Archives for March 2016

Psalm 37:27–33; Exodus 26; Matthew 25:1–13

Psalm 37:27–33: Or psalmist appeals to those who are either tempted to turn to wickedness, those he feels may be persuaded to change their ways: “Turn from evil and do good/ and abide forever” (27) Of course this is good advice even for those of us who presume we are on the path of righteousness. As if we needed reminding at this point, the poet nonetheless makes the key point that to follow righteousness is to be aligned with an ever-faithful God: “For the Lord loves justice/ and will not forsake His faithful/ They are guarded forever.” (28a).

And in this deuteronomic world, “the seed of the wicked is cut off.” (28b) As we’ve noted before, in the Jewish world where memory of a person is retained through one’s progeny, there is no greater curse  than to be forgotten because our seed has been “cut off.”

In a pre-echo of Jesus’ words, “The just will inherit the earth/ and abide forever upon it.” (29). Only here, our psalmist’s intent is more didactic than theological as he goes on to observe (once again) “The just man’s mouth utters wisdom/ and his tongue speaks justice.” (30). Because in the Old Covenant world we must rely on having taken God’s teachings—such as this very psalm—sincerely to heart and put into practice what we have learned:
The just man’s mouth utters wisdom
     and his tongue speaks justice. 
      His God’s teaching in his heart—
      His steps will not stumble.” (30,31)

But we know that in the long run most of us—all of us—are incapable of putting this instruction into 100% practice. We will ultimately fail because are sinners and it is only through the terms of the New Covenant—grace through Jesus Christ— that we are saved.

Nevertheless, regardless of which Covenant may apply, there is one immutable constant: “The wicked spies out the just man/ and seeks to put him to death.” (32) But even then, even when we are judged by wicked men, we can rely on the promise: The Lord will not forsake him in his hands/ and will not condemn him when he is [unjustly, I presume] judged.” (33)

Exodus 26: Writing in God’s voice, our author continues to give the highly detailed instructions for the design, construction, and furnishing of the Tabernacle.

Somewhere in the desert they are supposed to find enough fabric to “make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twisted linen, and blue, purple, and crimson yarns; you shall make them with cherubim skillfully worked into them.” (1) Each curtain is a mere 42 feet in length and 6 feet wide. With a clever design of loops and clasps, the curtains are joined together oin groups of five, “so that the tabernacle may be one whole.” (7).

You can’t hang curtains without a framework, which is described in equal detail: “ You shall make upright frames of acacia wood for the tabernacle.” (15) The frames are attached with pegs (quite useful for portability when it needs to be disassembled) and mount into silver bases. Now that the frames and curtains are ready, “you shall erect the tabernacle according to the plan for it that you were shown on the mountain.” (30) One wonders if Moses sketched detailed construction and assembly drawings while he was up on the mountain.

A separate and even more beautiful curtain—blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen; it shall be made with cherubim skillfully worked into it— is made for the holy of holies, which is a separate closed-off space, where the Ark will reside. The table and lampstand are carefully placed as well. Finally, “You shall make a screen for the entrance of the tent, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen, embroidered with needlework.” (36) When one enters the Tabernacle we know immediately it is a separate place made of the finest materials to the glory of God.

So what do we take away theologically here? First, there’s no question that God is indeed concerned with details. If he cares this much about where he will reside among the ISraelites, of how much greater value is his ultimate creation: we humans. Jesus says it well: God knows the number of hairs on our head, so how could he not care even more deeply for our souls?

Second, it is good and right that we worship God in a sacred space. There’s no question that the architects of the great cathedrals of Europe were well aware of these chapters in Exodus when they worked out their soaring designs. This sense of holy—of set apartness—impacts one viscerally when one walks into a cathedral. Admittedly, our more humble churches cannot replicate the grandeur of a cathedral, but I think we could do better in terms of treating a sanctuary as a place set apart from the ordinary. One easy change would be to revert to calling it a “sanctuary” rather than a “worship center,” which sounds far too much like “shopping center.” In a world that has driven out the holy just about everywhere, we would do well to provide a place that is more clearly one of rest and reflection rather than socializing. We need more “thin spaces” in our world.

Matthew 25:1–13: To drive home his point about being alert, Jesus tells the story of the five wise and the five foolish bridesmaids. Thinking the bridegroom will arrive shortly, the foolish bridesmaids neglect to bring oil for their lamps. But the wise ones know that he may be delayed, so they bring oil. The bridegroom arrives at midnight and the foolish bridesmaids ask to borrow oil from the wise ones. But they demur saying, “‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’” (9). The foolish ones head off to buy oil (are there really oil dealers open at midnight?) and come back too late and are excluded from the festivities. Jesus’ point is clear: they are excluded form the Kingdom.

I think there is more to this story than simply the lesson to be prepared for the unexpected arrival of the Son of Man. The foolish bridesmaids are those who profess to be workers in the kingdom, but like the lazy slave in the previous story, do little to actually work in the kingdom. They talk a good game, but there’s no action. They’d rather rely on the efforts of those who are actually working—to borrow the oil, if you will. Jesus demands actual effort not just good intentions.

The question is, am I willing to put in the effort and work even when conditions are less than ideal and my ego is wounded?

Psalm 37:23–26; Exodus 25:10–40; Matthew 24:45–51

Psalm 37:23–26: The psalmist assures us that when the just man follows God, fundamentally only good things happen to him as he sallies forth in energetic confidence, “By the Lord a man’s strides are made firm,” (23a) because God wants nothing more than for us to follow the path of righteousness: “and his way He desires.” (23b).

Our psalmist is convinced that if we are righteous, nothing bad can really happen to us: “Though he [or we] fall, he [or we] will not be flung down,/ for the Lord sustains his [our] hand.” (24) In perhaps the most extravagant, yet beautiful verse in this psalm, the poet writes, A lad I was, and now I am old,/ and I never have seen a just man forsaken.” (25a) Moreover, this righteousness and the freedom from poverty and injustice that go with it can be passed down through the righteous man’s progeny: “and his seed seeking bread.” (25b) Rather, our hero’s progeny are generous and a blessing to others, “all day lending free of charge/ and his seed for a blessing.” (26)

Really? I too am now an old man and I have seen plenty of righteous people who are poor and have been dealt with unjustly. I cannot imagine that our poet had not seen the same. It would be a wonderful world indeed if punishment were proportional to wickedness and blessing were equally proportional to righteousness.

