Archives for February 2016

Psalm 25:8–22; Genesis 45; Matthew 15:29–16:4

Psalm 25:8–22:  The latter half of this Psalm is strongly reminiscent of Psalm 23, but is more didactic, lacking the more famous tenderness and imagery of that Psalm as it describes how God leads. Here, those being led are those lacking social status: “He leads the lowly in justice/ and teaches the lowly His way.” (9)

This psalmist is clearer as to the requirements that those being led by God must possess: “All the Lord’s paths are kindness and truth/ for the keepers of His pact and His precepts.” (10) This of course is theologically true. We follow God because we wish to obey him.

In the midst of this theological discourse, the psalmist, who is definitely feeling deeply guilty, interjects his plea with some desperation: “For the sake of You name, O Lord,/ may You forgive my crime, which is great.” (11).

But he quickly returns to a more philosophical tone: “Whosoever the man who fears the Lord,/ He will guide him in the way he should choose.” (12) This is an interesting take on the nature of free will for those of us who follow God. We are free to choose, but because we are following God, we are much more likely to make a proper choice that keeps us on the path of God’s righteousness. And for the person who does so, “His life will repose in bounty,/ and his seed will inherit the earth.” (13) Once again, we encounter that Jewish theme of a man being remembered by his progeny.

The psalmist reinforces this general theology of following God’s law: “The Lord’s counsel is for those who fear Him” (14a) and reminds himself that “My eyes at all times are on the Lord,/ for He draws my feet from the net.” (15) Then once again, a personal supplication: “Turn to me and grant me grace/ for alone and afflicted am I.” (16) Now, the poet devotes the reminder of the psalm to his personal supplication as we discover more about his straits: “See my enemies who are many/ and with outrageous hatred despise me.” (19)

As always, the poet concludes by asserting his obedience to God and on a note of hope that God will indeed answer: “May uprightness, wholeness, preserve me,/ for in You I do hope.” (21) And it is indeed hope on which our faith is built: that assurance that God is indeed listening.

Genesis 45:  Joseph can remain silent no more. We come at last to Joseph’s Big Reveal. Even though he throws everyone but his brothers out of the room his weeping can be heard by the Egyptians and even Pharaoh. He says it with utter simplicity: “I am Joseph.” And without a breath asks in what must only be desperation: “Is my father still alive?” (3a)  His brothers cannot believe him, “so dismayed were they at his presence.” (3b).

Regaining his composure, Joseph asks them to come closer and gives them the details that only he would know. And he tells them, “do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.” (5) He elaborates, “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.” (7) and again asserts, “ it was not you who sent me here, but God.” (8)

At this point we cannot help but notice the parallels between Joseph and Jesus Christ. The people of Israel may have condemned Jesus to death, but it was God who sent him. And of course, in the same way that Joseph ensures the survival of both the root of the Jewish race, he has also ensured the survival of the Egyptians—Gentiles all. Just as Jesus has come and given his life so that both Jew and Gentile may live.

Pharaoh soon learns who the brothers are, and who Joseph really is. The king generously invites the entire extended family to Egypt, “father and your households and come to me, so that I may give you the best of the land of Egypt, and you may enjoy the fat of the land.’” (18) [Oh, that’s where that phrase comes from!] Which they do, although this ultimately leads to severe complications 400 years down the road.

This beautiful story concludes with two poignant scenes: Joseph and Benjamin—true blood brothers—embrace. And the final scene in Canaan, where we are allowed to witness Jacob’s reaction when he hears the good news from the returning brothers: “the spirit of their father Jacob revived. Israel said, “Enough! My son Joseph is still alive. I must go and see him before I die.’” (28)

Why do we love this story so much? Because it is a hero’s quest. Joseph has lost everything, and goes through significant trials but a greater thing arises from those trials, generosity ensues, and a happy reunion occurs. Which is a picture of Jesus Christ, who lost everything on our behalf, but has restored life to us just as Joseph restored life to his family. This is indeed grace in action.

Matthew 15:29–16:4:

After the story of the Gentile woman, Matthew provides us with a summary of Jesus’ many healing activities with a focus on the crowd’s reaction: “so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.” (15:31) Notice that the crowd praises “the God of Israel,” not Jesus. This is Matthew’s assertion that the crowd saw what the Pharisees never did: Jesus is not some ordinary magician performing healing tricks, but the crowds came to understand that it was the power of God himself who acted through this extraordinary rabbi.

Meals are always important to Matthew, and now he writes of the second hungry crowd: the feeding of the 4000. This time there was no option of sending everyone into town to buy lunch. They are in a remote spot and the disciples, who apparently forgot what happened before at the feeding of the 5000, ask, “Where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd?” (32) This time it’s seven loaves of bread and “a few fish.” “And all of them ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full.” (37)

So why does Matthew essentially repeat this feeding story which occurs in pretty much the same way? I think it’s because Matthew is making the point that Jesus is sustenance at every level. After all, when the Canaanite woman came to Jesus, he says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (15:26) and she then refers to crumbs at the table. The clear message is that Jesus is the source of life—and for Matthew, both physically and spiritually.

Jesus is now a true celebrity and the Pharisees and Sadducees decide to test him to see if the reports about him are true or if he is just another miracle-working charlatan. They demand to see “a sign from heaven,” and in one of the more humorous interactions he has with them, Jesus tells them about how to forecast weather.

But they “cannot see the signs of the times,” which is exactly how it is today: American culture goes on its merry way, but just as Jesus adds the ominous note that “no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.”—a clear reference to his death and resurrection—so, too, we are just like the Pharisees, blind to the implications of where our own culture is inexorably headed.

Psalm 25:1–7; Genesis 44; Matthew 15:21–28

Psalm 25:1–7: Unlike many psalms of supplication, which wonder where God is, this one begins on a more positive note of trust in God and implicitly, that God is listening to him: “To You, O Lord, I lift my heart./ My God in you I trust.” (1, 2a) He wishes to avoid public shame, although he does not say what the cause of this shame might be: “Let me not be shamed,/ let my enemies not gloat over me.” (2b)

Shame is something both we and psalmists rarely talk about, yet it is a primary feeling that everyone of us knows too well. The psalmist emphasizes how much he wishes to avoid that dreadful feeling. It would be far better for his enemies to feel this shame “Yes, let all who hope in You not be shamed./ Let the treacherous be shamed, empty-handed.” (3)

It would appear the psalmist believes that one way to be rescued from this shame is to deepen his knowledge of how God operates: “Your ways, O Lord, inform mr,/ Your paths instruct me.” (4) As in Psalm 23, this process is a matter of being led by God, rigorously following God’s path: “Lead me in Your truth and instruct me,/ for You are the God of my rescue./ In You do I hope every day.” (5)

By following God’s ways, the psalmist feels he can now ask for God’s forgiveness—the same kind of forgiveness he has received in the past: “Recall Your mercies, O Lord,/ and Your kindnesses—they are forever.” (6) The poet admits he has sinned and prays that God will forget those sins and instead in God’s mercy will remember him for the God-following man he has become: “My youth’s offenses and my crimes recall not./ In Your kindness, recall me—You;/ for the sake of Your goodness, O Lord.”

