Psalm 88:7–12; Deuteronomy 31:9–32:9; Luke 10:25–42

Psalm 88:7–12: Our psalmist starkly describes the ultimate darkness—death—and basically blames God’s anger for bringing him to the edge:
You put me in the nethermost Pit,
in darkness, in the depths.
Your wrath lay hard upon me,
and all Your breakers You inflicted. (7,8)

[By “breakers,” I believe he’s describing drowning in a rough sea.] Our poet does not hold back in blaming God for his woes of broken relationships and physical trauma even though he has cried out to God in agony:
You distanced my friends from me,
you made me disgusting to them;
imprisoned, I cannot get out.
My eyes ache from affliction.
I called on You, Lord, every day.
I stretched out to You my palms. (9,10)

Down through the centuries humankind has prayed desperately only to hear nothing in response. These verses are a stark reminder of the depth of agony we can feel when we are terrible straits and it seems that God is not listening to us.  Our psalmist takes up an argument that we’ve seen before in the Psalms: God, who loves creation and above all, humankind, loses the relationship with ones he loves if they are dead, who cannot by definition worship him:
Will You do wonders for the dead?
will the shades arise and acclaim You?
Will Your kindness be told in the grave,
Your faithfulness in perdition?
Will Your wonder be known in the darkness,
Your bounty in the land of oblivion? (11-13)

This is certainly a “go to” psalm in those times when it seems all hope is lost and we cannot find the words of agony and frustration. This psalmist has expressed that emptiness eloquently.

Deuteronomy 31:9–32:9: Moses gives the command that all Israel needs to have his lengthy sermon read at the festival of booths every seventh year. There’s a very practical reason beyond simply refreshing people’s memories: “so that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, as long as you live in the land that you are crossing over the Jordan to possess.” (31:13)

God commands Moses and Joshua to appear before him in the tabernacle. Not content with the repeated commands to worship only God that have consumed much of this book, our authors now have God himself predict that the people will indeed stray from the terms of the Covenant: “Then this people will begin to prostitute themselves to the foreign gods in their midst, the gods of the land into which they are going; they will forsake me, breaking my covenant that I have made with them.” (31:16)

We have a sense that God’s predictive speech is retrospective and is based on experience as our authors describe how Israel fell away from the Covenant and the terrible consequences that arose: “they will become easy prey, and many terrible troubles will come upon them. In that day they will say, ‘Have not these troubles come upon us because our God is not in our midst?’ ” (31:17)

God commissions Joshua as Israel’s new leader with a solemn promise:“the Lord commissioned Joshua son of Nun and said, “Be strong and bold, for you shall bring the Israelites into the land that I promised them; I will be with you.” (31:23)

At this point our authors assert that Moses has written the Pentateuch: “When Moses had finished writing down in a book the words of this law to the very end,  Moses commanded the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, saying, “Take this book of the law and put it beside the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God; let it remain there as a witness against you.” (31: 24-26)

And as one final reminder, God commands Moses to write a song to be taught to the Israelites that pretty much summarizes Israel’s national history and the terms of the Covenant.

For me, this song is a reminder of the perils of forgetting history and ignoring its lessons—which certainly seems to be the case today:
Remember the days of old,
    consider the years long past;
ask your father, and he will inform you;
    your elders, and they will tell you. (32:7)

Luke 10:25–42: In this important reading, we hear Jesus answer the lawyer’s question, “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (25) Jesus, being Jesus, responds with the question, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” (26) The lawyer who answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (27). Jesus responds, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” (28)

But the lawyer, being a lawyer, asks the next and perhaps the most important question of all, “And who is my neighbor?”  (29) Jesus answers the lawyer’s question with a parable. Perhaps after the parable of the prodigal son, the Parable of the Good Samaritan is Jesus’ best known parable—even to the extent that it is well known outside the church.

As is the case of many parables, there’s an unexpected twist. The neighbor is the person that is the object of Jewish hatred: the Samaritan. Jesus includes the detail of the priests and Levites ignoring the injured man in their self-righteousness, doubtless believing they deserved his fate. It is the hated Samaritan who shows mercy.

This is one of those places where we are reminded that human nature has not changed one whit in the last two millennia. We are still cruel in our self-righteousness. The scenes at our southern border are a stark reminder that we are mostly priests and Levites, much happier to pass by scenes of suffering than to stop and administer aid.  And now we have government entities doing the ignoring for us, insulating us from the awful reality of human suffering. What possible goal does ripping children from their parents accomplish? The issue here is not about legality; it is about morality.

Today’s reading concludes with the famous scene of Martha being annoyed at her sister Mary for abandoning household chores to sit at Jesus’ feet. Rather than asking Mary herself, Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary to get to work. In Jesus’ famous reply—“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things” (41)— we see ourselves distracted by endless to-do lists as we rush to the next task, becoming spiritually impoverished.

Today, we live in a society obsessed with getting things done and ignoring opportunities where we can stop and just listen. I know I am guilty myself. I think Jesus is not telling us that we should just go to church and hear about him, but that we should take time to refresh ourselves spiritually, whether it be in nature, or just sitting in silence. As the old cliche goes, a man on his deathbed does not wish he spent more time at the office.

 

Psalm 88:1–6; Deuteronomy 29:22–31:8; Luke 10:17–24

Psalm 88:1–6: This is one of those psalms dedicated to a specific group and person about whom we know nothing, although he may have been a famous personage around the temple, perhaps a choir leader or a poet:
A song, a psalm for the Korahites, for the lead player, on the mahalath, to sing out, a maskil for Heyman the Ezrahite. (1)

In any event, it’s a psalm of supplication. Although our psalmist does not feel God has abandoned him, he nonetheless wants God to hear him as he beseeches God both day and night—which is how I often feel:
Lord, God of my rescue,
by day I cried out,
by night, In Your presence.
May my prayer come before You.
Incline Your ear to my song. (2, 3)

This last line—incline Your ear to my song—suggests that we can pray by singing, which for this musical psalmist was probably the way he felt assured that God would indeed hear him.

Regardless of whether or not he’s praying by singing, there’s little question he is feeling oppressed by life—almost to the point of death:
For I am sated with evils
and my life reached the brink of Sheol. (4)

In fact, in the next two verses he seems almost obsessed by death as he uses virtually every synonym for dying—and that his death is inevitable in the near term:
I was counted among those who go down to the Pit.
I became like a man without strength,
among the dead cast away,
like the slain, those who lie in the grave,
whom You no more recall,
and they are cut off by Your hand. (5, 6)

The most horrible fate he can imagine is to be permanently separated from God, which to observant Jews is what the “Pit” and “Sheol” were all about. The issue is not that he is dead, but that he will never be close to God again.

