Archives for February 2016

Psalm 19:8–15; Genesis 35:1–36:8; Matthew 12:46–13:9

Psalm 19:8–15: The psalm switches gears from praising the magnificence of the sun and heavens to a reflection on God’s commandments. One has the feeling this could be an entirely different psalm that was appended to the first half. The beginning of the second half are almost a laundry list of God’s qualities insofar as his commandments and laws are concerned and their beneficial impact on us. This list is highly reminiscent of Psalm 119 (although thankfully briefer):
• The Lord’s teaching is perfect,/ restoring to life. (8a)
• The Lord’s pact is steadfast,/ it makes the fool wise. (8b)
• The Lord’s precepts are upright,/ delighting the heart. (9a)
• The Lord’s command unblemished,/ giving light to the eyes. (9b)
• The Lord’s fear is pure,/outlasting all time. (9b)
• The Lord’s judgements are truth,/ all of them just.

Not surprisingly, this list is also a list of the qualities we should persevere ourselves; a list for the ethical man. The poet then praises these ethical qualities as “more desired than gold,/ than abundant fine gold,/ and sweeter than honey,/ quintessence of bees.” (11) Gold and honey suggest a sensuous aspect to these qualities. Following God and imitating him is not a dry, dusty academic exercise. Following God in righteousness brings a richness (gold) and sweetness (honey) to our lives that would be tragic to have missed.

And we are are to treat them as the precious gifts from God that they are: “Your servant, too, takes care with them.” (12) And in so doing: “In keeping them—great reward.” (12) For me, this verse is the centerpiece of this part of the psalm: the reward here is not necessarily that God responds positively because we are a good and righteous person, although I’m sure that deuteronomic idea was on the poet’s mind. It is also that a life lived by following God’s teaching and righteousness is in and of itself highly rewarding.

The poet knows that he will sin and begs “pre-forgiveness” for having done so “Unwitting sins who can grasp? / Of unknown actions clear me.” (13) as well as from the depredations of those around him: “From willful men preserve me Your servant.” (14a) And with his heart aright, he concludes his prayer with the verse that concludes most Jewish prayers even today:
Let my mouth’s utterances be pleasing
and my heart’s stirring before You,
Lord, my rock and redeemer. (15)

Genesis 35:1–36:8: Given the events at Shechem, God wisely comes to Jacob and advises him to “Arise, go up to Bethel, and settle there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.” (35:1) It’s clear that up to this time God was just another divine being in the religious mix that seems to characterize Jacob’s household and God instructs Jacob to rid themselves of all those impure things: “Put away the foreign gods that are among you, and purify yourselves, and change your clothes;” (2). The family complies: “So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods that they had, and the rings that were in their ears.” (4)

This purging is more than merely symbolic; it is repentance: the turning around and rejection of the old beliefs and treasures, and even where they lived. Jacob and his family leave and happily, “a terror from God fell upon the cities all around them, so that no one pursued them.” (5) God once again comes to Jacob and reminds him that he has a new name: “No longer shall you be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” (9) [It’s interesting that even though his name has been changed, the authors continue to call him ‘Jacob.’] God then reiterates the Covenant that he gave to Abraham and Isaac: “be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall spring from you. The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you.” (11b, 12)  Jacob then renames Bethel, Bethel. (?)

After arriving at Bethel, one final tragedy awaits Jacob: Rachel dies while giving birth to his last son, Benjamin. Although we read nothing of Jacob’s reaction to Rachel’s death, it had to be heart-breaking for she was his one true love. Rather than a tender scene, the authors rather abruptly note, “Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine; and Israel heard of it.” But again, we learn nothing of Jacob’s reaction although it had to be bitter coming so soon after Rachel’s death. Instead, the authors helpfully give us the final tally of Jacob’s children.

At the ripe old age of 180, Isaac finally passes away and “his sons Esau and Jacob buried him,” suggesting that reconciliation between the brothers is now complete. The authors then list Esau’s heirs. He is as rich as Jacob and because of their great wealth measured in cattle and sheep they must move apart from each other. Jacob stays in Canaan but “Esau settled in the hill country of Seir.” (36:8) We encounter three words that will have great impact down the road: Esau is Edom.” As we will learn, the strife between brothers lives on down through the centuries.

What do we take away from Jacob’s story thus far? All families are dysfunctional and endure tragedy. But despite our sins and our wanderings from place to place, God remains faithful.

Matthew 12:46–13:9: Upon being informed that his mother and brothers “were standing outside wanting to speak to him,” Jesus says something that despite all the theological efforts to justify it and despite the correctness of Jesus’ point that Kingdom work has the highest priority, still sounds pretty heartless to me. He answers his own rhetorical question, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” (48) by looking around the room at his followers and saying, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (49, 50).