In these verses we see the roots of the black/white philosophy that animated the Pharisees in Jesus’ time to believe that if something bad happened to someone or worse, if they were diseased, this was on account of their own sin, or as implied here, even the sin of their parents. This is the same deuteronomic philosophy that Job’s friends believed in so deeply: Job would not be suffering so greatly if he had not in fact sinned in some enormous manner.  In fact, I am grateful that Job is in the canon and perhaps was added by those who found the author of this psalm to be hopelessly optimistic.

Life is far more complicated than the elegant but, IMHO, ultimately misleading model our psalmist lays out here. Or does he perhaps have some other didactic purpose? The psalm is not over yet…

Exodus 25:10–40: One hopes Moses is taking good notes in order to communicate God’s highly detailed instructions for what will become the central totem of the Jewish faith: the Ark of the Covenant. God becomes architect and designer, laying out the precise dimensions of the Ark, “it shall be two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high.” (10) and its material (acacia wood).

God is also now ready to put all the gold and jewels that the Israelites plundered in Egypt to use since basically every surface of the Ark plus the four gold rings attached to the sides, through which the poles will be placed so it can be carried by four men. The poles are a permanent feature and “shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it. ” (15) Atop the Ark is the “mercy seat of pure gold; two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its width.” (17) bounded by two gold cherubim with outspread wings facing each other at each end of the mercy seat. “The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings.” (20)

The Ark is described with such detail and is to be as glorious as human hands can fashion it because it will be God’s residence for the duration of the journey. The mercy seat is fundamentally a portable throne, where “I [God] will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the covenant,I will deliver to you all my commands for the Israelites.” (22)

God is quite serious about demonstrating his constant presence to all of Israel. This is also quite a different God who seemed to be in hiding the entire time the Hebrews were in Egypt. Has the supposedly immutable God changed? Or is he finally revealing another side of his being to the Israelites?

At this point we can detect an echo of Eden where God sought out Adam and Eve. Here, God is seeking out and abiding with the Israelites on a permanent basis. He is no longer just the occasional the visiting God of Abraham or the wrestling God that Jacob encountered. As far as God is concerned, the terms of the Covenant mean that he will always be with the people. The question of course is, will the people always be with God carrying out their side of this remarkable Covenant?

God is not finished with his instructions as he goes on to describe the precise size and construction of the other furniture that will occupy the soon-to-be-constricted Tabernacle: the table for the bread of the Presence, as well as the Lampstand. As Christians, these are highly symbolic for us. The Bread of the Presence becomes the body of Christ and the lampstand becomes the light of Christ.

Matthew 24:45–51: Jesus wraps up his discourse on the importance of being alert—not just for the end of history, but that alertness also requires faithfulness in our relationships—with the story of the faithful and unfaithful slaves. There’s nothing subtle going on here. Jesus is making it clear that the slaves are all of us: first the disciples and then the church.

The faithful slave carries out the master’s instructions during the master’s absence. And therefore, “Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives.” (46). As we will see, Jesus shortly will be giving more precise instructions as to exactly how we are to go about this work.

The lazy slave—those in the church who abandon their calling to be in relationship with each other and for that matter, with the world at large, will meet a bad end indeed. At the end of history, when the master returns, there will be judgement. Those who have acted cruelly to others or ignored the needs of others will meet a particularly gruesome end: “He will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (51)

Is Jesus threatening us here? No. He is simply describing the reality of the consequences of our actions—or our inaction. As with the example of the slaves, the motivation for how we act is strictly our own responsibility. Jesus is not forcing us to do anything we do not wish to do.

Psalm 37:16–22; Exodus 23:27–25:9; Matthew 24:36–44

Psalm 37:16–22: Our psalmist has launched into full wisdom mode, sounding very much like the author of Proverbs: “Better a little for the just/ than wicked men’s profusion,” (16) teaching us that it is better to be poor and righteous than rich and wicked. This is because the just man enjoys God’s protection: “For the wicked’s arms shall be broken,/ but the Lord sustains the just.” (17) Not just protection, but salvation in the long run: “The Lord embraces the fate of the blameless,/ and their estate shall be forever.” (18) Our poet continues to stack up the promises made to the righteous. Under God’s beneficence, it is they who will survive in tough times: “They shall not be shamed in an evil time/ and in days of famine they shall eat their fill.” (19)

But as our poet has told us so often already, the wicked will get what’s coming to them: “For the wicked shall perish, and the foes of the Lord,/ like the meadows’ green—gone, up in smoke, gone.” (20)

Our psalmist finally boils it all down to a very simple formula: “For those He blesses inherit the earth/ and those he curses are cut off.” (22) But does this black and white deuteronomic thesis really hold up? Is it really as simple as all this? We’d really like to think it is, but as the book of Job makes dramatically clear, the issue of God’s moral justice seems much more ambiguous than the simple quid pro quo described in this psalm. The just do indeed suffer unjustly. And the wicked certainly seem to prosper all too often.

But one thing is certainly true: It is better to fear God and follow the path of righteousness than to reject him.

Exodus 23:27–25:9: God’s angel has reassured Moses that all will go well with Israel if they follow God and not the idols of the small-g gods of the existing Canaanites. The angel describes God’s strategy for Israel to take over Canaan. It will not be one big battle driving the inhabitants into the sea because “the land would become desolate and the wild animals would multiply against you.” (23:30) Instead, it will take more than a year because, “Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land.” (31)

The angel concludes with the now-familiar warning: You shall make no covenant with them and their gods. They shall not live in your land, or they will make you sin against me; for if you worship their gods, it will surely be a snare to you.” (32, 33). Alas, we know how that turned out.

It’s worth noting that at this point, Israel is headed directly to Canaan, (or, almost directly via Sinai, anyway), so the angel’s revelations have immediate currency. The 40-year curse is yet to come.

Moses and his leadership deliver this news to the people, who once again affirm,“All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” (24:3) At this point Moses “wrote down all the words of the Lord,”  (4) ,which is of course what we have just read. But did Moses really write all this down or is this a literary device on the part of our authors writing hundreds of years later in order to imply Moses’ authorship of these lengthy instructions?

Following an elaborate process of building altars, sacrifice and worship, “Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up” (9) toward the mountain and at last, all of them “saw the God of Israel” standing on “something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness.” (10). Happily, this theophany does not result in a bad end, as “God did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; also they beheld God,” (11) In fact, they had a party and “ate and drank.”

God instructs Moses to come further up the mountain, telling him to “wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” (12). Moses obeys and waits in the clouds for (symbolically enough) six days in an echo of the creation story as God is now going to in essence create the nation of Israel under the Law. “On the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud.” (24:16).

