Psalm 28; Genesis 49; Matthew 17:14–27

Psalm 28: This psalm of supplication understands that communication requires both hearing and speaking, and the poet prays that God will do neither as he cries in desperation, “My Rock, do not be deaf to me./ Lest You be mute to me/ and I be like those gone down to the pit.” (1) If God does not hear, he will not speak. For me, this is often my fear when I pray. Is God really there or is this an entirely pointless exercise?


As a child might do to a recalcitrant father, the psalmist repeats his cry. Perhaps God will really get the message if we keep saying it: “Hear the sound of my pleading/ when I cry out to You.” (2a). He notes to God that he is in the physical attitude for prayer—”I lift up my hands”—and in the right place: “to Your holy shrine.” (2).

What gives this pray added urgency is that the poet fears that God will do the opposite of hearing and speaking: he will consign his supplicant to be among evildoers: “Do not pull me down with the wicked,/ and with the wrongdoers.” (3a). Worse, they are hypocrites, “who speak peace to their fellows /with foulness in their heart.” (3b)

In fact, evildoers deserve appropriate recompense for their foul deeds: “Pay them back for their acts/ and for the evil of their schemings./ Their handiwork give them back in kind./ Pay back what is coming to them.” (4) The question arises, is it proper for us to pray to God for people who have done us wrong to receive punishment from God as our psalmist does here? With his command to love our enemies, Jesus seems to have canceled the the thrust of this prayer.

The psalmist finally realizes that God’s action is not required. Evildoers will come to a bad end all on their own because “they understand not the acts of the Lord/ and His handiwork they would destroy and not build.” (5) This verse reenforces the idea that those who follow God build up and are a positive influence in society while evildoers destroy what has been built. This is the essential dynamic of human affairs. This psalm sees culture in stark black and white terms; there is no room for ambiguity. Either we are building up under God’s leadership or we are tearing down without God.

This also accounts for the poet’s desperation. If God does not answer, he knows he will be cast among the destroyers. But happily—and as always the case—the poet realizes that “the Lord is my strength and my shield./ In Him my heart trusts.” (7) God has come to the rescue and “I was helped and my heart rejoiced/ and with my song I acclaim him.” As always, God comes through in the end.

Genesis 49: A dying Jacob call the brothers together so “that I may tell you what will happen to you in days to come.” (1) And as the psalmist tells us, the brothers who have done evil will receive their recompense. Reuben, “you shall no longer excel/because you went up onto your father’s bed;/ then you defiled it” (4) For their various murders and animal cruelty(!)—”and at their whim they hamstrung oxen”—Simeon and Levi receive a curse rather than a blessing: “Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce,/and their wrath, for it is cruel!” (7).

We can tell this is history written many years later by the men of the tribe of Judah, which brother is a central focus of Jacob’s blessing, telling him that his descendants will rule over all the others: “he scepter shall not depart from Judah,/ nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,/until tribute comes to him.” (10)

And appropriately, Joseph receives Jacob’s lengthy blessing, concluding with:
     The blessings of your father
        are stronger than the blessings of the eternal mountains,
         the bounties of the everlasting hills;
     may they be on the head of Joseph,
         on the brow of him who was set apart from his brothers.” (26)

But what’s interesting to me is that there was no tribe of Joseph; there was only the “half tribes” of his sons, Ephraim and Menasseh. Was it because he married an Egyptian wife? Or something else?

But perhaps most mysteriously, Benjamin is effectively cursed by his father:
Benjamin is a ravenous wolf,
    in the morning devouring the prey,
    and at evening dividing the spoil. (27)

I’m pretty sure the actual Jacob said none of this, but that the authors of Genesis writing centuries later have used this final statement as a rationale to summarize the various qualities of the twelve tribes of Israel. I’m pretty sure that the tribes that comprised the northern kingdom of Israel are among those receiving the curses, and perhaps this accounts for the odd statement about Benjamin.

Finally, the man who stole the blessing from his brother, committed numerous sins, and yet who was immeasurably blessed by God breathes his last, “When Jacob ended his charge to his sons, he drew up his feet into the bed, breathed his last, and was gathered to his people.” (33)

Matthew 17:14–27:  Jesus returns to his healing ministry. A father of an epileptic son tells Jesus that “I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.” (16) Jesus responds in what can only be 100% human frustration: “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” (17) So, who is the faithless generation? It is his disciples who continue to demonstrate inadequate faith. His frustration becomes a teachable moment: “I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” (20)

As we well know, once Jesus has departed earth, his disciples do indeed move mountains in the form of changing the world as Christianity ultimately takes over the Roman Empire. But I think we need to remember that faith of this power did not come to them until Jesus sent them the “comforter” in the form of the Holy Spirit after he left earth. As mere humans without the power of Holy Spirit, they—and we—can do little work in the Kingdom. But the mustard seed has been planted in their hearts.

Just in case they didn’t get the message the first time, Jesus repeats his announcement of his impending death and resurrection. Matthew tells us that upon hearing this again, “they [the disciples] were greatly distressed.” And I suspect in large part it wasn’t that they were afraid he would die on them, but that they had hitched their respective stars to an apparent lunatic.

We Americans find the idea of paying a tax to support a religious institution unconstitutional, but it has been common throughout history and irreligious Europe still pays for state-run churches today. So too in Capernaum: the temple tax is due. Jesus asks Peter, “From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” (25) Peter answers quite naturally that ‘others’ owe the tax. “Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free.'” (26), his point being that as children of the Kingdom they do not owe religious taxes.

Nevertheless “so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up” (27) wherein Peter will find a gold coin with which to pay the tax. Thus, Peter will have paid the tax “to them for you and me” without using his personal funds. Peter and especially Jesus are still free and not beholden to the temple authorities. Jesus seems to be making a strong point here about his independence from the religious system of the day. He is indeed coming to put something quite different in its place.

Speak Your Mind