Archives for July 2014

Psalm 82:5-8; Deuteronomy 17:8-18:22; Luke 8:1-15

Psalm 82:5-8: God continues his soliloquy in verses 5 through 7. The small-g gods, who would seem to be the judges referred to in the first half of the psalm are basically incompetent because “They do not know and do not grasp, in darkness they walk about.”  It is their blind stumbling that has led to the present injustice that pervades the world.

Moreover, the injustice is so great, so rampant that “All the earth’s foundations totter.” (5)  God has clearly overestimated these gods, who thought they were so high and mighty, “As for Me, I had thought: you were gods, and the sons of the Most High were you all.” (6) But in what must be a stinging rebuke if you’re a small-g god, God compares them to humans noting that they will meet the same fate: “Yet indeed like humans you shall die.”

It’s not a stretch to compare these small-g gods, their pride, and their basic incompetence to those who claim to be our political leaders. I’d even argue that this psalm is about the consequences of narcissism. All its qualities–self-absorption, self-centeredness, claims to greatness, the cult of celebrity–are empty and ineffectual. As a result, it is the poor, the widows and the orphans that bear the burden of the injustice these “leaders” have unleashed on the world.

Deuteronomy 17:8-18:22:  Contrary to the theme of the psalm, these passages outline in detail how justice and leadership is to be carried out, including even the rules for who should become their king, if the nation ultimately chooses to go that way, which of course it did. Above all, you must “put over you a king whom the LORD your God chooses.” (17:15) and he must be prevented from acquiring excessive military power, “Only let him not get himself many horses, that he not turn the people back to Egypt.” (16)

The leader is to “write for himself a copy of this teaching in a book before the levitical priests.” (17:18). As I know well, it is only by writing things down that the content is more completely absorbed and understood (which is why I write these reflections almost every day!)  Above all, “he may learn to fear the LORD his God , to keep all the words of this teaching and these statutes, to do them, so that his heart be not haughty over his brothers.” (17:19,20). Notice how “brothers’ links leaders and led, even the poorest.  This quality of mind, that those who are led are brothers, is at the heart of servant leadership.

The leader is not to be “haughty,” not prideful. Israel’s subsequent history provides dramatic illustration of which kings followed this command and which kings ignored it. Would that more leaders today reflected on this passage…

Chapter 18 deals with the duties and responsibilities of the priests.  the Levitical priests are forbidden to practice a whole catalog of pagan divination and practice: “There shall not be found among you one who passes his son or his daughter through fire, a speller of charms, a soothsayer, or a diviner or a sorcerer, or a chanter of incantations or an inquirer of ghost or familiar spirit or one who seeks out the dead.” (18:10-12)

A major difference between the divination of what the small-g gods might be saying and Israel’s monotheistic God is that God communicates via spoken language through those He chooses: “A prophet I shall raise up for them from the midst of their brothers, like you, and I shall put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I charge him.” (18:18)

God speaks through prophets. As Israel’s history proves, God’s prophets were mostly ignored. But that does not stop God from speaking His ultimate Word through the person of Jesus Christ.

 Luke 8:1-15: I always wonder what churches that insist on exclusive male leadership and subjugate the role of women in the church make of the fact that Luke goes to the trouble to mention that Jesus had many women followers. Even more striking, he names three of them and points out that there were “many others, who provided for them out of their resources.” (3b).  

In our world that seeks (over-seeks?) gender equality we fail to appreciate just how radical this was in Jesus’ world. It’s no accident Luke includes their names; the Kingdom of God does not discriminate on sex, status, or ethnicity. Paul of course makes this abundantly clear in his epistles. But here in the middle of the story, just before Jesus tells–and explains–the epistle that talks about the different qualities of followers, Luke’s listing of these women’s names and “many others” makes it clear that ” these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.” (15)

I’m never quite sure what to do with Jesus’ enigmatic words about the purpose of the parables: “‘looking they may not perceive,  and listening they may not understand.’” (10).  I think it has to do with the operation of the Holy Spirit. If we don’t care, or we ignore the still small voice of the Holy Spirit, we will neither perceive nor understand the point of Jesus’ story. But if we are “good soil,” which I will take as being open to the guiding of the HS, then we will indeed eventually perceive and understand “the secrets of the Kingdom of God.”