Down on the ground below, “the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.” (24:17) At this point every man, woman, and child of Israel should be sure that God is with them. Moses disappears into the cloud, “and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.” (24:18)

The conversation between Moses and God is quite a bit more detailed than our popular image of God just handing over the stone tablets. God opens the discussion with an extremely detailed description of the offerings the people are to bring. Then, they are to “make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.” (8). At last, God is going to come off the mountain and join Israel on the ground. Which of course is the central point of the theocracy of Israel: God dwelt among them, first in the Ark in the Tabernacle, and later in the Temple itself.

As Christians, this idea of God coming down off the mountain to “dwell among” Israel is exactly the same pattern repeated when Jesus comes down off the “heavenly mountain” and came to dwell among us in the real world as a human being. Once again, the OT gives us a hint of greater things to come.

Matthew 24:36–44: Jesus has described events surrounding the coming of the Son of Man, but he also informs us that their timing is unknown,“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (36)  I’ve always been intrigued that even the “Son” does not know when his own return is going to happen. I suppose the theological point here is to remind us that it is the Father in heaven who remains firmly in control of history.

Jesus uses the example of Noah to remind us that before that particular history-ending event, life blithely went on: “For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark,.” (38). In the same way the Noahic world was ignorant of the flood that would soon sweep them away,  “so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.” Jesus describes how half the population simply vanishes: “ two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left” (40, 41) This has become known as the “secret Rapture,” which remains an article of faith among Evangelicals and was the underlying thesis of the infamous “Left Behind” books.

But wait a minute. Didn’t Jesus just describe a very public return of the Son of Man a few verses back? He described how the Son of Man would come with a trumpet blast that could be heard by everyone on earth, all of who would witness his return. Now he’s talking about a quiet return where believers simply disappear quietly. Are they the same return? No wonder we can’t make complete sense of apocalyptic literature.

That leaves us only one very important option—the one Jesus instructs us to follow. Don’t speculate, wasting time trying to figure out exactly what will happen or trying to predict—as many still persist in doing—the exact time of this event. Even Jesus doesn’t know. Our duty is simply to keep working but always remaining on the alert. “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (44) Remaining alert rather than clueless is just plain excellent advice for living our quotidian livesregardless of whatever eschatological expectations we may have.

Psalm 37:7–15; Exodus 22:25–23:26; Matthew 24:26–35

Psalm 37:7–15: Our psalmist recognizes that we will become angry, which is a secondary emotion to envy, when we look at how the wicked seem to do so well: “Do not be incensed by him who prospers,/ by the man who devises evil schemes.” (7) Instead, we are to “Let go of wrath and forsake rage.” (8a) And by all means, in your own anger do not pay back evil with evil: “Do not be incensed to do evil.” (8b). Alas, I have paid back my perception of being wronged with an evil word or act so often.

God will take care of the wicked in his own good time: “For evildoers will be cut off.” (9a). Even though this action on God’s part can take a frustratingly long time, our patience will be rewarded with more than merely seeing the evil cut off: “but those who hope in the Lord, they shall inherit the earth.” (9b)

The psalmist presents a vivid picture of the fate of the wicked as simply vanishing from the face of the earth: “And very soon, the wicked will be no more./ You will look at his place—he’ll be gone.” (10) And once the wicked have disappeared, “the poor shall inherit the earth.” (11a)  Jesus, in basically quoting this line in the Beatitudes, stopped there, but our psalmist goes on to observe that the poor “will take pleasure from great well-being.” (11b)

So despite the best efforts of the “wicked [who] lays plots for the just/ and gnashes his teeth against him,” (12) God—and by implication, we—will have the last laugh as justice finally triumphs: “The master will laugh at him,/ for he sees that his day will come.” (13)

But in the meantime, the wicked will attempt to act evilly against the righteous and the poor, even trying to snuff them out: “A sword have the wicked unsheathed/ and drawn taut their bow,/ to take down the poor and needy/ to slaughter those on the straight way.” But once again, their evil will turn back against them becoming the cause of their own demise: “Their sword shall come home in their heart/ and their bows shall be broken.” (15)

Nevertheless it is very challenging to take this final promise to heart when we see so much horrific evil such as ISis, terrorism, and racism around us. Yet, the psalmist pleads to us to be patient. God will win out in the end. But even with this assurance, it’s still difficult to wait patiently.

Exodus 22:25–23:26: The author’s exegesis on the Ten Commandments continues apace with further commands regarding social and religious behavior. Perhaps most famously, “If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.” (22:25) In fact don’t exploit your neighbor in any fashion whatsoever, “And if your neighbor cries out to me, I [God] will listen, for I am compassionate.” (27).  Alas, based on the evidence in today’s psalm, this command was observed by many only in the breech. As it continues to be ignored today in our disregard for the poor.

In a reflection of the final plague of the Passover, the author, writing in the voice of God, commands “The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me…seven days it shall remain with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to me..” (29) [as well as the firstborn of livestock]. For Jewish sons, this eventually becomes the rite of circumcision—the bris—on the eighth day.

As we see over and over in the Psalms, God demands justice and so to are we commanded to be just and act righteously, especially with regard to what we say: “You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with the wicked to act as a malicious witness.” (23:1)

Just as God does not corrupt justice, neither are we to do so, even if it means standing up against the wishes of the crowd: “You shall not follow a majority in wrongdoing; when you bear witness in a lawsuit, you shall not side with the majority so as to pervert justice;” (23:2).  God understands human nature and our tendency to want to go along with the crowd and follow what is “popular.” This is certainly a behavior we see on full display in this political season as thousands of people follow boldly-stated injustice like lemmings.

But then interestingly, even though God is constantly sympathetic to the poor, that does not trump justice as he commands, “nor shall you be partial to the poor in a lawsuit.” (23:3)

In a piece of excellent agricultural advice, “For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow” (10, 11a) But this is more than merely good farming, it has an important social purpose as well: “so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat.” (11b)

Rest is always important to God and the command about the Sabbath is clarified. It’s not just for us humans, “but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your homeborn slave and the resident alien may be refreshed.” (12)  God never forgets those whom we tend to forget ourselves. Yet, humans have tended to do exactly the opposite right down to today when we hear that some would build a wall to keep out aliens.

After advice about various festivals, God reminds us of his core promise to the Israelites that they are to conquer Canaan, even though it is now fully populated by “the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites:” (23) God will send his angel to lead the people, but they must “Be attentive to him and listen to his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression; for my name is in him.” (21)

I’m intrigued by the phrase, “for my name is in him.” Yes, this may be just a plain old angel like Gabriel. But perhaps this angel with “my name in him” is a foretaste of Jesu Chirst, who has been there all along.

