives them a warning about what they might encounter. His description of the kinds of troubles they might face sounds like the kinds of persecutions the early church had to face in the first centuries after his crucifixion and resurrection. The promise in verse 23 is problematic for some commentators because it appears to be a prophecy that did not come to pass. I take it simply to mean that Jesus is promising to back them up if they get into trouble. Verses 24-25 warn them that, just as Jesus has at times been maligned they can expect the same, being his disciples.

             26-33: Jesus tries to allay their anxieties by reminding them that neither the devil nor their earthly enemies have the power to utterly destroy them. Only God can do that, and God holds them to be of great value.

             34-39: Jesus realizes that his message of repentance will not be received well by all, and will in fact cause conflict even within families. Still, his disciples need to understand that the message is more important than their individual lives.

             40-42: Finally, he declares to them that God’s judgment of the people they encounter will be based on how well they receive Jesus’ disciples.

 

Matthew 11 (day 940) 28 July 2012

             1: Jesus will not be idle while his disciples are out there risking their lives; he also will be traveling about preaching the good news.

             2-6: Imprisoned by Herod, John sends some of his disciples to find out if Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. Rather than answer them directly, Jesus simply tells them to go back and tell John what they have seen.

             7-19: When John’s disciples leave, Jesus informs the crowd that John is indeed the “one of whom it is written,” “Elijah who is to come,” a reference to scriptures which hint that the Messiah will be heralded by a return of Elijah (see, for example, Malachi 4:5).

             20-24: These verses flesh out the warning Jesus gave at 10:15, that those towns and villages which reject him or his message will fare even worse than Sodom and Gomorrah.

             25-30: Jesus expresses his gratitude that God has “hidden these things” – that is, the connection between the Day of the Lord and the community’s response to the call to repentance – from the wise and revealed them to infants, meaning the disciples.

             28-30: Sin is the “heavy burden” because of the end to which it brings the sinner; the act of repentance is the “yoke” that Jesus offers to guide them away from the fate to which sin leads.

 

Matthew 12 (day 941) 29 July 2012

             1-8: The conflict with the Pharisees escalates as they charge Jesus’ disciples with the crime of breaking the laws against labor on the Sabbath. It is clearly nit-picking on their part and Jesus responds rather sternly. First, he points out that the actions of David on a particular occasion provide a precedent for bending the rules. Second, he offers an interpretation that the priests by the very act of presenting sacrifices on the Sabbath are breaking the law, but are nevertheless held innocent – a perhaps necessary exception to the rule, for otherwise sacrifices could not be offered on the very day people are free to bring them. But Jesus also makes some statements that would have been seen as scandalous: “Something greater than the temple is here,” and, “the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

             9-14: The story of the man with the “withered” hand – probably a reference to what we would call an arthritic condition or perhaps severe carpal tunnel syndrome that prevented the man from being able to open his hand fully – is a continuation of the conflict with the Pharisees over the Sabbath laws. They are using the laws as a fault-finding device; Jesus sees the laws as a guideline that is nevertheless trumped by the greater ethic of “doing good” which he illustrates with the example of a sheep that falls into a pit on the Sabbath. The Pharisees do not like being instructed, and the conflict has gotten now to the point that they begin to plan against Jesus.

             15-17: Jesus tries to avoid further conflict by leaving that place, but is followed by crowds. In order to de-escalate the rift with the Pharisees he tells the crowds not to advertise his ministrations to them.

             18-21: This is the longest Old Testament quote in the gospel. It comes from Isaiah 42:1-3, and verse 21 is a rather significant rewording of Isaiah 42:4. Matthew is using the Isaiah passage as evidence that Jesus is the Messiah prophesied from of old.

             22-32: The Pharisees, however, persist in their attacks. Jesus heals a man who is thought to be possessed by a demon. The Pharisees interpret the act as proof that he is in league with the ruler of the demonic domain. (Beelzebul in verse 24 is clearly another name for Satan in verse 26, but it is interesting that Jesus uses a different name than the one used by the Pharisees.) Jesus refutes their charge with the quite logical rejoinder that if Satan is participating in thwarting his own plans his authority is compromised and his kingdom will crumble. The statement Jesus makes about “blasphemy against the Spirit” has received a lot of speculation through the years, but in this context it seems simply to be a condemnation of the Pharisees for their refusal to acknowledge God’s hand in his work.

             33-37: Rather than continue to try and avoid the Pharisees, Jesus now turns on them with guns blazing. You can’t say the cure is good but the healer evil, he tells them; either they’re both good, or they’re both evil. He accuses them of being unable to speak well of what he’s doing because they themselves are not capable of doing good things, and labels their accusation a “careless word.”

             38-42: When the Pharisees, now allied with the scribes, demand a sign from him, he scoffs at their request. They are evil; therefore their request is motivated by evil – the logic of verse 26 is maintained throughout this section. Surely, however, they are inflamed even more when Jesus invokes two examples of Gentiles (the people of Nineveh and the Queen of Sheba) being superior to scribes and Pharisees. His ministry, he says, is greater than the stories of Jonah and Solomon.

             43-45: Jesus continues to excoriate the scribes and Pharisees, saying they themselves are like demoniacs whose exorcism doesn’t take.

             46-50: Jesus’ mother and brothers show up. In Matthew’s version, Jesus simply uses their appearance as an opportunity to declare his kinship with all who are faithful to God. The new community he is calling forth – identified later more specifically as the Church – is to be a family.