Psalm 82:1-4; Deuteronomy 15:19-17:7; Luke 7:39-50

Psalm 82:1-4: Looking as if it was lifted out of Job, this psalm focuses on the problem that injustice is far more widespread than justice.  The setting is unique, God is standing in an assembly of mythological small-g gods: demonstrating that above all all the other gods in our lives, God seeks justice and he is the only One qualified to render judgment: “in the midst of the gods he renders judgement.”

God begins speaking at verse 2: “How long will you judge dishonestly, /and show favor to the wicked?” Which is what the world at large, ruled by its small-g gods does. In contrast, and aligned to the theme that threads throughout the OT, the small-g gods–and we–are commanded to “Do justice to the poor and the orphan. / Vindicate the lowly and the wretched. / Free the poor and the needy, / from the hand of the wicked save them.” (3,4)

And people thought Jesus was a radical for saying words to this effect? How much clearer does God need to be?  And yet, here we are 3,000 years later asking exactly the same questions, and we are doing exactly the same thing: still following the siren song of the small-g gods.

Deuteronomy 15:19-17:7: After issuing instructions regarding the rights of firstborn animals (15:19) and what to do about eating blind or lame animals (15:21-22), the editors of Deuteronomy write the instruction manual for three major pilgrim festivals: Passover (Alter: “Festival of flatbread”), Weeks, and Booths (Alter: “Festival of huts”).

In alignment with today’s psalm, the latter part of chapter 16 lays out the responsibility of those rendering justice. (Which I presume is what the judges of Israel did before the nation decided it preferred kings.)

The judges and their judgement must possess three key qualities. Judgement must be honest: “You shall not skew judgement” (19a); it must not show favoritism: “You shall recognize no face” (19b); and “no bribe shall you take, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the innocent” (19c). Here is where we realize how much our justice system today owes to God and to Jewish law.  We have examples all around, especially in other countries, where these requirements are neither met completely or ignored all together. And as the psalmist notes, it is the widows and orphans who suffer most.

This being Deuteronomy, the editors inevitably return to the prohibitions against worshipping small-g gods for their example of how to go about rendering justice.  Only now it’s expressed in the context of justice.  If a man or woman is accused “go[es] and worship[s] other gods and bow to  them, to the sun or to the moon or to any of the array of the heavens which I did not command,” (3) it must be investigated before judgement is rendered: “you  inquire well and, look, the thing is true, well-founded,” (4) only then “shall you take them out and stone them to death.” (6)

The key to all this is that judgement is a carefully defined process; it is one of the defining marks of the difference between civilization and mob rule.  Yes, we see injustice every day, as well as injustice rendered by the “justice system.”  But the alternative is far worse. I am grateful to God for establishing the rules of civilization.

Luke 7:39-50: Simon the Pharisee misses the point, claiming that if Jesus claimed to be a prophet he would have known he was being anointed by a sinner (likely a prostitute). Jesus gently tells Simon “I have something to say to you” and tells the famous parable of the debtors. Simon “gets” the point of the story.  But as usual, jesus carries his point farther to an unexpected place.

He contrasts Simon’s lack of hospitality (no water for my feet, no kiss, no anointing of oil) with the three acts of the woman (“she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair”; “she has not stopped kissing my feet”; “She has anointed my feet”)  The acts of the woman are not mere hospitality, they are signs of her love for Jesus. The woman knows she is sinful and shows great love, “But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” (47b) 

This story is not about sin; it is about love. It is about the pride in pointing out other’s sins but not in realizing our own. Without that realization, we still place ourselves at the center, where it is in fact impossible to really, truly love Jesus. Because, like Simon, we still love ourselves more.

Psalm 81:11-16; Deuteronomy 14:22-15:18; Luke 7:31-38

Psalm 81:11-16:  God continues to speak, now with regret at Israel’s missed opportunity, as the nation persisted in its disobedience: “But My people did not heed My voice and Israel wanted nothing of Me.”  (11) That’s human pride as seen from God’s point of view: we “wanted nothing of Me” because we think we can live life more successfully absent that ever-nagging God, Who keeps demanding obedience.

