Archives for July 2016

Psalm 83:14–19; Deuteronomy 20:10–21:23; Luke 8:26–39

Psalm 83:14–19: Having described Israel’s enemies in some detail, our poet now turns to God and wishes for their destruction: “O God, make then like the thistledown,/ like straw before the wind.” (14) This is not the gentle wind of the Holy Spirit, but God as a hurricane force gale. We cannot avoid the poet’s desire for God to wreak utter decimation upon these enemies: “As fire burns down forests/ and as flame ignites the mountains,” (15)—a particularly apt image in this summer of heat and fires in the west.

So,  our poet wishes God to act as wind and fire: “so shall You pursue them with Your storm/ and with Your tempest dismay them.” (16) But then in interesting twist. The psalmist does not merely wish for their destruction, he wants them to comprehend that Israel’s God is a God over all humankind, not just Israel. That their punishment will be so immense that they will even turn to God himself in their final hour: “Fill their faces with infamy/ that they may seek Your name, O Lord.” (17) Notice that here the poet uses Israel’s actual name for God, YHWH, (which is always rendered as “O Lord” in the psalms).

The psalmist wishes that in their very late realization, these enemies realize what disgrace they have brought upon themselves—just moments before they die: “May they be shamed and dismayed forever,/ may they be disgraced and may they perish.” (18). But also in their final moments, that they come to know God by his name and his consummate power: “And may they know that You, Your name is the Lord./ You alone are most high over all the earth.” (19)

While we may find the poet’s wish for Israel’s enemies to be repugnant, there is the greater theological lesson here: that God is indeed God of all creation, not just Israel. And that he is not just some anonymous force, but God has a name that is above all names over all creation.

Deuteronomy 20:10–21:23: The catalog of the law God has given to Israel continues relentlessly.

There are rules for warfare, most of them unpleasant: “when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword. You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, livestock, and everything else in the town, all its spoil.” (20:13) But interestingly, when there is a lengthy siege, the Israel army is forbidden from cutting down fruit-bearing trees for the simple reason, that “Are trees in the field human beings that they should come under siege from you?” (19) On the other hand, Moses says, feel free to cut down non fruit-bering trees for building siege works. The reason for this prohibition seems clear: fruit-bearing trees are a potent symbol of God’s creative act and we are not to destroy creation. This passage also certainly gives us insight into why Jesus cursed the barren fig tree.

Should a dead body be found but “it is not known who struck the person down” (21:1), there’s a CSI-like activity of determining which town the body is closest to. Then the elders of that town are required to bring heifer that has never been yoked to the wadi and break its neck(!) There, “the priests, …shall come forward, …. and by their decision all cases of dispute and assault shall be settled.” (21:5) At that point, “All the elders of that town nearest the body shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi” (21:6) and declare, Our hands did not shed this blood, nor were we witnesses to it. Absolve, O Lord, your people Israel, whom you redeemed; do not let the guilt of innocent blood remain in the midst of your people Israel.” (21:7,8) And now we know where the saying, “washing our hands of it” came from…

Then the very real issue of soldiers wishing to marry beautiful women who are captured from the enemy with God’s approval [“and the Lord your God hands them over to you and you take them captive, ” (10)]. After a month in which the woman, whose head has been shaved, is allowed to mourn her parents, the man is free to have sex with her—but as as husband and wife. But then, “if you are not satisfied with her, you shall let her go free and not sell her for money.” (14) While this is certainly heartless, it also prevents men from assembling harems of captive women.

The culture of that time, including Israel, allowed men to have multiple wives. A hypothetical is posed: “If a man has two wives, one of them loved and the other disliked, and if both the loved and the disliked have borne him sons, the firstborn being the son of the one who is disliked.” (15) Even though he may not like the wife who bore him a son first, that son still receives the inheritance. Rationality must be greater than emotion of disorder would reign.

PBut perhaps the most disturbing law is the one regrading rebellious sons. If parental discipline fails, the son may be brought to the elders and judgement rendered. If he is considered to be an irreformable case, “Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death.” (21a). As our authors observe, this probably only has to be done once: “So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.” (21b) We assume that the children of Israel were, on balance, well behaved.