Matthew is obviously making the point about “Kingdom priorities,” and we know that Jesus still had a good relationship with his mother when he asks for her to be taken care of as he dies on the cross.  So I will take Jesus’ statement as more metaphorical than actual. Nevertheless, it is one of the more shocking things he says.

As is usual for Matthew, juxtaposition is everything. Following his harsh pronouncement about mothers and brothers, Jesus tells the parable of the sower. He clearly understands that his requirements for Kingdom priority above all won’t be popular—much less followed—by everyone. And at the end of his ministry on earth as he hangs dying on a cross, Jesus ends up with exactly zero followers. Good soil indeed!

The traditional interpretation of this parable is that each of us needs to consider how we respond to the seeds. ignore it altogether (the birds eating the seeds); rapid enthusiasm followed by indifference (rocky ground and no roots); led astray by false religiosity, becoming choked in the theological weeds or false gospels (of which Paul and Peter have a great deal to say!) Or are we fertile soil and the gospel grows within us as we become dedicated Kingdom workers?

I think the other key point is that Jesus is making is that we cannot choose what soil we are. The seed goes where it will, but if I’m rocky ground I cannot choose in and of myself to become fertile soil.

Finally, if as Christians we wish to be sowers, we must also understand that sowers do not make the seeds grow. That power is contained within the seeds themselves. The seeds are the metaphor for the Holy Spirit; and it is the Spirit that initiates growth. Beyond sowing the seed, we have no other role in the spiritual growth of anyone else. That is strictly between the individual and the working (or non-working) of the Holy Spirit.

 

Psalm 19:1–7; Genesis 34; Matthew 12:33–45

Psalm 19:1–6: This psalm focuses on the magnificence of God’s creation, especially the heavens above us: “The heavens tell of God’s glory,/ and His handiwork the sky declares.” (2) The diurnal rhythm is reflected in the rhythm of the poem, as if the day and night are speaking themselves: “Day to day breathes utterance/ and night to night pronounces knowledge.” (3) Although the “speech” of day and night is silent, it is still poetically beautiful: “There is no utterance and there are no words,/ their voice is never heard.” (4) Yet, even in silence, the language of heaven—the sun and moon— tells a powerful story of God’s creation that is heard by every human: “Through all the earth their voice goes out,/ to the world’s edge, their words.” (5a)

The poet turns his attention to the sun, strikingly combining two metaphors: the bridegroom and the warrior: “For the sun He set up a tent in them—and he like a groom from his canopy comes,/ exults like a warrior running his course.” (5b, 6). In that earth-centric world, it was the apparent movement of the sun from east to west that brought the energy of a powerful young man emerging form the tent of night and running across the sky. The ceaseless rhythm of day after day reminds the poet that the sun is inescapably powerful: “From the ends of the heavens his [the sun’s] going out/ and his circuit to their  ends,/ and nothing can hide from his heat.

Of course in the pre-technological age the contrast between light and the gloom of darkness was powerful. Today, our lights that illuminate the night and our technology have diminished the apparent power of the sun, leading us incorrectly to believe we can master nature. In the psalmist’s day there was no confusion about where man stood in relation to the heavens.

Genesis 34: Jacob’s only daughter, Dinah, is raped by “Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, prince of the region.” He falls in love with his victim and “spoke to his father Hamor, saying, “Get me this girl to be my wife.” (4) Jacob hears of the rape while his sons are still out in the field and he says nothing. Shechem’s father, Hamor, happens to show up at Jacob’s house just as the sons return. When they hear what happened, “the men were indignant and very angry, because he had committed an outrage in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter.” (7) The editors of Genesis add the editorial understatement, “for such a thing ought not to be done.”

Hamor tries to calm them down by asking, “The heart of my son Shechem longs for your daughter; please give her to him in marriage.” (8) Shechem joins in, saying he will pay any dowry: “Put the marriage present and gift as high as you like, and I will give whatever you ask me; only give me the girl to be my wife.” (12)

Jacob’s sons answer deceitfully, telling Hamor and Shechem that “We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to one who is uncircumcised, for that would be a disgrace to us,” (14) and demand that Shechem be circumcised. They then up the ante, demanding that every male be circumcised. Apparently Shechem and Hamor had no real idea of what adult circumcision entailed because the offer “pleased Hamor and Hamor’s son Shechem.” (18)  Given their position of power the father and son successfully “persuade” every male in the city to undergo circumcision. Their argument to the other men is that to be circumcised seems to them to be a small price to pay since it’s clear they have the intention of assimilating Jacob and his clan into their own culture: “Will not their livestock, their property, and all their animals be ours? Only let us agree with them, and they will live among us.” (23) So every man in town submits to the bris.