God gave us the gift of free will, which we can freely use to ignore Him. So God must stand by: “I let them follow their heart’s willfulness, they went by their own counsels.” (12)  Economists talk about “opportunity cost,” the implicit cost of the path not chosen. And for Israel, the opportunity cost of not following God has been enormous. God describes what could have happened: “If My people would but heed Me, / if Israel would go in My ways, / in a moment I would humble their enemies, / and against their foes I would turn My hand.” (13,14)

So, what have we missed because we’ve not followed God? What would God have given us or done for us had we not decided we could do it better ourselves.  The psalm ends with a marvelous image of repast, “I would feed him the finest wheat, and from the rock I would sate him with honey.” (16) What wonderful meals–real and symbolic– have we missed?  Looking back over the past 67 years, there’s little question I’ve missed a lot. And of course we could look on a community or even national level and realize just how little our collective pride has yielded compared to the riches our loving God would have liked to bestow on us.

Deuteronomy 14:22-15:18: Inasmuch as God is to be worshipped only in a central location, this section deals with the practical issue that carrying a tenth of agricultural or livestock produce to give to God can be impractical.  So a means is provided to convert the title to silver, carry the silver to the central worship place (in Jerusalem) and use the silver to buy the animals required for sacrifice.

(Which explains why there were moneychangers at the Temple in Jesus time. I’m guessing that by then the role of the moneychangers had evolved from the simple exchange described here to many more “full service banking” activities, which lay outside the purview of what God has ordered here in Deuteronomy, whence Jesus’ anger. Of course, Jesus overturning the tables also symbolically marks the end of the Temple cult and the consequent need for moneychangers.)

And when you spend some of your tithe on the journey, don’t forget the others: “the Levite shall come, for he has no share and estate with you, and the sojourner and the orphan and the widow who are within your gates, and they shall eat and be sated,” (14:26)  As always, the visitor, the orphan, the widow.  God never forgets the least. And we are commanded not to forget as well.

In chapter 15, the terms of the 7 year “remission” or what today we might call a “reset,” are described. It’s interesting that the rules about lending are conflated with the rules about generosity.  Lending to outsiders is OK, but generosity within the community is essential: “The foreigner you may dun, but that of yours which is with your brother your hand shall remit.” (3) This is a verse Shakespeare must have had in mind when he wrote the character of Shylock and his famous soliloquy in Merchant of Venice.

Underneath all the details is the command to be generous, especially to the poor: “Therefore I charge you, saying, ‘You shall surely open your hand to your brother, to your poor and to your pauper, in your land.’” (11)  The beginnings of a common purse, and then welfare to help those less fortunate begins right here.

Luke 7:31-38: Jesus makes an observation about public opinion, which is just as true today as then.  We have childish expectations about how someone is supposed to respond to a given stimulus: “‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;/ we wailed, and you did not weep.’” (32)  If they don’t behave the way we want or expect, then they’re anathema.

 Nor is the response of the crowd logical or consistent as Jesus points out about John and himself.  John “has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’” (33)  And Jesus has done the opposite, “the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”  In short, the crowd is never pleased, never gives the benefit of the doubt, and always takes the darkest, most negative interpretation of any action.

These observations certainly describe what passes for “political discourse” in 2014 America.  Like children, we expect the knee-jerk, pandering response and when we don’t get it, we accuse the person of inconsistency–or worse, up to and including demon possession.

Once again, we witness Luke’s masterful juxtapositions.  In the next scene Jesus is at dinner in a pharisee’s house and a woman comes and weeping, anoints Jesus’ feet.  She understands who Jesus is and what he has done for her, that he has forgiven her sins. The intimacy of this scene of the weeping woman is a stark contrast to the ignorant rantings of the crowd.

But the Moravians are making us wait until tomorrow to reflect on the Pharisee’s reaction to the woman.

