Archives for June 2015

Psalm 75; Ecclesiastes 6:1–7:14; 2 Corinthians 12:1–13

Psalm 75: At the third verse of this psalm of thanksgiving, God himself speaks of one of the central themes of the OT: divine judgement: “When I seize the appointed time,/ I Myself shall judge rightly.” (3) And he reminds us he is the Creator, not we, and were it not for God all creation would pass away: “Earth and its dwellers would melt,/ had I not set its pillars.” As Creator-in-charge, then, God warns those who would be tempted to set themselves up as small-g gods: “I said to the revelers, Do not revel,/ and to the wicked, Lift not your horn.” (5) (We assume that the horn is a weapon.)

And another warning, this time around arrogant speech. This time the horn seems to be an instrument of communication: “Lift not your horn on high. / You would speak arrogance against the Rock.” (6) To those who would put themselves above God he warns, “But God is the judge,/ it is He Who brings down and lifts up.” (8) Foaming wine in a cup becomes the metaphor for judgement, out of which God “will pour from it,/ yes, its dregs He will drain/ all the earth’s wicked will drink.” (9)

The point of view shifts back to the poet, who worships, “As for me, I shall tell it forever/ let me hymn to the God of Jacob.” (10) Our psalmist also really likes the horn image  as he lets God have the fairly violent last word as to the fate of the wicked versus the just: “And all the horns of the wicked I shall hack off./ The horns of the just will be lifted!” (11)

My take on this psalm is that a culture that arrogantly rejects God will sooner or later face God’s retributive justice. We laugh at those who talk about God’s judgement coming to America, but…  And as we know every empire eventually falls, almost always from arrogant corruption form within.

Ecclesiastes 6:1–7:14: (Why won’t the Moravians allow us to linger on the existential philosophy of Qoheleth?) Our author notes the grand irony of “ those to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that they lack nothing of all that they desire,” (6:2a) and seems to blame God because “God does not enable them to enjoy these things, but a stranger enjoys them.” (6:2b) [One is tempted to be cynical here and suggest that the “stranger” is the government which has taxed away the man’s wealth…]

But then he offers good advice that too few of us follow: “however many are the days of his years, if he does not enjoy life’s good things, or has no burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he.” (6:3) But we do not enjoy the good things of life because our philosopher understands human nature too well: “All human toil is for the mouth, yet the appetite is not satisfied.” (7) We are creatures of endless striving, but never reach our self-centered goal. Our striving becomes “vanity and a chasing after wind.” (6:9)  Even authors and bloggers are not exempt: “The more words, the more vanity, so how is one the better?” (6:11) as the chapter ends bitterly: “ For who knows what is good for mortals while they live the few days of their vain life, which they pass like a shadow?” (6:12)

God is nowhere to be found here these verses which dwell on the empty strivings of men. Which I think is a metaphor for the lives of those who reject the possibility of the transcendent.

But we begin to see a dawning light as the author becomes poet in chapter 7, and its theme is the emptiness of life without God and is full of observations that seem lifted right out of Proverbs. One theme suffuses these lines: is better to be dark and brooding seeking wisdom than to lead a life of empty laughter: “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning;/ but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” (7:4) Moreover, we are to avoid meaningless nostalgia: “Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these?”/ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.” (7:10). Instead focus on building wisdom for “Wisdom is as good as an inheritance,” and “the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money,/ and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom gives life to the one who possesses it.” (7:11, 12). 

Suddenly, God makes an appearance at the end of the poem, as the poet recognizes we are trapped in the arrow of time and can take each day only one at a time: “ In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider; God has made the one as well as the other, so that mortals may not find out anything that will come after them.” (7:14),  In short, focus on today whether it is good or bad. As he notes elsewhere, this, too shall pass.

2 Corinthians 12:1–13: This is one of the most intriguing–and hotly debated–passages in the Pauline corpus: his description of what happens when we die–a topic that continues to engender books, films and TV shows. Paul provides a tantalizing hint that is frustratingly vague as he begins by referring to himself in the third person: “I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows” (2) and that whatever it was he saw it is indescribable: “as caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.” (4)  Paul’s advice is good: we should not try to fathom it; nevertheless, we persist, forgetting what Qoheleth told us: “mortals may not find out anything that will come after them.”