Matthew 24:26–35: Matthew gives us Jesus’ most detailed description of what the end of history will look like when the Son of Man arrives back on earth. It will certainly be dramatic as “Immediately after the suffering of those days

the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from heaven,
    and the powers of heaven will be shaken.” (29)

Only when it’s too late will those who have ignored Jesus’ words come to realize what has happened and how they have missed out: “all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory.” (30) But the “elect” —a word whose definition has been controversial among theologians down through history—will be gathered “from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” (31).

Many see these puzzling words as Jesus’ precise description of what has yet to occur in history, which they call the “Rapture,” where all Christians are gathered into heaven while those who are not “saved” remain stuck on earth awaiting the Tribulation to come.

I personally believe this is a promise to the early church rather than a precise forecast of events that lie still in the future, and we need to be careful in how we interpret this prophecy, especially in light of what Jesus says next: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” (34).

For me, this is a clear sign of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD and that in the larger context of this chapter that focuses on suffering, Matthew is telling his readers—the “elect”— not to be discouraged as they face persecution. Yes, Jesus will come again, and he may come as dramatically as he seems to say, or as he hints elsewhere, he may come “like a thief in the night.” We simply cannot be sure.

As today’s psalmist promises, God’s justice will triumph in the end. But it’s going to require a lot of patience on our part.

 

Psalm 37:1–6; Exodus 21:28–22:24; Matthew 24:1–25

Psalm 37:1–6: The editors who compiled the Psalms occasionally make their point via juxtaposition. Psalm 36 is a philosophical reflection on the nature of wickedness, while this psalm is one of encouragement to ignore the wicked and to follow God. It opens, appropriately enough, by telling us not to be upset by the wicked or envy their short term gains: “Do not be incensed by evildoers./ Do not envy those who do wrong.” (1) Their deserved end will come quickly enough as the famous verse tells us, “For like grass they will quickly wither/ and like green grass they will fade.” (2)

Instead of paying attention to them‚ look to God and follow him instead: “Trust in the Lord and do good. Dwell in the land and keep faith.” (3) This is particularly appropriate advice in this perverse political season. The antics and general perverseness of politicians, their acolytes, and their inflammatory words happily will fade soon enough. We are to trust in God and keep faith in him rather than obsess over the latest outrageous post on our Facebook news feed.

The psalmist is telling us that rather than using our time to fret over wrongdoers we should instead, “Take pleasure in the Lord,/ that He grant you your heart’s desire.” (4) We cannot stanch the tide of wickedness that seems to surround us on our own. Rather, through prayer, worship and Christian community, we are to “Direct your [our] way to the Lord.” (5a)

Rather than trust in the efficacy of our own deeds, we are to “Trust Him and He will act,/ and He will bring forth your cause like the light,/ and your justice like high noon.” (5b, 6) I wish that Evangelicals and others who believe they will find justice or peace or power in supporting in the vacuous and ultimately wicked words of certain candidates would ponder these verses. If we should understand nothing else at this point in history, placing our trust in some charismatic politician is a fool’s errand. All the time we spend trusting human agency rather than trusting God is a waste of time so much better spent following God and seeking justice through him.

Exodus 21:28–22:24: The authors’ long sermon continues about how the ethical and moral generalities of the Ten Commandments become specific practice and rules. These are the rules necessary to enable civilization  to exist. Without them, all would be chaos.

First, the question of that which is potentially harmful to others. If an owner of an ox has been warned that his animal is dangerous and it subsequently kills an innocent bystander, including children, not only is the ox stoned and put to death, but its owner as well. Distressingly, however, because slaves are property, not persons, “If the ox gores a male or female slave, the owner shall pay to the slaveowner thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.” (21:32)

Ox owners are also warned to take care that other people’s animals do not fall into an uncovered pit they have dug to trap wild animals. Should that happen, “the owner of the pit shall make restitution, giving money to its owner.” (21:34) Although at least he gets to keep the dead animal. These rules about property are the basis of our common law today. We are to be considerate of our neighbors and exercise common sense.

When one person violates the property rights of another, restitution is required. Thieves need to be careful, too. If they cannot make restitution for a stolen animal, the thief “shall be sold for the theft” into slavery.While all the examples given about sheep, goats, donkeys, oxen and fields reflect the nature of an agrarian society, our rules of restitution for having caused harm are based on these concepts of justice described more than three millennia ago here in Exodus. And out of these rules lawyers and civil lawsuits are now everywhere. We may bemoan lawyers and lawsuits and rules, but without them, western society would be in an even greater shambles than it is, and justice would be even rarer.

We then encounter what seems almost to be a miscellaneous list of wrongdoings. If a man has sex with an unmarried virgin, he is required to make her his wife. (22:16) But, what at first appears to be a bizarre rule to our culture, “if her father refuses to give her to him, he shall pay an amount equal to the bride-price for virgins.” (22:17) makes some sense. We can only assume that the bride price was sufficiently high to give a randy young man pause before seducing that virgin.

But there’s no getting around the fact that ancient Israel was a theocratic patriarchy. In another sign of the disparity between sexes, “You shall not permit a female sorcerer to live.” (18) But male sorcerers are OK?

This reading reminds us that “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (21) The wall now erected around the West Bank suggests that this verse has not found resonance in modern day Israel. One wonders what would be the situation there if mercy shown to Palestinians and Palestinians to Israelis trumped the very human desire for revenge or greater security.

Finally, in keeping with the theme we see throughout the OT, “You shall not abuse any widow or orphan.” (22) This seems to be the greatest crime of all because God intervenes directly with his own punishment: “If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry>” (24) And God himself, “will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.” (24) There is no greater societal sin than to oppress or abandon those who cannot help themselves.

Matthew 24:1–25: We arrive at what is known as the Olivet Discourse. The conversation begins after jesus announces the imminent doom of the temple and “the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (3) Jesus warns of false prophets, and that “you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet.” (6) Which seems to be exactly the situation today.

Jesus also warns that enemies “will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name.” (9). This will lead to chaos within the community of Jesus’ followers: “many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another.” (10). Paul certainly takes up these problems in his letters to Corinth and Philippi.

These issues did not take long to emerge in the church not long after Jesus left earth. I’m sure Matthew is telling his readers that what they are experiencing in terms of persecution outside the church and dissention within are to be expected because Jesus predicted them.

Regardless of what happens, persistence will be rewarded: “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (13). And those who persist will be what causes “the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations.” (13) That will happen before the end comes. Many people today believe that is exactly the period we are in. We are still proclaiming the Gospel and until all have heard, Jesus will (to use the old term of art) will tarry before returning again.