Psalm 81:6-10; Deuteronomy 13:1-14:21; Luke 7:18-30

Psalm 81:6-10: In a striking shift in point of view, the psalmist yields his poem to the voice of God Himself, announcing, “a language I knew not, I heard.” (6) This is how one must hear God speak. We don’t recognize the voice; not that it is incomprehensible, but it is a voice (“language”) that we have never heard before.  And in hearing, we also understand what God is saying to us.  The psalmist hears and he transcribes what the voice is saying.

God points out that he rescued Israel from slavery: “I delivered his shoulder from the burden / his palms were loosed from the hod.” (7) and that when things were really desperate at the water’s edge, “From the straits you called and I set you free. / I answered You from thunder’s hiding-place.” (8)   God’s point is, I’ve been there all the time listening to you, so now it’s time to listen to me: “Hear, O my people, that I may adjure you. / Israel, if You would but hear Me.” There’s even a note of some frustration (“if You would but hear Me.”)

God is asking one but thing: “There shall be among you no foreign god / and you shall not bow to an alien god.”  One surmises that this psalm was written in one of those periods of Israel’s history when the nation had been seduced over to the usual small-g gods.

The application of these verses is obvious. God has rescued us, now we have turned away, seduced by our very own small-g gods of wealth, power, pleasure, stuff.  Are we listening?  Are we hearing what God is saying to us?

Deuteronomy 13:1-14:21: The focus of this chapter–and indeed of the entire book thus far–is the urgent necessity, nay command, for Israel to avoid putting the ever popular small-g gods ahead of God himself.  While I have no proof, it certainly feels as if the editors of this book were writing and compiling at a time when Israel had turned away from God, and they are using history to remind their contemporaries of the consequences of abandoning God for their small-g gods.

The previous chapter was about tearing down all the places where those gods were worshipped.  This chapter speaks directly to the issue of being seduced by “prophets” of those same tempting but impotent gods.  Do not be tempted to follow! “you shall not heed the words of that prophet or of that dreamer of dreams.”(4)

Whether publicly or privately, Even of that person is a close relative, “your brother, your mother’s son, or your son or your daughter or  the wife of your bosom or your companion who is like your own self incite you in secret,” (7) do not follow!  In true deuteronomic fashion, these seducers shall be put to death.  If there’s a corrupt town, destroy it!  And if you do, our deuteronomic God “may turn back from His blazing wrath and give you compassion, and be compassionate to you.” (18).  In the end, the command is simple indeed: “do what is right in the eyes of the LORD your God.” (19)

And yet we like Israel, refuse in our own pride to do “what is right.”  And we have set up so many of our own small-g gods, some of them right in the Church itself.

This first section of chapter 14 deals with dietary laws, and I presume this is a central reference point for the Kosher laws. What strikes me, though, has nothing to do with that.  It is the lists of animals, birds and fishes by species. It is really an astounding variety and whether consciously or unconsciously, gives us a picture of the fecundity of the land into which Israel came.

Luke 7:18-30:  John, sitting in prison, has heard all about this Jesus, to whom the crowds that once surrounded John are now flocking. He wants first hand info, so he sends two trusted friend to go and get the scoop.  It’s interesting that Luke writes, that John “sent them to the Lord,” rather than “sent them to Jesus.”  I think it’s Luke’s point here to establish the contrast between John, who did many of the same things, and Jesus, who is indeed greater.

The gist of Jesus’ message to John’s emissaries is to describe what he does as reversals, or as scientists might put it, complete state changes: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” (22)  Once again, Luke reminds us how Jesus is turning the world upside down and inside out.

Jesus also uses this opportunity to explain his relationship to John: John is the messenger. He is the Message. Luke also tells us that Jesus has come to rip the world asunder: those “acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism.” (29) And those who had not: “But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.”

Which is to say, “God’s purpose” for all of us, and why we are here on earth in the first place, is to  follow God. Exactly the message of Deuteronomy, but now there is a person, the Lord Jesus, right here among us to follow.

Psalm 81:1-5; Deuteronomy 12; Luke 7:1-17

Psalm 81:1-5: Perhaps the Moravians planned it this way–who knows–but the celebratory opening verses of this Psalm certainly seem appropriate for July 4. (Only there were no actual fireworks in the psalmist’s day.) In vivid contrast to the somber anguish of the preceding psalm (80), this opening fairly brims with joy and celebration.  We are not only to sing, but to shout: “Sing gladly to God our strength, / shout out to the God of Jacob.” (2) This sounds more like a sporting event than “church.”