 

Matthew 13 (day 942) 30 July 2012

             1-9: Matthew now begins a section of parables. The setting is the seaside town of Capernaum where he has lived for some time now. His reputation is growing and curiosity seekers as well as admirers and followers are crowding in. He uses a boat as a pulpit, an ingenious solution to the problem of keeping enough distance so as to be seen and heard by as many as possible. The parable of the sower and the seeds is a fitting preamble, emphasizing that the hearer has some responsibility for the efficaciousness of his teachings.

             10-17: The disciples ask why he uses parables, and (predictably in Matthew) Jesus uses the question as an opportunity to demonstrate how everything that is happening is according to the prophets (in this case, Isaiah 6:9-10).

             18-23: Jesus explains the parable of the sower and the seeds in terms of the opposition his gospel will encounter – the “evil one,” trouble and persecution, the lure of wealth and the “cares of this world.”

             24-30: The parable of the attempted harvest sabotage addresses the opposition the disciples will face in spreading the good news.

             31-32: The parable of the mustard seed illustrates the incredible mysterious power of the good news for developing a nurturing community – in the parable, birds, but by extrapolation the Church.

             33: The parable of the yeast in the flour illustrates the invisible, uplifting present of the Spirit in human affairs.

             34-35: The quotation here is not from one of the prophetic books of the Old Testament, but rather from Psalm 78:2. Nevertheless, Matthew obviously sees it as a prophetic reference to the coming Messiah.

             36-43: At the request of his disciples Jesus explains the parable of the sabotaged harvest. Share the word with everyone, he tells them, and God will do the separating later.

             44-46: More parables that illustrate the nature of the kingdom of God are given. In these two it is clear that the kingdom is worth everything you own.        

             47-50: Everyone will be scooped up by the kingdom, but the wicked will be cast out.

             51-53: The section on parables ends with a rather curious saying. “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven” is almost certainly a reference to the disciples who are now being trained. The old and new treasures would then be a reference to the scriptures of the past (especially the quotes of the prophets) and the new teachings of Jesus. The teachings of Jesus are therefore not intended to replace, but to augment and refine the scriptures.

             54-58: As if to illustrate the parable of the sower, Matthew ends this section with a report of Jesus’ visit to his hometown, where his words fall on rocky soil.

Matthew 14 (day 943) 31 July 2012

             1-12: Matthew tells the story of the execution of John the Baptizer, which lends some insight into the decadent lifestyle of the rich ruling class. But Herod is riddled with guilt and a bit paranoid as well, and when he hears stories about the miracles Jesus is performing he thinks John has come back from the dead. I hope he lost a lot of sleep over it. John’s disciples bring the news to Jesus.

             13-21: Jesus responds by withdrawing alone, realizing that John’s death makes his own situation more precarious. The crowds follow him around the lake, though. Either the disciples came with him in the boat or arrived with the crowds, for they advise him to send the people away to find a meal somewhere. They had brought enough bread and fish for themselves, but probably were reluctant to eat in the midst of thousands of hungry people. Jesus tells them to do exactly what they were likely trying to avoid doing – share what they had with everybody else. When they did, it turned out that everyone had enough to eat, and what was left over was more than what they started with. Many theories have been put forward to explain the miracle, but it seems to me that the main points of the story have to do with Jesus’ obvious care for people and the disciples’ need to learn the same level of compassion.

             22-27: In verse 13 Jesus was said to have gotten into a boat; here he sends the disciples away in the boat, so it is likely that they had come together in the same boat which the disciples now take, leaving Jesus alone on land. They are in the boat all night, struggling in the face of a storm. In the morning they see Jesus walking toward them and they are naturally scared half to death.

             28-33: Peter asks for permission to go to Jesus, jumps out of the boat and immediately begins to sink, but Jesus rescues him, they climb into the boat, and the winds die down. For this miracle the commentaries also offer numerous explanations, but I think one main point of the story is simply that as long as Peter focused on Jesus he was fine but when he focused on his situation he began to sink. Ponder that. The other main point is that the disciples begin to vocalize a conviction that Jesus is not just one of the guys. In the similar storm-on-the-lake story in chapter 8 (8:23-27), they began to ask, “What sort of man is this?” Now they’re ready to say he is the Son of God.

             34-36: Gennesaret was located along the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, a few miles from Capernaum.

 

Matthew 15 (day 944) 1 August 2012

             1-9: Another sparring match with the scribes and Pharisees, again over the behavior of Jesus’ disciples. Again Jesus quotes Isaiah to refute them. Notice that this time his opposition has come all the way from Jerusalem. His fame, and his opposition, is increasing.

             10-20: Jesus now makes the confrontation a public one. He announces to the crowds that one is not defiled by what one eats but rather by what one speaks. The Pharisees and scribes hear him but, of course, do not want to debate him in public and so keep quiet. The disciples need more clarification, however. Jesus roundly condemns the scribes and Pharisees as blind guides, and then explains the saying in verse 11.

             21-28: Jesus now withdraws to the territory north of Galilee where he is confronted by a Canaanite (non-Jewish) woman who begs him to cast out a demon from her daughter. Jesus uncharacteristically turns away from her at first, but finally relents. I wish he had not called her a dog; that would have saved a lot of ink trying to excuse him of such a crass statement. But he called her and her entire race dogs. There it is, in black and white. In this story, however, the woman provides an example to the disciples (and to us) for approaching the Lord: “we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table” (United Methodist Hymnal, page 30, in the “Prayer of Humble Access” portion of the ritual for Holy Communion).

             29-31: It surely was not an easy thing to bring to Jesus on “the mountain” people who were lame, maimed and blind, but that’s what the people did. The crowd’s amazement gives way to praising God. They, too, are beginning to believe that Jesus is more than just a man.