Paul makes the provocative connection that his brief vision of heaven led directly to his thorn in the flesh–the nature of which scholars have debated ever since. Note that he calls the affliction “a messenger of Satan…to keep me from being too elated,” and that it is therefore a direct consequence of what he was allowed to see. Is there such direct cause and effect today? Hard to say since Paul’s experience is admittedly unique.

What we have to focus on here is the conclusion Paul reaches at the end of this grand essay on boasting about his seeming weakness, remembering what God said to him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” If we, like Paul, are willing to boast of our weakness rather than strength, we are effectively abandoning ourselves to God. Once we do that the power of the Holy Spirit will be able to do powerful things through us.

Psalm 74:18–23; Ecclesiastes 3:9–5:20; 2 Corinthians 11:16–33

Psalm 74:18–23: The psalmist comes back to his original plea, begging God to remember the insults that the enemies have made against him and his people: “Remember this: the enemy insulted, / a base people reviled Your name./…the band of Your lowly forget not forever.” (18, 19). It would be good if God remembered his Covenant with Israel, who are surely suffering: “Look to the pact,/ for the dark places of earth fill with groans of outrage.” (20)

Once again we encounter the major subtext of the OT: “Let not the poor man turn back disgraced./ Let the lowly and needy praise Your name.” Surely, the psalmist is arguing, the God who cares so deeply for the poor and suffering will not turn his back on those poor wretches.

The final verses are almost audacious as our poet is essentially telling God to get up and do something because God’s own honor is being mocked and insulted in the ever-increasing noise of his opponents: Arise, God, O plead Your cause./ Remember the insult to You by the base all day long.” (22) God needs to act before his voice is drowned out in “the din of those against You perpetually rising.” (23)

As is the case with so many psalms of supplication, we see that these prayers are the way to release strong emotion by effectively scolding God for his absence and/or inaction. They are pleas and always respectful, but also a reminder that God, being God, can pretty much whatever words we can hurl at him.

Ecclesiastes 3:9–5:20: The Moravians seem intent on rushing us through this often dark and brooding book. Our author is reflecting on how God has made men just a little lower than the angels. We’ve been given the curiosity, will, and desire to know and understand God, but we will never possess the ability to do so: “moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (3:11) Our duty is to remember that “God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him.” (3:14)

In fact, Qoheleth has a pretty dim view of human beings: “I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals.For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other.” (3:18, 19) The world is severely disordered and the powerful lord it over the weak form time immemorial: “I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! ” (4:1) even to the point that “the dead, who have already died, [are] more fortunate than the living,” (4:2)

He characterizes our American competitive work ethic and ceaseless striving to “get ahead” perfectly: “I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind.” (4:4) Worst of all is if we choose to work alone without family or friends, those “solitary individuals, without sons or brothers; yet there is no end to all their toil, and their eyes are never satisfied with riches.” (4:7) –surely a pointed message to every workaholic. Recognizing that we are social creatures, there is a glimmer of hope when we work alongside a friend: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help.” (4:9, 10) This is the benefit collegiality rather than one-to-one competition.

This theme leads to an essay on humility and contentment. The key requirement is not to say stupid or evil things (or in our social media age, to post them on Facebook): “Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God,…therefore let your words be few.” (5:2) We must keep our commitments, for “It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not fulfill it.” (5:5)

Perhaps the strongest message for this consumer-driven age is at 5:10: “The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity.” We think the rich are happier, but being subject to the same trials as the rest of us, they rarely are. Because in the end, “just as they came, so shall they go; and what gain do they have from toiling for the wind?” (5:16) and worst of all, they have effectively wasted their lives “in much vexation and sickness and resentment.” (5:17).

As I write here at the age of 68 I wonder how much of my life I have wasted in toiling for the wind? How many days were consumed by worry and striving and ignoring friends, trying to get ahead on my own? On the contrary, there is great pleasure to be found in work when we can align our work with our passion: “For [we] will scarcely brood over the days of [our] lives, because God keeps them occupied with the joy of [our] hearts.” (5:20)

2 Corinthians 11:16–33: Paul continues his long essay on how the Corinthians have accused him of insincerity and boasting of his accomplishments. Here, he decides that “since many boast according to human standards, I will also boast.” (18) He lists his Hebrew bona fides: “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ?” (22, 23) 

But perhaps the accusation that has made him angriest is that he was “weak” as he goes on to list the many sufferings he has endured–beatings, stonings, 40 lashes, beaten with rods, shipwrecks. He has encountered numerous dangers, which Paul, being Paul, he lists: “in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters;” (26) And outright physical suffering: “in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked,” (27) as well as “my anxiety for all the churches” (28)

Paul raises himself up and we can almost hear him shouting, “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant?” (29) He’s saying with the deepest possible irony, you think I’m weak; I’ll show you weak: “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” (30) This passage, perhaps above all others, makes us wish we could have read the letter that resulted in this emotional response that shows us so much of Paul’s personality. He was righteous but never self-righteous.