Deuteronomy 29:22–31:8: The shame brought on by disobedience to God is a major theme of this Moses speech. Imagine, he is telling them, what the effect of their downfall will be on other nations who ask, they and indeed all the nations will wonder, “Why has the Lord done thus to this land? What caused this great display of anger?” (29:24) Even those nations that do not follow God will logically deduce the reason for Israel’s destruction: “They will conclude, “It is because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the God of their ancestors, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt.” (29:25) Moreover, even those nations will understand the nature of Israel’s sin: “They turned and served other gods, worshiping them, gods whom they had not known and whom he had not allotted to them.” (29:26) The sin of apostasy deeply angers God, thus, “The Lord uprooted them from their land in anger, fury, and great wrath, and cast them into another land, as is now the case.” (29:28)

But our authors, masters of psychology that they were, conclude Moses’s seemingly endless disquisition on a positive note—reminding them once again of God’s tremendous promise if they but obey and “return to the Lord your God, and you and your children obey him with all your heart and with all your soul, just as I am commanding you today, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, gathering you again from all the peoples among whom the Lord your God has scattered you.” (30:2) Moreover, God will “again take delight in prospering you, just as he delighted in prospering your ancestors, when you obey the Lord your God by observing his commandments and decrees that are written in this book of the law, because you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” (30:9, 10) 

Moses reminds them that obeying God is not some far off abstraction, but in the here and now—in our hearts: “this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, …Neither is it beyond the sea, … No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” (30:11-14)

For me, that is the key message of Moses’ interminable sermon: God is close to us and following him is not about going to heaven or becoming a missionary overseas. It is all about our quotidian lives: how we follow Jesus on a daily basis. Moses says it well. We have a stark choice in how we live. And Jesus, I think echoing Moses here asks us to “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days.” (30:19b, 20)

And on that note, “Moses had finished speaking all(!) these words to all Israel.” (31:1) and he appoints Joshua as his successor: “Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: “Be strong and bold, for you are the one who will go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their ancestors to give them; and you will put them in possession of it. It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” (31:7,8) Could there be any better, more encouraging words than these at the commissioning of Israel’s next great leader? Or any better words for us?  

Luke 10:17–24: The seventy followers that Jesus sent out to towns and villages return  enthusiastically, telling him, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” (17) Jesus is understandably happy at their success, reminding them that this was not done under their own power, but his: “I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you.” (19) This verse has led some fundamentalists to over-interpret Jesus’ words too literally and believe they can handle poisonous snakes as a form of worship—too often to their great detriment. Unfortunately these folks seem to have ignored Jesus’ statement in the next verse that being able to work miracles is not the point; rather, it is to “rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (20)

The success of the seventy has brought great joy to Jesus, and we encounter one of those Trinitarian moments where Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Father are juxtaposed: “Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” (21) Luke is also reminding us that the power of Jesus is not to be confused with earthly power. Just as Paul points out in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians, Christianity is incomprehensible to the “wise and intelligent”—and that reality is certainly on full display in our own time and culture!

Instead, the power of God and the power of Jesus are revealed to those whom society discounts and ignores: “For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.” (24) And down through history, every time Christianity has been conflated with the “wise and intelligent” and those in power, its effectiveness has stifled. I think this is why even today Christianity flourishes among the poor and downtrodden and the oppressed while it is discounted by the intelligentsia who think they are the ones with deeper insights into social reality—just as we are seeing today in too many mainline denominations who wish to conform to the mores of the predominant culture.

Psalm 87; Deuteronomy 28:58–29:21; Luke 10:1–16

Originally published 7/19/2016. Revised and updated 7/19/2018

Today is Susan’s and my 49th wedding anniversary.

Psalm 87: This psalm celebrates the permanence of the temple at Jerusalem compared to all God’s temporary dwellings that have preceded it:
His foundation on the holy mountains—
The Lord loves the gates of Zion
more than all the dwellings of Jacob.
 (1b, 2)

One begins to suspect this psalm was written by a poet employed by the Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce:
Splendid things are spoken of you,
O town of God.
 (3)

He reenforces his personal pride of being a native-born Jerusalemite by listing the other nations who do not have Jerusalem in their midst:
Look, Philistia and Tyre together with Cush,
—this one was born there.
 (4)

We’ll take “this one” as self-referential as he goes on to make his point about the overall superiority of Jerusalem (called Zion in the psalm) by suggesting that every person in Israel has Jerusalem in his blood:
And of Zion it shall be said:
every man is born in it,
and He, the most High makes it firm-founded.
” (5)

The intent of this verse carries over today at Jewish sedars where the the toast is always,  “Next year in Jerusalem!”

In the next verse, the poet positions God as supreme record keeper, making it clear again that it is better to have been born in Jerusalem than anywhere else:
The Lord inscribes in the record of peoples:
this one was born there.
 (6)

Finally, of Jerusalem, “singers and dancers alike:/ [will say] ‘All my wellsprings are in you.‘” (7) Here, “you” is not God, but Jerusalem itself. I’m sure this celebratory psalm is read enthusiastically today by any Jew who visits Jerusalem—and Christians, too.

Deuteronomy 28:58–29:21: Moses’ warnings of the consequences of disobedience by Israel continue apace. And those consequences are dire: “Although once you were as numerous as the stars in heaven, you shall be left few in number, because you did not obey the Lord your God.” (28:62) The consequences will not only be decline, but dissolution of the nation itself: “The Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other;” (28:64).

Things will be equally ominous at an individual level, “Your life shall hang in doubt before you; night and day you shall be in dread, with no assurance of your life.” (66) And then the final humiliation: the degraded Israelites will attempt to return to slavery but because they have become worthless human beings,”you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer.” (28:68)

The precision of these imprecations once again strongly suggests to me that this book was written centuries afterwards at a time when Israel had indeed been diminished and scattered by Assyria in the north and later by Babylon in the south.

Apparently there is a brief respite from the curses of the previous chapter as Moses once again, “Summoned all Israel.” (29:1) Once again he reviews all that Israel has experienced over the past 40 years, asking the people to consider how close God has been and how God has protected and sustained them: “The clothes on your back have not worn out, and the sandals on your feet have not worn out; you have not eaten bread, and you have not drunk wine or strong drink—so that you may know that I am the Lord your God.” (29:6,7)

Now, following all this, the time has come for Israel to take a formal oath of obedience “to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, sworn by an oath, which the Lord your God is making with you today.” (29:12)

But the oath must be sincere and from the heart; otherwise it is worthless. And woe betide “All who hear the words of this oath and bless themselves, thinking in their hearts, “We are safe even though we go our own stubborn ways.” (29:19) Insincerity inevitably results in disaster: “All the curses written in this book will descend on them, and the Lord will blot out their names from under heaven.” (20)

This of course is a good reminder that grace was not part of the Old Covenant and how grateful I am to be under the terms of New Covenant through Jesus Christ. However, it is also a reminder that we must turn over our entire heart to him. Like ancient Israel we cannot think that Jesus’ grace is some sort of holy insurance policy. We cannot think pridefully, “We are safe even though we go our own stubborn ways.”

