One of the practices I tried to do for the first time last year for Lent was to read all of the Gospels. And – full disclosure – last year life got busy, especially being on the job market, and I was unable to finish them all. So, this year I tried again, following this Lenten reading plan. (I’m actually going to copy the plan at the end of this post because I was using a link on a different site that disappeared halfway through Lent.) So, just like last year, I’ve been reading the Gospels during Lent and I’ve almost finished the full reading plan successfully this time.

My motivation in this is to add in the regular reading of the Bible as a form of prayer, a type of lectio divina, to complement my plans for fasting and almsgiving during Lent. It is also because, as a historical theologian, I spend a lot of time reading other people’s interpretations of the biblical text rather than reflecting on it directly myself. Now, of course, as I tell my students when I teach them about biblical interpretation in my introductory classes, the field of biblical studies is a highly specialized field and a foundation for the other fields of theology. Thus, I make no claims to formal biblical scholarship in my reading of the text, but merely aim to gain spiritual nourishment from the text. As Dei Verbum states, “In the sacred books the Father who is in heaven comes lovingly to meet his children, and talks with them. And such is the force and power of the word of God that it can serve the Church as her support and vigor, and the children of the Church as strength for their faith, food for the soul, and a pure and lasting source of spiritual life” (DV §21).

Last year when I started my reading plan, I only really got through the Gospel of Matthew. So, what was interesting to me when reading is what struck me in reading Matthew this year in contrast to last year. This is related to the idea of the actualization of the biblical text in the life of the church, explained by the Pontifical Biblical Commission in The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (Pauline Books & Media, 1993) as involving three steps:

“1. to hear the Word from within one’s own concrete situation; 2. to identify the aspects of the present situation highlighted or put in question by the biblical text; 3. to draw from the fullness of meaning contained in the biblical text those elements capable of advancing the present situation in a way that is productive and consonant with the saving will of God in Christ.”

Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, p. 120

Now, in terms of my personal situation, last year during Lent I was also teaching the course I had designed on Catholic social teaching and social justice in the Catholic tradition and what stood out the most to me were the frequent calls in Matthew’s Gospel for care of the neediest among us.

Everyone immediately thinks in this case of the parable of the Last Judgment, in which Jesus instructs that those who will “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” will do so because “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me” (Matt. 25:34-36). But what I think is most significant about this passage is that it is not just a call for charity and volunteer work. Rather, the parable itself is framed as the judgment of the nations. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Matt. 25:31-32). This parable is very much a call for social justice within our nation and should lead us to reflect on how we as a nation will ultimately be judged for how we care for the poorest and the neediest among us. Especially now, in the context of the coronavirus, we should think about how we as a society are supporting and caring for the poor and needy. And I am, of course, not the only one who has noticed this in the parable. As Jeff Dietrich, of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker House, has written, “Incredible as it may seem, America, along with ‘all the nations of the world,’ will be assembled before the royal throne of the ‘Son of Man,’ and judged on how we as a nation treated the least of our brothers and sisters” (Broken and Shared, 2011).

But what struck me when I read Matthew’s Gospel last year was not just the meaning of this one passage, but how much the idea of social justice permeates the entire text. The sermon on the mount, for example, includes many teachings that relate to social justice. In teaching about retaliation, for example, Jesus teaches:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other to him as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.”

Matt. 5:38-42

This passage could be interpreted as a call to nonviolence, but what struck me in reading it was the latter instructions, about giving to those who ask of you and not turning your back on those who want to borrow. Again, this recalls to me the importance of caring for the poor and needy as those are the most likely to be asking of us as a society and wanting—needing—to borrow in order to survive. Similar is the message that Jesus has for us about focusing on money as “no one can serve two masters” (Matt. 6:24). Ultimately, we need to focus on the good that we do on earth, not how much we earn for ourselves. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Matt. 6:19-21).

There are similar passages about giving to the needy throughout Matthew’s Gospel. The idea of giving water to the thirsty (Matt. 10:42), sacrificing yourself (Matt. 16:24-28), giving all you have to the poor (Matt. 19:16-30), and loving your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:34-40).  Ultimately, doing the will of Jesus as expressed in the Gospel makes us brothers and sisters to Christ (Matt. 12:46-50). When I saw one of my theologian friends in Ireland this past summer, I commented to him about how I had concluded that the Gospel of Matthew is fundamentally about social justice.

This year, interestingly enough, the focus on social justice did not stand out as much to me. Part of that might be because I am not currently teaching my social justice course. Instead what struck me this year most were the warnings against hypocrisy and against the Pharisees. That message is as much if not more prevalent in the Gospel than the social justice message. I read a lot of the Gospel of Matthew while wishing that the church hierarchy would read and meditate on these passages more. I—along with so many other Catholics—have the failures of the sexual abuse scandal in mind, but also a lot of what I have seen on social media (before I decided to fast from that for Lent), especially in leading up to the 2020 election has painted the church leaders in a negative manner. So, it’s not just the utter failure of leadership and care for the most vulnerable in the sexual abuse scandal, but the cozying up with—and even defending—things so completely contrary to Catholic teaching just to get the one possibility of making abortion illegal (but not actually reducing it) in some states.

