Psalm 14; Genesis 22; Matthew 8:5–22

Psalm 14: This is not a psalm of supplication but a philosophical soliloquy on the moral depravity of the society in which the psalmist finds himself. Once again, we have a prophetic (as in “forthtelling”) psalm that could have been written by Jeremiah or Ezekiel, who reflected on the same issues.

The psalmist opens with a dark observation about the people around him: “The scoundrel has said in his heart,/ ‘There is not God.'” (1a) Not only have they rejected God, but this rejection has led to moral depravity: “They corrupt,/ they make loathsome their acts.” (1b) In fact, and even worse than in Noah’s time where God at least found one good man, here the psalmist finds no one morally worthy: “There is none who does good.” (1c)

These corrupt people may think there is no God, but as in Noah’s time, God is in heaven observing human affairs, looking for one good man: “The Lord from the heavens looked down/ on the sons of humankind/ to see, is there someone discerning,/ someone seeking out God.” (2) But as the psalmist has already observed, it’s a fruitless search, “All turn astray,/ altogether befouled. / There is none who does good. /There is not even one.” (3)

The psalmist again asks, this time more incredulously, how these people can miss God’s presence: “Do they not know,/ all wrongdoers?” (4a) These evil ones are like locusts, “Devourers of my people devoured them like bread./ They did not call the Lord.” (4b) Despite all this evil, “God is with the righteous band.” (5a) And once again, we encounter the theme of how the powerful exploit the poor, but God is watching: “In your plot against the poor you are shamed,/ for the Lord is in his shelter.” (6) The evil ones will at last receive their just desserts..

And with the knowledge that God is watching all this evil, the psalmist prays for God’s intervention: “Oh, may from Zion come Israel’s rescue/ when the Lord restores His people’s condition.” (7a) And at that wonderful time, “May Jacob exult/ May Israel rejoice.” (7b)

This psalm is proof that we can cry out in despair about the reality that we are surrounded by God-rejecting evil. But as we cry, we also know in our hearts that God is indeed still here. And although the present may look dark and hopeless, there is a future where God will finally bring justice.

Genesis 22: The authors of the famous story of Abraham’s almost sacrifice of Isaac begin by telling us God’s motivation for this bizarre story: “God tested Abraham.” (1) Alas, as with so many stories in the Bible we only hear one side of the conversation. Would that we could have heard what Abraham said in reply to God’s command. Would it have been something like, “You’ve got to be kidding, God. After all the trouble it took to get Isaac in the first place?” Or, perhaps, “Isaac was a gift from you and now you’re asking me to give that gift back to you in the most cruel way possible.” We know that child sacrifice was common in other cultures of Abraham’s time, so it may have come across to Abraham as a cruel but all-to-familiar request. He may have concluded with some justification that this God was just like the other small-g gods in the region that were capricious and cruel.

Or did Abraham recognize from the first that God would not force him to actually carry through on this cruel plan and provide some means of escape? That’s my preferred scenario: Abraham ascended the mountain in the assurance that God would provide a means of escape.

Things go pretty far as Abraham builds an altar and somehow overcomes his son, (who is about 100 years younger than he, in order to tie him down). We have to imagine that Isaac was either drugged into unconsciousness, or simply played along to amuse his obviously insane father. Abraham draws the knife and the angel intervenes at the last moment: “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” (12) The ram stuck in the thicket magically appears and Isaac is spared.

The angel tells Abraham (and I presume, Isaac as well) that he has passed the test and that God says, “ I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.” (17)

Why this story? Whether it’s historical fact or not really doesn’t matter. I think the authors put it there to remind the Jews in captivity that while they are undergoing a severe test of their faith in Babylon, God is indeed faithful and will save them at the last moment just as he saved Isaac. When things seem darkest and most hopeless a sacrificial ram will appear in the bushes.

For us Christians, of course, this story is a metaphor for God sending his son, Jesus, to us. But unlike Abraham and Isaac, who escaped the dreadful act of a sacrificial death, Jesus did indeed become the final sacrifice on our behalf.

The chapter concludes with, yes, another genealogy, which must be there to provide narrative relief after the high drama that precedes it. Perhaps we’ll find out more in the next chapter.

Matthew 8:5–22: Although Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience, he wishes to make it abundantly clear that Jesus came for everyone, both Jew and Gentile. He makes his point with the healing of the centurion’s servant, who “is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.” (6) Jesus offers to go to the centurion’s house: “I will come and cure him.” But the centurion demurs and says, “only speak the word, and my servant will be healed.” (8). We then hear a wonderful speech about delegation, which means trusting the job will get done without having to be physically present: “I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” (9)

Jesus is impressed: “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith”(10) and he heals the servant from afar. But the most important thing Jesus says is that Gentiles will be included in the kingdom heaven along with the faithful Jews. And in what I think is a clear prophecy that Jesus will ultimately be rejected by the Jews, Matthew’s Jesus says, “while the heirs of the kingdom [the Jews] will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (12) I suspect that the community to whom Matthew was writing was hot to reject Gentile followers of Jesus and this is why the healing of the centurion’s servant is recorded as Jesus’ second miracle.

If the healing of the leper was the symbol of Jesus including the unclean, this story is that of Jesus including the Gentiles in the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, allowing us to know that Peter was married. One wonders if his wife accompanied her disciple husband on the three years of peregrination to come. Matthew has gone quite while without citing the Hebrew Scriptures, but at last he informs us, “This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.” Although it is John who speaks of Jesus being the Word, there is little question that Matthew’s Jesus is “Fulfiller of God’s Word.”

Matthew displays Jesus’ harsher, more demanding side with two would-be disciples. The scribe stands for those who are enthusiastic about following jesus, but are not ready to drop everything else, including abandoning their present lifestyle. Jesus makes it clear that anyone who follows him will not be leading neither a comfortable lifestyle nor staying in hotels: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (20) And he is demanding first priority. Even burying dead fathers is unimportant compared to the work afoot.

Of course, in reading this passage, I realize I am both the scribe who doesn’t want to camp by the side of the road and the man with higher priorities than following Jesus.

 

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