This psalm beautifully lays out the context of a prayer supplication. We look to God for guidance and we acknowledge our past sins rather than being in denial about them. Prayer is more than just an episodic one-off pleas for forgiveness. Rather it is what we do as a basic part of our daily walk with God and being aligned with him. In that alignment God enables us to cast off our shame.

Genesis 44: The party is over and Joseph commands his servants to fill the brother’s sacks with grain and “put each man’s money in the top of his sack.” (1) Then he has them put his expensive silver cup in Benjamin’s sack. The brothers leave and then Joseph tells his men to overtake the hapless brothers, accusing them of theft. The servant does so and the brothers are completely befuddled: “Why does my lord speak such words as these? Far be it from your servants that they should do such a thing!” (7) They offer to become Joseph’s slaves if the cup is found. Of course it’s found in Benjamin’s sack and the distraught brothers return to Joseph, throwing themselves at his feet. Joseph responds that they should know “that one such as I can practice divination” (15), i.e. he would know the cup was stolen so they were stupid to have taken it.

Now the brothers desperately protest their innocence and Judah asks what I believe is the central question of this story: ““What can we say to my lord? What can we speak? How can we clear ourselves?” (16) and he acknowledges that all the brothers must become Joseph’s slaves. Joseph appears to relent and says that only Benjamin must remain as a slave. This of course is a question each of us must ask at some point in our lives when we realize we are in a hopeless situation.

In desperation, Judah pleads for Joseph to release his young brother, describing how he had to beg his father, Jacob, to allow Benjamin to accompany them on their mission because Joseph had demanded it. If he were to return to Jacob without Benjamin, and if “he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die; and your servants will bring down the gray hairs of your servant our father with sorrow to Sheol.” (31) Judah then offers to be Joseph’s slave in place of his brother, telling him, “For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the suffering that would come upon my father.” (34).

The question is, why is Jospeh making the brothers suffer this way? I think it was because Joseph had to put his brothers to a severe test and see if their change of heart was genuine. Were they still the cruel brothers that had stripped him and sold him into slavery, or had they truly repented of their crimes and finally become honest men?  We see a clear indication of the latter in the poignancy of Judah’s description of how Jacob had begged them not to take Benjamin.  Also, there is a hint of the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ on our behalf when Judah offers to replace Benjamin as the slave. The brothers are truly changed men.

Matthew 15:21–28: For me, the story of the Canaanite woman is at the center of Jesus’ healings for a couple of reasons. The first is the power of persistence. Much to the great annoyance of the disciples, the woman keeps making a ruckus and they say, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” (23 Jesus seems to almost agree, but rather than just sending her away, tells her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (24)  But this Gentile woman won’t give up; she kneels down and pleads, “Lord, help me.” Jesus replies rather harshly that she seems not to be getting his message about the exclusivity of his healing ministry, telling her, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (26). The woman knows she is one of those dogs, and she does something remarkable. She is the only person in the Gospel that pushes back on Jesus with one of the greatest lines in Matthew: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” (27).

Jesus acknowledges the woman’s persistent faith and heals her daughter.  Her persistence payed off. Her first prayer wasn’t answered, so she pushes on with the next one. She never gives up.

I think the second reason for the centrality of this story is that the very Jewish Matthew makes it crystal clear that Jesus’ healing and grace is for everyone, not just the Jews. Yes, the Jews may have been God’s chosen people and Jesus’ primary audience, but they were not God’s exclusive people. Matthew reminds his readers that God is the God of all humanity and Jesus therefore is for all of us as well.

I’m sure there were a number of Jews who accepted Jesus as their Messiah who were offended to think Gentiles could lay claim to Jesus. But here it is. Gentiles may be second in line to Jesus, but our faith saves us just as effectively.

Psalm 24; Genesis 43; Matthew 15:10–20

Psalm 24: This psalm opens with a reminder of God as Creator; the source of all life, and that God is ruler over all: “The Lord’s is the earth and its fullness,/ The world and the dwellers within it. / For He on the seas did found it,/ and on the torrents set it firm.” (2) Following this introduction, the psalm takes on a liturgical structure of question and response. We can almost see the pilgrims ascending to the Temple Mount, with a leader asking the question and the congregation replying— exactly as we would read psalms responsively today.

The first questions deal with the qualifications of the people heading to worship as the questioner asks, “Who shall go up to the mount of the Lord,/ and who shall stand up in His holy place?” (3). The congregation answers, “The clean of hands and the pure of heart,/ who has given no oath in a lie/ and has sworn not in deceit.” (4)

The congregational answer includes the intriguing phrase, “This is the generation of His seekers,/ those who search out your presence, Jacob.” (6) Yes, they are certainly seeking God, and in “Jacob,” which is also “Israel, I believe they are seeking out their own roots and identity. For us reading the psalm today, it suggests that we not only seek God, but also seek to understand our own selves—where we come from and where we are going. Self-awareness is a crucial aspect of being a worshipper of God. If we do not have insight into our own being we can hardly expect to gain insight into God.

The next question is of course the one Handel asks in his Messiah: “Who is the king of glory?” (8a) A short question with an obvious answer: “The Lord, most potent and valiant.” (8b) Then the psalm takes on a militaristic aspect: “The Lord Who is valiant in battle.” (8c) And the pilgrims’ walk becomes a mighty victory procession entering the city fresh from conquering the enemy. At its head is God as conquering king: “Lift up your heads, O gates,/ and lift up, eternal portals,/ that the king of glory may enter.” (9) The final liturgical question answers itself: “Who is he, the king of glory?/ The Lord of armies, He is the king of glory.” (10)

It is psalms like these that remind us of God’s magnificence and power. That he would stoop to love us and rescue us through jesus Christ is a made all the more remarkable in the light of his awesome power and glory. If we ever needed a reminder of why God is the object of our worship, it is right here.