Jacob’s sons knew that every man would be in pain and in a weakened state. On the third day following the mass circumcision, “Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, took their swords and came against the city unawares, and killed all the males, including Hamor and shechem. The other brothers then promptly seize the opportunity to plunder the city: “All their wealth, all their little ones and their wives, all that was in the houses, they captured and made their prey.” (29) we see the stark disapproval of the editors in the phrase “made their prey.”

When Jacob hears he is beside himself, telling Simon and Levi, that they are outnumbered by the Canaanites and the Perizzites and “if they gather themselves against me and attack me, I shall be destroyed, both I and my household.” (30) But the brothers argue that vengeance is appropriate, saying, “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” (31)

As seems to be the case with much of Jacob’s life, this incident presages the return of Israel into Canaan hundreds of years later, where they are to destroy everyone living in Canaan lest they be assimilated into that wicked prevailing culture. There’s no question that the editors disapprove of the brother’s deceit, but they are more ambivalent about the destruction of the city of Hamor and Shechem. There’s little question that the separation between Jacob / Israel’s people and the surrounding tribes is to be maintained at all cost. We also learn that forced conversions, here Shechem et al, also tend to come to bad end. Only those descended by blood are truly Israelites.

Matthew 12:33–45: We have observed that in the Old Testament, where literacy was exceedingly rare, speech is what defines a person’s character. Jesus addresses the hypocrisy of the Pharisees directly: “You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil?” and reiterates what every Pharisee should know: “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” (34) Then he says something that should make all of us very nervous: “I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (36b, 37) As I think about that simple declaration, I realize just how wonderful God’s grace is. Given the accumulation of mean and evil things I have said over the years, it’s clear that without Jesus I would be condemned on this statement alone.

As usual, Matthew’s juxtaposition of events in Jesus’ ministry is brilliant. Just after the speech about evil words, the Pharisees ask Jesus for a demonstration of his power: “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” (38). Jesus replies that the only sign they will see is the sign of Jonah in the belly of the fish as he announces exactly what will happen later on: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.” (40) Obviously this made no sense at all to the Pharisees since they lack the imagination to understand what Jesus is really telling them. Just as we would have lacked the imagination had we been standing there.

Since we’re reading the story and already know the outcome, we know exactly what Jesus is predicting when he exclaims, “see, something greater than Jonah is here!”  (41) and then again, “see, something greater than Solomon is here!” (42). That something is the resurrected Jesus, which of course is far more significant than Jonah or even Solomon.

Psalm 18:47–51; Genesis 32:22–33:20; Matthew 12:22–32

Psalm 18:46–50: The poet’s David continues to celebrate his victory, giving God the credit but not in language that is particularly theologically comfortable: “The God who grants vengeance to me/ and crushes peoples beneath me,/ frees me from my enemies.” (48, 49a). Really? We give God thanks because he has allowed us vengeance? Or because God has “crushed peoples?” I suppose we can at least be grateful that vengeance has been “allowed” by God rather than vengeance taken without thought to God.

Admittedly, David is celebrating victory over those who would otherwise have killed him, so we should probably allow a modicum of psychological leeway here. At its core this is indeed a deeply heartfelt prayer of having escaped death and giving God all the credit. He continues, “yes, from those against me You raise me,/ from a man of violence You save me.” (49b) I presume the “man of violence” is Saul. It’s easy for me to sit here and pass judgement from the safety of my desk, but I’m pretty sure that were I just rescued from near death from some dreadful enemy, I would not be lingering over theological niceties. Like David, I would be thanking God for my rescue in just as passionately as he.

This psalm ends on a high note of testimony—”Therefore I acclaim You among nations, O Lord,/ and to Your name I would hymn,/ making great the rescues of Hid king” (50, 51a)— and of worship to God who has been “keeping faith with His anointed,/ for David and his seed forever.” (51) Implicit in this last line is the fact that were it not for God rescuing David from Saul’s clutches, the house of David would never have come into being and Israel’s history would have been very different. The lesson here for me is that I should be thanking God daily for the small victories he has brought into my life.