Psalm 74:10–17; Ecclesiastes 1:1–3:8; 2 Corinthians 11:12–15

Psalm 74:10–17: The psalmist poses the question that in today’s arrogant culture that is actively rejecting or merely indifferent to God that many Christians are asking themselves: “Until when, O God, will the foe insult,/ the enemy revile Your name forever?” (10) In his next question, the psalmist is implicitly telling God what he wishes God would do: “Why do You draw back Your hand,/ and in Your right hand hold in Your bosom?” (11) These lines express a deep desire that we all feel from time to time: Why doesn’t God just come in at the end of the movie and dramatically demonstrate his power–or more crudely–beat the daylights out of the mockers, the scoffers, the indifferent and show them just who’s boss?

But real life is not a movie, and I think our psalmist realizes that in the next verse when he pauses to reflect and realizes that God is indeed active on the earth as Creator, who has doubtless intervened in ways he (and we) do not know of: “Yet God is my king of old,/ worker of rescues in the midst of the earth.” (12) and who indeed has been beneficent: “You crushed the Leviathan’s heads,/ You gave him as food to the desert-folk.” (14) I’m confident that God intervenes through loving people today, as well. It only seems like the culture has triumphed.

Like Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” we need to pause and reflect on what the world might have been like if God had not been present. Who knows how dark and evil our civilization might have been? In fact, the psalmist realizes that God is something far greater than the sheriff who rides in and kicks out the bad guys. God is ruler and Creator of all that exists:

16 Yours is the day, also Yours the night.
It was You Who founded the light and the sun.
17 It was You Who laid down all the boundaries of earth,
summer and winter, You fashioned them.

And that is where we are to rejoice. God may feel absent but he is indeed present.

Ecclesiastes 1:1–3:8: The inscription for this book ascribes it to “son of David, king in Jerusalem,” Solomon, written in his old age. Maybe, but its authorship has been hotly debated for centuries. The alternative may Qoheleth, who is mentioned seven times in this book but nowhere else in Scripture (and is my vote). Whatever its authorship, the book is remarkable on many levels. It evokes a dark, almost cynical, view of humankind–certainly the opposite of the psalms which celebrate God’s creative energy.  Unlike most of the books in the Bible, it is not written in a linear, historical way, but keeps circling back on itself. We hear the same themes over and over, and endless cycle, which only deepens the sense of dark brooding that underlies virtually every word of this book.

Nevertheless, to our modern ears and eyes, many passages seem to have been written last week. Its relevance to our current human condition is stunning. And nowhere do we receive a greater existential shock than in its opening verse:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
    says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
    Everything is meaningless.” (2)

I prefer the KJV’s “vanity,” for its poetic qualities, but “meaningless” gives us a clue to the heart and mind of the author–and for our post-modern era, completely on target. Meaninglessness seems to arise out of never-ending cyclicality:

4 Generations come and generations go,
    but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
    and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
    and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
    ever returning on its course.

And perhaps the root of all this meaninglessness has been the author’s claim to seek wisdom: “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind.” (1:17-18) [I certainly sense some editorial irony here in the actions of the compilers of Scripture, who placed Ecclesiastes immediately following Proverbs– a compendium of wisdom.]

For Qoheleth/Solomon, it’s all meaningless: laughter (2:2), wine (2:3), great building projects (2:4), farming (:5), wealth (2:7, 8), hedonism (2:8), power (2:9)

Briefly, he thinks, “I saw that wisdom is better than folly,/ just as light is better than darkness.” 92:13), but it, too, leads to nothingness: “The wise have eyes in their heads,/…but I came to realize/ that the same fate overtakes them both.” (2:14)

But then, within this meaningless cyclicality, we encounter one of the most profound and beautiful poems ever written; the one we all know that begins,”There is a time for everything,/ and a season for every activity under the heavens.” (3:1) I think the seasonality of life is the gift of cyclicality. There are times and places for everything. Our task is to know when they are–and to respond accordingly. Without seasons I think we would be completely lost, with absolutely nothing to hold on to. And perhaps even our author realizes that some meaning may lay in what at first encounter seems meaningless.