Luke 8:26–39: Jesus’ healing of the Gerasene Demoniac is perhaps the most famous healing in Luke’s gospel because it affected many people, not just the man who was healed. The unnamed man is severely possessed: “For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.” (27) And when Jesus encounters him it is the demons, not the man who speak. At this point the man is simply a helpless vessel of evil. As we have seen earlier, the demons recognize Jesus for who he is, the son of God and they are well aware that Jesus has power over the demonic underworld: “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.” (28). It turns out the man is possessed by many demons, and together their name is Legion and they begin speaking in the plural.

Again, there is the fear of Jesus: “They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.” (31) Which we will take as hell or its suburbs. “The demons spot the swineherd and “the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these.” (32). In one of the more remarkable events of this Gospel, Jesus does not merely cast out these demons; he gives them permission. Which the demons happily obey. The possessed pigs run off the cliff and drown in the Sea of Galilee.

Luke is making sure we understand the extent of Jesus power. On the way over to Gerasene, he demonstrated his power over nature by calming the storm; now we witness the demonstration of Jesus’ power over the principalities and powers.

Meanwhile the pig herders, who’ve just lost their substantial investment, tell everyone what has happened. The people come out to Jesus and “they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” (35a). But their reaction was not joy at seeing their neighbor healed. Rather, “they were afraid.” (35b) This is a pretty natural human reaction to a pretty unnatural event.

Like the Gerasenes, we are uncomfortable in the presence of true power—especially power we cannot comprehend rationally. That’s why we prefer to think the age of miracles has passed. In a world that believes only in natural events, things we cannot explain we prefer to ignore. Shakespeare deals with this in Act 1 of Hamlet. Horatio, who in the play represents rational man, denies the presence of the ghost, but Hamlet replies, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/ Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Hamlet’s words remain just as true to day and this story in Luke is a stark reminder that not everything is visible to us.

Psalm 83:10–13; Deuteronomy 19:1–20:9; Luke 8:16–25

Psalm 83:10–13: We come to one of those disturbing OT passages whose prayers to God ask him to reach down from heaven and destroy Israel’s enemies. It’s one thing to read a  prayer that simply asks for generalized “enemies” to be defeated, but it’s quite another to read the very specificity of this prayer, where the writer lists enemies God has apparently already destroyed on Israel’s behalf in past battles (most of which are recorded in the book of Judges): “Do unto them as to Midian, as to Sisera,/ as to Jabin at the brook of Kishon.” (10) In other words, the psalmist is saying, ‘God, you’ve been on our side, defeat our current enemies, which he’s already listed above.

The images of defeated enemies are dramatically stark: “They were destroyed at En-Dor,/ they turned into dung for the soil.” (11) Then, the names of still more as God is asked to repeat the defeats he’s handed to Israel’s historic enemies: “Deal with their nobles as with Oreb/ and as with Zeeb and Zebah and Zulmunna, all their princes...” (12) These had the effrontery to predict victory over Israel, which of course did not come to pass: “...who said ‘We shall take hold for ourselves/ all the meadows of God.‘” (13)

So, what do we do with passages like these? Jesus came and changed the rules: we are to love our enemies and I’m sure he would discourage us form praying to defeat our enemies, although both individuals and nations have done exactly that down through the ages. Nevertheless, I think it’s better to read this psalm as history than as theology. The terms of the New Covenant have changed everything.

Deuteronomy 19:1–20:9: As in the book of Numbers, we arrive at the discussion of cities of refuge and the rules by which those who have committed accidental murder (manslaughter) can seek sanctuary. Here, there are three cities designated as refuge in three regions of Israel. Their purpose is to provide refuge for someone who has killed another in an accident [“Suppose someone goes into the forest with another to cut wood, and when one of them swings the ax to cut down a tree, the head slips from the handle and strikes the other person who then dies” (19:5)] He [and presumably, she] can flee to one of the cities and be protected against vengeance by the victim’s family. When Israel captures more territory another three cities will be added to the refuge list.

One has to admire the practicality and psychological understanding of victim and avenger here: it’s to prevent an endless line of vengeance killings because “the avenger of blood in hot anger might pursue and overtake and put the killer to death.” (6) But if someone is guilty of intentional murder flees to one of these cities, there will be no respite, only extradition: “the elders of the killer’s city shall send to have the culprit taken from there and handed over to the avenger of blood to be put to death.” (12)

Another scroll scrap stuck in here: the laws of property come next in the simple statement: “You must not move your neighbor’s boundary marker, set up by former generations, on the property that will be allotted to you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess.“(14) —a rule we follow to this very day via maps down at the county hall of records.