Luke 10:1–16: Here we learn that in addition to the “inner circle” of 12 disciples, Jesus has plenty of other dedicated followers. He commissions seventy of them to go out in pairs and do the prep work needed before Jesus arrives at a new town. But it’s an inherently dangerous task since as we learned in yesterday’s reading they will not necessarily be well received: “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” (3)

Interestingly, the emissaries are to go only to one house in the village and announce themselves by saying “‘Peace to this house!’” And if the homeowner responds in kind, that’s where they are to remain. If they are welcomed, “eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” (8, 9)

The other key part of the mission is not to waste time in places where the message is rejected. In fact, Jesus makes it clear that these places where the Kingdom of God is rejected “it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town” (12) when the day of judgement arrives.

The Jewish towns of Chorazin and Bethsaida have apparently already rejected Jesus’ message, as he points out that had he taken his message successfully to the Gentile towns of Tyre and Sidon. Had Jesus’ message been accepted in the Jewish towns, “they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes.” (13) Perhaps most startlingly of all, even Capernaum, Jesus’ headquarters, is also cursed: “will you be exalted to heaven?/ No, you will be brought down to Hades.” (15)

The reason for the curse—apparently a long tradition, tracing its way back to Moses in Deuteronomy(!)—is simple as Jesus lays it out in a clear logic chain: “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” (16) Rejecting the word of Jesus’ missionaries is the same as rejecting Jesus and therefore rejecting God himself.

Luke’s intent here, I think, is to demonstrate how those in his community who want to the news about the Kingdom are to be properly commissioned, and then providing precise instructions on how to carry out their missionary activities. Good order is essential in carrying out the  Great Commission. There is nothing random about bringing the Good News to the world. I think we can argue that Paul and his associates (Silas, Barnabas, etc.) executed these instructions fairly well. Unfortunately, missionaries down through history have not always complied with Jesus’ instructions all that well.

Psalm 86:11–17; Deuteronomy 28:25–57; Luke 9:51–62

Psalm 86:11–17: These verses of supplication do not ask God for escape from some dreadful situation or for God to annihilate the psalmist’s enemies. Rather, he is asking God for knowledge and understanding of God’s ways and God’s truth that he may become a better God-follower and worshipper:
Teach me, O Lord, Your way.
I would walk in Your truth.
Make my heart one to fear Your name.
Let me acclaim You, O Master, my God, with all my heart,

and let me honor Your name forever. (11, 12)

These four lines summarize, I think, the desire of every person who acknowledges that he is not the center of the universe but that God is. We cannot find truth within ourselves. Only God can bring us the real Truth, which for us Christians is certainly the Truth of Jesus Christ.

The reason for the poet’s desire to know God is simple: God is the center, the fount of all that is good in the world, and he has rescued him—and us:
For Your kindness to me is great,
and You saved me from nethermost Sheol. (13)

More specifically, God has saved him from God-hating enemies who would do him harm, both verbally and physically:
O God, the arrogant rose against me,
and a band of the violent sought my life
and did not set You before them. (14)

We come to one of the most famous verses in the Psalms: the realization that it is his mercy and kindness are at the core of God’s being. While God may become angry at us when we stray from the path of righteousness, in the end it is his grace and mercy that abounds:
But You, Master, are a merciful, gracious God,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. (15)

The concluding verses ask for God once again to bring that mercy and grace in a visible way—the grace that he has shown so generously in the past:
Turn to me and grant me grace.
…Show me a sign for good,
that those who hate me may see and be shamed.
For You, Lord, have helped me and consoled me. (16, 17)

We know that God is ever faithful and will indeed answer the psalmist’s cry—ad he will answer ours.

Deuteronomy 28:25–57: Writing in Moses’s voice of dire warnings, our authors do an effective job of describing exactly what happened to Israel and then to Judah because they abandoned God—and God will therefore abandon them: “You shall become an object of horror to all the kingdoms of the earth.” (25)

Having abandoned God all their human efforts will be in vain: “You shall become engaged to a woman, but another man shall lie with her. You shall build a house, but not live in it. You shall plant a vineyard, but not enjoy its fruit.” (30) One has the feeling that the authors have seen personally the horrors of battle and loss in one of the starkest descriptions of the Israel’s destruction by the Assyrians and Judah’s by the Chaldeans that we have yet encountered: “Your sons and daughters shall be given to another people, while you look on;…A people whom you do not know shall eat up the fruit of your ground and of all your labors; you shall be continually abused and crushed, and driven mad by the sight that your eyes shall see.” (32-34)

We can almost hear the sadness and regret of the authors as they write down the simple single reason for Israel’s destruction: “All these curses shall come upon you, pursuing and overtaking you until you are destroyed, because you did not obey the Lord your God, by observing the commandments and the decrees that he commanded you. ” (45)

While our authors place these words in Moses’s mouth as prophesy, the details of who comes to conquer Israel are rather precise: “The Lord will bring a nation from far away, from the end of the earth, to swoop down on you like an eagle, a nation whose language you do not understand, a grim-faced nation showing no respect to the old or favor to the young.” (49, 50)

In the grimmest description of all describing the fate of a nation under siege, there will be outright cannibalism among the starving people: “In the desperate straits to which the enemy siege reduces you, you will eat the fruit of your womb, the flesh of your own sons and daughters whom the Lord your God has given you.” (53)

Even sadder for me is how civilization simply dissolves away in in the description of a starving mother: “She who is the most refined and gentle among you, …will begrudge food to the husband whom she embraces, to her own son, and to her own daughter, begrudging even the afterbirth that comes out from between her thighs, and the children that she bears, because she is eating them in secret for lack of anything else, in the desperate straits to which the enemy siege will reduce you in your towns.” (57)

These lines are too accurate to be fiction. Surely our authors must have witnessed these horrors.

Luke 9:51–62: Luke makes it clear that not everyone will listen to Jesus. Disciples are sent on ahead to prepare the logistics for a large crowd in an unnamed Samaritan village, “but they did not receive him, because [Jesus’] face was set toward Jerusalem.” (53) I take this to be the rejection due to Jesus’ being perceived as yet another Jewish rabbi trying to convert them. Feeling rather bitter at this rejection, James and John, apparently believing they had Jesus’ power, ask Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (54) Jesus rather understandably rebukes them.

Luke provides us a good illustration here of the dangers of fanaticism—the kind of fanaticism we see today in another religion that leads to terrorism. As Christians we are to accept the fact that not everyone will want to follow Jesus. When we are rejected we are to do what Jesus did: move on to another village.

Luke also describes the would-be followers of Jesus. There are also those who are initially enthusiastic but who soon lose interest because Jesus demands their highest priority. One person wants to bury his father first; another wants to say goodbye to his family. Jesus tells them bluntly to either follow him immediately or forget it. In short, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (62)

That is a high bar indeed. And it is a bar that I have not crossed. I may love Jesus but for mist of my life he is not my highest priority. I’m like the man who wants to bury his father or say goodbye first. For me, this passage is among the hardest sayings of Jesus.

