Psalm 38:1–9; Exodus 28:15–43; Matthew 25:31–46

Psalm 38:1–9: In a radical change of tone and theme, the almost smug assurance found in the preceding psalm that God will bless the righteous is blown away here by desperate supplication. The opening line, “Lord, do not rebuke me in Your fury/ nor chastise me in Your wrath,” is a plea to escape God’s anger at some unspecified sin. Whatever the poet may have done, he believes he has provoked God to the point where “Your arrows have come down upon me,/ and upon me has come down Your hand.” (3). God has struck hard with both the sharp pain of arrows and and the crushing weight of his hand.

The reason for this feeling of physical pain and oppression is an awful disease that is the result of God’s anger at some unspecified sin, where “There is no whole place in my flesh through Your rage,/ no soundness in my limbs through my offense.” (4)  As we know, in the pre-medicine age, the only explanation for illness was the belief that it had a direct correlation to sin, or in the case of pagan societies, that one had offended the gods. This was certainly the case in Jesus’ time and even today, there are people who believe that illness arises from God’s anger at one’s sin. I will never forget the ostensible Christians, who in 1980 accused my friend Steve, who contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion that he must have sinned greatly to be so cruelly punished by God.

Here, the poet is convinced that his disease is so dire because “my crimes have welled over my head,/ like a heavy burden, too heavy for me.” (5) Of course, while sin may not cause disease, there is no question that sin can well over our head and drive us to the same desperation that he describes here. If we do not turn to Jesus’ saving grace then surely we, too, will be overwhelmed.

We can hear the pathos in his voice as he describes the gruesome details of his illness, but always freighted with self-blame:
My sores make a stench, have festered/ through my folly/ I am twisted, I am all bent.” (6,7) Disease accompanied by guilt result in deep depression as his entire being is consumed by intense suffering: “All day long I go about gloomy./ For my innards are filled with burning/ and there is no whole place in my flesh.” (8)

If ever we needed a vivid description of the pain that accompanies a death by cancer, and the agony I remember witnessing as my friend Bill died of advanced prostate cancer in 2011, it is here as we hear the poet barely gasp out the words, “I grow numb and am utterly crushed.” (9)

Exodus 28:15–43: The specifics of the priestly breastplate made “in the style of the ephod; of gold, of blue and purple and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen” (15) are indeed impressive. Like the ephod, it has “twelve stones with names corresponding to the names of the sons of Israel; they shall be like signets, each engraved with its name, for the twelve tribes.” (21)

Along with the usual gold decoration, there is the mysterious Urim and the Thummim, whose physical nature is not described. However, we can guess their purpose since the function of the breastplate is judgement and the Urim and Thummin “shall be on Aaron’s heart when he goes in before the Lord; thus Aaron shall bear the judgment of the Israelites on his heart before the Lord continually.” (30). This suggests they may have been used for divination as a means to ascertain God’s will.

Much has been made through the years of their mystical nature, but they may have been as simple as a couple of engraved rocks thrown down by the priest with their resulting position indicating God’s will. God’s dice? Perhaps they were meant as some sort of “Divine Assist” to aid the priest when he could not form a clear judgement. In any event it seems odd that God would speak through some sort of ancient game of chance.  But there they are. Frankly, I’m glad that in the later history of Israel, prophets appeared on the scene to speak God’s word clearly rather than trying to determine God’s will through some mysterious objects.

The other priestly vestments are equally impressive. I’m intrigued that the blue “robe of the ephod: has “an opening for the head in the middle of it, with a woven binding around the opening, like the opening in a coat of mail, so that it may not be torn.” In other words it went on over the head of the priest. But that it resembled a “coat of mail” suggests that there are other, more military, garments that existed at that time. God makes one last thing extremely clear: “Aaron and his sons shall wear them when they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister in the holy place; or they will bring guilt on themselves and die.” (43)

I come away from these descriptions somewhat awestruck not only by the beauty of these objects but with an increased respect for the technologies—some probably lost today—as well as the skill of the craftspeople that existed so many years ago. We may have different technology today, but I question whether it’s superior and wonder what has been lost.

Matthew 25:31–46: We come at last to what I think are Jesus’ most powerful and clear words about our obligations for working in the Kingdom, which actually involves working in the world. Several things are clear.

There will be a day of judgement at the end of history. And things will be very black and white. There is no neutral middle ground. Every person of every nation—not just the Jews—which I presume means every person who has ever lived, “will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,” (32) The sheep are the ones to whom “the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (34)

What’s crucial here is that this is not just some arbitrary act because God likes their looks. Their blessing is a direct result of their actions while on earth. Here we come to the heart of what has unfortunately come to be called “the social gospel,” but is in fact a description of our basic duties as human beings in society: “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (35, 36) In other words, it is our care for others that determines, I believe, the extent of our reward.

Both the righteous and unrighteous ask exactly the same question: “‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?” (37). The simple differentiation is that the righteous cared “for the least of these” and the unrighteous did not.

It is in these verses where we see the culmination of God’s priority that has been a theme running through the Scripture: we who are able, bear personal responsibility for those who are unable. We cannot leave the fate of the poor, the naked, the hungry, the ill and dying to some faceless bureaucracy and say we’ve done our duty because we’ve paid our taxes. We are solely accountable for our individual actions. God will judge us by what we do—not by what we think we should do or what we intend to do—for the lot of those less fortunate, who we see everyday around us.

And as I look at my life, I see all too clearly where I have failed in that responsibility for individual action.

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