At this point Jesus goes into full eschatological mode, predicting that “when you see the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place, as was spoken of by the prophet Daniel (let the reader understand),” it’s time to flee to the mountains. Many people believe this event lies in the future. My own view is that Matthew is writing after the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem and that he is speaking retrospectively of Titus standing in the temple court commanding that it be destroyed as the Jews that remained fled to the mountains.

Jesus’ main point is that as Christians we must expect suffering: “For at that time there will be great suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.” (21) The world will be overrun with false prophets who “will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.” (24). Again, I believe these are things that happened during the formation of the early church rather than an as yet future event. Had Matthew not written of Jesus’ warnings it’s entirely possible the church may not have survived its early trials. This is not to say however, that the church does not continue to suffer as indeed we are witnessing that today in the chaos of Middle East.

 

Psalm 36; Exodus 20:22–21:27; Matthew 23:33–39

Psalm 36: While this psalm has the basic theme of righteousness in conflict with wickedness found in a psalm of supplication, it is much more a philosophical reflection on the mechanism of wrongdoing within the human heart. The psalmist postulates a dark corner of the human psyche that he calls ‘Crime,’ which is speaking to the conscience: “Crime’s utterance to the wicked/ within his heart:/ ‘There is no fear of God before my eyes.'” (2) This statement makes it clear that the person who does not fear God [in both the senses of ‘fear,’ I think] will listen to—and be influenced by—this darkness that resides in all of us.

The next verse is scarily anthropomorphic as is describes the seductive power of evil as it mines the hatred present in the wicked man: “For it [crime] caressed him with its eyes/ to find his sin of hatred.”(3) And having found that well of hatred, Crime drives the wicked man’s actions, beginning as always with speech: “The words of his mouth are mischief, deceit;” (4a). And wickedness overcomes the motivation to do good in what was once a righteous man: “he ceased to grasp things, to do good.” (4b)

Our psalmist displays amazing psychological insight into humankind’s fallen nature. This model of hatred driving wickedness and that its potentiality exists within every human being is certainly on full display in our present political season where hatred is being so freely expressed on all sides.

Once wickedness has overtaken righteousness all manner of conspiracy and wrongdoing ensues: “Mischief he plots in his bed,/ takes his stand on a way of no good,/ evil he does not despise.” (5)

As the epitome of justice and kindness, only God stands in the wicked man’s way. God is and the only place where the righteous can find shelter form the wicked: “How dear is is Your kindness, O God,/ and the sons of men in Your wings’ shadow shelter.” (8) Eschewing wickedness and being God’s man results in being invited to God’s sumptuous and  endless party—a stark contrast from the wicked man lying in his bed plotting evil.

For the righteous feast on God’s justice and kindness: “They take their fill from the fare of Your house / and from Your stream of delights You give them drink.” (9). But best of all, in God we turn toward light and life and away from the dank, dark corner in which Crime lurks: “For with You in the fountain of life. / In Your light we shall see light.” (10) When we turn toward God, his —and for us, the light of Jesus Christ—removes us from the darkness of sin.

Exodus 20:22–21:27: The driving narrative comes to an abrupt halt as our authors turn to the detailed exegesis of the Ten Commandments. I question whether God actually went into this level of detail concerning the Law, but this pause in the action gives the authors ample opportunity  provide detailed instructions about pressing religious and social issues.

First and foremost among God’s detailed explanation is the command, “You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold.” (20:23), which law of course is to be broken imminently. We find that God, at this point anyway, is a naturalist as he instructs that altars must be made of a pile of rocks: “But if you make for me an altar of stone, do not build it of hewn stones; for if you use a chisel upon it you profane it.” (20:25)

The next topic concerns the rules concerning slave ownership. While it is personally difficult for me to think that a nation of former slaves are indeed themselves slave owners, I have to remember that my cultural context is wildly different from that of the Israelites.

One major instruction that was lost on subsequent cultures of slave owners, especially those in the Antebellum South, is that a slave “shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt.” (21:2). This statement also suggests that slavery was more like indentured servanthood; that a loan and consequent debt were often involved.

There are also clear rules about the marital status and families of slaves: “If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him.” (3) Then the very real issue of a master giving a slave a wife, which means the master owns any issue of that “marriage.” (4)  And the Law recognizes that strong emotional bonds between slave and master could evolve, giving the slave the right to declare,“I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out a free person,” (5) At which point the slave’s earlobe is pierced with an awl, indicating permanent slave status.

Perhaps most disturbing is the apparent fact that fathers could sell their daughters. But, perhaps in memory of what Joseph’s brothers did to him, at least the master “shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt unfairly with her.” (8) And in a stark reminder that women were chattel—the same status as livestock, a father could even designate a daughter to be his son’s slave although in that case the father “shall deal with her as with a daughter.” (9)

Following the laws about slavery, instructions about the nature and consequences of violent acts ensures.  Assault and battery, if it does not result in the victim’s death, seems to be quite acceptable as long as the victim “recovers and walks around outside with the help of a staff, then the assailant shall be free of liability, except to pay for the loss of time, and to arrange for full recovery.” (19)

And distressingly, for me anyway, the reality that slaves were property arises when the slaveowner strikes a slave. If the slave dies, the master will be punished, but “if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property.” (21)

The main rule of justice is the foundation of all these laws: That punishment must be commensurate with the deed: “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,” (23, 24) —a rule that extends down to our day, although asas our overstuffed prisons suggest, it is not as well practiced as it could be.

Matthew 23:33–39: Jesus’ pronounces a final coda on the religious leaders by bluntly accusing them of being murderers guilty as charged all the way back to Abel and effectively cursing them: “so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.” (35) His final statement to them is about their inevitable doom: “Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation.” (36) Which of course happens when Titus invades Jerusalem in CE 70.

Matthew’s unstated point at the apotheosis of Jesus’ accusations is that if there was any doubt among the religious leaders that this Jesus must be eliminated, those doubts have been eliminated. The wheels heading toward Good Friday are firmly set in motion.

With this thought of inevitable destruction on his mind, Jesus broadens his scope from religious leaders to Jerusalem itself in his famous lament: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” (37) He finally acknowledges that his words will go unheeded and the city itself will come to a tragic end: “See, your house is left to you, desolate.” (38)

At a theological level, Matthew is telling his Jewish audience (who are probably reading this after the destruction of the city and temple by Titus) that God is no longer “in residence” in the Temple at Jerusalem. The Old Covenant has served its purpose and has been supplanted by the New: Jesus Christ. The Kingdom of God has no need for a physical temple because the Holy Spirit dwells within each of us.