Genesis 32:22–33:20: Jacob’s encounter at Peniel with the man he and we presume to be God is at once a mysterious story and a brilliant metaphor. After Jacob sends everyone away to the other side of the Jabbok, he lies down to sleep, but “a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” (32:24). The fight lasts all night and the when the “the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.” (25) Jacob continues to fight even though he is in intense pain. When the fight ends Jacob, apparently realizing who the man was, asks for a blessing. The man not only blesses him, but gives him a new name, Israel. “Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.” (29) At one level, this wrestling is an echo from Jacob’s stealthily obtaining Isaac’s blessing. The wrestling match is also symbol of all the psychological wrestling Jacob has been doing for the past 20 years. Until now, Jacob has prayed only rarely, pretty much been doing things by his own smarts and wiles. But his wiles have brought him to Peniel—stuck between Laban on the east and Esau on the west.

For me, this is a metaphor for wrestling with our faith, for I believe anyone who is serious about being a Christian will always be wrestling with doubt.  Otherwise it would not be faith.

What of the name change? I think this marks a sea change for Jacob, who from now on will know that God is the one who changes lives and life’s direction. Jacob will limp for the rest of his life, allowing him never to forget that night where God came down and contended with him. Do we allow God to come to us and wrestle and change the direction of our lives? Or do we continue to attempt to remain in control of our destiny? Do we allow God to change our name and our very being?

Side note: Jacob asks the man what his name is, but his question is never answered. It is only several centuries later when God announces his name—”I am who I am— out of the burning bush to Moses.

The moment Jacob has been dreading comes shortly after that fateful night: “Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him.” (33:1) He sorts out his wives and children and stands in front of them, knowing that Esau will see all this. He comes before Esau in abject humility, convinced he is about to be killed, “bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother.” (33:3) What happens next is a pure example of grace: “But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” Bygones have indeed become bygones. Jacob’s family bows down to Esau and Jacob offers his brother all his possessions. Esau demurs, ““I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.” (9) But Jacob, being Jacob, persists and with some urging, Esau accepts the gift.

Esau suggests they travel together but now it is Jacob’s turn to demur, arguing that his sheep cannot get back on the road just yet. He suggests that Esau “pass on ahead of his servant, and I will lead on slowly, according to the pace of the cattle that are before me and according to the pace of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir.” But Jacob apparently never arrives in Seir, but settles in Succoth and then Shechem.  I can only conclude that despite this reconciliation Jacob remains wary of his brother.

Matthew 12:22–32: Jesus casts out a demon, which causes the Pharisees to assert that Jesus is doing this “only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, that this fellow casts out the demons.” (24) Jesus responds with pure logic that if he were from Satan, he would be a walking contradiction because Satan is unlikely to cast out Satan. Instead, “if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.” (27)

This is the great bifurcation, the enormous black and white that Jesus is presenting to the Pharisees—and Matthew is presenting to us: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” (30) There is no middle ground when it comes to Jesus. Either one is with him or one is not. We cannot straddle the fence. Nevertheless, I believe faith in Jesus still leaves room for wrestling with God and, yes, for doubt. But the foundational core belief in Jesus always remains intact.

We come to the “unforgivable sin.” Jesus asserts, “but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” (32) What is it about this sin compared to all other sins that it is beyond forgiveness? Context is crucial here. Jesus is talking about being with him or against him. If we reject Jesus, we reject the Holy Spirit. Which is to say we have also rejected God. In that rejection whatever we say about the Holy Spirit, which is unlikely anyway, is irrelevant. We will have arrived at the point where supreme indifference trumps blasphemy .

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: Now 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.

Psalm 18:30–36; Genesis 31:22–55; Matthew 11:25–12:8

Psalm 18:30–36: The psalmist, speaking in David’s voice, celebrates his military prowess and gives God all the credit: “For through You I rush at a barrier,/ through my God I can vault a wall.” (30) This is certainly true for the young, well-trained soldier. But even for those of us who are old, the metaphor holds: God is indeed whom we trust to help us confront [“rush at a barrier”] and then overcome the obstacle [“vault a wall”]. Notice especially that we cannot be in denial, but we must acknowledge the reality of the problem we face before we can overcome it.

And there is only one God who can help us do the difficult amidst the welter of the small-g gods around us: “For who is [small-g] god except the Lord,/ and who the Rock except our God?” (32) Only God can aid us in surmounting these obstacles. We do not possess the inner strength ourselves, nor do externalities such a wealth and power or even another human being. The small-g gods all fail in the end.

The psalmist reflects on an ascending list of qualities of the warrior–both actual and metaphorical–that God supplies, “the God who girds me with might,/ and keeps my way blameless:” (33)
• God “makes my legs like a gazelle’s” (34)
• God “trains my hands for combat.” (35a)
• God “makes my arms bend a bow of bronze(!)” (35b)
• “Your battle-cry [we assume this would be shouting the name of God] made me many.” (36b)

God has given us those offensive weapons, but perhaps most important of all is that he has given us a wonderful defensive tool, as well—God’s protection from harm: “You gave me Your shield of rescue.” (36a) In short, trusting in God equips us, as it equipped David to withstand the enemies we encounter and confront. But to enjoy those benefits requires a deep trust in God. Without that we will be naked in the battlefield of life.