Once again, the psalms disprove the theory that God doesn’t like noisy praise and singing; that reverence has somehow become conflated with respectful silence.  Here, there is an entire orchestra that accompanies the singing and shouting: “Lift your voices in song and beat the drum, / the lyre is sweet with the lute. / Blast the ram’s horn on the new moon,” (3,4a)

Also, extremely unchurch-like is the reason for celebration: it’s the new moon, which Alter informs us was a widely-practiced festival in the ancient Middle East. What gives here? Isn’t worshipping the moon–new or full–a pagan practice?  Apparently not, because in the very next verse we learn that it’s “…an ordinance in Israel, / a rule of the God of Jacob. / A decree He declared it for Israel.” (5) Ordinance. Rule. Decree. Seems pretty clear that it’s time to celebrate.

Not only that, it hearkens back to the time Israel was in Egypt and God came to rescue them: “when He sallied forth against Egypt’s land / — a language I knew not, I heard.” (6)

So, since it’s an ordinance, a rule, a decree, let’s lose our Victorian reverence and sing at the top of our lungs!

Deuteronomy 12:  The order is given: “You shall utterly destroy all the places where the nations whom you are to dispossess worshipped their gods— on the high mountains and in the valleys and under every lush tree.” (2,3)  The reason is clear: remove all the possible places that God could be worshipped, including in nature(“under the lush tree”) in order that God is worshipped in a single place, which of course is Jerusalem, so “to set His name there, to make it dwell, you shall seek it and come there.” (5)  In short, God is saying, “I will be worshipped in one place and one place only, not all over the countryside.”

This command is one reason why we have sacred spaces, aka churches and cathedrals, admittedly all over the world, not just in Jerusalem (although that location obviously continues to hold a special place for Jews: “Next year in Jerusalem!”).

The chapter also deals with sacrifices made at that one place.  While there are many burnt offerings wherein the entire animal is consumed, other offerings do not involve the whole animal.  What is left may be consumed.  “Only wherever your appetite’s craving may be you shall slaughter and eat meat, according to the blessing of the LORD your God that He has given you within all your gates.” (15) This is God’s generosity.  While God may seem all-demanding, unlike the other local small-g gods, He is not all-consuming.  God continues to provide ample provision not just for our spiritual needs, but our physical ones, as well.

There is only one prohibition: not to consume the animal’s blood. Blood has special significance, since it was seen literally as the life of the animal.  For us, of course, blood means only one thing: we have been washed “whiter than snow” in the sacrificial blood of Jesus Christ.

Luke 7:1-17: The story of the healing of the generous centurion’s son at Capernaum must have had enormous resonance for Luke’s gentile audience.  Not only did Jesus minster–and heal–the gentile’s son, Jesus is “amazed” at the soldier’s faith: “and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” (9)  That Jesus could heal without even approaching the son was another remarkable aspect because it meant to Luke’s hearers–and to us–that Jesus can indeed reach out and heal across space, and now across time.

In the story of the widow of Nain, Luke illuminates yet another dimension of Jesus’ healing ministry. Luke is careful to point out that it was the widow’s son who died, which means that in that culture she would be condemned to a life of penury.  While it is the son who receives the physical healing, it is the mother who is completely healed and whose life is in  essence restored as much as her son’s: “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.”” (13) Notice that Luke at this moment calls Jesus “Lord.”  This is a clear indication that Jesus our Lord has compassion on ll of us, and will touch the bier carrying our sins, bind up our wounds and comfort us until we can stop crying.

Neither of these miracles is confined to that particular space and time.  They are miracles which come to Luke’s audience–and to us on this very day in this place.

Psalm 80:12-19; Deuteronomy 11; Luke 6:39-49

Psalm 80:12-19: God rescued, planted, nurtured and grew the metaphorical vineyard which is Israel. Continuing the metaphor, the psalmist asks rhetorically, why has God allowed it to be attacked? “Why did You break through its walls / so all passers-by could pluck it? / The boar from the forest has gnawed it, / and the swarm of the field fed upon it. ” (12) The Assyrian army (the boar), attacking from the north (the forest), has consumed the fruits of Israel, both literally and metaphorically.