Psalm 35:19–28; Exodus 19:10–20:21; Matthew 23:23–32

Psalm 35:19–28: Our psalmist pleads to God, to “Let not my unprovoked enemies rejoice over me/ let my wanton foes not leer.” (19) observing at the same time that he did not prokive their actions and that they are pretty much intrinsically evil. He expands their evildoing ways to be a threat to all people of good will, not just him personally: “For they do not speak peace/ and against the the earth’s quiet ones plot words of deceit.” (20)

As always, outside of physical danger it is what comes out of their mouths that is their most offensive sin: “They open their mouths wide against me.” (21a) And to make sure God gets his point the psalmist quotes what they are saying against him: “They say ‘Hurrah! Hurrah! Our eyes have seen it!” (21b) [I presume “it” here is the psalmist’s supposed wrongdoing.]

Not only has our psalmist witnessed these depredation and evil speech, but he asserts that God himself has seen his enemies evil deeds and these should sure prod God to act [or at least speak] against them: “You, Lord, have seen, do not be mute.” (22a) Having noted that God has surely heard him, now he should surely act on his behalf: “Rouse Yourself, wake for my cause,/ my God and my Master, for my quarrel.” (23).

Our psalmist believes he’s on the side of the angels and his enemies clearly are not: “Judge me by Your justice, Lord, my God,/ and let them not rejoice over me.” (24) He goes on even more specifically about what he needs God to do:
“Let them not say in their heart,
‘Hurrah for ourselves.’
let them be shamed and abased one and all,
who rejoice in my harm.
Let them don shame and disgrace,
who vaunted over me.” (25, 26)

On the other hand, our psalmist knows he still has a few friends and he asks, “May they sing glad and rejoice,/ who desire justice for me.” (27a)

So, the eternal question is can we pray for harm to our enemies? I think the answer even here is clearly ‘no.’ But can we pray for them to “don shame and disgrace?” I really think we can because we are praying for them to “enjoy” the consequences of their wrongful and hurtful words and deeds. One of the greatest frustrations of life is to see others commit injustice and, yes, for them to persecute us and God lets them get away with it. Our poet is praying for justice and  therefore I think he is on firm theological ground with this prayer.

Exodus 19:10–20:21: It is time for the Israelites to experience God up close and personal—or at least reasonably up close. God instructs Moses, ““Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes.” (19:10) Consecration, that is preparing ourselves to encounter the holy, is a prerequisite to worship and hearing God. This action is also a precursor to Baptism: a sacred act.

There is also a hint of a Resurrection to come many years down the road when God announces that all must “prepare for the third day, because on the third day the Lord will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.” As indeed Jesus appeared on the third day.

All of Mount Sinai becomes holy ground as God declares it to be off limits on pain of death. IN preparation for worship the people must not only be clean but men are told to abstain from sex, “do not go near a woman.” (15) On the third day God speaks to Moses, apparently in the sight of the people. Like all theophanies, this one is quite dramatic: thunder, lightning and a trumpet blast whose origin is unclear. God? Angels perhaps? “As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder.” (19) God again warns Moses, ““Go down and warn the people not to break through to the Lord to look; otherwise many of them will perish.” (21)

Inasmuch as Exodus was probably written during the Babylonian captivity, I believe our priestly authors are recounting this scene at the foot of Sinai as a clear precedent to the nature and rules of worship in the Temple, where the Holy of Holies was set off and only the appointed high priest—a descendant of Moses and Aaron—could enter but once a year.

With this elaborate set-up for worship on the mountain, God speaks to Moses. And we know what he said: the Ten Commandments, beginning with the most important one, reminding the people exactly who he was and what his bona fides were: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before  me. (20:2, 3)

I think it’s crucial to note that at this point these commandments were spoken, not written. But what a speech it was—all lightning and crashing thunder— because “When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance,” (20:18) And they told Moses they would listen to him, but could he please make God stop speaking. Moses replies,“Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” (20:20)

There we have a basic terms of the Old Covenant: Fear God and you will be motivated not to sin because otherwise you will die.” And the Ten Commandments list the specific ways in which you are not to sin. But as the history of Israel amply demonstrates, they (and we) are unable to follow the law simply because we fear God. Our self-centeredness and desire to control our own wants and needs are simply too strong.

Matthew 23:23–32: Matthew’s Jesus continues his long discourse about the shortcomings of the religious leaders. In what can only be described as a longstanding human trait, the focus on the tangible trivial while ignoring the really important things. Jesus excoriates them, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” This is a verse that should be read prior to every Church Council meeting in the land.

Jesus continues relentlessly, giving us the best metaphor of all about the nature of hypocrisy: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.” (27). He challenges their assertion that they would not have killed the prophets as their ancestors had. But Jesus points out their bad logic by observing, “Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets.” (31)

I’m sure that Matthew has included these Jesus speeches, (that spoken by anyone else we would call a tirade), in his gospel to make sure that his primarily Jewish audience understood that the leaders of the Old Covenant were corrupt. The corrupt old order is self-contradictory, finished, and Jesus represents a revolutionary and brand new order.  And, as we are soon to see, this revolutionary new order, what we call the New Covenant, turns on the hinge of history: the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

 

Psalm 35:11–18; Exodus 18:7–19:9; Matthew 23:13–22

Psalm 35:11–18: The psalmist deals with disloyalty, and especially the disloyalty of supposed friends who fail to reciprocate the good he did for them. As we saw in the earlier verses, David (or our psalmist) is beset by woes brought on by the evil acts of people he once trusted. Now, he appears to be on trial for some crime he didn’t commit, but “Outrageous witnesses rose,/ of things I knew not the asked me.” (11)

I don’t think there can be a more hopeless feeling than to be betrayed by the people you once trusted, and to have them act against you: “They paid back [with] evil for good—/bereavement for my very self.” (12) It is even worse than mere betrayal as he then recounts how he was there for them in their own times of trial: “And I, when they were ill, my garment was sackcloth,/ I afflicted myself with fasting.” (13) He relates being a mourner when a friend who was as close as his brother experienced loss:

“As for a friend, for a brother,
I went about as though mourning a mother,
in gloom I was bent.” (14)

Yet, his friendship and his kind acts have come only to naught as they now repay kindness with derision: “Yet when I limped, they rejoiced, and they gathered,/ they gathered against me,/ like strangers, and I did not know.” (15) Worse, “with contemptuous mocking chatter/ they gnashed their teeth against me.” (16)

The sense of abandonment and suffering at betrayal is palpable. In this utter desolation and loneliness, there is still one hope, because our psalmist knows there is one person who will never abandon him, who will never betray him as he turns in desperate appeal to God, who up to now has remained silent: O Master, how long will You see it? Bring back my life from their violence,/ from the lions, my very being.” (17) In his desperation he offers a quid pro quo to God as he promises to go public, “I shall acclaim you in a great assembly,/ in a vast crowd I shall praise you.” (18)

But will God answer?