The warnings Jesus gives to the leadership are frequent. We can begin again here with Matthew 25, the parable of the talents. The master gives talents to his servants, according to ability, and each of them goes out with their talents and makes more. We can substitute people for talents and interpret this parable as speaking to those given responsibility for the faith as aiming to bring in more followers through their teaching. The warning given to the servant who is the only one not to increase what he is given is clear: “For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth” (Matt. 25:29-30).

The previous chapter of the Gospel has a double warning, first against the rise of false prophets, because of whom “the love of many will grown cold” (Matt. 24:12) and then against the wicked servant who is given charge of the household (read: church) by the master and when the master is delayed “begins to beat his fellow servants, and eat and drink with drunkards” (Matt. 24:49). The wicked servant, of course, will be punished and assigned “a place with the hypocrites, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth” (Matt. 24:51). I could go on here as there are significant charges raised against the Pharisees who nullify God’s word for the sake of tradition (Matt. 15:6-9) and are described as the blind leading the blind (Matt. 15:12-14). The Pharisees teach, but do not follow their own teachings, and are focused more on their own honor than caring for others. They are concerned with the legality of teachings, while allowing themselves to spiritually decay inside (Matt. 23:1-36). Jesus also describes himself as more concerned with bringing back those who have gone astray than those who have stayed (Matt. 18:10-14). I could also include here the necessity of sacrificing oneself instead of trying to gain the whole world (Matt. 16:24-28), which I cited as a social justice passage above, and the idea that those who lead must serve others (Matt. 20:25-28). Those who say they will follow Jesus and then do not are critiqued more than those who claim not to follow him but do so (Matt. 21:28-32). I think the message in Matthew 12 is very relevant:

“Either declare the tree good and its fruit is good, or declare the tree rotten and its fruit is rotten, for a tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you say good things when you are evil? For from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks. A good person brings forth good out of a store of goodness, but an evil person brings forth evil out of a store of evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will render an account for every careless word they speak. By your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”

Matt. 12:33-37

Just something to think about.

Anyway, what strikes me about this is that it is a perfect illustration of the importance of historical theology. We can talk about theological ideas, the development of doctrine, and the idea of God as unchanging, but the point is that in spite of all the theoretical aspects of the discussion, it is always human persons writing theological texts. And each individual is writing in a specific time and culture, one that it is an illusion to think they will ever transcend in this life.

Reading the Four Gospels: Lenten Reading Plan

  • Day 1 (Ash Wednesday) – Matthew 1-3
  • Day 2 – Matthew 4-6
  • Day 3 – Matthew 7-9
  • Day 4 – Matthew 10-12
  • Day 5 (Sunday) – Take a Break
  • Day 6 – Matthew 13-14
  • Day 7 – Matthew 15-16
  • Day 8 – Matthew 17-18
  • Day 9 – Matthew 19-20
  • Day 10 – Matthew 21-22
  • Day 11 – Matthew 23-24
  • Day 12 (Sunday) – Take a Break
  • Day 13 – Matthew 25-26
  • Day 14 – Matthew 27-28
  • Day 15 – Mark 1-3
  • Day 16 – Mark 4-6
  • Day 17 – Mark 7-9
  • Day 18 – Mark 10-12
  • Day 19 (Sunday) – Take a Break
  • Day 20 – Mark 13-14
  • Day 21 – Mark 15-16
  • Day 22 – Luke 1-3
  • Day 23 – Luke 4-6
  • Day 24 – Luke 7-9
  • Day 25 – Like 10-12
  • Day 26 (Sunday) – Take a Break
  • Day 27 – Luke 13-14
  • Day 28 – Luke 15-16
  • Day 29 – Luke 17-18
  • Day 30 – Luke 19-20
  • Day 31 – Luke 21-22
  • Day 32 – Luke 23-24
  • Day 33 (Sunday) – Take a Break
  • Day 34 – John 1-2
  • Day 35 – John 3-4
  • Day 36 – John 5-6
  • Day 37 – John 7-8
  • Day 38 – John 9-10
  • Day 39 – John 11-12
  • Day 40 (Palm Sunday) – Take a Break
  • Day 41 – John 13-14
  • Day 42 – John 15-16
  • Day 43 – John 17-18
  • Day 44 – John 19-20
  • Day 45 – John 21
  • Day 46 – 1 Corinthians 15
  • Day 47 (Easter Sunday) – Finished!

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