Genesis 43: The famine continues in Canaan and it’s time to head back to Egypt and buy more food. Judah reminds Jacob that “The man solemnly warned us, saying, ‘You shall not see my face unless your brother is with you.’” (3). Jacob accuses Judah of revealing more information to “the man” than necessary, especially that there was another younger brother, Benjamin. Judah replies that there is something about the Egyptian that mysteriously seemed to have deep knowledge about them. After Judah says he will be surety for Benjamin, Jacob finally relents, insisting they bring presents—”a little balm and a little honey, gum, resin, pistachio nuts, and almonds” (11)— as well as double the money they had mysteriously received. How much like Jacob we are when we are asked to give up the one thing that is most precious to us. We resist at first, but just as Judah stood surety for his young brother, Jesus stands for us before God, and we relent and hand control over to Jesus.

Joseph sees the brothers with Benjamin and instructs his servants to bring the men into his house prepare a feast. The brothers are afraid, thinking the worst, telling Joseph’s steward: “It is because of the money, replaced in our sacks the first time, that we have been brought in, so that he may have an opportunity to fall upon us, to make slaves of us and take our donkeys.” (18) The steward assures them Joseph has been paid, and suggests “your God and the God of your father must have put treasure in your sacks for you; I received your money.” (23) Notice that the steward reminds them that their God is the source of this generosity.  Then Simeon is brought out and there must have been enormous relief on the part of all the brothers..

Joseph finally appears and after exchanging greetings with the brothers, he sees Benjamin. “Overcome with affection for his brother, and he was about to weep. So [Joseph] went into a private room and wept there.” (30) Seated for lunch the brothers are “amazed” that the place cards are in the exact birth order of the brothers. Benjamin gets 5 times the lunch portions as any other brother. [One suspects this is because Benjamin was a growing teenager.]

The story’s drama is heightened by Joseph not yet revealing himself, but with various clues such as the seating order at lunch, the brothers must have suspected something.

Why does this story resonate so deeply with us today? Joseph is an archetype of Jesus. As Jesus makes clear later in Matthew, we often don’t realize he is sitting right next to us. We receive blessings from him, whose source—like the gold in the brother’s bags—we do not understand, but ultimately realize it can come only from God. Jesus asks us to do difficult things just as Joseph demanded that the brothers bring Benjamin with them back to Egypt. But above all, Jesus invites us to sit down and sup with him. And like the brothers, we are merry in the Jesus’ saving grace.

Matthew 15:10–20: We have observed many times that in the OT and especially the Psalms speech is the source of great evil. In the dispute about not washing hands before a meal, Jesus reminds the crowd of this truth: “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” (11) The disciples point out the obvious: “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” (12). Jesus dismisses their concerns, noting that it is God who will make the final judgement.

He then makes the famous observation, “Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” (14) For us, it is false religiosity of the type on display by the Pharisees, that causes so many people to fall into the pit of despair. Today, it is the prosperity gospel of Osteen et al that insists if we are not getting rich and receiving “blessings” it is because we have sinned that exactly reflects the quid pro quo thinking the Pharisees.

Peter, being Peter, asks for an explanation, which Jesus patiently gives him (and us) via a physiology lesson about digestion: “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (17). Far worse, he asserts, are the words that “come out of the mouth [which] proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.” (18) Notice that Jesus also gives a moral physiology lesson here: it is the heart—our will in unending conflict with our conscience—which is the source of what comes out of our mouths. Then in a very Paul-like gesture, Jesus provides us with a list of the sins of which we are so readily capable: “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.” (19, 20a). Perhaps most lethal of all is “evil intentions,” for all other actions arise from that one. 

So, while our mouths may be the medium of communication, it is our heart that defines who we are. Which is why we ask Jesus to take up residence there.

Psalm 23; Genesis 42; Matthew 14:25–15:9

Psalm 23: What can be said about this most beloved of Psalms that hasn’t been said or written already? The metaphor of God as shepherd occurs in many other psalms, but here there is a powerful simplicity and tenderness that captures our hearts. I am unsure as to why this psalm is read mostly at funerals because it is entirely life-affirming and really has far more to do with how God guides and shepherds us through the vicissitudes of our lives than a benediction at its end.

If we’re willing to see ourselves as God’s sheep, the psalmist highlights the various events and trials that we encounter during our life and describes in this greatest of metaphors how God aids us.

  • It is God who ensures that I will not lack for the necessities of life: “I shall not want.” (1b)
  • God brings us rest and reflection when we’re exhausted: “In grass meadows He makes me lie down/ by quiet waters he guides me.” (2)
  • God brings healing from emotional and physical disease: “My life He brings back.” (3a)
  • God guides us away for  evil and toward righteousness: “He leads me on the  pathways of justice/ for His name’s sake.” (3b)
  • God is our protector in dangerous times and places: “Though I walk in the vale of death’s shadow,/ I fear no harm/ for You are with me.” (4a)
  • God is our guide and comfort in the darkest of times, directing our life with both gentleness and vigor: “Your rod and Your staff—/ it is they that console me.” (4b)
  • God protects us from our enemies: “You set out a table before me/ in the face of my foes.” (5a)
  • God supplies us with our physical and spiritual needs to the point of excess: “You moisten my head with oil,/ my cup overflows.” (5b)

In short, this psalm addresses just about every way in which God is faithfully at our side in our quotidian lives. This psalm is no benediction, but a celebration of God’s presence in every aspect of our life—and a beautiful reminder of how much richer and blessed our lives are with God alongside than without him. After reading this psalm it’s difficult to imagine the emptiness of a life that has rejected God and believes we are simply an accident of evolution.

Genesis 42: In one of the most dramatic stories in the Bible, Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to buy food. Joseph recognizes them, but they do not recognize him. Joseph accuses them of being spies, which they vehemently deny. He locks them in prison for three days [there’s that three-day theme we see again and again in these stories.]. He releases them but demands one brother remains as a hostage until they return with their youngest brother.

What we never heard in Sunday school about this story is the remorse of the brothers for how they have wronged Joseph and their father: “They said to one another, “Alas, we are paying the penalty for what we did to our brother; we saw his anguish when he pleaded with us, but we would not listen. That is why this anguish has come upon us.” (21) Which leads to internecine sniping: “Then Reuben answered them, “Did I not tell you not to wrong the boy? But you would not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.” (22) The drama is intensified because this conversation occurs in front of Joseph, who understands every word spoken. The brother’s words affect him so deeply that “He turned away from them and wept.” (24)

What were Joseph’s feelings here? Was he angry? Did he feel a satisfying sense of justice? In his tears I think he realized that despite the evil his brothers had committed, he longed for his family and his father. And his order for them to return to him with Benjamin certainly suggests he wanted desperately to see his youngest brother. In short, I think Joseph wanted to forgive them for the wrongs they had committed and he is feeling intense compassion for them, which he cannot yet reveal.