Psalm 86:1–10; Deuteronomy 27:11–28:24; Luke 9:37–50

Originally published 7/16/2016. Revised and updated 7/17/2018

Psalm 86:1–10: It has been a while since we encountered a David psalm, and here the poet reveals him not as powerful warrior or king but as humble supplicant:
Incline You ear, Lord, answer me,
for lowly and needy am I. 
(1)

He reminds God of his faithfulness and is seeking rescue from a dire situation:
Guard my life, for I am faithful.
Rescue Your servant who trusts in You
—You my God.
 (2)

The remaining verses in this stanza are a beautiful opening to prayer that at once praises God’s wonderful qualities and the supplicant’s humility:
For You, O Master, a good and forgiving
abounding in kindness to all who call to You.
Hearken, O Lord, to my prayer,
and listen well to the sound of my pleas. (4, 5)

In these days of tragedy piled upon tragedy, the psalmist’s words, spoken in David’s voice, are a respite and a wonderful reminder that despite humankind’s ability to foment evil everywhere, God is still with us. It is in desperate times like these where these words become far greater than a a lovely hymn sung thousands of years ago. It is a cry to God for today—and it is my prayer for today:
When I am straits I call to You,
for You will answer me.
      There is none like You among the gods, O Master
      and nothing like Your acts.

Our world is just as cluttered with small-g gods as David’s. Yet we continue to pin our hopes on their ultimate futility. That we humans can somehow become gods ourselves and create peace through bellicose words and pointless actions. With David we pray for the day when:
All the nations You made
      will come and bow before You, O Master
      and will honor Your name.” (9)

For only in God alone does hope reside:
For You are great and work wonders.
       You alone are God.” (10)

Without God there is only an emptiness into which evil can ascend. Alas, that is what seems to surround us these days.

Deuteronomy 27:11–28:24: Moses’ sermon ends with his call with a dramatic gesture involving all the people—a kind of sealing of the pact between God, who has spoken through Moses, and all the people of Israel. This action will include both blessings and a curses—with an ephasis on curses. The tribes of Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin are to gather on MT. Gerizim for the blessing. The tribes of Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali are to gather on Mount Ebal for the curse. The Levites are to be the pronouncers—obviously a strong voice was a Levitical requirement.

One wonders how the authors decided to split up the tribes in this manner. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin are on the “blessing mountain,” and these are the tribes that ultimately the southern Kingdom of Judah, which is captured by Babylon, which is probably where this book’s authors came from.

What follows is a remarkable litany of curses that recapitulate the key laws and rules that Moses has spoken through this book and has demanded to be written down. The Levites speak the curse or blessing aloud and “All the people shall respond, saying, “Amen!” (27:15) Twelve curses—”Cursed be anyone…”—follow, ranging from pieces of the Decalogue to sexual behavior to one that I think Israel—and we— tend to ignore all too easily: “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.” (27:19)

In a marvelous display of psychological insight, blessings follow the curses. But these blessing will only occur if “you will only obey the Lord your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today.” (28:1). And just to make sure the people get the point, Moses repeats himself in the next verse: “all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the Lord your God:” (28:2). If the people but obey God and the Law, they will prosper: “Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your livestock, both the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock.” (28:4)

One of the blessings appears in many benedictions today: “Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out.” (28:6)

More curses follow, reminding the people of the price of disobeying God: “But if you will not obey the Lord your God by diligently observing all his commandments and decrees,” (28:15) there will be dire consequences: “The Lord will send upon you disaster, panic, and frustration in everything you attempt to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly, on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken me.” (28:20)

It is in this spoken ritual where we see the “deutero” in Deuteronomy. The Covenant between God and Israel is ultimately a simple black and white contract. Obedience to God results in blessing; disobedience results in curses.

So if all these laws have been written down on stones, why go through this spoken ritual? The reason seems clear to me. It is exactly the same reason that oaths are spoken aloud in courtrooms today: Once we have uttered something in public we are bound far more tightly by the spoken word than simply reading something silently. It also why we speak liturgies in worship. Our spoken word is simply more powerful and binding than our thoughts.

Luke 9:37–50: Children appear in Luke more than any other gospel. Here, a boy has been possessed by a demon, although the symptoms—”It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him” (39)—sound more like epilepsy. Jesus heals the boy in the midst of a seizure and “all were astounded at the greatness of God.” (43) What’s interesting here is that people aren’t astounded at Jesus’ healing prowess, but at “the greatness of God.” Which is Luke’s message to all of us: Jesus is acting in his Father’s name. We cannot forget God in the midst of our amazement at Jesus.

Luke interrupts his disquisition on children and returns again to a key underlying theme of his gospel: Jesus will die. This time, he reveals that “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” (44) People, especially the disciples, remain firmly in denial. It’s almost as if Luke’s Jesus is telling everyone that they won’t be able to complain they weren’t warned. It’s easy for us: we know how the story turns out. But it’s far more difficult for the disciples to even contemplate the possibility of losing their charismatic healing leader. And I’m sure they enjoyed basking in Jesus’ reflected glory. And in another example of just how human they were (and how authentic it makes this gospel), the disciples “were afraid to ask him about this saying.” (45) Which is exactly how I behave when I won’t pursue an unpleasant subject because I’m pretty sure I really don’t want to hear the answer.

Immediately following this, Luke returns to Jesus’ attitude toward children, and verses I remember from Sunday School as a young child at Lake Avenue Congregational Church in Pasadena: “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.” (48). But as an adult I cling to my cynicism, afraid to lower my defenses and come to Jesus as a child would, as a tabula rasa to engage fully with him—and above all, to love him as a child does its parents.

Psalm 85:9–14; Deuteronomy 26:1–27:13; Luke 9:28–36

Originally published 7/15/2016. Revised and updated 7/16/2018

Psalm 85:9–14: The the first half of this psalm is a bold imagining of what Israel will become when God responds to the psalmist’s supplications. God speaks and the psalmist listens. And that having heard God speak in peace, the people will respond in turn and repent:
Let me hear what the Lord God would speak
when He speaks peace to His people and to his faithful.
that they turn not back to folly. (9)

God’s voice instills a new confidence that he will return and rescue:
Yes, His rescue is near for those who fear Him,
that His glory dwell in our land.
 (10)

In a display of the psalmist’s literary boldness, he creates one of the more arrestingly beautiful metaphors in the Psalms by personifying the qualities that God brings in his rescue:
Kindness and truth have met,
justice and peace have kissed. 
(11)

It’s hard to imagine a more wonderful and succinct description of what peace on earth might look like.