Exodus 18:7–19:9: Moses’ father-in-law arrives along with, we presume Zipporah and his two sons. Moses recounts events to date and “Jethro rejoiced for all the good that the Lord had done to Israel, in delivering them from the Egyptians.” (18:9) Jethro makes a sacrifice “nd Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God.” (12)

The next day Jethro remains at his son-in-law’s side as Moses deals with both the administrative and judicial problems that inevitably arise in a mob of 600,000. If we needed a model of an OT figure who had managerial experience and probably an MBA in administration, it is Jethro, who’s obviously been very successful over in Midian. He asks Moses, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, while all the people stand around you from morning until evening?” (14). Moses replies that it’s his job, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make known to them the statutes and instructions of God.” (16). 

Jethro tells Moses he will wear himself out because “the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.” (18) Jethro is my idea of the perfect consultant, because rather than just pointing out the problem, he offers a solution. He advises that Moses should continue to be the intermediary to God, and continue as chief teacher, but “You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain.( 21) He outlines an administrative hierarchy where these trustworthy men “bring every important case to you, but decide every minor case themselves.” (22)

Moses takes Jethro’s advice and there is now a management structure for the Israelites. Many woes and trials for Israel and Moses are yet to come, but Jethro’s advice, which Moses took, is doubtless how they survived as a cohesive people for the upcoming forty years. For me this is a statement that God prefers good order to randomness. Not just in creation but in conducting human affairs. In short, delegation is key to community. Unfortunately, there are far too many one man shows in the church where the senior pastor tries to be like Moses, fails to delegate, and burns himself out.

Jethro’s consulting gig ends as “Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went off to his own country.” (27)

The Israelites arrive at the foot of Sinai and “Moses went up to God,” who always has message for Moses to tell the people: “if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” (19:5, 6) For the first time there is a more specific promise of Israel as God’s chosen people: they are to become “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.”  The people respond to God’s message delivered by Moses quite positively, “answering as one, “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.” (19:8).  Things are looking up for ISrael, just as they do at mountaintop experiences.

The real test is yet to come. Something we need to remember when we’re all fired up for God and have promised enthusiastically to do his will.

Matthew 23:13–22: Jesus is on a tear as he continues to chastise the religious leaders, something I think he’s doing not just to get his point across, but to anger them so greatly that they will not fail to act against him. His words are cutting but true: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (15) Imagine the impact on us if Jesus has told us that our religiosity in raising a child had only resulted in creating a “child of hell.”

Jesus accuses the scribes and Pharisees of putting their trust in the practice of religion rather than trusting God: “And you say, ‘Whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gift that is on the altar is bound by the oath.’” But Jesus points out, “whoever swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by the one who is seated upon it.” (22). But we do exactly the same thing as the Pharisees. We put our trust in the form of religion rather than the reality of God. And as we know too well, the institution does a fine job of disappointing us. Would that I swore by the throne of God more assiduously than I do.

Psalm 35:1–10; Exodus 17:1–18:6; Matthew 22:41–23:12

Psalm 35:1–10: We know from the first line that this is a psalm of supplication. But unlike many where despair at God’s absence is the theme, this one written in David’s voice is an aggressive wish for harm to come to the poet’s enemies: “Take my part, Lord, against my contesters,/ fight those who fight against me.” (1) The military imagery in the first four verses add urgency to the prayer that God not intervenes in this situation, but that God uses his power alongside David to crush the enemy: “Steady the shield and the buckler,/ and rise up to my help.” (2) And even more to the point become the agent of his enemies’ destruction: “Unsheathe the spear to the haft/ against my pursuers.” (3)

However, even a psalm this aggressive doe not condone the death of David’s enemies, but only for them to experience the defeat of humiliation as he has been humiliated: “Let them be shamed and disgraced,/ who seek my life./ Let them retreat, be abased,/ who plot harm against me.” (4)

The lesson here is that no matter how much we despise our enemies or how much harm they have done to us, we cannot pray for death. Jesus of course took this a step further and said we are to love our enemies, which I take as his disagreement with the theme of this psalm.

Having prayed for their absement, the poet now employs metaphors that evoke the nature of how he would like to see his enemies disgraced: “Let them be like chaff before the wind.” (5a) and “may their way be darkness and slippery paths, / with the Lord’s messenger chasing them.” (6) In other words, David is calling on God to employ supernatural forces—angels—to help carry out his desire to see his enemies leave him alone.

We learn that David was trapped unawares and having committed no crime—”For unprovoked they set their net-trap for me,/ unprovoked they dug a pit for my life” (7).  And in the spirit of an eye for an eye, he wishes his enemies to be ensnared in exactly the same way: “Let disaster come on him unwitting/ and the net that that he set trap him,” (8)

So in light of Jesus’ words, can we pray the same prayer today? I personally think it’s at least OK to ask God that for those who have done us wrong without provocation that they become ensnared by their own conspiracy.

Exodus 17:1–18:6: Life is hard for the wandering Israelites and while they are amply supplied with manna, once again they are thirsty and we hear the same complaint: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (17:3) We can feel Moses’s frustration when he asks God, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” (4) God instructs Moses to use his magic staff and strike a rock, which he does “in the sight of the elders of Israel.” (6)

Moses names the place “Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”” (7) Proving of course that there is nothing new here. We feel exactly the same way during difficult passages in life, wondering if God is with us or not. And like Moses striking the rock and bringing forth water, we eventually receive confirmation that he is indeed with us. But usually on his own schedule, which tests our patience just as Israel’s patience was tested. But indeed, God always answers one way or the other.

Not only are they stuck in the desert, but they encounter Amalek, who doubtless is after the wealth that the Israelites are carrying with them. Moses appoints Joshua as commander to fight, which he does. There’s a direct correlation between Moses’ famous arm and Joshua’s success: “Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed.” (11) In almost humorous scene, the exhausted Moses (what about Joshua?!?) Aaron and a guy named Hur stand on each side of Moses holding up his arms until “Joshua defeated Amalek and his people with the sword.” (13)

Amusing as the scene of two men holding up Moses’ arms all day, it conveys an important lesson: we cannot accomplish great things on our own; but always in fellowship and community. When I was being treated for cancer, it was the caring people—the Aarons and Hurs— around me who held up my arms. I could not have done it on my own.