The brothers return to Canaan and to Jacob with sacks of wheat and unknown to them, sacks of money, which understandably causes great distress lest they be accused of stealing it. Jacob accuses the brothers, “I am the one you have bereaved of children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and now you would take Benjamin. All this has happened to me!” (36). Reuben promises to kill his own two sons should they not carry out their mission to return with Benjamin. But Jacob refuses, telling the brothers, “If harm should come to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol.” (38) AT this point things seem to be at an impasse.

In addition to it being just a fine story, Joseph is an archetype of Jesus, who comes to earth among brothers (us) and is rejected. The scene between brothers and Joseph reveals the deep compassion that Jesus feels for each of us. And like the sacks full of money, he brings us unexpected rewards. And as I think the brothers’ lives will be transformed by Joseph, so too our lives are transformed by Jesus.

Matthew 14:25–15:9: Jesus walks on water out to the disciples’ boat, creating enormous fear, which he quickly disperses with the famous words, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” (14:27) Which of course is a word for all of us. Ever impetuous, Peter volunteers to walk on water, which he does successfully until he realizes what he is doing and becomes afraid and begins sinking. Jesus immediately rescues him. This of course is a dramatic illustration of the crucial importance of trusting God. It is also a wonderful illustration of the theme of today’s psalm, which speaks of the reassuring protection God brings to every aspect of our lives.

In what appears to be an official delegation sent by temple officials, “Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem.” (15:1) What’s interesting here is that they do not accuse Jesus directly of breaking the law (probably because they had no evidence), but rather to accuse his disciples on what seems to be a rather trivial offense: “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” (15:2)

In a wonderful rebuke, Jesus doesn’t explain or make excuses but reverses the charges, asking them ““And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (15:3) He then points out that rather than support their own parents, they say to them, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ (15:5) Worse, they believe that absolves them from honoring their parents. Then Jesus lays it on them: “So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! ” (15:6, 7). Then he quotes Isaiah, “‘This people honors me with their lips,/ but their hearts are far from me.” (15:8)

This story should be read frequently in church, which frequently stands rightly accused of being filled with rule-bound hypocrites, who too often use their interpretation of Scripture  to escape responsibility to  exclude those they deem unworthy or to serve the poor and be an effective presence in the community. These “country club churches” prove that the habits and attitudes of Pharisees and scribes are still very much with us.

Psalm 22:29–32; Genesis 41:17–57; Matthew 14:15–24

Psalm 22:29–32: This benedictory conclusion of the psalm picks up the theme of worship in the preceding verses, observing that whether or not the nations know him, God nevertheless rules over all civilization: “For the Lord’s is the kingship—/ and He rules over the nations.” (29) Our poet even extends this worship down below the earth: “Yes, to Him will bow down/ all the netherworld’s sleepers.” (30a) This verse seems to be a puzzling exception to the general rule in the Psalms that the dead, being dead, cannot worship God. Yet, here is exactly that. The dead are also worshipers: “Before him will kneel/ all who go down to the dust/ whose life is undone.” (30b)

Returning back up to earth, the poet looks far into the future as he expresses confidence that “My seed will serve Him./ It will be told to the master for generations to come.” (31a) As we have observed many times, for the Jews, it is a person’s progeny that ensures he or she will be remembered.

Here at the very conclusion of this psalm that began on such a desperate note that God had forsaken him, our psalmist ends looking far into the future, confident that generations to come will know that God is always at their side and will worship him as “They will proclaim His bounty to a people aborning,/ for [all] he has done.” (31b, 32)

The trajectory of this psalm reflects a path of spiritual discovery from feeling abandoned by God and desperate up to the heights of assurance that God will not only be with the psalmist himself, but also for all the generations yet to come. It is a brilliant encapsulation of life as a walk of growing faith in who God is—and more importantly, that God is with us.

Genesis 41:17–57: Today’s reading opens with the Pharaoh describing his dream to Joseph, who has just announced to Pharaoh and his court, “It is not I; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” (16) The first dream is seven fat cows being consumed by “seven other cows came up after them, poor, very ugly, and thin.” (19) Pharaoh’s second dream involves the same fat/ thin theme, only this time “seven ears of grain, full and good, growing on one stalk,” are consumed by “seven ears, withered, thin, and blighted by the east wind.” (23).

Joseph explains that “the dreams are one, and the same” and it is “God [who] has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do.” (25). The prisoner then explains that the dream means seven years of plenty are to be followed by seven years of famine. Again, invoking God, Joseph explains the fact that “the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about.” (32).

While Joseph’s seemingly effortless interpretation is impressive what is even more impressive is that Joseph suggests to Pharaoh precisely what he should do about the upcoming 14 years: “therefore let Pharaoh select a man who is discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land, and take one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven plenteous years.” (33, 34) and that this overseer should supervise the storage of that food so that it “shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine that are to befall the land of Egypt.” (36)

After looking around his court, the Pharaoh asks, “Can we find anyone else like this—one in whom is the spirit of God?” (38) Of course the answer is standing right in front of him. He appoints Joseph as the man in charge of the program and at the age of thirty, Joseph ascends to enormous power as Pharaoh’s second-in-command, enjoying all the perks, including a wife, that come with his high office.

Joseph’s food program is wildly successful and he “stored up grain in such abundance—like the sand of the sea—that he stopped measuring it; it was beyond measure.” (49) In the meantime, he has two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. In the names of his sons we read Joseph’s autobiography. Manasseh means “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house.” (51). In short, Joseph has begun a new life; the old one is no more. Ephraim means “For God has made me fruitful in the land of my misfortunes.” (52), which is certainly the case.

So, does Joseph have relevance for us beyond being a great story? I think that Joseph’s journey against his will from an old life to a startlingly better life represents our own Christian walk when we abandon everything, including our egos, to God and let God take us where we will. Throughout his entire story, Joseph constantly trusts God and is always clear that anything he is able to do comes from God. He has  turned everything completely over to God, never forgetting that it is God who gets all the credit for what has happened. Joseph has never said, ‘Hey, I’m pretty good,’ nor has he ever indicated that he is master of his fate. Would that we do the same.