Our poet extends this metaphor by imagining heaven and earth meeting:
Truth from the earth will spring up,
as justice from the heavens looks down.
 (12)

For me this means that truth is like a plant, springing to life as God’s justice rains down on the earth. The agricultural metaphor continues as we learn that the harvest is far greater than mere wheat or grapes:
The Lord indeed will grant bounty
and our land will grant its yield.
 (13)

Truth and justice are now regnant in the land as God’s return is actuality:
Justice before Him goes,
that He set His footsteps on the way.
 (14)

O, Lord, in this era where truth and justice seem so far away and evil stalks the land, we pray with the psalmist for you to again cause justice and peace to kiss. For we know that there cannot be peace without justice. And humankind lacks the will and the power to bring about justice and peace in a world that ignores you or pretends you don’t exist.

Deuteronomy 26:1–27:13: After our seemingly endless journey through the long rhetorical desert of laws and prohibitions, we arrive at an oasis of joyful offering. Moses instructs the people that when Israel arrives in the Promised Land “you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.” (26:2) This is an offering of gratitude that becomes an occasion of worship.

Moses is asking that in this first fruits worship that Israel remember all that God has done for them since in Egypt in three distinct steps: “we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.” (26:7) And how that along the way, “The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders;” (8) And finally, how God “brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (9) These verses are strikingly parallel to what the psalmist wrote above: that God hears the cries of the oppressed and responds with justice and peace. These verses are perhaps the most beautiful and succinct of Israel’s national story.

Moreover, this first fruits offering has a wonderfully practical purpose by “giving it to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns,” (12)

At long last we come to Moses’ concluding words in what our authors have presented as a long,—very long—sermon. In an acknowledgement of what these priestly authors have accomplished, we hear Moses’ specific command that it all be written down: “You shall write on them all the words of this law when you have crossed over, to enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you.” (27:3) (Which for me also affirms that Moses is not the actual author of the Pentateuch.)

God’s first location in the Promised Land will be atop Mount Ebal, where an altar of unhewn stone is to be built. The stones are to be covered in plaster and “You shall write on the stones all the words of this law very clearly.” (27:8) Just to make sure the people have gotten the message, Moses repeats himself once again: “This very day you have become the people of the Lord your God. Therefore obey the Lord your God, observing his commandments and his statutes that I am commanding you today.” (27:9, 10)

What’s intriguing here is that there is a clear implication that the act of crossing over into what was once Canaan transforms Israel to finally become “become the people of the Lord your God.” To me, this statement suggests that the escape from Egypt and the 40 subsequent years of wandering have represented Israel’s national gestation. Only now that by actually returning to the Promised Land have they passed God’s test and become born into the full-fledged people of God.

Luke 9:28–36: In what I consider one of the more mysterious but revealing events of Jesus’ life, Luke comes to the Transfiguration story. What Peter, John, and James—the same three who later become the titular leaders of the early church—witness is a true theophany. For a moment Jesus seems to strip off his humanity and the three disciples and we see the glory of God as manifested in Jesus Christ: “And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” (29)

Were we writing this story as science fiction, we could say that Jesus and the disciples entered into a different time-space dimension and that they are briefly glimpsing the never-ending conversation that goes on in heaven: “They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” (31) Luke adds the intriguing detail that even though “Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.” (32) I think Luke is reminding us that to witness the glory of God requires us to remain ever alert. This is also a theme Jesus returns to in his disquisition of end times on the Mount of Olives just before he enters Jerusalem for Passover. Being a Christian has much to do with staying awake and alert.

Finally, I think the Transfiguration has a lot to tell us about where heaven is located. As NT Wright and Marcus Borg have independently asserted, heaven is right here—not up above us in outer space somewhere. But it exists in a dimension we cannot ordinarily see in our mortal lives, although thin spaces give us some intriguing clues.

 

Psalm 84:1–8; Deuteronomy 22; Luke 8:40–56

Originally published 7/12/2016. Revised and updated 7/12/2018

Psalm 84:1–8: This beautiful psalm—and a welcome respite from the previous two wishing ill for Israel’s enemies—describes a pilgrim journeying toward the temple at Jerusalem. Even though he is still some distance away, he can already see it in his mind’s eye as he describes his deep longing:
How lovely Your dwellings,
O Lord of armies!
My being longed, even languished,
for the courts of the Lord.
 (2, 3a)

His eager anticipation is suffused with underlying joy:
My heart and my flesh/ sing gladness to the living God. (3b)

He imagines birds that are already present at the temple, even a swallow which has managed to make a nest for itself in the  crevices between its mighty stone blocks (cf. the Western Wall today):
Even the bird has found a home and the swallow a nest for itself
that puts its fledglings by Your altars..
. (4)

Eager to join them, our poet sings,
Happy are those who dwell in Your house,
they will ever praise You
. (5)

Of course it is not the temple itself which beckons our poet ever closer; it is because the temple is where God dwells. We children of the New Covenant can rejoice that God is everywhere wherever we are, not just at a temple in Jerusalem.

True joy arises from fully trusting God:
Happy the folk whose strength is in You,
the highways in their heart
. (6)
The lovely, felicitous phrase—’the highways of the heart,’— evokes a never-ending journey of the love that comes from God. Which is what the Christian life is about: a journey, not a state of being.

This section of the psalm concludes with specific geographic references:
who pass through the Valley of Baca,
they make it into a spring—
yes, the early rain cloaks it with blessings
.” (7a)

Our mind’s eye sees the lush green landscape surrounding the spring, made all the more gorgeous by the rain. But the greater idea here is that like that gentle rain, we are showered with God’s blessings, if we give but a moment’s reflection on our daily journey.

Deuteronomy 22: The chapter begins with a set of miscellaneous laws, some which are crucial to the smooth functioning of society by reducing enmity among neighbors by returning what is theirs and helping them in times of need: “you shall do the same with anything else that your neighbor loses and you find. You may not withhold your help.” (3) These verses—and their transgression—must certainly have been on Jesus’ mind when he told the story of the Good Samaritan.

Another rule, which is now obeyed mostly in the breech in our culture, aimed at preserving an ordered society is “A woman shall not wear a man’s apparel, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whoever does such things is abhorrent to the Lord your God.” (5) Other rules, such as coming on a bird’s nest on the ground and taking only the fledglings and not the mother ring oddly to us. But basic safety measures—”When you build a new house, you shall not make a parapet for your roof; otherwise you might have bloodguilt on your house, if anyone should fall from it.” (8)—make eminent sense. As does the rule “not [to] plow with an ox and a donkey yoked together.” (10) Then, some rules are merely odd such as the prohibition of wearing clothes made of both wool and linen.

Things turn darker when we come to the laws regarding sexual behavior. If a man takes a wife, has sex with her and then dislikes her, he had better not claim she was not a virgin. His words will be put to the test in a bizarre public display by the wife’s parents to demonstrate that she was indeed a virgin. Should his accusation prove false he must give a mere 100 shekels to his father-in-law since “he has slandered a virgin of Israel. ” (19) Moreover, he is prevented from ever divorcing her, which is more likely the factor that would give men pause before laying out a false accusation. On the other hand, and in a dramatic display of gender inequality, if the wife was indeed not a virgin when she comes to her husband, she is to be stoned to death.