2 Corinthians 11:12–15: Paul is on a tear and lets loose his real opinion of these “super-apostles,” who claim superiority to Paul. For Paul, they are his implacable foe and he will show them: “I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about.” (12)  His fiery passion and anger lashes out at them: “ For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ.” (13) And he goes so far as to call them agents of Satan: “ It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.” (15).

Wow. Hardly the image of the wimpy Christians we hear so much about. However, I think it’s important to note that Paul is speaking about conditions inside the church, not to the world at large. In fact it is his concern for the world that has made him so angry about these people pretending to preach the Gospel.

Would even the Pope say such a thing today? Or do we always fall back on our “turn the other cheek” posture and let corruption in the church have its day? I think that in his ongoing efforts to clean up the Vatican stables, Pope Francis reflects the fiery passion we see here in this angry passage.

Psalm 74:1–9; Proverbs 31; 2 Corinthians 11:1–11

Psalm 74:1–9: The agony behind this psalm of supplication is palpable. Clearly, it has been written  following the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians. Some years must have passed where God seems absent, which to the writer seem like an eternity: “Why, O God, have You abandoned us forever?” Abandonment is a sure sign of God’s anger: “Your wrath smolders against the flock (i.e. Israel) You should tend.” (1)

As we often do when we feel alone and abandoned, we hearken back to the better times when we were together: “Remember Your cohort You took up of old/…Mount Zion where You dwelled.” (2)

But that interlude is short-lived as the psalmist barely conceals his anger at this abandoning God he chastises, “Lift up Your feet to the eternal ruins,/ all that the enemy has laid waste in the sanctuary.” (3) The poet then goes on to describe in detail what God’s enemies–and the enemies of Israel–have done: “Your foes roared out in Your meeting-place,/ they set up their signs as signs.” (4) (These signs must be symbols or actual idols in place of the Holy of Holies.) The enemies used weapons of war in their destructive onslaught: axes, pikes, hatchets and “They set fire to Your sanctuary.”  Worse,”they profaned on the ground Your name’s dwelling place,” (7) which must be a reference to the Ark of the Covenant.

Only in the final verse of today’s reading do we see a hint of what may have led to this destruction and apparent abandonment by God, an answer to the question of the opening line: “Our own signs we did not see./ There is no longer a prophet,/ nor any among us who knows until when.” (9) This awful destruction is a consequence of failing to heed God’s warning. Of course we wonder the same thing about our own American culture as it heedlessly ignores the warning signs.

Proverbs 31: This final chapter is “The sayings of King Lemuel—an inspired utterance his mother taught him.” (1) Only here do we hear of King Lemuel; he is certainly not in the line of kings recorded in the Histories. Nevertheless, he possesses wisdom taught to him by his mother: implicit advice we would all do well to heed.

The verses are written in the mother’s pleading voice: “Listen, my son! Listen, son of my womb!/ Listen, my son, the answer to my prayers!” (2). She advises him not to “spend your strength on women” (3), to drink wine (4) or beer(!) (4). She notes the problem of alcoholic stupor when leadership responsibilities are required: “lest they drink and forget what has been decreed,/ and deprive all the oppressed of their rights.” (5) Beer and wine are “for those who are perishing” (6) and “Let them drink and forget their poverty/ and remember their misery no more.” (7).  

I have to believe these verses were widely quoted by the 19th century temperance movement–and we cannot forget the truth they contain. The duties of a sober leader are outlined in succinct brilliance:

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
    for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
    defend the rights of the poor and needy.

As always, the “rights of the poor and needy.” Alas, how we–and our leaders–have so ignored the wisdom of the two verses.

The epilogue–and final verses of this remarkable book–limn in great detail the virtues of a wife, opening with the famous line, “A wife of noble character who can find?/ She is worth far more than rubies.” (10) as Lemuel’s mother describes her qualities in detail–qualities we have to believe the speaker herself possessed. And tucked in among the long inventory of duties and qualities is this all-important verse all children would do well to remember: “She speaks with wisdom,/ and faithful instruction is on her tongue.” (26)

And our responsibility as her children is clear: “Honor her for all that her hands have done,/ and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.” (31) Amen.

2 Corinthians 11:1–11: Despite Paul’s best efforts and his letters that have apparently offended many Corinthians, something bad is afoot at the church in Corinth: “I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” (3).