             32-39: Another story of Jesus feeding the crowds, again using the little fare provided by the disciples, again giving thanks, again letting the disciples actually distribute the food to the crowd, again taking up left-overs that amount to more than they started with. Do you think they’ll ever get the point? Share! There’s enough for everyone if we just share!

             Magadan, or Magdala, is a village on the Sea of Galilee a few miles from Gennesaret.

 

Matthew 16 (day 945) 2 August 2012

             1-4: This is the second time Jesus is asked to give a “sign”. On the first occasion it was demanded by the “scribes and Pharisees” (see 12:38); here it is the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Sadducees haven’t been mentioned since 3:7 when some of them came to the Jordan to be baptized by John. The Pharisees and Sadducees are the two primary religious (and political) sects. Their teaming together here is a hint that Jesus’ position is becoming more precarious.

             5-12: Jesus realizes that official opposition to his ministry and his message is growing and gives his disciples a specific warning against the “yeast” of the Pharisees and Sadducees, but they don’t catch the metaphor. They have forgotten to bring bread with them, and think he is warning them about purchasing bread from those two groups. Jesus has to spell it out: Bread is of no importance, since he has demonstrated that he can make much out of little. It is the teachings of those groups that carry the danger.

             13-20: These verses represent the watershed moment in Matthew’s gospel. From this point on the crucifixion will be ever more clearly visible. Safely away from his opposition – Caesarea Philippi is 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee and well away from the influence of Jewish political/religious interests – Jesus wants to know just how far public opinion of him has developed. Peter blurts out the hope all of them have been keeping inside; Jesus is the Messiah. Still, Jesus orders the disciples to keep it a secret.

             21-23: Now that their knowledge of his mission is complete, Jesus begins to prepare them for the inevitable end of his earthly ministry. Peter, so insightful a moment ago, now falls back on his human tendency to see suffering as anything but positive. Jesus makes it clear that Peter is resisting the will of God.

             24-28: Many of the first Christians were persecuted and punished, even put to death. Matthew wants to make certain his readers understand the risk they are taking if they become a follower of Jesus. Someone has said, “The problem with Christianity in America today is that nobody is trying to kill us.”

 

Matthew 17 (day 946) 3 August 2012

             1-8: Peter, James and John are often referred to as the “inner circle” among the disciples, but this is the only incident in Matthew’s gospel that has just the three of them together with Jesus. It is a significant incident, however. The “high mountain” is unidentified. Popular speculation places it at Mt. Tabor, an isolated peak at the eastern end of the Jezreel Valley 11 miles west of the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee. Some early scholars thought it more likely to be Mt. Hermon, the highest peak in the region, for Caesarea Philippi is located at the base of its southern slope. Matthew seems to struggle with the task of describing what is taking place; Peter certainly struggled with the impact of the moment. Following as it does the revelation from Jesus that he would be killed in Jerusalem and raised on the third day, the “transfiguration” seems to be Jesus’ way of assuring them that his death will not be the disaster they fear. If Moses and Elijah are still living, the resurrection is not such a far-fetched idea.

             9-13: Their conversation on the way down the mountain fills in some of the blanks the disciples were worrying over. Jesus assures them that Elijah has come in the person of John, fulfilling one of the pieces of the messianic prophesies.

             14-21: Back in civilization Jesus is immediately confronted with a case of demon-possession. The world hasn’t changed, but Jesus is upset that his disciples were unable to take care of the matter. The reference to a “faithless and perverse” generation has drawn much commentary: Is it a reference to the disciples, or to the crowds, or both? I take it to be aimed at the crowds – the boy wasn’t healed because they wouldn’t accept the ministrations of the disciples of Jesus. On the other hand, the disciples themselves are guilty of having a “little faith.” Matthew (and the early church) believed that God’s power at work in the world depends on the faith of both those who wield it and those for whom it is wielded. Isn’t that still true?

             22-23: This is the second clearly worded statement by Jesus of his impending crucifixion and resurrection. They are distressed because they have little faith.

             24-27: This story is peculiar to Matthew. It is a source of curiosity that Matthew never tells us whether or not Peter actually caught such a fish, and Jesus may have simply been suggesting that they would have to go fishing to earn the money for the tax. Jesus’ reply is interesting for another reason, though: the coin Peter would find is a “stater,” which is worth exactly twice the amount of the tax.

 

Matthew 18 (day 947) 4 August 2012

             1-5: Matthew presents the final journey to Jerusalem as a time of intensive instructions for the disciples. Their question here reflects their lack of understanding about the kingdom of heaven, which I understand to be that invisible spiritual and universal order of things in which Jesus invites us to participate and which will eventually result in a new creation. Lesson 1: The concept of greatness simply doesn’t apply in the kingdom of heaven. (And the church would be more like the kingdom of heaven if people would stop trying to grab authority.) Notice that Jesus refers to believers as “little ones,” as if to emphasize the unimportance of their stature in the world.

             6-7: Lesson 2: The world presents many distractions that draw us away from citizenship in the kingdom of heaven. Don’t add to them.

             8-9: Don’t allow your own physical desires to draw you away from that coveted citizenship, either. Lesson 3: The soundness of the body is of secondary importance to the soundness of the spirit.

             10: In Judaism there was the idea that God appointed angels to oversee nations (see for example Deuteronomy 32:8 and Daniel 10:13-20). This saying of Jesus implies that each believer has a “guardian angel,” and the least of us have guardian angels in direct contact with God. This was an article of faith in many groups of early Christendom. Lesson 4: “Big shots” in the church should never disregard the “little ones.”