Adultery is punishable by death: “ If a man is caught lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman as well as the woman.” (22) Happily, our culture no longer enforces this law. On the other hand, rape remains indefensible today and if a man rapes an engaged woman in the country where no one can hear her cries for help, the male is to be stoned to death, but not the woman because “the engaged woman may have cried for help, but there was no one to rescue her.” (27)

But if a man “meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife.” (28, 29). Once married he may not divorce, which again certainly would have given any sane man pause before attempting to seduce another woman. OF course as we know this injunction was disobeyed even at the highest levels of Israel society, as e.g. David seducing Bathsheba.

While we see most of these rules as being entirely too harsh, there is little question in my mind that strict sexual morality was one of the keys in preserving the identity and coherence of Israel as compared to the corrupt nations that surrounded it.

Luke 8:40–56: Healing piles upon healing as Luke describes alternative means by which Jesus heals people. Jesus returns to Capernaum, where the crowd eagerly awaits his arrival. But before Jesus can begin preaching, “Jairus, a leader of the synagogue…fell at Jesus’ feet and begged him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter, about twelve years old, who was dying.” (41, 42) Jesus agrees and begins walking to Jairus’s house, which couldn’t have been all that far away.

The crowd is surrounding him on all sides when the hemorrhaging woman comes up behind and touches his robe. She is instantly healed. Jesus demands to know who touched him and “When the woman saw that she could not remain hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before him, she declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed.” (47) Not surprisingly, the woman’s first reaction is fear. I’m pretty sure that if Jesus turned around, looked me in the eye and demanded rather accusingly, “Who touched me?” I’d feel exactly as the woman did. But fear vanishes when Jesus speaks, telling her that “your faith has made you well; go in peace.” (48)

Once again, this story is greatly encouraging to Luke’s community, who feared that with Jesus long gone from their physical presence, they would be unable to experience his healing. But the means of healing that Jesus has given the woman is straightforward: faith.

Nevertheless, we are left with the conundrum that many of great faith, notably Paul, seek physical healing but are not healed. My own take is that the woman was healed because she reached out and touched Jesus. And so we too can touch Jesus by touching him by praying and having faith that his healing presence will come upon us. We may not receive the physical healing we desire, but in faith there will always be healing of one kind or another.

Jairus finds out that his daughter has died, and I can imagine he was angry that a mere woman had delayed Jesus and now it was too late. This is reminiscent of Martha’s anger when Jesus delays in coming to the dying Lazarus in John’s gospel. We are frustrated that the healing we’re supposed to be experiencing is impeded by other circumstances or worse, other people. We always want Jesus to act on our behalf right now. But the healing of Jairus’ daughter tells us that with Jesus, our patience is rewarded. We may not be healed right away or when we think healing must occur. But Jesus’ presence is independent of our preferred agenda. He will heal us in his own time and in his own way.

Psalm 83:14–19; Deuteronomy 20:10–21:23; Luke 8:26–39

Originally posted 7/11/2016. Revised and updated 7/11/2018

Psalm 83:14–19: Having described Israel’s enemies in some detail, our poet now turns to God and wishes for their destruction:
O God, make then like the thistledown,
like straw before the wind.
 (14)

This is not the gentle wind of the Holy Spirit, but a metaphor of God as a hurricane-force gale. We cannot interpret these verses as anything other than the poet’s desire for God to wreak utter decimation upon these enemies with wind and fire:
As fire burns down forests
and as flame ignites the mountains,

so shall You pursue them with Your storm
and with Your tempest dismay them
. (15, 16)

But then in interesting twist. The psalmist does not merely wish for their destruction, he wants them to also comprehend that Israel’s God is a God over all humankind, not just Israel. That their punishment will be so immense that they will even turn to God himself in their final hours:
Fill their faces with infamy
that they may seek Your name, O Lord.
 (17)

Notice that here the poet uses Israel’s actual name for God, YHWH, (which is always rendered as “O Lord” in the psalms).

The psalmist wishes that in their very late realization, these enemies come to understand how much disgrace they have brought upon themselves—just moments before they die:
May they be shamed and dismayed forever,
may they be disgraced and may they perish.
 (18).

But also in their final moments, that they come to know God by his name and his consummate power:
And may they know that You, Your name is the Lord.
You alone are most high over all the earth.
 (19)

While we may find the poet’s wish for the destruction of Israel’s enemies to be repugnant, there is the greater theological lesson here: that God is indeed God of all creation, not just Israel. And that he is not just some anonymous force, but God has a name that is above all other names over the entirety of creation.

Deuteronomy 20:10–21:23: The catalog of the law God has given to Israel continues relentlessly. There are rules for warfare, most of them unpleasant: “when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword. You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, livestock, and everything else in the town, all its spoil.” (20:13) But interestingly, when there is a lengthy siege, the Israel army is forbidden from cutting down fruit-bearing trees for the simple reason, that “Are trees in the field human beings that they should come under siege from you?” (19) On the other hand, Moses says, feel free to cut down non fruit-bering trees for building siege works. The reason for this prohibition seems clear: fruit-bearing trees are a potent symbol of God’s creative act and we are not to destroy creation. Of course they are also an important source of food! This passage also certainly gives us insight into why Jesus cursed the barren fig tree.

Should a dead body be found but “it is not known who struck the person down” (21:1), there’s a CSI-like investigation of determining which town the body is closest to. Then the elders of that town are required to bring heifer that has never been yoked to the wadi and break its neck(!) There, “the priests, …shall come forward, …. and by their decision all cases of dispute and assault shall be settled.” (21:5) At that point, “All the elders of that town nearest the body shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi” (21:6) and declare, Our hands did not shed this blood, nor were we witnesses to it. Absolve, O Lord, your people Israel, whom you redeemed; do not let the guilt of innocent blood remain in the midst of your people Israel.” (21:7,8) And now we know where the saying, “washing our hands of it,” came from…

Our authors then take up the very real issue of soldiers wishing to marry beautiful women who are captured from the enemy with God’s approval [“and the Lord your God hands them over to you and you take them captive, ” (10)]. After a month in which the woman, whose head has been shaved, is allowed to mourn her parents, the man is free to have sex with her—but as as husband and wife. But then, “if you are not satisfied with her, you shall let her go free and not sell her for money.” (14) While this is certainly heartless, it also prevents men from assembling harems of captive women.

The culture of that time, including Israel, allowed men to have multiple wives. A hypothetical is posed: “If a man has two wives, one of them loved and the other disliked, and if both the loved and the disliked have borne him sons, the firstborn being the son of the one who is disliked.” (15) Even though he may not like the wife who bore him a son first, that son still receives the inheritance. Rationality must trump emotion or disorder would reign.