Genesis 31:22–5: As we might have guessed, Laban is none too happy about Jacob making off with what he considers to be his property—not to mention robbing him of the possibility of saying goodbye to his daughters and grandchildren. But in the ever-popular dream, God tells Laban, “Take heed that you say not a word to Jacob, either good or bad.” (24) Thus warned, “Laban overtook Jacob” (25) and accuses his son-in-law “You have deceived me, and carried away my daughters like captives of the sword.” (26), pointing out that had Jacob not fled in secret, “I would have sent you away with mirth and songs, with tambourine and lyre.” (27)

More significantly, Laban points out Jacob has done “a foolish thing” and that his uncle has the power to destroy Jacob, but that a dream form God prevents him from doing so. Laban also asks, “why did you steal my gods?” (30). Jacob, who is so clever and deceptive in so many ways, finally admits in honesty, “Because I was afraid, for I thought that you would take your daughters from me by force.” (31) To partially make up for his actions, he promises, “anyone with whom you find your gods shall not live.” (32) not knowing that Rachel had stolen them.

Laban searches Jacob’s and Leah’s tent and comes to Rachel’s tent. Rachel hides the gods from Laban by sitting on them and claiming she cannot get up because it’s that time of month. As most men would doubtless do, Laban hurries out of the tent without a word.

By this time, Jacob has regained his usual aggressive manner and tells Laban that he has carried things too far in this search asking, “What is my offense? What is my sin, that you have hotly pursued me?” (36) and demands that Laban put whatever he’s found in the tents in front of them. Jacob makes his case: “These twenty years I have been in your house; I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flock, and you have changed my wages ten times.” (41)  Jacob shouts that after all, God is on his side, “God saw my affliction and the labor of my hands, and rebuked you last night.” (42) We can see Jacob and Laban staring at each other, realizing it’s a standoff. What should they do now?

Jacob proposes a treaty between them: “Come now, let us make a covenant, you and I; and let it be a witness between you and me.”  (44). The two men build a pile of stones and in Laban’s words they agree “This heap is a witness, and the pillar is a witness, that I will not pass beyond this heap to you, and you will not pass beyond this heap and this pillar to me, for harm.” Each swears by God and they have dinner together. The next morning, “Laban rose up, and kissed his grandchildren and his daughters and blessed them; then he departed and returned home.” (55)

So there’s a truce, but the ties between Laban and Jacob have been severed permanently. There is no real peace, only a truce. Because of their endless attempts to outsmart the other, both Laban and Jacob end up losing.  And much has been lost. Leah and Rachel will never see their father again and Laban will never see them or his grandchildren again. Jacob cannot go back, but as we will see, there will be a real problem in going forward. This is what the affairs of men absent an honest trust in God eventually come to: a standoff where no one is really happy. We can see the legacy of this unhappy in the standoff today between Israel and Palestine.

Matthew 11:25–12:8: Jesus says something remarkable and if it was in the hearing of the Pharisees would have left them seething: ““I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” (25) But for the rest of us he has beautiful words of encouragement: “ “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Then he adds, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (28, 29)

At first we may wonder why would we want to take on the yoke of Jesus? Why should I follow his rules and carry the burden of faith when I am fully in control of myself? What’s the point of having religion as a crutch and taking on tasks that will only impede my self-actualization? After all, we argue, I am a free person in control of my own destiny.

But there is one enormous fatal flaw in that assertion: we do not realize we are indeed already carrying a heavy yoke. Jesus is not asking us to put on his yoke where there is no yoke. Rather, he’s asking us to trade in the heavy yoke of self-importance and control that’s already on our back—and whose existence we so often deny. In trade, Jesus will give us the far lighter yoke of discipleship. We will come to realize that in following Jesus we have far greater freedom and as he promises, a far lighter burden.

The famous story of Jesus plucking grain and eating it on the Sabbath illustrates this freedom that he brings. The Pharisees are rule-bound and condemn all others who do not abide by their rules. But Jesus reminds them that David “entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat,”  (12:4) and also that the law says, “the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless.” (12:5)

If we ever needed an illustration of the lightness of Jesus’ yoke compared to the heavy weight of religiosity it is right here when he makes the promise, quoting Micah, to which we can hold fast: “‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’” (12:7). The yoke of Jesus is mercy and is infinitely lighter than the yoke of rule-bound sacrifice.