Paul clearly states the problem: “if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.” (4) In short, the Gospel is being warped, even perverted, by these “super-apostles” (5) who speak so eloquently.

I cannot help but be reminded of today’s “super-apostles,” pastors of mega-churches and TV stars (I’m talking about you, Joel Osteen and his many competitors and predecessors) who ever-so-slightly warp the truth of the Gospel into a saccharine “it’s-all-about-how-good-I-am” message that appeals to our individual pride. Or worse, a prosperity gospel (Creflo Dollar).

Paul reminds his listeners that unlike these others he ministered to Corinth free of charge and even suggests that,”I robbed other churches by receiving support from them so as to serve you.” (8) We can hear the barely-suppressed hurt and anger in his voice as he reminds them that “I have kept myself from being a burden to you in any way, and will continue to do so.” (9) as he comes back around to the original accusation that he is boasting. For this Paul provides the best answer of all: “Why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do!” (11). The question is, did the Corinthians listen and accept his words?

Of course, we are all Corinthians when we accuse our own pastors of a wide variety of shortcomings, and as we are too often attracted to a new, seemingly more attractive voice.  But we must never confuse the Good News preached with sincerity with what looks like “good news” sold by a marketing-savvy preacher. Which is why Jesus, not we, must remain ever at the center of our lives.

 

 

Psalm 73:21–28; Proverbs 30; 2 Corinthians 10:7–18

Psalm 73:21–28: After his bitter thoughts that the wicked would always triumph, his feeling that following God was an empty exercise, and then a reawakening that God has “set [the wicked] on slippery ground,” the psalmist realizes that when “my heart was embittered,/ and my conscience stabbed with pain” (21) he “was a dolt and knew nothing.” (22)

Rather than having been abandoned by God and thinking the wicked would ultimately triumph, he realizes that “I was always with You,/ You grasped my right hand.” (23) Moreover, God was not only present, he was active in the psalmist’s life: “You guided me with Your counsel,/ toward glory You took me,” (24)  as the poet asks rhetorically, “Whom else do I have in the heavens,/ and beside You whom would I want upon earth?” (25) The psalm ends on a wonderfully intimate note: “God’s closeness is good to me,/ I make the Master the Lord my shelter.” (28)

Christians who believe they are standing and fighting alone against all the forces of “tolerance” in the culture wars and especially for those who feel “our side has lost,” would do well to read and reflect on this psalm. From our vantage point it certainly seems that all has been lost and for the opponents, “haughtiness is their necklace” (6) and “they mock and speak with malice.” (8)

But like the psalmist we need to realize that our responsibility is to walk alongside God, fully conscious that he is our guide and our shelter. Yes, we may be mocked and even oppressed, and it certainly seems like the other side is triumphant, but our ever-faithful God is still nearby and our duty is to let him guide us.

Proverbs 30: After 29 chapters of proverbs by anonymous authors, collected in seemingly random order, we encounter the “sayings of Agur son of Jakeh—an inspired utterance.” (1) Moreover, we know to whom Agur is speaking: a certain Ithiel.

Agur opens his discourse admitting his discouragement (“I am weary God”) and asserting that he lacks understanding and wisdom because he has not “attained knowledge of the Holy One.” (3) Nor can he (or we) because “Who has gone up to heaven and come down?” (4) And then, for Christians, a provocative verse indeed: “What is [God’s] name, and what is the name of his son?” as he asks sarcastically, “Surely you know!” (4)  Which we do now.

It is with complete humility that “two things I ask of you, Lord;/ do not refuse me before I die:” (7) These are, “Keep falsehood and lies far from me;/ give me neither poverty nor riches,/ but give me only my daily bread.” (8) Now we are talking serious wisdom: praying to God for our daily bread, a theme echoed in the Lord’s prayer. 

And Agur provides the reason for his desire to hew to the middle road:
   Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
       and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
   Or I may become poor and steal,
       and so dishonor the name of my God. (9)

The remainder of this chapter is a marvelous inventory of the “threes and fours” of creation: Agur’s insights all leading up to the famous line, “If you play the fool and exalt yourself,/ or if you plan evil,/clap your hand over your mouth! ” (32) Notice once again that it is our words, our speech, that does the damage. Of course in that era speech was the main means of communication. Today we have so many more media in which to play the fool. And we see it around us every day. But the thrust of the verse is clear: it is our responsibility to not play the fool; we cannot claim to be the victim of circumstances or blame our circumstance on the acts of others.