Matthew 14:15–24: We see the managerial expertise of the disciples when they come to Jesus after a long day of preaching and suggest that he “send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” (15). I know if I were in the same place, I would say exactly the same thing. After all, it’s important logistics. But Jesus is always thinking beyond logistics and sees a whole other dimension when he replies, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” (16).

Logisticians that they are, they’ve already taken a picnic inventory of the crowd and know that only two fish and fve loaves of bread are available. Their logic is irrefutable: there’s just not enough to go around. Of course, Jesus ignores their sage and realistic advice and asks them to bring the meager loaves and fishes to him. We know what ensures to the tune of 12 baskets of leftovers.

The usual interpretation of this  miracle story is that God always provides beyond our fondest hopes. But I think another way of looking at it is the rational expectations and logic of the disciples as over against Jesus’ irrational actions. We humans—especially we engineers—look at life as a logic chain: A leads to B leads to C. Hungry crowd–>low food inventory–>send the people off to find their own food. But Jesus is so annoyingly irrational. He constantly wants to do the illogical thing. And because he’s not boxed in by logic great things happen.

The lesson here for me is that faith is not always about rationality. Jesus not only thought outside the box; he acted outside the box. He took risks and the rewards were far greater than any rational act could have ever produced. My prayer is for me to be willing to take bigger and, yes, irrational risks in the name of Jesus. Who knows what great things might result?

 

Psalm 22:22–28; Genesis 40:1–41:16; Matthew 14:1–14

Psalm 22:22–28: At last, God has responded to the psalmist’s pleas: “And from the horns of the ram you answered me.” (22) And in the joy of rescue, his greatest desire is to tell the good news to others and worship: “Let me tell Your name to my brothers,/ in the assembly let me praise you.” (23).  In fact, all of Israel should worship God: “Fearers of the Lord, O praise him!/ All the seed of Jacob revere Him!” (24) Our response to God’s answering our prayers is a public event: all should rejoice together with us. This is exactly Jesus’ point in the parable of the Prodigal Son: when the prayers of the father are answered and his long lost son returns, he throws a party.

The psalmist once again points out that God is especially in favor of the poor, among whom he counts himself: “For He has not spurned nor despised/ the affliction of the lowly,/ and has not hidden His face from them;/ when he cried out to Him, He heard.” (25) God has heard our prayers and answered; now it is time for God to hear our praise: “For You—my praise in the great assembly,/ My vows I fulfill before those who fear him.” (26) Again, it is all, but especially the poor, who will enjoy God’s favor: “The lowly will eat and be sated.” (27a)

But above all else, if we search for God we will find him because he’s already here: “Those who seek Him will praise the Lord./ May you be of good cheer forever.” (27b) For a psalm that began in the depths of abandonment with the cry to God, “Why have you forsaken me?” it has ascended through every woe to reach the highest heights of praise and adoration. Not just for the psalmist; not just for his friends and those around him; but for the entire world: “All the far ends of the earth will remember/ and return to the Lord./ All the clans of the nations/ will bow down before You.” (28)

Such is the rhythm of our lives as well. If we are willing to pray to God in our times of deepest despair, we will hear God’s answer, and even if the answer is not the one we think we want, God has heard and responded. And that response is always worthy of our praise.

Genesis 40:1–41:16: There’s a wonderful symmetry in Joseph’s story. It was his dreams that were a root cause to his brother’s hatred and caused him to become a slave who ends up in a foreign prison. And now it is his dreams that effect his rescue and ultimately, his ascension to becoming the power behind the Pharoah’s throne. It begins inauspiciously while he is still in prison. The Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer and chief baker have offended Pharaoh, who casts them into prison. Joseph shows up one morning [he apparently has free run of the prison] and asks the two, ““Why are your faces downcast today?” (40:7) They answer they’ve each had a memorable dream but have no one to interpret them. Joseph volunteers to interpret them, but not before the all-important step of giving God the credit for what he is about to do: “And Joseph said to them, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me.” (8)

The cupbearer explains his dream and Joseph tells him, “within three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your office; and you shall place Pharaoh’s cup in his hand,” (13) He also asks the cupbearer to put in a good word for him to the Pharaoh, although we learn a bit later that “the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.” (22) Encouraged by this favorable interpretation, the baker asks Joseph to interpret his dream, too. The implication of the baker’s dream is pretty grim: he will be hanged within three days, and that is exactly what happens.

It seems that everyone in Egypt is dreaming. The Pharaoh dreams the famous dream of seven fat cows and the seven thin cows who eat the fat ones. The dream repeats itself in the form of seven “ears of grain, plump and good” (41:5) that are swallowed up by seven thin ears of corn. The usual crowd of court magicians are unable to interpret the dreams when the cupbearer finally remembers Joseph, who interpreted the cupbearer’s and baker’s dreams correctly. We have to give the cupbearer some credit here. He says,“I remember my faults today,” (41:9) at least feeling bad for a while about having forgotten about Joseph.

Joseph is hauled out of the dungeon; they clean him up and he appears before Pharaoh.  The Pharaoh tells Joseph, “I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” (15) The key point of the story this far is that Joseph tells the Pharaoh exactly what he told the cupbearer and baker: “Joseph answered Pharaoh, “It is not I; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” (41:16)

And that is the lesson for us. Whatever great works we are able to do, it is God who has given us wisdom, insight, and strength. This is the consistent theme of the entire Joseph story: He understood he was man of unwavering faith in God and that no matter what he was able to accomplish, it was God who enabled him. And it was God who deserves the credit. Something we should remember when we are able to accomplish significant things in our own lives.

Matthew 14:1–14: This grisly story of the fate of John the Baptist at the hands of Herodias’ daughter and wife speaks at several levels. First, there is the moral stupidity of Herod, so taken by the infamous dance of the daughter that he grants her any wish. Manipulated by Herodias’ wife—the same wife after whom Herod lusted— the daughter asks for John’s head. Even though Herod was anxious to be rid of John, he had not executed the prophet because of his inherent cowardice: “he feared the crowd, because they regarded him as a prophet.” (5) Herod’s moral cowardice is amplified by his response to the daughter’s request. Even though he was “grieved,” he carries through and executes John because he as made a stupid promise and does not wish to appear weak or vacillating before his guests.

We all have been Herod. Perhaps not as dramatically or with such fearful consequences, but I know have acted as a coward when challenged about my faith. I’d much rather not offend my guests than speak up for Jesus.

This story also gives us a very clear picture of the extremely hostile atmosphere in which Jesus was operating. Matthew is clearly implying that if John came to a bad end for his prophecy, how much worse will be Jesus’ fate given his even more powerful words and deeds—and his unsurpassed ability to offend the religious leaders of Israel.