             11-14: Many contemporary translations omit verse 11 (“For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.”) because of the lack of manuscript support. If left in it would serve to introduce the parable of the lost sheep in verses 12-14. Lesson 5: God rejoices over every believer, no matter how “small” in the world.

             15-20: A practical guide to conflict resolution is presented here. Lesson 6: Disputes between believers are matters of concern to the whole church.

             21-22: Lesson 7: Within the kingdom of heaven one does not keep track of acts of forgiveness.

             23-35: Lesson 8: God forgives our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Matthew 19 (day 948) 5 August 2012

             1-2: The region of Judea beyond the Jordan is the stretch of territory on the east bank of the Jordan River, a route Jesus likely choseto avoid going through Samaritan territory as well as to avoid unwanted publicity.

             3-9: The tactics of the Pharisees are gradually changing. Their first opposition was in the form of questioning the actions of Jesus and his disciples. Then they began to ask for “signs” from Jesus to authenticate his words and actions. Now they are beginning to seek ways to trap him into saying something they can use against him. The question about divorce is a loaded question: John the Baptizer had been executed for opposing Herod’s divorce and remarriage, even though Herod was technically within the law of Moses (under a rather broad interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1-4). Jesus’ reply puts him squarely at odds with Herod; he seems to be deliberately courting opposition as he nears Jerusalem. Lesson 9: Do not back away from the will of God for the sake of personal safety.

             10-12: If you can’t get divorced, why risk marrying? There is an element of comedy in the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ strict interpretation of the law. Jesus’ reply has to be understood in the context of a Jewish culture that held marriage to be a blessing. However, there may be some within the community of faith who eschew marriage for the sake of serving the cause of the kingdom of heaven. Lesson 10: Marriage is good. Singleness is good. Choose one and stick to it.

             13-15: To illustrate the kingdom’s emphasis on being unassuming and childlike Matthew records a scene which involves children. Lessons 1, 4 and 5 are undergirded.

             16-26: Jesus has previously addressed the subject of wealth and how it might impact one’s faithfulness (see 6:24, 13:22). Much has been made over the “camel through the needle’s eye” statement, but it simply boils down to, “you can’t take it with you.” The kingdom of heaven requires its citizens to treat each other properly (verses 18-19). It is hard to love your neighbor as yourself when your neighbor is poor and you are rich. Lesson 11: Therefore there is no place for riches in the kingdom of heaven.

             27-30: Peter, of all people, is flabbergasted. Obviously he has been nursing the idea that rewards were awaiting Jesus’ followers. Jesus explains that the reward his followers can expect is to be given responsibilities in the kingdom of heaven when creation is reborn (“at the renewal of all things”).Lesson 12: In the kingdom of heaven faithfulness trumps success.

Matthew 20 (day 949) 6 August 2012

             1-16: The parable of the laborers in the vineyard, in which the latecomers are paid the same as the early arrivers, is told for the purpose of illustrating 19:27-30, and has to be interpreted in that light. Lesson 13: In the kingdom of heaven everyone’s contribution is valued equally.

             17-19: This is the third time Jesus announces his coming crucifixion and resurrection (see 16:21-23 and 17:22-23), but this time there is no immediate reaction from the disciples.

             20-28: But there is a delayed reaction. Jesus told them that they would occupy thrones in the coming kingdom (19:28), so James’ and John’s mother asks Jesus to elevate her sons to exalted positions, a perfectly natural thing for a mother to do, no? Jesus tells her that she doesn’t understand the nature of the kingdom, for it has been planned by God from the beginning and God has already made those decisions. The other disciples are indignant, but Jesus reminds them that notions of superiority are all wrong when it comes to the kingdom of heaven. Lesson 14: Giving oneself for others is the highest honor to be had in the coming kingdom.

             29-34: It has been a while since Jesus has healed anyone (17:14-21). The road they are taking to Jerusalem leads through Jericho, and there two blind men clamor for his attention. Jesus is “moved with compassion” – in Matthew Jesus is often motivated by compassion, more than in the other three gospels combined (see also 9:36, 14:14 and 15:32) – and heals them on the spot. Read this story in light of Lesson 14. The section on teaching his disciples comes now to an end. We are about to enter Jerusalem where his teachings will be presented to the people. The final lessons for his disciples are in chapters 24 and 25.

 

Matthew 21 (day 950) 7 August 2012

             1-11: Jesus has arranged for a donkey to be brought to him for riding into the city. Again, Matthew finds a prophetic precedent, this time in Zechariah (9:9). We can assume also that his welcome into the city is arranged ahead of time as well. The crowds’ acclamation of Jesus as “the prophet from Nazareth” is the first time Jesus himself is called a prophet.

             12-13: The incident of the “cleansing of the temple” is attested by all the gospels (Mark 11:15, Luke 19:45 and John 2:16). Matthew has Jesus quoting the prophets, this time Jeremiah 7:11.

             14-17: Once again the children play an important role in Jesus’ teachings. The chief priests and scribes take up the accusing questioning style used by the Pharisees earlier in the gospel. From their point of view Jesus is responsible for the unlawful behavior of all his followers and fans. Jesus again quotes scripture, this time a loose application of Psalm 8:2.

             18-22: The incident of Jesus cursing the fig tree is a bit troubling (though not as troubling as the version of the story at Mark 11:12-14) because it appears that Jesus is taking out his frustration on an innocent tree. Commentators through the centuries, though, have derived many lessons from it; “always be fruitful” and the like. I see two things of note: First, Jesus is more and more impatient as he goes inexorably toward the cross – witness his reaction to the disciples’ inability to cure the epileptic boy when he returned from the Mount of Transfiguration (17:17), and his physical removal of the moneychangers from the temple (21:12). Second, the withered fig tree is a demonstration of the power of faith, though no one but Jesus has ever exhibited enough faith to wither a fig tree on the spot.