2 Corinthians 10:7–18: Paul discourses on the issue of appearances versus actions, asserting the Corinthians are judging him (and others) solely by appearances (7) and that while he may appear weak in person [“he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.” (10)] and strong in his letters there is no inconsistency: “people should realize that what we are in our letters when we are absent, we will be in our actions when we are present.” (11)

With this assertion, Paul goes on (somewhat humorously, I think) to tell us that comparisons are pointless, especially when we boast about our personal qualities: “When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise.” (12) Which is not to say we should never boast. Paul makes it clear there is one sphere where his boasting is quite acceptable: “[we] will confine our boasting to the sphere of service God himself has assigned to us, a sphere that also includes you.” (13) Also, we do not “go beyond our limits by boasting of work done by others.” (15) Paul concludes this section about the perils of self-aggrandizement by telling us there is one safe source of commendation: “For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.” (17)

The question, therefore, to reflect on is, in what ways am I commended by the Lord?

Psalm 73:13–20; Proverbs 29; 2 Corinthians 9:10–10:6

Psalm 73:13–20: Up to this point the verses of this despairing psalm have lamented the the power and words of the wicked [“They put their mouth up to the heavens,/ and their tongue goes over the earth.” (9)] and their apparent success in seducing the population [Thus the people turn back to them,/and they lap up their words” (10)]. They sound like politicians who become wealthy along the way: “Look, such are the wicked,/ the ever complacent ones pile up wealth.” (12)

The wicked have basically taken over and it appears that God has allowed this, so much so that the psalmist believes that his faithful righteousness before God has been pointless: “But in vain have I kept my heart pure/ and in innocence washed my palms.” (13) But he know that if he had started to “talk like them” (15) and if “I thought to know these things,/ it was a torment in my eyes.” (16) Our poet remains steadfast, finally realizing  that the wicked will indeed get theirs in the end: “Yes, you set them on slippery ground,/ brought them down to destruction.” (18) And their downfall will be rapid: “How they came to ruin in a moment,/ swept away, taken in terrors!” (19)

These verses are worth reflecting on when we contemplate the apparent decline of morality in the culture. It seems as if God has deserted the world, allowing the ascendance of the hedonistic, self-centered, self-righteous attitude of those who see belief in God as being not only unnecessary, but deleterious, even evil. As witness the recent furor over gay marriage as those who don’t accept it as a civil right are castigated and accused of committing the greatest cultural sin of all: discrimination. American culture has listened to them and “lapped up their words.”

But this psalm offers hope that God is watching. And that above all, that our responsibility is to remain faithful despite what the larger culture might be saying and doing.

Proverbs 29: Apropos the theme of today’s psalm, our writer observes, “When the righteous thrive, the people rejoice;/ when the wicked rule, the people groan.” (2) Perhaps not in the short term, but certainly in the long run, and we can always hope that “Evildoers are snared by their own sin,/ but the righteous shout for joy and are glad.” (6)

If there is one consistent ethical thread throughout the entirety of the Old Testament it is God’s concern for the poor, and here our writer observes, “The righteous care about justice for the poor,/ but the wicked have no such concern.” (7) and “If a king judges the poor with fairness,/ his throne will be established forever.” (14) If God and kings care for the poor, our personal responsibility is equally clear. 

The writer sums up in one verse what the psalmist has begun to realize about the culture he lives in: “When the wicked thrive, so does sin,/ but the righteous will see their downfall.” (16)  And the source of the downfall is readily identifiable: Pride brings a person low,/ but the lowly in spirit gain honor.” (23) The key here for us is to remember that the writer is talking not just about other people but about us. I can’t control the pride of others, but I can certainly control mine.

2 Corinthians 9:10–10:6: At the end of chapter 9, Paul expresses his gratitude for the generosity he believes the Corinthians will shortly exercise: “This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God.” (9:12). Paul makes the crucial point that generosity is not only good in and of itself, but that it makes connections with others: “others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you…” (9:13,14a)

The source of this generosity is not from within ourselves, but it comes form God: “because of the surpassing grace God has given you.” (14b) This is something t remember when we give. We give not out of ourselves because that leads to pride, but we give because we have received God’s grace ourselves.