Matthew does not tell us what Jesus says when he hears of John’s death. We learn only that “when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” (13a) We have to assume it was to mourn the loss of a great friend and to reflect on the fate that he knew doubtless awaited him. This is a poignant reminder of Jesus’ very human nature that included the ability to weep and mourn.

But the crowds were relentless and “they followed him on foot from the towns.” (13b) Even in the midst of Jesus’ deep mourning, “he had compassion for them and cured their sick.” (14) Would I ever be able to reach out in compassion even when we ourselves are in pain? The clear message seems to be that we must if we wish to follow Jesus’ example.

Psalm 22:9–21; Genesis 39; Matthew 13:47–58

Psalm 22:10–22: The psalmist recalls that God was with him when he was born: “For You drew me out from the womb,/ made me safe at my mother’s breasts./ Upon You I was cast form birth,/ from my mother’s belly You were my God.” (10) And now in his time of trouble, he asks God to remember that and pleads, “Do not be far from me,/ for distress in near,/ for there is none to help.” (11) For now, far from the safety of his mother’s womb, in finds himself in mortal danger as “Brawny bulls surrounded me,/…They gaped with their mouths against against me—/ a ravening roaring lion.”  (13, 14)

One of the most evocative and dramatic descriptions ever written of the physical and psychological effects of terror and execution follows:
Like water I spilled out,
all my limbs fell apart.
My heart was like wax,
melting within my chest.
My palate turned dry as a shard
and my tongue was annealed to my jaw. (15, 16)

These verses clearly describe the agonies of Jesus’ crucifixion, including the water spills out of his body when the soldier pierces his side with a sword.  We can feel Jesus’ heart skipping beats and the dry mouth that leaves him speechless as he nears death, his thirst slaked only by a sponge of vinegar. The poet continues to describe in detail the hopelessness and agony of his predicament on the cross: “For the came all around me,/ a pack of the evil encircled me,/ they bound my hands and feet.” (17) They strip him naked and then in a remarkable parallel to what happened to Jesus’ robe at the foot of the cross: “They shared out my garments among them/ and cast lots for my clothes.” (19)

In agony, the poet pleads, “But You, O Lord,be not far. My strength, to my aid O hasten!/ Save from the sword my life.” (20, 21a). Which of course is exactly what happens three days later–and the course of history is changed forever.

Genesis 39: Joseph is sold as a slave into Potiphar’s house and “the Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man” (2) and he ascends quickly to the position of overseer of Potiphar’s house. The author’s make it quite clear that “the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field.” (5). A takeaway for us here is that God can bless people who are surrounded by a person who trusts deeply in God.

Joseph is “handsome and good-looking” (6) and Potiphar’s wife famously tries to seduce him. Joseph resists. FInally, she physically tackles him, and grabs his outer garment as Joseph flees outside.  She uses this as evidence for her fabricated story of Joseph’s attempted rape. The husband tosses Joseph in jail.

But no matter where Joseph is, God’s love envelopes him and this love enables Jospeh to once again rise to the top of the heap: “But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love; he gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer.” (21) The jailer places Joseph in charge of everything in the jail, freeing the jailer for a life of leisure: “The chief jailer paid no heed to anything that was in Joseph’s care, because the Lord was with him; and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper.” (23)

So, what is the point of this story other than to highlight Joseph as being a supremely competent and handsome manager? Again and again, the authors make the point that Joseph enjoys success because God “shows him steadfast love.” Just as God loves each of us. Obviously, we cannot all be Joseph, but we do know that whatever our circumstances, be it as a slave or as a prisoner, we can do everything to God’s glory because God first loved us. Will we prosper like Joseph did in every aspect? Probably not. But we can never forget that we are loved by God regardless of where we are. Just as Joseph did not forget. Nor did Joseph complain about what happened to him. He simply remained steadfastly God’s person. Just as we should.

Matthew 13:47–58: More parables that make it crystal clear that the world contains good and bad people. As far as Jesus is concerned, there is no ambiguity or gray area. Only that there will be a culling ay the end of history when “The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (49b, 50)

Jesus returns from his peregrinations around Galilee to Nazareth. Unlike Luke who tells the story of Jesus’ sermon at the synagogue, Matthew observes that Jesus is rejected because he was the carpenter’s son: too well known in a family well-known to have zero status; a family without distinction, power, wealth, high office, or anything else to suggest a source of Jesus’ power. We are exactly the same as the inhabitants of Nazareth. We make exactly the same judgements about others based on our faulty perception of where power should come from—family, wealth, title— forgetting that the power Jesus displayed comes from one place only: the Holy Spirit.

And in our cynicism and disbelief it becomes impossible to participate in or derive benefits from that power. Perhaps this is the unforgivable sin that Matthew described earlier. If we reject the Holy Spirit, we will certainly be cast into the outer darkness at the end of history. Nor in the meantime will we ever enjoy the benefits of Jesus’ healing power. That certainly seems to be what the people of Nazareth did.

 

Psalm 22:1–9; Genesis 38; Matthew 13:36–46

Psalm 22:1–8: The opening line of this psalm of supplication—”My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?—is among the most familiar lines in the Psalms because it is what Jesus spoke in his agony on the cross.  [Although he spoke it in his native tongue of Aramaic rather than Hebrew.] Anyone who heard those lines on that fateful day knew the lines that followed spoke of the desperate realization that God’s rescue was not forthcoming: “Far from my rescue are the words that I roar./ My God, I call out by day and You do not answer, by night-no stillness for me.” (2b, 3) To be deserted by a silent God was perhaps even greater torment than Jesus’ very real physical pain.

The psalmist goes on to plead with God: “In You did our fathers trust,/ they trusted, and You set them free.” (5) Why would God listen to them and not the psalmist?  Not only did God listen to his forefathers, he acted: “To You they cried out, and escaped,/ in You they trusted and were not put to shame.” (6). The psalmist asks the question we all ask at some point in our lives: You’re there for others, God, but why have you abandoned me?

The psalmist theorizes that it is because of his inherent unworthiness: “But I am a worm and no man,/ a disgrace among men, by the people reviled.” (7) (8) In some ways this cry has even greater pathos that the first line of the psalm. It is one thing to feel forsaken, but to believe one is unworthy even to be heard by God only compounds the agony. An agony of unworthiness further amplified by the derision of others: “All who see me do mock me–/they curl their lips, they shake their head.” (8)

And yet.. a tiny flame of hope burns, a hope that God will indeed hear his cries: “Who turns to the Lord, He will set him free./ He will save him, for he delights in him.” (9) This is the hope that we have to believe Jesus still felt as he hung on the cross. That God’s abandonment was only temporary. It is the same hope that we can call on even in the deepest night of the soul.