Supplication follows in the next verses, asking God to come back and see what has been wrought: “God of armies, pray, come back, / look down from the heavens and see, / and take note of this vine,” (14).  And not just “take note” of what has happened, but wreak vengeance (which, as always, is God’s): “burnt in fire, chopped to bits, from the blast of Your presence they perish.”

An unexpected supplication follows as the vine metaphor is abandoned: “May Your hand be over the man on Your right, / over the son of man You took to Yourself.” Is this a christological reference? (“The man on Your right” and “the son of man You took to Yourself”)  If so, it seems oddly misplaced.

Or is it simply a change of metaphor? Israel as vine has now become Israel as adopted son.  If that’s the case, I’m not sure what to do about “son of man,” although I believe that could be a reference to David, as the psalmist longs for the time when Israel was strong and prospered under David’s rule.

The lesson for us is that despite the accusatory tone that God has allowed all these bad things to happen, if He will but rescue Israel, in turn they will always be faithful: “And we will not fall back from You. Restore us to life and we shall call on Your name.” (19)  Once again, the psalm ends on hope in God’s ultimate faithfulness rather than despair.  As should we.

Deuteronomy 11: Moses draws a geographical contrast between Egypt and Canaan. Egypt is flat; Canaan “is a land of mountains and valleys.” (11) which nonetheless flows with milk and honey. (10BUt more important than the agrarian details is the command, which Moses repeats: “My commands with which I charge you today to love the L ORD your God and to worship Him with all your heart and with all your being,” (13)  If they do so, God will reward them: “I will give the rain of your land in its season, early rains and late, and you shall gather in your grain and your wine and your oil.” (14)

If they fail to keep God foremost in their hearts, then all the promises are off.  Once again, Moses warns, “Watch yourselves, lest your heart be seduced and you swerve and worship other gods and bow to them.” (16)  Moses boils all this down near the end of the chapter: “See, I set before you today blessing and curse.” It’s quite simple: there’s “the blessing, when you heed the command of the LORD your God”  and “the curse, if you heed not the command of the LORD your God.” The command being not to worship other small-g gods. (26-28). (Which, given its repetition through Deuteronomy (well, the entire Pentateuch) and Israel’s subsequent history certainly seems to be the commandment that is primus inter pares.

As usual, I’m distressed by the quid pro quo quality of God as Moses describes Him here.  It’s easy to see how Israel came to believe there was a direct correlation between faithfulness and reward–which today is expressed as the prosperity gospel.  However, I’m with Bruce McLaren: God’s qualities are sequentially revealed through the course of the old and new testaments. Yes, God doubtless still possesses quid pro quo qualities, but in Jesus Christ, they have been superseded by grace and faith in Jesus’ transformative work.

Luke 6:39-49: Jesus continues to deal with the qualities and contradictions of human nature. We often think of the “God side” of Jesus looking down on us and talking about not being a hypocrite or just being stupid (“blind leading the blind”) or building our lives on sandy foundations. We’re tempted to say, “Yeah, Jesus, easy for you to say; you’re perfect.”  But then we have to remember that Jesus is fully human and therefore is also talking about himself.  There’s no question in my mind, that he was subject to all the issues he discusses, and that he had to will as a human being not to fall into any of those traps.

I have done all of the things he talks about; setting oneself above one’s teacher; the hypocrisy of “fixing” someone else’s flaws without dealing with our own; failing to preserve one’s good reputation in whatever we do or say (“Fruit) will lack credibility or power; the incredible power of words once spoken to produce good or evil.

Whatever we do, whatever we say, however we act, comes down to the foundation. Absent a firm foundation, we are not prepared for the vicissitudes that inevitably come our way.  We have heard Jesus’ message.  Like the disciples that are listening, will we take it to heart? And not just “to heart” but “to mind” and our whole selves. That is the grand existential question, nay, opportunity.