In an apparent reference to the letter Paul has received from Corinth (and which, sadly, we do not have) he suggests he’s been “timid” when in person at Corinth but “but “bold” toward you when away”–a clear sign that he’s received strong objections in what he wrote in his first letter to Corinth.

Worse than merely being”bold,” someone has accused Paul of living “by the standards of this world.” (10:2). But this accusation hardly intimidates him. Rather, he shoots back: “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does.” (3) and then the statement that he can call upon devastating heavenly power: “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.” (4) By the power of the Holy Spirit, Paul can “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God” (5a) Not only demolish, but take those very arguments and “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (5b)

Paul understands the real power of the Holy Spirit and “the knowledge of God,” something I tend to skip right over. Boldness is something we Christians tend to forget, I think, in the face of opposition since–to use today’s phrase– it will inevitably result in being accused of being “intolerant.” Especially in Paul’s implicit threat at the end of this passage, where he asserts “we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete.” (6) He is certainly drawing on the power of his Apostolic authority here. And whoever complained of Paul’s boldness in his first letter will discover that Paul has not only not backed down, he’s upped the stakes.

Psalm 71:1–18a; Proverbs 24; 2 Corinthians 6:3–18

Psalm 71:1–18a: This psalm of supplication opens with the psalmist’s simple statement, “In You, O Lord, I shelter,” and immediately asks God “Through Your bounty save me and free me./ Incline Your ear to me and rescue me.” (2) There is no beating around the bush here. God does not require a lengthy, worshipful introduction when we pray. Just come right to the point.

As usual, there are wicked enemies from whom the psalmist seeks rescue: “My God, free me form the hand of the wicked,/ from the grip of the wicked and the violent.” (4) The poet reminds God that they have been in a longstanding relationship: “O Lord, [you have been] my refuge since youth./ Upon You I relied from birth.” (6) At this point, supplication becomes thanksgiving: “You are my sheltering strength./ May my mouth be filled with Your praise,/ all day long Your glory.” (8) and then supplication again: “God do not keep far from me./ My God, hasten to my help.” (11).  Following the usual formula of hoping God will destroy his mocking enemies, he returns to praise: “My mouth will recount Your bounty,/ all day long Your rescue.” (15)

The jumping back and forth between supplication and thanksgiving demonstrates just how close a relationship the psalmist has with God. There is no need for rigid formulaic structures to our prayers. This psalm is a reminder that prayer is a conversation that roams between our needs and praise for the wonders of God’s love. God knows what we’re talking about, what we need and the depths of our love for him–and that he loves us.

Proverbs 24: Our sage demonstrates the relationship of wisdom, understanding and knowledge in two couplets:
By wisdom a house is built,
    and by understanding it is established;
by knowledge the rooms are filled
    with all precious and pleasant riches.

Wisdom is the overarching structure–the house–and it is built through understanding. Understanding emerges from the accumulation of knowledge, which metaphorically here is the furniture in wisdom’s house. Too often we stop as knowledge, as if that’s sufficient. But to extend the metaphor here, it would be like furnishing a patio, knowledge is useful only when it is found in the house of wisdom. In short, smart people with a myriad of facts at their fingertips are not necessarily wise.

From my increasingly aged perch here, I see knowledge all around me: especially in technology, in politics, in social structures. But the evidence of knowledge deployed without true understanding–without real wisdom–will inevitably bring dolorous consequences. Examples abound: ill-formed political decisions implemented without looking ahead to possible negative impact on other players. Or, technology to perform many amazing things at the genetic level without considering the ethical implications. Or, jumping on a popular bandwagon such as gay marriage without considering its long-term societal effects, never mind its ethical ones.

2 Corinthians 6:3–18: We see Paul’s deep hurt–and simmering anger– at how he has been treated by the Corinthians. When Paul is speaking emotionally rather than theologically he becomes a maker of lists and we have lists aplenty here. Paul notes how he has suffered for simply spreading the Good News: “as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger;” (4,5). But privation and suffering has brought out good qualities as well: “by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God;” (6, 7)  

The true depth of Paul’s agony comes out in the list of oppositions: “in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed;  as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” (8-10)

His implication is clear: he has been treated shabbily and unfairly by the Corinthians. They have rejected him–doubtless because of the harsh assessments and tough advice in his first letter. He says as much, “ We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians.” (11) But we have no doubt of Paul’s sincerity when he says, “our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours.” Although, being Paul, he cannot resist a sharp remark, “In return—I speak as to children—open wide your hearts also.” (13).  

But did they?