Psalm 81:7–11; Deuteronomy 12; Luke 7:1–17

Psalm 81:7–11: As the psalmist recounts Israel’s history in this psalm of praise, God has “sallied forth against Egypt’s land.” At this point the poet writes in God’s voice, speaking to Israel. God reminds them of the great deeds he has done, first as the release from slavery: “I delivered his [Israel’s] shoulder from the burden/ his palms were loosed from the hod.” (7)  Appropriately, as we read this passage on July 4th, God has heard their cries and brought freedom to the people, “From the straits you called and I set you free./ I answered you from thunder’s hiding place.” (8a) [What a great description of heaven: “thunder’s hiding place.”]

God recounts also that he tested the Israelites along the journey: “I tested you at the waters of Meribah.” (8b) And now, centuries later, God speaks, “Hear, O my people, that I may adjure you./ Israel, if You would but hear me.” (9) This is a challenge not only to Israel but to us right here and now. God is speaking to us; are we listening? Can we hear God above the noise and tumult of this world, this too noisy culture in which we live?

God gives his great commandment—the same one Moses repeats again and again in Deuteronomy—once again: “There shall be among you no foreign god/ and you shall not bow to an alien god.” (10). Which was exactly the problem in Israel as people intermarried, absorbed those other cultures, and found the small-g gods to be more attractive than the mysterious monotheistic God of Israel. This of course is a stark warning to us today, who are awash in small-g gods. Not just possessions, but the very fabric of our “tolerant” culture that abides no deviation from the mores that it sees as paramount—one of them being its rejection of God as the foundation of a moral culture— have become our own small-g gods.

And it’s too easy to simply turn away from God, just as the northern kingdom of Israel had, having forgotten these powerful words: “I am the Lord your God/ Who brings you up from the land of Egypt./ Open your mouth wide that I may fill it.” (11) Our forgetfulness too easily becomes our downfall.

Deuteronomy 12: This chapter focuses on the key actions and rules to be undertaken once Israel enters Canaan. First, and above all, “You must demolish completely all the places where the nations whom you are about to dispossess served their gods, on the mountain heights, on the hills, and under every leafy tree.” (2)  This must be complete and utter destruction: “Break down their altars, smash their pillars, burn their sacred poles with fire, and hew down the idols of their gods, and thus blot out their name from their places.” (3)  As he speaks, Moses gives advice we all would do well to follow: “You shall not act as we are acting here today, all of us according to our own desires,’ (8) In other words, God’s commands always trump our wishes.

While the pagan Canaanites apparently set up idols and altars about every six feet all over the land, Moses is quite specific that God—appropriate to his monotheistic nature— will be worshipped in one place—and one place only. He warns, “Take care that you do not offer your burnt offerings at any place you happen to see.But only at the place that the Lord will choose in one of your tribes—there you shall offer your burnt offerings and there you shall do everything I command you.” (13, 14) As to where that is, it has not yet been revealed.

Moses turns to the very practical problem of eating meat, reminding them, “whenever you desire you may slaughter and eat meat within any of your towns, according to the blessing that the Lord your God has given you; the unclean and the clean may eat of it, as they would of gazelle or deer.” (15) There’s the usual prohibition against eating or drinking blood, “Only be sure that you do not eat the blood; for the blood is the life.” (22)  As well, a reminder that eating that which is to be offered to God is prohibited, i.e., “the tithe of your grain, your wine, and your oil, the firstlings of your herds and your flocks, any of your votive gifts that you vow, your freewill offerings, or your donations, these you shall eat in the presence of theLord your God at the place that the Lord your God will choose.” (18) This is a reminder to us today that that which we give to God comes right off the top.

The chapter concludes with yet another warning against idolatry: “take care that you are not snared into imitating them, after they have been destroyed before you: do not inquire concerning their gods, saying, “How did these nations worship their gods? I also want to do the same.” (30) The underlying key here, is that Israel is to maintain its distinctiveness a “nation apart” when it comes into Canaan. God is not a god of the melting pot; there is to be no cultural absorption. Even though most of cause of Israel’s ultimate downfall was its disobedience of this specific command, here we are some 3000 years later and Israel’s heirs continue to maintain their Jewish identity. Even now, they have not been absorbed into the cultural collective.

Luke 7:1–17: Never forgetting that he is writing to Gentile Christians, Luke relates the interaction between the Jesus Roman centurion in great detail. The centurion at Capernaum has heard about Jesus and “he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave.” (3) The question hangs in the air: will Jesus the Jewish rabbi have anything to do with these Gentiles? The Jews around him tell Jesus that the Centurion is a friend to them: He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” (4,5) This statement provides a context that not all relations between Jews and Gentiles were hostile. 

Thus persuaded, Jesus decides to go to the centurion’s house, but before he gets there, friends convey the soldier’s message, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof,” (6) saying that Jesus need “only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.” (7) Luke gives us a little discourse on hierarchy as the centurion is  “set above” others and he believes Jesus is the same: set above others. Jesus has never heard this from anyone before and “he was amazed at him,” and most significantly, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” (9)

Luke’s message to his Gentile community is crystalline: Jesus may not be physically in our presence, but through faith we can enjoy exactly the same benefits and relationship with Jesus as the centurion did. Jesus never actually comes to the centurion’s house and yet healing took place. The issue here that faith is as strong—perhaps stronger, as Jesus avers—physical presence. This is the same point that the post-resurrection Jesus makes later when Thomas asks for proof of who he is.

If the centurion’s story is about faith, the story of the widow of Nain is about grace and mercy. Already a widow, a mother’s only son dies, which in that society will leave her destitute. Jesus shows up outside the town gates and sees the funeral procession. “ When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.'” (13). And without being asked for anything by anyone, Jesus comes to the bier and speaks authoritatively, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” (14) Which the man promptly does. Here’s proof that sometimes, through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus will intervene in our lives and heal us without even being asked, be it physically, emotionally, spiritually or relationally. This is pure grace in action. Nothing the widow did “earned” this healing.

This resuscitation has a significant impact on the people who witnessed it: “Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” (16) Luke is telling us that some Jews are recognizing Jesus for who he might be: a prophet come to restore Israel to its former glory. But as we know, even greater things are in store.

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