Psalm 56:1–8; Job 36:1–26; 1 Corinthians 9:1–12a

Psalm 56:1–8: The psalmist attributes (or dedicates) the psalm to David “when the Philistines seized him in Gath,” so we know this will be a psalm of supplication. Which is immediately clear in the first line, “Grant me grace, O God,/ for a man tramples me/ all day long the assailant does press me.” (2) The verb set trample/ assail is repeated immediately in the next verse, “My attackers trample me all day long, for many assail me.”

‘Trample’ and ‘assail’ are highly physical words, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that David is being assaulted not only verbally and psychologically, but that me is undergoing physical distress, as well. Thus, these verses are a highly appropriate prayer for some one experiencing physical illness or recovering from serious injury.

There’s an important lesson for those of us who would feel sorry for ourselves here. The psalmist does not linger on his woes, turning immediately to the solid rock of his faith in God with a very neat envelope structure of ‘praise’ being surrounded on both sides by fear and trust: “When I fear, I trust in You,/ in God, Whose word I praise, / in God I trust, I shall not fear.” (5) The meaning cannot be simpler–or more powerful: when we are in fearful circumstances, we recall our trust in God, which leads immediately to praise. And it is praise that again reminds us of our trust in God which in turn casts out fear. The image is that our ability and desire to praise God is cocooned in trust, which in turn wards off fear.

It is that security and trust that allows the psalmist–and us–to remember, “what can flesh do to me?” Be it ‘flesh’ in the sense of other people, or as I prefer it, our own flesh. This makes the prayer perfect for those with cancer, which is a disease of one’s own flesh rebelling against itself.

Job 36:1–26: Elihu continues his enormously long sermon, turning his attention away from Job, “multiplies words without knowledge.” (35:16) to one of the most complete and compelling descriptions of God’s qualities that we find in the bible, as he opens, “I have yet something to say on God’s behalf.” (2)

At first glance, his opening lines seem to be just a bit too self-aggrandizing: “For truly my words are not false;/ one who is perfect in knowledge is with you.” Really, Elihu? But if we reflect a moment, Elihu is claiming to be in a right relationship with God and then can essentially speak on God’s behalf. (Ironically, it was Job who was once in a right relationship with God–a relationship that was snatched away from him.)

One of Elihu’s key insights, I think, is that God operates through our conscience, which we then of our free will can choose to act on or ignore. First, those who are doing evil become aware of their sins via God, who “declares to them their work/ and their transgressions, that they are behaving arrogantly.” (9) And then, God strikes our conscience with a clear call to cease the sin: “He opens their ears to instruction,/and commands that they return from iniquity.” (10)

Then comes our choice (with the usual deuteronomic consequences):

11 If they listen, and serve him,
    they complete their days in prosperity,
    and their years in pleasantness.
12 But if they do not listen, they shall perish by the sword,
    and die without knowledge.

I can certainly agree, though, that if we ignore God’s often still small voice and choose not to listen, we are basically doomed to die without knowledge. Not just knowledge of God, but knowledge of the true qualities of our own being and of the larger universe that God has created.

I see disbelief in God as pure hubris; that people are working so hard on not believing in God that they miss the mystery and majesty of something and Someone much greater than themselves. A life of disbelief leads to death without, as Elihu says here, having gained true knowledge–a potential richness and meaning squandered in ignorance. When we are on our deathbeds, all that we have accomplished on our own turns to meaningless dust–and then there is nothing. Which to me is what hell is all about.

1 Corinthians 9:1–12a: Clearly, someone at Corinth has leveled against Paul that seems to transform him from confident leader to an unusual defensiveness: “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? If I am not an apostle to others, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.” (1,2). Paul is up front: “This is my defense to those who would examine me.” (3)

And then we learn the backstory. It appears that Paul (and Barnabas) have been criticized for wanting to be paid for their services and associated expenses. He points out that other apostles and missionaries “have the right to food and drink,” including the fascinating fact that “the brothers of the Lord and Cephas (Peter)” were married. (5)  Every worker is paid for his (or her) services: “Who plants a vineyard and does not eat any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not get any of its milk?” (7) So, Paul is arguing, why shouldn’t he and Barnabas be paid?

I’m guessing it was some of the Jewish Christians who were criticizing Paul because he appeals to Scripture: “ For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” (9) Which, as Paul explains, is not about oxen  but that “whoever plows should plow in hope and whoever threshes should thresh in hope of a share in the crop.” (10) And finally right to the point: “ If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits?” (11)

The attitude at Corinth has certainly carried through to the present day where many churches (not all of them: I suspect Saint Matthew is an exception here) are overly parsimonious in what they pay their pastors,  assuming that the psychic rewards of ministry (irony intended) will somehow put food on the table.

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