Perhaps the most disturbing law is the one regrading rebellious sons. If parental discipline fails, the son may be brought to the elders and judgement rendered. If he is considered to be an irreformable case, “Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death.” (21a). As our authors observe, this probably only has to be done once: “So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.” (21b) We therefore assume that the children of Israel were, on balance, well behaved.

Luke 8:26–39: Jesus’ healing of the Gerasene Demoniac is perhaps the most famous healing in Luke’s gospel because it affected many people, not just the man who was healed. The unnamed man is severely possessed: “For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.” (27) And when Jesus encounters him it is the demons, not the man who speak. Their collective name is Legion and they begin speaking in the plural At this point the man is simply a helpless vessel of evil. As we have seen earlier, the demons recognize Jesus for who he is, the son of God and they are well aware that Jesus has power over the demonic underworld: “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.” (28). WHat’s fascinating here is that the demons know who Jesus is before any human being does. It turns out the man is.

Again, there is the fear of Jesus: “They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.” (31) Which we will take as hell or its suburbs. “The demons spot the swineherd and “the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these.” (32). In one of the more remarkable events of this Gospel, Jesus does not merely cast out these demons; he gives them permission. Which the demons happily obey. The possessed pigs run off the cliff and drown in the Sea of Galilee.

Luke is making sure we understand the extent of Jesus power. On the way over to Gerasene, he demonstrated his power over nature by calming the storm; now we witness the demonstration of Jesus’ power over the principalities and powers.

Meanwhile the pig herders, who’ve just lost their substantial investment, tell everyone what has happened. The people come out to Jesus and “they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” (35a). But their reaction was not joy at seeing their neighbor healed. Rather, “they were afraid.” (35b) This is a pretty natural human reaction to a pretty unnatural event.

Like the Gerasenes, we are uncomfortable in the presence of true power—especially power we cannot comprehend rationally. That’s why we prefer to think the age of miracles has passed. In a world that believes only in natural, explainable events, things we cannot explain we prefer to ignore. Shakespeare deals with this in Act 1 of Hamlet. Horatio, who in the play represents rational man, denies the presence of the ghost, but Hamlet replies, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/ Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Hamlet’s words remain just as true to day and this story in Luke is a stark reminder that not everything is visible to us.

Psalm 83:1–9; Deuteronomy 17:8–18:22; Luke 8:1–15

 Originally published 7/8/2016. Revised and updated 7/9/2018

Psalm 83:1–9: Unlike most psalms of supplication asking for God’s intervention on behalf of the individual, this psalm is one of national supplication praying for the entire nation of Israel. It beseeches God with imperative urgency to speak:
O God, no silence for You!
Do not be quiet, God.
 (2)

God needs to make himself known because these are not just enemies of Israel, but the enemies of God himself. They are threatening the very nation with which God has established his covenant:
For look, Your enemies rage,
and those who hate You lift their heads.
 (3)

In this time of national emergency our psalmist points out to God that evil plans are afoot against his own people who God has promised to protect:
Against Your people they devise cunning counsel
and conspire against Your  protected ones.
 (4)

The enemies threaten nothing less than annihilation of Israel itself:
They have said: “Come let us obliterate them as a nation,
and the name of Israel will no longer be recalled
. (5)

Perhaps even worse is that the enemies have created their own formal covenant with each other as allies in contradistinction to the Covenant between God and Israel:
For they conspired with a single heart,
against You they sealed a pact—
 (6)

To make sure God gets his point that this is no vague generalized threat, our poet lists exactly who the enemies are:
the tents of Edom and Ishmaelites,
Moab and the Hagrites,
Gebal and Ammon and Amalek
Philistia with the dwellers of Tyre.
Assyria, too, has joined the,
has become an arm for the sons of Lot.
 (8,9)

There is something about specifically naming one’s enemies that makes them all the more real and lends credence to their threat. It is also facing up to reality rather than remaining in denial about some vague generalized threat.

This specificity is a lesson for us who live in what appears to be a rapidly deteriorating American culture. As Christians it’s essential to name the threats that surround us and our nation. Unfortunately, it seems that our national enemies are not other nations that threaten us, but ourselves. We are so anxious for individual justice that we have forgotten the necessity of seeking communal justice. Our prayer becomes the psalmist’s prayer: Do not be mute and do not be quiet, God.”

Deuteronomy 17:8–18:22: We can call these portions of Moses’ long sermons the creation of the national constitution of Israel as he establishes the institutions and practices necessary to a coherent and cohesive nation. His instructions regarding the obedience to a judge’s decision of judges is exactly what we apply in jurisprudence today: “You must carry out fully the law that they interpret for you or the ruling that they announce to you; do not turn aside from the decision that they announce to you, either to the right or to the left.” (17:11) In fact, one purpose of judges is to instill fear and respect, so that “All the people will hear and be afraid, and will not act presumptuously again.” (13) That, on the other hand, seems to be less the case today…

We encounter another passage where the authors barely disguise the fact they are putting words into Moses’ mouth as they write several centuries later. The rules and limitations of kingship are written in such detail that it’s clear the authors have experienced personally the consequences of a corrupt king. There is a warning that the king cannot be a foreigner, nor can he acquire so many horses (a stand-in, I presume, for military strength) that he takes on Egypt in war “since the Lord has said to you, “You must never return that way again.” (17:16) Moreover, the king must not seek excess wealth defined as many wives, silver or gold. Rather, “he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the levitical priests.” (17:18) All of this is a dead giveaway that the authors seek to remind their own contemporary king of his responsibilities and limitations.

Chapter 18 again reviews the privileges of Levites and priests. All the first fruits go to the Levites because “the Lord your God has chosen Levi  out of all your tribes, to stand and minister in the name of the Lord, him and his sons for all time.” (18:5) Once again another clear indication that our authors were indeed priests!

The come warnings and prohibitions against child sacrifice, witchcraft, and divination: “No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead.” (18:10, 11) As the text clearly states, “whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord.” (18:12) Happily, these practices are remain generally anathema today, practiced only on the fringes of society.

Finally, and again in something of a non-sequitur, Moses predicts that “God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.” (18:15) Anticipating the reasonable question about how to discern whether or not this person is a true prophet he tells us, “If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken.” (18:22) Of course, as Israel’s history will prove, the people basically ignored prophets such as Jeremiah and Isaiah. And this question of prophetic discernment is still with us today. People who claim to be prophets need to be tested by the criteria outlined here.

Luke 8:1–15: Among the gospel writers it is Luke who gives women both starring (Elizabeth, Anna, Mary) and supporting roles, as he does here. In addition to the disciples, there is “Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others.” (2, 3a) Moreover, it is the women who provide financial support: “who provided for them out of their resources.” (3b) This is a fascinating and all too brief glimpse into a society where we assume all women were basically furniture. Luke is telling us that there were successful women as well. Above all, though, it is also a glimpse into Jesus’s heart since these women range from the formerly demon-possessed like Mary to the wealthy like Joanna. Luke is reminding us that Jesus accepts everyone, male and female, regardless of their station in life.