All of a sudden Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law appears on the scene. We learn that Moses had sent his wife, Zipporah, and his sons, Gershom and Eliezer, back to Midian. But now, Jethro had heard what happened, and he joins up with Moses and the gang in the wilderness, binging Zipporah and the kids out to join Moses. If Moses was 83 years old when all this was happening, Jethro must have been over 100. Yet here he is, ready to go. Proof that we’re never too old to be in community and that family ties are immensely strong.

Matthew 22:41–23:12: Now it’s Jesus’ turn to ask a trick question of the Pharisees: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” (22:42). They respond with what they learned in Pharisee Sabbath School: “The son of David,” But he quotes a line from Psalm 110, asking, “ If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” (45). The logical conundrum is too much for them to deal with: “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.” (22:46).

The dialog with the scribes and Pharisees ends on a bitter note as Jesus tell the crowd that they do a great job of preaching, but are far less great at practicing: “therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” (23:3) Jesus then goes on to  accuse them more specifically. They “tie up heavy burdens”—both real and metaphorical, I presume—”hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” (23:4).  This is an obvious reference to religious leader’s tendency to make people feel guilty. Something still practiced in many churches today.

They are also publicity hounds, the celebrities of their time and place: “They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.” (23:6,7)

But then Jesus says something that I think he does on purpose to make sure the religious officials finally act against him. He strips them of their haughty titles: “Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.” (10) And then is what in retrospect is an obvious self-reference: “The greatest among you will be your servant.” (11) as he concludes with the immortal saying: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (12)

Jesus is indeed about to turn the world upside down in what will become the hinge point of history. He is speaking for himself for he is about to endure the greatest possible humiliation—the cross— followed by the greatest possible exaltation: his resurrection.

Psalm 34:19–23; Exodus 15:22–16:36; Matthew 22:23–40

Psalm 34:19–23: No matter how desperate our situation, there is always hope—a hope that arises from God being close by. Few verses better express this hope in God’s succor and rescue: “Near is the Lord to the broken-hearted./ and the crushed in spirit he rescues.” (19)

Our psalmist articulates one of the fundamental realities of life: it is hard and many times we will indeed be broken-hearted during our life’s journey. It may be loss of a loved one, divorce, a child who has become an addict. The list is truly endless. And we can be crushed in spirit by disease, a toxic relationship, the discouragement of a failed project.

But as the psalmist observes, “Many the evils of the righteous man,/ yet from all of them the Lord will save him.” (20) No matter our circumstances, there is always hope for those who trust God and that God is listening. God is near. He listens and he acts.

On the other hand, “Evil will kill the wicked,/ and the righteous man’s foes will bear guilt.” (22) This theme that evil becomes its own destruction runs through many psalms. There is no need for outside agencies to exact punishment; evil people will find and experience their own downfall. It just tends not to happen as quickly as we might prefer.

The psalm ends with a beautiful summary of how God acts for those who fear him, those whom the psalmist calls ‘righteous:’ “The Lord ransoms His servants’ lives,/ they will bear no guilt, all who shelter in Him.” (23) And we know it was Jesus Christ who came and made this reality permanent.

Exodus 15:22–16:36: Although they have been rescued from the EGyptians and have finally come to worship God as their rescuer, the journey through the desert is not an easy one. Three days in they arrive at the oasis of Marah, the people are thirsty, “they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter.” (15:23). The people cry to Moses and he in turn cries to God, who promptly shows him a piece of wood lying on the ground. He tosses the wood into the water and it becomes potable.

But it’s not going to be hunky dory going forward. In what seems to be a narrative anomaly, God himself speaks, outlining the pact that he has set up for the Israelites: “He said, “If you will listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God, and do what is right in his sight, and give heed to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians.” (26) In other words, ‘Obey me, and I will protect you.’

This is exactly the point today’s psalm makes: if we are righteous and trust God, he will rescue and protect you. I’m sure the people thought that this would be easy to do and God would indeed bless them. Just as we often do. But as we know too well, life tends to be complicated and the unending conflict between our own will and God’s purpose for our life means this compact is much more difficult for us to carry out than it may first appear.

About 45 days into their journey, the Israelites arrive in the aptly named “wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai,” (16:1). The joy of the rescue from the Egyptians and the cool water of Elim has long faded. The Israelites are hungry and they are in a foul mood, and they raise their usual complaint: ““If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread.” (16:3)

One of the reasons I accept the historical authenticity of this story is that it relates again and again the reality of human nature, which has not changed in more than 3000 years. We’re satisfied for a while and we love God during that time. But when times get tough, we turn on God and complain bitterly. Just like the Israelites.

Moses has Aaron announce, “‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’” (9) Quails arrive in the evening and fresh manna is like the morning dew.

What’s interesting here is that some gathered more and others gathered less, but “when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed.”  (18) This is a picture of the ideal society, where everyone has exactly what they need: no more, no less—and they are satisfied. But notice that it took God to make this happen. Given the ongoing complaints, it is clear that even God cannot satisfy everyone all the time. Goodness knows humans are even less capable at creating a society where equality and satisfaction live in harmony.

Matthew 22:23–40: This time the Sadducees come to Jesus with their own trick question: the seven brothers who die in turn and the next brother marries the widow, This continues seven times and they ask, “ In the resurrection, then, whose wife of the seven will she be? For all of them had married her.” (28).

Jesus flat out tells them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God.” (29), pointing out that marriage happens only on earth and “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” (30) Moreover, Jesus asserts, “He is God not of the dead, but of the living.” (32)

This is basically all Jesus has to say about human relationships in heaven. It’s clear that it is the relationships on earth that matter ore. Which is probably why Matthew places the next question immediately following.

The Pharisees scoffed at the Sadducees for asking such a dumb question and “one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him” (35) with a serious and important question: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” (36)

Jesus’ famous answer silences his critics. First, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (37). Notice that Jesus is very specific here. It’s not just the abstract “love God” that we so often hear, but that we love God with all three elements of our being: heart, soul, mind. This is the definition of complete love of God: it is not just the emotions of the heart nor the intellect of the mind, but true love of God is (as Sara Wolbrecht once preached) being “all in” for God with our entire physical, spiritual, and emotional being..

And if we are ‘all in’ for God then it is far easier to carry out the second—and in many ways more challenging and difficult—part: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ (39). Jesus is clearly telling us that without loving God, we can neither love ourselves nor our neighbor. And in our present culture there is ample evidence of just how badly we actually carry out these commandments.

Even Evangelicals who loudly profess how they love God have abandoned the second half of Jesus’ commandment as they enthusiastically follow politicians who foment divisiveness, if not actual hatred of our neighbor.