Psalm 36; Exodus 20:22-21:27; Matthew 23:33-39

Psalm 36  In the NRSV this psalm begins in the normal third person voice: “Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in their hearts; there is no fear of God before their eyes.”

But in Alter’s translation, this psalm opens with transgression personified as a character, “Crime,” speaking from a remarkable point of view: from inside the heart of a man: “Crime’s utterance to the wicked within his heart: ‘There is no fear of God before my eyes.’”  The image is striking: a small, but evil voice speaking within our heart, a kind of anti-conscience.

For me, Alter’s rendering makes the psalm much more personal and much more powerful.  The personified image of crime speaking, deep within a man’s heart creates wickedness. Conscience has been supplanted by crime. “Crime” is ultimately a deceiver, “For it caressed him with its eyes to find his sin of hatred.”  The idea that crime entices and exploits a pre-existing hatred makes sense–be it hatred of others or self-hatred.

The fruits of crime then emanate (as the do so often in the Bible) in speech: “The words of his mouth are mischief, deceit.”  But perhaps most tragically of all, “he ceased to grasp things, to do good.”  Evil has overtaken a man’s heart, and as a result, good has been overtaken by evil.

And as the psalm notes in its final verse, for the evil man only destruction awaits: “There did the doers of mischief fall. / They were toppled and could not rise.”  There is only one antidote: “For with You is the fountain of life. / In Your light we shall see light. /Draw down Your kindness to those who know You.”

Crime can speak all too easily in our own hearts.  Or God can.  Which will I listen to?

Exodus 20:22-21:27  While we all know the Ten Commandments enumerated for the first time in chapter 20, the almost miscellaneous laws that follow in chapter 20 are less widely known.  Alter suggests that this is “probably one of the oldlest collections of law in the Bible” and that it has many parallels with the Code of Hammurabi.

Given the history of these newly-freed people, the fact that the very first one has to do with slavery should probably not be surprising.  What is more surprising, however, is the very idea of a “Hebrew slave,” (21:2).  However, these slaves go free after six years, suggesting more a form of indentured servanthood than classic chattel slavery.

21:20-21 is disturbing: “And should a man 20 strike his male slave or his slavegirl with a rod and they die under his hand, they shall surely be avenged. But if a day or two they should survive,  they are not to be avenged for they are his money.” The implications of this verse are not pleasant.  Beating a slave is apparently within the purview of the law, but murdering a slave is not.  If the slave is beaten and dies immediately, it’s murder; if the slave dies a couple of days later from the beating, then the owner simply got too carried away in his punishment and that’s acceptable.

As is so often the case, I have to take this passage as reflective of a time and culture that happily no longer exists.  I wonder what the Biblical inerrantists do with this?

Matthew 23:33-39  Jesus’ anger reaches a climax, “You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?” (23:33)  This to the Pharisees, who in their self-directed efforts to “be good” have gotten it completely backward.  We are exactly like them: obsessed with outward appearance, the inward essentials forgotten.  But worse, we don’t want to hear challenges like Jesus’ and all the prophets who came before [and Jesus includes them all, from “righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah” (23:35)], our obsession that we are the ones who are “right” and the others who say things we take to be “not right” we expunge.

There is no place where the contrast of the implications of Jesus’ message and “religion” stands out so clearly. And yet, what have we as Christians persisted in doing these past 2000 years?  Exactly what the scribes and Pharisees did.  We may have “religion,” but do we really understand and then take to heart what Jesus is saying here?  One thing is clear: the Kingdom of God and “religion” are orthogonal.

Aside from the crucifixion itself, Jesus’ lament, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” (23:37) is perhaps the saddest point in Matthew’s gospel.  And here for us, “Jerusalem” is the world at large.  What are we doing to gather the world “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings?”  Are we willing to help Jesus in this task?

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