Jesus then tells the parable of the sower, which befuddles everyone, including the disciples. When he’s alone with the twelve, he tells them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables,” (10a) At first glance he then seems to contradict his entire ministry of bringing good news by asserting, “looking they may not perceive,/ and listening they may not understand.’” (10b) But all Jesus is doing is through the parable and then by this clear statement that not everyone who hears the Gospel will accept it and therefore accept Jesus for who he really is.

Jesus goes on to explain the parable in detail. There are four categories of people:

  • Those who the devil “takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.” (12)
  • Those who are initially enthusiastic but fall away quickly as soon as they encounter personal difficulties. (13)
  • Those who place the things of the world and the pleasures of life in higher priority. (4)
  • Finally, those who, “when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.” (15)

The question is, into what category do I fit? Have I “borne fruit with patient endurance?” Many days I doubt it.

 

 

 

Psalm 82:5–8; Deuteronomy 15:19–17:7; Luke 7:39–50

Originally published 7/7/2016. Revised and updated 7/7/2018

Psalm 82:5–8: In this highly imaginative psalm, our psalmist, writing in God’s voice, continues to address the small-g gods, excoriating them for their failure to administer justice among humans. The willful ignorance of these gods to allow injustice among humans is all-encompassing:
They do not know and do not grasp,
in darkness they walk about.
” (5a)

Apparently God’s plan was to have these small-g gods be God’s judges on the earth and it’s clear that they have failed in every respect. In fact, so great is their failure to see justice carried out that “All the earth’s foundations totter.” (5b)

I take this apocalyptic statement as God’s observation that the perversion of justice threatens not only the foundations of human culture but even of all creation. This line certainly resonates in the 21st century where among a plentitude of injustice we also under the threat of a nuclear weapon being detonated by terrorists.

God now speaks reflectively, realizing his mistake(?!) in selecting these beings to be his judges and administrators of justice:
As for Me, I had thought: you were gods,
and the sons of the Most High were you all.
 (6)

Wow! In the poet’s imagination, these failed gods were God’s own progeny. But now for their failure and corruption, God concludes his speech by telling them they are condemned to the same mortal fate as humanity itself:
Yet indeed like humans you shall die,
and like one of princes, fall
. (7)

For our poet, only one true judge remains and it is essential that God take his rightful place in the created order:
Arise, O God, judge the earth,
for You hold in estate all the nations.
 (8)

This remarkable psalm places blame for injustice on mysterious intermediate beings that failed to insure that humans behaved justly with each other. But can we really blame a group of faceless beings assigned by God to see that men are just? For me that takes the blame away from the perpetrators, who are of course all of us.  I think it’s better to view this psalm as an extremely creative cry to a God who has allowed injustice to become the rule of the day. Alas, this is our same cry three millennia later.

Deuteronomy 15:19–17:7: This section of Moses’ interminable sermon is a catalog of rules under which the Israelites were to live and maintain a coherent civilization, including how to party.

Once again, we read the rule concerning livestock—not surprising considering that Israel was an agrarian society and livestock were the measure of wealth. The firstborn belongs to God. It is offered as a sacrifice and then, “You shall eat it, you together with your household, in the presence of the Lord your God year by year at the place that the Lord will choose.” (15:20) We presume this is our author’s designation for the tabernacle. However, if the firstborn is blemished in any fashion, it simply becomes dinner and “within your towns you may eat it, the unclean and the clean alike, as you would a gazelle or deer.” (15:22)

Then another review of the rules concerning Passover follows. It begins, as we would expect, with the sacrifice of a lamb “at the place that the Lord will choose as a dwelling for his name” (16:2) —again, the euphemism for the tabernacle. Everyone eats unleavened bread for 7 days. There’s some further clarification about this particular sacrifice. It can occur only at the tabernacle: “You are not permitted to offer the passover sacrifice within any of your towns that the Lord your God is giving you.” (16:5)

Then he addresses the festival of weeks, which occurs “seven weeks from the time the sickle is first put to the standing grain.” (16:9) This festival asks (requires?) a “freewill offering in proportion to the blessing that you have received from the Lord your God.” (16:10), which certainly makes it a good verse from which to develop a stewardship sermon. Of course a tithe is by definition proportional to the blessings of the Lord.

Then, a review of the festival of booths (tabernacles), where everyone is [somewhat ironically in my view] required to “Rejoice during your festival, you and your sons and your daughters, your male and female slaves, as well as the Levites, the strangers, the orphans, and the widows resident in your towns.” (16:14) What’s interesting here is that unlike Passover, this is a party everyone—Hebrew and strangers alike—can attend. And as always, God wants to make sure that the widows and orphans are included in the festivities, so they are given particular mention. The clear implication here is that widows, orphans, and foreigners (“strangers”) were routinely excluded from festivities.

Something of a non-sequitur follows as rules for appointing judges and officials are now laid out. Above all else, they “must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.” (16:19) Resonating with the psalm above, the command is crystal clear: “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” (20). As always, the great underlying theme of not only this book, but of the entire OT, directly following the command to worship only God is the quest for justice. Something at which we humans continue to fail.

Our reading concludes with the somber reminder of the consequences of worshipping anything or anyone God himself. If a man or woman is discovered doing “what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, and transgresses his covenant by going to serve other gods and worshiping them…and if it is reported to you or you hear of it, and you make a thorough inquiry” (17:3,4) If the charges are proved true, “you shall stone the man or woman to death.” (17:5) However, the sentence of death for this malfeasance requires the testimony of at least two or three witnesses. We not only see the roots of a legal system that relies on testimony, we also see the beginning of the jury system where there must be agreement of all the people: “The hands of the witnesses shall be the first raised against the person to execute the death penalty, and afterward the hands of all the people.” (17:5)

Luke 7:39–50: Jesus is still at dinner at the Pharisee’s house and today’s reading picks up with the host’s observation to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” (39). Knowing what the Pharisee is thinking, Jesus replies with the hypothetical of a man who is owed bit a large and a small debt, both of which he then forgives. Jesus asks, “Now which of them will love him more?” (42) Simon the Pharisee answers logically, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” (43). Jesus tells him, “You have judged rightly.” (43b)

Jesus now explains how this applies in the real world. He observes that when he arrived for dinner, “I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.” (44) and to drive his point home, “You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet.” (45) And even, “You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.” (46) The woman may be the greater sinner, but like the man in Jesus’ story who owed much, she has therefore experienced the greater love.

The lesson for Luke’s reader—and for us—is clear: We may think ourselves to be righteous and “good Christians”—just as the Pharisee thought himself to be righteous and good. But in our self-satisfaction we cannot experience the real love that Jesus promises us—the love that we mask with our own pathetic self-generated attempts at love. If like the woman, we honestly face up to our real selves and our true sinfulness, we will experience an even more intense love for Jesus and what he has done for us when he tells us, “Your sins are forgiven.