We have free will: we can choose or not.  Worse, we can ignore these truth and simply drift along never deciding one way or another.  And that is the very defintion of a house built on sand.

Psalm 80:8-11; Deuteronomy 9:7-10:22; Luke 6:27-38

Psalm 80:8-11:  Our psalmist uses one of the most prominent metaphors of the Bible: the vine and vineyard.  Here, Israel is the vine: “You carried a vine out of Egypt, / You drove away nations and planted it,” reflecting the point made by Moses in Deuteronomy that it is God, not the people of army of Israel, who brought them from Egypt cleared Canaan for them. And it is God who planted it carefully and made it grow: “You cleared space before it /and struck its roots down, and it filled the land.” (9)

Not only did the vine grow in Canaan, but it grew into a great empire because of God’s nurturing hand: “The mountains were covered by its shade, and by its branches the mighty cedars.” (10). Israel once stretched from the shore of the Mediterranean to the Jordan River: “You sent forth its boughs to the sea and to the River its shoots.” (11).

There can be little question that Jesus had this psalm in mind when he supplanted Israel as the vine in John 15.  God nurtured Israel as his beloved vine in the time form Joshua to Solomon, and it grew into a great kingdom.  Now, Jesus nurtures us.  We are the branches of his vine that stretches its shoots around the world.

Deuteronomy 9:7-10:22:  This remarkable passage recapitulates almost all of the wilderness journey, this time in Moses’ point of view.  His narration focuses especially on the events recounted in Exodus 32-32: Moses’ 40-day trip up to Sinai to receive the “Ten Words;” his return to find the people worshiping the golden calf; his anger and breaking of the tablets; his intercession before God to save Israel, which God desired to destroy; the second trip to Sinai to receive the Ten Words once again; the establishment of the Levitical priesthood; the building of the Ark to hold the tablets.

God describes the people of Israel with a remarkable adjective: “‘I have seen this people and, look, it is a stiff-necked people.'” (9:13, 9:27).  “Stiff-necked” evokes the image of someone who is prideful and whose opinion is immovable. Given their history, it’s certainly apt for Israel–and it’s certainly apt for us.  We decide our own way is the only “correct” way to go or to do something, and in our pride, we refuse to budge, even when it’s clear God is asking us to go a different direction.  In the same way that Moses interceded with God not to destroy Israel, so, too, Jesus Christ has interceded for us on our stiff-necked behalf.

It is Moses’ concluding words that resonate most strongly, because it is the summary of what God asked Israel–and us–to do: “what does the LORD your God ask of you but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways, to love Him, and to  worship the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your being, to keep the L ORD’s commands and His statutes that I charge you today for your own good?” (10:12, 13)  “For your own good.” How quickly we forget that worship and obedience is “for our own good.”  How stiff-necked we become when God asks us to put our ego and our agenda aside and follow him.

And in another remarkable metaphor, “you shall circumcise the foreskin of your heart,.’ (10:16).  This can mean only one thing: That we are to remove the barrier that separates God’s love from the seat of our understanding and our feeling; that we be open and responsive to God’s word.  It is the complete opposite of stiff-neckedness.

Luke 6:27-38: Luke’s rendition of the Sermon on the Mount continues, and again we see the Great Reversal. Everything we think we know and believe is turned upside down and inside out. Right at the top of the list, one of the most difficult of all: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,  bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (27b, 28).

Then there’s generosity to those who steal from us: “ anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.” (29).  And perhaps in our possession-obsessed society (although apparently not so different then than now): “Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” (30).It’s all really quite simple: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.: (31)

Can Jesus ask any more than this? Why, yes, he can.  We need to move beyond our comfort zone of those we know and love; we are supposed to reach out even to our enemies: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?…If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?” (32, 33)  And perhaps most challenging of all to our “stiff-necked” prideful selves, whom we see as the center of the universe: “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” (35).

The remainder of Luke’s gospel descries how Jesus goes about doing this.  And, via the example of the disciples, how readily we fail.   Jesus has set a high bar indeed.  And as a casual glance at the history of his Church reveals, it has mostly failed, up to and including us. But how could we accomplish any work in the Kingdom if we did not know what was expected of us? Happily, God’s mercy is also great.