Genesis 38: One wonders why the story of Judah’s offspring interrupts the flow of the Joseph story. Judah has married the Canaanite woman, Shua, who bears two son, Er and Onan. Er marries Tamar but he is “wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death.” (7) Judah asks the younger son Onan to impregnate the widow Tamar, but he only masturbates “so that he would not give offspring to his brother.” (9) For this, God puts him to death as well. [I think it’s crucial to note that Onan died not because he “spilled his seed on the ground” but because he selfishly did not follow Judah’s orders to continue the ancestral line.] Judah invites the widowed Tamar to live in his house.

Judah’s wife, Shua, dies and following the requisite mourning, Judah is on the move. Tamar hears this and stations herself at the city gate. She is veiled, so Judah does not recognize her. Thinking her to be a prostitute, Judah promises to pay with a “kid from the flock,” but Tamar insists n a pledge that he will indeed pay for her services:  “Your signet and your cord, and the staff that is in your hand.” (18) Judah hands the items over to Tamr and has sex with her.

Judah eventually finds out that the woman he had intercourse with is pregnant is Tamar who “has played the whore” and he demands she be burned. But Tamar cleverly produces the pledge items, making it clear to all that Judah is the father, so he must relent, “and said, “She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” (26). But he never has sex with her again.

Tamar–in an eerie replay of Rebekah and her twins Jacob and Esau—has twins. In order to ensure the firstborn child has the right of primogeniture, the midwife wraps a red thread around the wrist of the first one to emerge. That hand is withdrawn back into the womb and the second child comes out first.

So why is this story about Judah and Tamar here? Is it more than just a tale of yet more family dysfunction? Somehow I think the story has symbolic parallels to the future history of Israel. Judah marries a Canaanite woman, just as the Israelite generations to come would do. Very little good comes of Judah’s marriage, and this story must stand as a warning to the Jews in Babylon about what happens when intermarriage forbidden by God occurs. Moreover, it is something of a morality tale for all of us, as well.

Matthew 13:36–46: Once again, Jesus has to explain a parable. This time it’s the one about the wheat and weeds. Again, Jesus is very clear in his explanation: “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one and the enemy who sowed them is the devil” (37-39a). He also makes it clear that the harvest “is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels.” (39b) 

Following the judgement at the end of history, the evildoers “will [be thrown] into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (42) This verse must have certainly been an inspiration for the lurid paintings of the Last Judgement by Hyronomous Bosch back around 1486. 

This is also an uncomfortable parable for us since most of prefer not to think about the possibility of there ever being a last judgement at the end of time. But Jesus is awfully clear here as he explains every detail of this parable. We cannot ignore it. And there is the wonderful promise, “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” (43)

And it is the Kingdom of Heaven on which Jesus then focuses, describing its qualities with a series of with what I think of as a series of “mini-parables employing the similes of “treasure hidden in a  field” (44) and “a merchant in search of fine pearls.” (45) In both cases the discoverer pays a price to obtain that treasure or those pearls. But he does so happily. As should we.

 

Psalm 21; Genesis 37; Matthew 13:24–35

Psalm 21: This royal psalm follows logically from the preceding psalm. Here, we read of the king’s (presumably David) response to  his rescue from defeat and then being victorious in battle—and how he gives God the credit: “Lord, in Your strength the king rejoices,/ and in Your rescue how much he exults!” (2) God has answered the prayers of a desperate king: “His heart’s desire You gave to him, and his lips entreaty You did not withhold.”(3)

God indeed answers foxhole prayers—our “lip’s entreaty”—when we are in desperate trouble. But what’s clear here is that God’s answer can be more than simply rescue, but is far, far greater: “For You met him with blessings of bounty,/ You set on his head a crown of pure gold.” (4) And while the king simply asked to spare his life in battle, God has has not only done that, but given him a long life: “length of days for time for time without end.” (5)

We can do no better than the psalmist in praising God for how much more he gives us than we dare ask for: “You granted him blessings forever,/ cheered him with the joy of Your presence.” (7) The question is, why do I not come to God in prayer in total faith that he will answer with the same almost unimaginable generosity that he bestowed on David? One reason is because I so often lack real trust in God and would rather do it on my own. But David is the example here: “For the king puts his trust in the Lord.” (8a)

The second half of the psalm abruptly changes tone, suggesting that this psalm is concatenation of two shorter psalms. Now, we see the darker side of both the king and of God himself as the poet speaks of the fate of the king’s enemies: “You [God] will make them like a fiery kiln/ in the hour of Your wrath./ The Lord will devour them in anger and fire will consume them.” (10) The palm disturbingly bends toward genocide: “Their [the enemy’s] fruit from the land Your destroy/ and their seed from among humankind.” (11)

Yes, they have committed the sin of plotting against a king who trusted in God and “evil they plotted against you/ devised schemes they could not fulfill.” (12) And they will pay: “For you [the king] will make them turn back,/ with your bowstring you aim at their face.” (13) But does God really empower us to destroy our enemies utterly if we pray for that to happen? This is one of those uncomfortable places in the OT where we have to admit we live in a very different culture than David. Jesus certainly changed the rules of the game.

Genesis 37: The story of Joseph the favored sin is certainly one of the most memorable stories in the OT. Just as Jacob—now Israel—was favored by his mother, Israel favors Joseph “because he was the son of his old age.” (3) He gives his favorite son the infamous coat, (which is described by the NRSV as simply a coat with long sleeves.)

Being only 17 years old and demonstrating the impetuousness of his youth, he excitedly tells his older brothers of his very cool dream of sheaves of wheat bowing down to his own sheaf. There is already enmity toward Joseph and the brothers immediately interpret this in the darkest possible way:“Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” Not surprisingly, “they hated him even more.” (8)

One thing leads to another and the older brothers plot to kill him. They get their chance out in the boondocks, but demonstrating a scintilla of mercy, Reuben advises them not to kill Joseph, but simply to strip him and leave him the pit. It does not appear that Reuben had any follow-on plan about what to do with Joseph. Judah comes up the clever plan, ““What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites.” (26) And, like Reuben, he shows a modicum of humanity in not killing, noting “he is our brother, our own flesh.” (27) Besides there’s a handsome profit to be made. Reuben is unaware of the sale of Joseph to the Ismaelites and comes upon the empty pit. In despair he devises the infamous plan to soak Joseph’s coat in blood and show the manufactured evidence to their father.