             23-27: This is the first time Jesus’ opposition has been identified specifically as the chief priests and elders, although he had told the disciples earlier that the elders and chief priests and scribes would be responsible for his death (16:21). This is significant because the elders represent another layer of Jewish officialdom. He is really beginning to play with fire now.

             28-32: The parable of the two sons is directed at those same chief priests and elders. Notice that he is now baiting them with leading questions in much the same way as they had attempted to bait him earlier. The bottom line of this parable is that prostitutes and tax collectors are a better class of people than chief priests and elders. You can bet they aren’t going to take this lying down.

             33-44: Nevertheless, Jesus presses them further. The parable of the wicked tenants is a pointed accusation of the chief priests and elders, and again we see Jesus leading them into his lair. He asks them what should be done to the wicked tenants, they reply with their typical legalistic fervor, and he turns the tables on them by identifying them with the wicked tenants! Psalm 118:22 is the source for the quote in verse 42.

             45-46: Jesus’ opposition is becoming better and better organized.

 

Matthew 22 (day 951) 8 August 2012

             1-14: The parable of the wedding feast is also told for the benefit of the chief priests, and now to the Pharisees as well. Like the two stories before it, this one ends with a statement of judgment; but in this parable the judgment is two-tiered – first against those who were called, then against one of those who came. Here is an allegorical interpretation: The banquet is the kingdom of heaven. The first people called to it are the Jews, and the “slaves” who are sent to invite them are the Old Testament prophets. They refuse to come, that is, the Jews refused to listen to the prophets. So, in verse 4, other slaves are sent (there is an emphasis on the fact that these are not the same slaves from verse 3). These slaves represent the disciples and followers of Jesus. They are treated by the Jews much worse even than the prophets had been treated. The burning of the city in verse 7 could be an allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem following a rebellion against Rome in 64 A.D.

             Notice that in verse 8 it seems to be the same group of slaves as in verse 4; that is, Christian disciples. This time they are sent to the Gentiles, who respond to the invitation and come to the banquet, which now represents the church. The attendee improperly dressed is perhaps a reference to the early church practice of having new converts don new robes to symbolize their new birth.

             15-22: Now the Pharisees in particular come to challenge Jesus. His response about paying taxes to Caesar is ingenious, and they withdraw.

             23-33: It’s the Sadducees’ turn. They have a question designed to prove the silliness of the idea of the resurrection. Jesus replies that in the resurrection there is no marriage. The reasoning probably is that since the resurrected will live forever there will be no need for procreation and therefore the formality of marriage is not needed. This line of argument catches them off guard, and Jesus parries with a question of his own, a clever tactic on his part. Since God refers to those who died centuries before in the present tense, resurrection must therefore certainly be part of God’s plan.

             34-40: The Pharisees return en masse with a more subtle approach. This time Jesus is asked an honest question, although there is surely some subversive element to it that can’t be seen on the surface. Jesus responds as a good rabbi would have responded.

             41-46: Before the Pharisees can press any kind of an argument, though, Jesus “tests” them. “Whose son is the Messiah” is a seeming innocent enough question, since every Jew surely knew the Messiah was expected to come from David’s line. The quote in verse 44 is from Psalm 110:1, one of the “psalms of David.” “The LORD (God) says to my Lord (the Messiah), sit at …” If that was written by David, and the Messiah is to be a son of David, how can David refer to him as “my Lord?” They are stopped by the logic, and stop asking him questions to test him.

 

Matthew 23 (day 952) 9 August 2012

             1-12: The Pharisees are still standing there, however. Jesus addresses the words in this chapter to the crowds and to his disciples. It is obvious that he wants the Pharisees to overhear what he has to say about them. They flaunt their religious devotion, he says, but it is all an outward show. Jesus tells his disciples that they are not to be like that, but are to live in humility and in service to one another.

             13-15: Jesus unleashes a scathing criticism of the scribes and Pharisees. Not only are they turning others away from his teachings (which lead to the kingdom of heaven), but they refuse to listen themselves.

             16-22: Their values are skewed.

             23-24: They nit-pick and miss the important things.

             25-28: They think the outer appearance counts for more than the inward character.

             29-36: Jesus continues to lash out against the Pharisees, pointing out that they convict themselves as the descendants of those who killed the prophets. The reference in verse 35 to Zechariah is a story found at 2 Chronicles 24:20-22.

             37-39: The illustration of the hen that protects its chicks under its wings is a lovely metaphor of the care God gives his people. Jesus’ complaint is now extended to the entire city, not just to the Pharisees and scribes. He has already entered the city to the acclamation of the crowds (see 21:9), but here Matthew likely intends that Jesus is referring to the Parousia, the “second coming.”

 

Matthew 24 (day 953) 10 August 2012

             1-2: Chapters 24 and 25 comprise a new section of the gospel in which Jesus presents to his disciples teachings about God’s plans for things to come. His confrontations with the Pharisees, Sadducees, chief priests and elders are finished, and he leaves the temple area with his disciples to retreat to the Mount of Olives near the little village of Bethany where we think they are being housed during the Passover. The disciples marvel at the temple buildings, which truly are architectural wonders, and Jesus tells them rather abruptly that these magnificent structures will be torn down.