Psalm 80:1-7; Deuteronomy 8:1-9:6; Luke 6:12-26

Psalm 80:1-7: Alter informs us that Joseph, Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh all refer to the northern kingdom, Israel.  Clearly, they are experiencing great difficulties and the psalmist feels God’s anger at them is the cause of their present troubles.  He prays to God to “rouse Your might / and come to the rescue for us. / O God, bring us back,/ and light up Your face that we may be rescued.” (3,4)

By now, the psalmist pleads, Israel has suffered enough for their misdeeds, “You fed them bread of tears / and made them drink triple measure of tears.” (6) The metaphor “bread of tears” is striking. What does it mean to be on a diet of sorrow or meals of despair? This is certainly a long term thing, not just a passing cloud. The nation is depressed; its morale shattered.

It’s clear how they came to their present pass: their collective sin and disobedience.  Which is exactly what Moses promised would happen in his Deuteronomy speech.  We diagnose depression now as a disease (that can be ameliorated by drugs…)  But as the psalmist implies here, our “bread of tears” also results from our choices and the actions we take.

But there is always hope: God may be silent now, but he will not “smolder against Your people’s prayer” (5) forever.  By praying we have placed ourselves in right position, acknowledging our sinfulness.  God is listening.  Will he rescue?

Deuteronomy 8:1-9:6:  Chapter 8 weaves God’s injunction to keep his commands (1, 7-10) with a recollection of all God did for them in the wilderness (2-5 and again at 15,16).

Here also is where we encounter Jesus’ famous quote: “you know that not on bread alone does the human live but on every utterance of the L ORD’s mouth does the human live.” (3)

The chapter’s centerpiece is the hymn-like description of what awaits them in the Promised Land:

“For the L ORD your God is about to bring you to a goodly land, a land of brooks of water, springs  and deeps coming out in valley and in mountain, a land of wheat and barley and vines and figs and pomegranates , a land of oil olives and 9 honey, a land where not in penury will you eat bread, you will lack nothing in it,” (7-9)

The juxtaposition of this passage with the descriptions of the parched desert with its vipers and scorpions makes it all the more alluring. In fact, things will be so wonderful that “you will eat and be sated and bless the LORD  your God on the goodly land that He has given you.” (10).

But then Moses adds immediately,”Watch yourself, lest you forget the LORD your God and not keep His commands and His laws.”  And therein lies the rub. Both for Israel and for us.  We are blessed; we live comfortable lives and forget Who has provided this. Worse, we think we’ve accomplished it ourselves.  We know what ultimately happened to Israel. We, too, must “Watch ourselves.”

This theme of remembering Who has brought us these things is reiterated in chapter 9: “Not through your merit nor through your heart’s rightness do you come to take hold of their land.” (9:5a)  In fact, Israel is getting the land because “through the wickedness of these nations is the LORD your God dispossessing them before you and in order to fulfill the word that the LORD swore to your fathers” (9:5b).  We must never forget that God is God; we are the beneficiaries, not the instigators of His blessings.

Luke 6:12-26: Ever the man of intimate detail, Luke names the twelve Disciples in a single list.  Jesus’ reputation and ministry are spreading ever wider; the crowds increasingly greater: “great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon” (17).

But what’s really fascinating here is that Jesus speaks only to his disciples, not to a crowd on a mountainside. What Jesus says is so unexpected, so outside the mainstream, that at first only the disciples can hear it. No one has ever said any of this the way Jesus has said it here.

Luke is drawing a direct contrast between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world, the here and now.  At this point in Jesus’ ministry, this is a message for his disciples, not everyone.

Jesus opens with the Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, which in its juxtaposition of opposites turns the world inside out and upside down.  If you’re poor, hungry or weeping now, all that will be reversed in the Kingdom of God.  And with an almost fearful symmetry, if you are wealthy, sated, or laughing in the here and now, the opposite will happen to you in the Kingdom of God.

There is reversal everywhere: “ when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy.” (22)

As we know, this message is so revolutionary, so unexpected that even the disciples don’t get it.  Even all the way up to the cross.