Jacob (interestingly, at this point the authors revert to ‘Jacob’), on hearing the news goes into deep mourning and we are told that in the meantime, “the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard.” (36)

So what are we to make of this story other than it being a tale of intense sibling hatred and as always, another chapter in a highly dysfunctional family where even the victims have contributed to the problem (Joseph’s bragging and Jacob’s favoritism)? As Christians this story has clear parallels to the arc of the Jesus-as-Joseph story. Jesus is left for dead, but is resurrected “out of the pit.” And as we shall see, in the same way Joseph becomes the powerful ruler to whom all will bow down, just as Revelation tells us that the Lamb that was Slain becomes the object of worship.

Matthew 13:24–35: Matthew’s Jesus, having explained why he uses parables, now presents us with a slew of them.

The parable of the weeds among the wheat seems to be saying to us that we are not the ones who are to judge who among us is weed and who is wheat. That task is left up to the end and it is the master makes the judgement. In short, tempted as we may be, we cannot judge who is “Christian” and who is not—although those of us in the church are assuredly adept at this. Only God will make that judgement at the end of time. Jesus takes this up later in the Olivet discourse and Revelation is certainly chockablock with End Times judgement.

The mustard seed tells us that great things can grow out of improbable beginnings. Many of the great Christian leaders—Paul being and obvious example—have emerged from inauspicious beginnings. Examples abound; William Wilberforce is among my favorites.

The parable of the yeast suggests that the kingdom of heaven will grow over time. That the church continues 2000 years later is testimony to the power of the leavening of the Good News among humanity.

And finally, just in case we forgot, Matthew quotes another OT Scripture to remind us that parables will be the main mode of communication by the Messiah to come. It is through seemingly obscure parables that truth is ultimately revealed: “I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” (34)

Psalm 20; Genesis 36:9–43; Matthew 13:10–23

Psalm 20: This psalm, while it evokes the words and rhythm of a benediction, is a paean to Israel’s king. Inasmuch as it is a “David psalm, we’ll presume it is addressed to King David, coming home at last, victorious from battle. The first verses are a prayer for the king’s welfare and safety in battle: “May the Lord answer you on the day of distress,/ the name of Jacob’s God make you safe.” (2) [Side note: even though God has renamed Jacob “Israel,” we see that ‘Jacob’ was still in wide use when the psalm was written. Names, even those changed by God are hard to change!]

Next, the psalmist notes the righteousness of the king has been by virtue of correct religious behavior: “May He [God] recall all your grain-offerings,/ and your burnt-offerings may He relish.” (4) And therefore, God having been appeased, the poet continues, David should receive God’s blessing, “May He grant you what your heart would want,/ and all your counsels may He fulfill.” (5) Notice the phrase, “what your heart would want.” We can pray for what our heart desires, but always with the presumption that like the king who has made the proper obeisance to God, that our heart is ‘right’ or attuned to what God would have us to be or to do.

While the first half of the psalm is anticipatory, hoping that God will rescue the king, the second half rings out with assurance that God has indeed done so: “Let us sing gladly of your rescue/ and in our God’s name our banner raise.” (6) because “Now I do know/ that the Lord has rescued His anointed.” (7a)

Better than even the rescue is the fact that the king has been victorious in battle because he has relied on God: “They—the chariots, and they—the horses,/ but we—the name of the Lord our God invoke.” (8) The enemy —”They”—have relied on their inadequate instruments of war—chariots and horses— which are no match for the king having invoked the name of God. The enemy is permanently disabled, but we rise again: “They have tumbled and fallen/ but we rose and took heart.” (9)

The metaphor here is crystalline. If we persist in relying on our own wits and our own technology—horses and chariots—we are no match for the power of God, who is a far superior to anything or anyone else, in which to place our trust. Even though we may “tumble and fall” and all may seem lost, we can always rely on God whom we trust and who will come to our rescue just as he did for the king.

Genesis 36:9–43: This reading lists the sons of Esau, “ancestor of the Edomites, in the hill country of Seir.” (9) It then expands outward to list sons and clans that arose from Esau’s sons. Then it moves on to cite “the kings who reigned in the land of Edom, before any king reigned over the Israelites.” (31) strongly suggesting that in many ways Edom is more ancient by several generations than Israel.

What’s interesting here is that Esau and Edom are given so much space in this history that focuses on the line of the brother who received the blessing and is therefore the patriarch of Israel. [And with the same name given to him by God, he is essentially Israel itself.] I suspect that the editors of Genesis felt obliged to include Esau and his descendants because Esau, while not the blessed one, is still Abraham’s grandson and Isaac’s son. That lineage is certainly deserving of respect.  Beyond that, I can detect no deeper significance.

Matthew 13:10–23: I know that if I were a disciple of Jesus’ I would be just as frustrated as his actual disciples at Jesus habit of never answering any question directly and always speaking in those frustratingly oblique little stories he called ‘parables.’ So, I’m glad the disciples came right out and asked, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” (10)

And lo and behold, Jesus answers their question forthrightly: “The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’” Matthew, being Matthew of course, has Jesus cite his Scriptural reference from Isaiah: “‘You will indeed listen, but never understand,/ and you will indeed look, but never perceive.” (14) The reason is simple, Jesus asserts, continuing to quote the OT prophet, “For this people’s heart has grown dull,/ and their ears are hard of hearing,/ and they have shut their eyes;/so that they might not look with their eyes,/ and listen with their ears,” (15)

Jesus’ point is really quite simple: people do not respond to deep theology but with people and situations they can identify with. And if you’ve ever listened to a really dull sermon, you’ll realize that it becuase it is full of pretentious abstractions rather than making a human connection by telling a story. In the end, we humans are pretty much wired to understand things via storytelling which contains the didactic point. And there has been no one superior in this skill than Jesus.

Inasmuch as the disciples asked, Jesus goes on to helpfully explain the parable of the sower. And it all has to do with how we respond to the Good News, whose seeds have been planted by the Holy Spirit in our hearts. For me, the really important thing here is that our response to the good news has strictly to do with the heart—the seat of our being, our emotions, and yes, our soul—than it has to do with our minds.

Intellectual comprehension is not Jesus’ point. The Pharisees are the best example of intellectual understanding without the words of Scripture penetrating their hearts. It is our response to the gentle tug of the Holy Spirit on our entire being. For without a heart we are the walking dead. As were the Pharisees—and as are many of us today.