             3-8: They are surprised, of course, and ask when such a thing might happen. Jesus launches on a lengthy discourse about the things that will come after the crucifixion, a subject in which Matthew’s readers would have been intensely interested. He tells them that false Messiahs will come and go, and there will be wars and other tragedies as there always have been. They are not to jump to conclusions about these things.

             9-14: The things Jesus talks about here are certainly the kinds of trials and tribulations with which the early church had to struggle. He encourages them to keep the faith through it all, for ultimately the gospel will bear fruit.

             15-28: The phrase “desolating sacrilege” does not occur in Daniel, but the idea is there (see Daniel 9:27). The phrase is in the apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees (1:54). There it is a reference to the desecration of the temple in 167 B.C. when Antiochus IV Epiphanes filled the temple with images of pagan gods. Jesus is clearly referring to a future event, however, that some commentators identify as the sacking and destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70 A.D. Verses 27 and 28, however, indicate that Jesus did not intend to pin down a specific date.

             29-31: The imagery of these verses is the language of apocalyptic literature and is not intended to be a concrete description of actual future events. It is simply a way of saying that the changes to come are cosmic in scope.

             32-35: These verses make the issue more confusing, but that is the nature of apocalyptic literature: something extraordinary is going to happen that cannot be described in a straightforward manner. The signs Jesus has mentioned – earthquakes, wars, etc. – are things that happen in every generation. However long it takes, even to the end of the world, his words will still hold.

             36-44: Even so, it is necessary to be aware of what is happening in the world and to realize that all the suffering poured out on the community of Jesus’ followers points toward the fulfillment of his promises.

             45-51: Leaders in the Christian community are charged in particular to be faithful no matter how long it takes.

 

Matthew 25 (day 954) 11 August 2012

             1-13: In typical Matthew fashion Jesus summarizes his teachings with parables. The parable of the ten bridesmaids is a transparent story in which Jesus himself is obviously the bridegroom and the church he will come to claim is the bride. Keep the faith and don’t relax in your diligence.

             14-30: The parable of the talents emphasizes the necessity of risking one’s assets for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.

             31-46: Jesus finishes his teachings with yet another parable to emphasize the importance of reaching out to and serving the people who are most looked down on by society.

 

Matthew 26 (day 955) 12 August 2012

             1-2: This is the fourth time Jesus has told his disciples that he will be crucified (see 16:21, 17:22-23, and 20:19), but this time he does not mention his resurrection.

             3-5: The chief priests and elders have a meeting to plan the assassination of Jesus. This is probably the Jerusalem Sanhedrin. The Pharisees have considered killing Jesus before (12:14), but now it has become official policy.

             6-13: Mark reports this story (Mark 14:3-9), but Luke does not, recording instead a similar but earlier incident in Galilee in which a woman “who was a sinner” anoints Jesus’ feet. In Matthew and Mark the anointing is clearly part of the passion narrative in which all the related events lead to the cross. In Matthew’s account there are no aspersions cast on her character, and we have to wonder if the woman’s actions were prearranged by Jesus as a vivid demonstration of what he has been telling them, that he will be put to death. For the second time there is no mention of his being raised on the third day. There is another underlying current running through the story, for anointing the head was an act related to the coronation of a king.

             14-16: The chief priests and elders have been looking for an opportunity. Judas provides it. John tells us that Judas was the keeper of the purse for the disciples (John 13:29). The placement of the story of his betrayal immediately following the anointing at Bethany is curious, as though there was something about that incident that persuaded Judas to act. Many have speculated that he was motivated by Jesus continuing to emphasize his impending death, and began to assume that Jesus wanted him to play a role in making that happen. Others say the “waste” of the ointment turned him. No one can say for certain why Judas did what he did; strange forces are at work here.

             17-19: Several incidents hint that Jesus has made some advance plans for his last trip to Jerusalem; the donkey on which he rode into the city (21:2-3), the crowds that heralded his arrival (21:8-11), the anointing at Bethany, and now the pre-arranged location for the Passover meal.

             20-25: The account of the “Last Supper” is reported in each gospel (Mark 14:12-25, Luke 22:14-38, and John 13:1-17:25). Matthew and Mark are very much alike; Luke and John have additional material to add. When Jesus announces that one of them will betray him, eleven of the disciples react, saying, “Surely not I, Lord!” Judas says, “Surely not I, Rabbi.”

             26-30: The institution of the sacrament of communion, the principal ritual of the Christian religion, is recorded in 4 short verses. It is the final lesson Jesus gives his disciples before his crucifixion.

             31-35: On the Mount of Olives Jesus tells them they will desert him. He quotes Zechariah 13:7. He tells them he will go to Galilee after he is raised. Peter, ever impetuous, doesn’t hear that part, but objects to the very idea that he might betray Jesus. Jesus tells him exactly what will happen, but he still denies it is possible and is echoed by all the rest of them. Judas is missing. He’ll arrive at verse 47.

             36-46: On the Mount of Olives they enter Gethsemane, an olive arbor. Jesus is separated from the others in stages, finally coming to a place by himself where his distress is expressed more deeply than anywhere else in the gospel. He returns to Peter, James and John, finds them asleep, then goes back to pray a second time. He returns to them, finds them asleep, then goes back a third time. Notice how the number three crops up in Matthew’s narrative: Peter is to betray him three times, three of them accompany him to a place of prayer in the garden, he leaves them to pray alone three times, Peter will deny him three times, the rooster will crow three times, Jesus will be at the mercy of three sets of authorities, he will be crucified in a group of three, and on the third day he will rise.

             47-56: The scene in Gethsemane is confused. It is dark, things are happening quickly, someone starts a brief skirmish that results in the loss of an ear, and toward the end of the scene “the crowds” are suddenly present. In all of this the most telling point to me is the presence of the high priest’s servant.

