Psalm 18:37–45; Genesis 32:1–21; Matthew 12:9–21

Psalm 18:37–45: Having been trained and girded for battle by God and leaping into the fray with a great battle cry (36), our poet describes David moving with increasing speed as he begins to rush toward his enemies—”You lengthened my strides beneath me,/ and my feet did not trip.” (37) For those who think of the psalms such as 23 as being gentle and reflective, the verses that follow are grisly and disturbing, full of verbs and adjectives clearly evoking the violence and gore of hand-to-hand combat:
I pursued my enemies, caught them
turned not back till I wiped them out.
I smashed them, they could not rise,
they fell beneath my feet. (38, 39)

Notice the  first person pronoun, ‘I’, here. God has trained and given the power, but it is David who fights. Nevertheless, he pauses from slaying enemies long enough to once again give God all the credit and now notice the ‘You’:
You girt me with might for combat.
You laid low my foes beneath me,
and You made my enemies turn back before me, (40, 41a)

There is a complete circle here. God equips, David acts, but then gives God the credit for the results of his actions. He continues in the same rhythm, describing how he acted and then crediting God for what he was able to accomplish, right up to his eventual kingship:
I crushed them like dust in the wind,
like mud in the streets I ground them.
You saved me from the strife of the peoples,
You set me at nations’ head,
a people I knew not served me.
At the mere ear’s report they obeyed me,
aliens cringed before me. (43-45)

David was a great warrior and a great king because as the psalmist makes clear here, he submitted to God, prepared and then acted. When victory was his, he gave God the credit. It’s this last step that we so often forget. We achieve a victory—hopefully not as grisly as David’s—but we slip into believing we are the ones who deserve credit. We would do well to remember how David always remembered where his strength and victory came from.

Genesis 32:1–21: Having settled his affairs with Laban, Jacob moves toward Canaan, but well aware that Esau awaits. He attempts a peace offering, sending messengers ahead to Esau. We see a finally humble Jacob asking that “I may find favor in your [Esau’s] sight.” (5). The messengers return with disturbing news: “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.” (6). Jacob is between a rock and a hard place. He cannot return to Laban nor can he move forward without encountering Esau and his 400 men. “Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed” (7) and he divides his flocks, slaves and wealth into two parts so that of Esau attacks one place, Jacob will at least be able to preserve the other half.

Then Jacob does what we all should do when we are in difficult circumstances: he prays and it begins as a pretty desperate prayer: “Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children.” (11). But in the midst of prayer he remembers God’s promise of many offspring, and he clings to that shred of hope.

Jacob comes up with the only plan he can think of: to appease his brother by sending a very generous gift on ahead:  two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty milch camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys.” (14, 15). The only course open to Jacob is outright appeasement. He thinks desperately, “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterwards I shall see his face; perhaps he will accept me.” (20) He instructs every servant going ahead to say the same thing: “you shall say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob; they are a present sent to my lord Esau; and moreover he is behind us.’” (18) And we have the distinct sense that Jacob is left quaking in his boots.

To the Israelites reading this story so many years later, there’s a subtext: making substantial sacrifices not to appease an angry brother, but to appease an angry God for all their wrongdoings. There is great uncertainty here: will the gifts sent ahead be sufficient? Will the sacrifices made at the altar in the temple be sufficient? Or will God come in anger and strike them all dead?

What a joy it is for us that we do not have to feel the enormous uncertainty and dread that Jacob felt. For the sacrifice of Jesus Christ has been sufficient to cover our wrongdoings. We may have Esau’s in our lives whom we have wronged and now whom we wish to beg for forgiveness. And we will need to act as Jacob did. But just as Jacob remembers God’s promise and clings to that, we can move ahead seeking forgiveness of those we have wronged. But we are assured that God has already forgiven us.

Matthew 12:9–21: Jesus’ effrontery of healing on the Sabbath is drawing more than mere annoyance among the Pharisees. He asks them if a sheep falls into a pit on the sabbath whether they would rescue it, answering his own question, “will you not lay hold of it and lift it out?” (11) He then points out “How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep!” (12) and heals the man. At this point Matthew makes his first overt statement that the goal of the Pharisees is to conspire and figure out “how to destroy him.” (14)

Jesus does not hang around to find out what the Pharisees will do, and “he departed.” But the crowds follow and “he cured all of them,” (15). Jesus instructs those who have been healed “not to make him known,” (16) which I will take as don’t reveal where he is located. As we know, those efforts were rarely successful.

A clear subtext here is that Jesus is here to bring succor to the poor and diseased, but that compassion is forbidden because it breaks the rules. No question that this is an example to us: that we are to bring compassion no matter what officialdom may say. We too may break the rules, always remembering his words, “How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep!”

That Jesus is forced to hide is a signal that another prophecy has been fulfilled by Jesus as Matthew quotes form Isaiah: I will put my Spirit upon him,/ and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.” (18) And then again, until he brings justice to victory./ And in his name the Gentiles will hope.” (21) Now Matthew is speaking directly to the Gentiles in his audience. He is telling his readers pretty clearly that Jesus will be rejected and eventually killed by the Jewish religious authorities, but that the Gentiles will also be playing a crucial role in the story. But more importantly he is telling them that Jesus’ healing power is for them as well.

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