             57-68: Jesus is taken to the house of Caiaphas the high priest and a “trial” ensues. It is another confusing scene. The trial is conducted at night. It is conducted by an unruly group of council members who solicit obviously invented evidence and who treat the accused disreputably, slapping him and spitting on him and taunting him.

             69-75: Outside, Peter tries to observe incognito, but is fingered by a pair of servant girls and some bystanders and proceeds to deny three times that he knows Jesus. The rooster crows; morning has arrived. Peter is devastated by his own cowardice.

 

Matthew 27 (day 956) 13 August 2012

             1-2: The council, perhaps wanting a little distance from Jesus’ execution, remands Jesus to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea.

             3-10: Judas’ motivation is perhaps revealed in these verses, for he recognizes that he has betrayed “innocent blood.” He returns the money to the chief priests and elders. When they refuse to take it back he throws it on the floor (thus re-enacting Zechariah 11:12-13), then goes out and hangs himself. They use the money to buy land for a cemetery (a different account of his suicide is given at Acts 1:18-19).

             11-14: Pilate attempts an interrogation, but Jesus refuses to respond to his accusers.

             15-23: Pilate is portrayed in the gospels as being unwilling to execute Jesus. Matthew is the only gospel to report the dream of Pilate’s wife. Pilate offers to free a prisoner (a dubious custom!), thinking they will choose Jesus, but now the infamous brigand Barabbas is introduced and the crowd clamors for his release and cries for Jesus’ crucifixion.

             24-26: Matthew alone records the scene of Pilate washing his hands before the crowd. Barabbas is released. Jesus is whipped and turned over to the Roman cohort in charge of crucifixions.

             27-31: So Jesus finds himself before the third group of accusers, the soldiers who prepare him for execution. Of the three – the council, Pilate and the soldiers – they are the cruelest and their treatment of Jesus is especially brutish.

             32-37: Their inhuman treatment continues to the cross. A visitor to the city for the Passover is forced to carry the cross, Jesus obviously unable to do so. In Matthew’s account, the inscription over his head on the cross is placed there in mockery; in Mark it is an official notice of the crime he has committed (Mark 15:26).

             38-44: Two thieves are hung on either side of him. In Matthew and Mark the mockery to which Jesus was subjected is emphasized throughout, with even the two thieves both joining in; in Luke’s account one of the thieves takes up for Jesus (Luke 23:39-42).

             45-54: Finally Jesus himself succumbs to the mockery and, feeling forsaken even by God, cries out from the cross. Some of the bystanders illustrate a popular belief that the prophet Elijah will have something to do with the advent of the Messiah. This is the only hint in the narrative that anybody thinks Jesus might possibly be the Messiah. In Matthew’s account the only words Jesus speaks from the cross is to quote Psalm 22:1. It is instructive to read that psalm alongside the crucifixion story.

             Matthew, Mark and Luke all report the darkness that fell over the scene: scholars have been unable to pair the description with any known solar eclipse, and we must therefore conclude that the darkness is a way of illustrating the awful gravity of what is happening. They also all report the splitting of the curtain in the temple, a sign that the veil between this world and the next had been torn. Matthew is the only gospel that reports rocks being split and tombs being opened and dead saints being raised.

             55-56: The mention of the presence of the women is perhaps a way of transitioning to the resurrection story in which some of them will discover the empty tomb. We do note, however, the information that these women had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him – a succinct acknowledgment that the twelve disciples were not the only support Jesus had.

             57-61: Matthew is the only gospel writer who depicts Joseph of Arimathea as a rich man who is a disciple of Jesus, or that the tomb in which Jesus is buried was owned by him. Mark says that he was a member of the council (Mark 15:43). Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary,” supposedly Mary the mother of James and Joseph (see verse 56) watch him place the body in tomb. It was said at 13:55 that James and Joseph were brothers of Jesus and we are left to wonder if Matthew means to say that Mary the mother of Jesus was there.

             62-66: The chief priests and Pharisees fear that Jesus’ disciples might have arranged to stage his resurrection. They go to Pilate to ask him to secure the tomb with a guard. He gives them permission to do so, but not with the use of Roman troops; he has washed his hands of the whole affair. They must use the temple guards, though it is surely an ignoble duty for them to have to watch a tomb. I cannot imagine how they would go about sealing the tomb, but that is what Matthew thinks they did.

Matthew 28 (day 957) 14 August 2012

             1-10: The resurrection accounts differ somewhat in the four gospels. Mary Magdalene is the only person mentioned in all four. This is the second earthquake Matthew relates (see also 27:51). In this case he is obviously referring to a local phenomenon, something akin to the shaking of the ground when a train passes. The description of the angel is curiously like Matthew’s description of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (17:2). Only Matthew mentions the presence of guards at the tomb. The appearance of the angel is echoed in Mark, Luke and John (Luke and John each report two angels), but only Matthew and John use the word “angel.” Matthew and Mark both include the instruction for the disciples to get to Galilee to meet Jesus. Only Matthew has Jesus meet the women on their way to tell the disciples what had happened, although John’s account of Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene is quite similar (John 21:14). The differences in the four accounts lends authenticity to the story, for the early Christians would surely have made the four accounts agree with each other unless they were supremely confident that each one was an accurate report of an eye witness. Eye witness accounts of the same event can be remarkably dissimilar.

             11-15: Matthew is the only evangelist who finds the need to explain why some people were claiming that the body of Jesus had been stolen.

             16-20: The mountain mentioned here is not identified, leading many commentators to speculate that it is the same mountain on which Jesus was transfigured. John, however, has Jesus reuniting with the disciples beside the Sea of Galilee (also called the Sea of Tiberius; see John 21:1-14). There is no explanation offered as to why some would doubt, but that is one of those little details that cause scholars to speculate that the appearance of Jesus was somewhat altered by the resurrection experience. Verses 19-20 are called the Great Commission.

 

Malachi 1 (day 926) 14 July 2012

             1: Scholars tend to date Malachi somewhere around 450 B.C., after the exiles have returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple. It is a time when Jerusalem and Judah are part of a relatively minor Persian administrative district; the reference to “governor” rather than “king” lends credence to placing Malachi at around this time in history.

“Malachi” simply means “my messenger,” and there is no way of knowing if this is the prophet’s actual name. Unfortunately this is all the information we have about the author.

             We note that, although Malachi is the last book in the Old Testament in Christian Bibles, in the Jewish scriptures that is not the case; Malachi is nearer the center and is followed by Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and so forth. We should not, therefore, try to read Malachi as though it were a bridge between Old and New Testaments.

             2-5: The prophecy begins with a declaration of God’s love for Jacob (Israel and Judah). The people question God’s love, however. I suppose that is only natural, considering what they’ve gone through for the last 150 years! God’s response is to compare their state with that of Edom. Isaac and Rebekah had twin sons, Esau and Jacob. God chose Jacob as the progenitor of the people he would someday establish as Israel – indeed, he changed Jacob’s name to Israel (Genesis 32:28). Esau was said to have settled in what came to be known as Edom (Genesis 36:1). God’s point here is twofold: First, Edom no longer exists and God will see to it that it will never again recover as a nation, proving that God favors Israel over Edom. Second, the fate of Edom proves that God is more than just a local deity, and that lends even greater significance to God’s having chosen Israel as his people.

             6-14: Next, God accuses the priests of not honoring him as they should. The priests ask for details, and God provides details. They offer inferior animals as sacrifices, he says, and they wouldn’t think of treating their governor like that. They may as well lock the doors of the temple, he says. God is respected in other nations, but not by the priests in Jerusalem. The incense offered to God in other nations is probably a reference to faithful Jews now scattered throughout the Mediterranean region and beyond. In Jerusalem, however, the priests are bored with religion and are doing no more than going through the motions of their sacred duties.

 

Malachi 2 (day 927) 15 July 2012

             1-3: The priests are threatened to straighten up and fly right or else God will curse them and allow them to suffer the worst kind of disrespect.

             4-9: The accusations against the priesthood continue. Early on they were obedient and reverent, and diligent in teaching the people. That was as it should be, but is the case no more.

             10-12: It makes sense to understand verse 11 as the prophet speaking to the priests. We’re all in this together, he says (“all one father”), so why have we not kept the faith? The reference to “the daughter of a foreign god” is to priests who marry foreign women who worship other gods.

             13-16: These verses are curious, and the whole section becomes difficult to understand. Here he seems to be accusing the priests of being unfaithful to their wives, foreign though they may be.

             17: Malachi charges the priests with giving nothing but lip service to their duties. They protest, and he tells them they have not upheld God’s law but have copped out, telling people who are going against God’s law that God loves them all the same. In their perverted understanding of justice God simply pats everybody on the back and says, “There, there, God forgives.” We see that attitude a lot these days as well.

 

Malachi 3 (day 928) 16 July 2012

             1-4: “My messenger” in verse one is the same word that is rendered “Malachi” at the beginning of the book, but it is doubtful that the prophet is referring to himself at this point. Also, “The Lord” in verse 1 is not the proper name of God but rather a word that is usually used for human rulers. The pronouncement is that at some time in the future a messenger will appear who will herald the arrival of a righteous king who will reform the priesthood.

             5-7: With the new reforming king in place God will point out the crimes of those who were supposed to be the shepherds of the people. God will once again invite the people to return to the covenant relationship established with their ancestors, and once again they demur with a question about procedures.

             8-12: God charges them with not offering a full tithe. If they will do that God will bless the land and they will prosper accordingly.

             13-15: God accuses them of discrediting him and dissuading the people from being faithful, thus giving the wicked more opportunity to cheat others.

             16-18: Malachi foresees the day when there will be an accounting of who is faithful and who is not, and the faithful will be rewarded.

 

Malachi 4 (day 929) 17 July 2012

             1-4: These verses basically repeat the prophecy of chapter 3. There, it was said that the king to come will be like a refiner’s fire (3:2); here it is said that day will be “burning like an oven.” The righteous will be rewarded and the wicked put in their proper place (as in 3:18).

             5-6: The coming of Elijah is a new idea. The last time Elijah was mentioned was at 2 Chronicles 21:12. None of the other prophets imagined his reappearance. So, why does Malachi think that Elijah will appear again? Perhaps it is because Elijah did not die but was taken up into heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11), sort of making him available, I suppose. Perhaps it was Elijah’s defeat of the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel that makes him a logical choice to be the one to straighten out the priesthood in days to come. Jesus said that John the Baptizer is the return of Elijah (Matthew 11:14). At Matthew 16:14 it is reported that some of the people think Jesus is the reincarnation of Elijah, and Elijah actually appears with Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:3).

             Elijah will be the one to reconnect the generations of God’s people. Turning the hearts of parents to their children means the parents will be diligent in teaching the children the ways of God. Turning the hearts of children to their parents means the children will be attentive to the teaching.

             And so the prophetic witness of the Old Testament comes to an end. God will see to it that, just as in the past, a redeemer will arise in the future to rescue God’s people and assure God’s continued