As for witnesses to a crime, “A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing in connection with any offense that may be committed. Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained.” (15) False witnesses will be dealt with by receiving the same punishment their lies had intended to mete out to the falsely accused. Punishment of the guilty is intended as deterrence, not as rehabilitation: “ The rest shall hear and be afraid, and a crime such as this shall never again be committed among you.” (20)

Above all, there must be balance: the punishment must fit precisely to the crime as outlined in the famous words: “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” (21) Alas, down through history, these words have been taken out of context and used as false justification for much personal revenge and for warfare. As recently as the shootings in Dallas.

The rules of warfare are clear. First, don’t be afraid if the enemy has more troops and superior weapons because Israel marches under God’s protection: “you shall not be afraid of them; for the Lord your God is with you, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” (20:1) But far more is involved here than in just blindly engaging in battle. Showing a deep understanding of human psychology, there is a requirement for a priest to come out and exhort the troops, telling them, “Do not lose heart, or be afraid, or panic, or be in dread of them; for it is the Lord your God who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to give you victory.” (20:3,4)

These are great words are for each of us to remember when we are confronting a personal battle or challenge. We are never alone; God is with us.

Demonstrating even greater psychological understanding, the troops are asked before battle if the have built a new house, is engaged to be married, they are to go home first and take care of business. Perhaps most importantly, is the question, “Is anyone afraid or disheartened?” (20:8). If so they are to leave the field and “go back to his house, or he might cause the heart of his comrades to melt like his own.” (20:9) Morale is everything and sapped morale because the soldier next to you is disheartened is a recipe for tactical disaster.

Luke 8:16–25: Jesus’ acts and sayings are coming fast and furious now. As is constantly demonstrated in 21st century America, especially among the political class, secrets do not remain hidden: “For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light.” (17) And Jesus exhorts us to listen carefully: “Then pay attention to how you listen; for to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away.” (18). The key to this saying is “even what they seem to have will be taken away.” What we cling to as Christians is the Kingdom of God; not worldly things. Jesus is simply saying that the things of this world that supposedly provide security, especially wealth and power, are ephemeral. One cannot buy one’s security with such transitory things.

We are often disturbed by Jesus’ apparently cavalier attitude to his own family. When told they’re “standing outside, wanting to see you.” (20) He replies, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” (21) In other words, for Jesus, Kingdom work trumps human family ties. I don’t think he’s rejecting his family outright, and the fact that Luke records this event as following immediately after his statement about “what they seem to have will be taken away” tells me that in a society where family was the highest priority, Kingdom work has an even greater priority. Hard to take, but in the end, it is not our family that saves us.

Luke’s next scene is Jesus asleep in the boat when the storm arises. Inasmuch as several of the disciples had been fisherman it must have been a rather severe storm since they are in fear for their lives. Jesus is none to happy to be awakened and asks rather sharply, “Where is your faith” after he calms the storm.

Of course there’s a larger meaning here: when the inevitable storms of life surround us, we should have sufficient  faith that Jesus will see us through. But I’m afraid I’m more like the disciples than Jesus: it’s a difficult task to maintain such a calm faith when we believe we are near death. The day I was diagnosed with cancer I feared only one thing: dying—just like the disciples. Yet, here I am 7 1/2 years later. Jesus and medical technology have calmed the storm. But I still have to ask, where was my faith on that day?

Psalm 83:1–9; Deuteronomy 17:8–18:22; Luke 8:1–15

 Psalm 83:1–9: Unlike most psalms of supplication asking for God’s intervention on behalf of the individual praying, this is a psalm of national supplication for the entire nation of Israel. It beseeches God with imperative urgency: “O God, no silence for You!/ Do not be quiet, God.” (2) God must make himself known because these are not just personal enemies, but the enemies of God himself, and they are threatening the very nation with which God has established his covenant: “For look, Your enemies rage,/ and those who hate You lift their heads.” (3) In this time of national emergency our psalmist points out to God that evil plans are afoot against his own people who God has promised to protect: “Against Your people they devise cunning counsel. and conspire against Your  protected ones.” (4)

The enemies threaten nothing less than annihilation of Israel itself: “They have said: “Come let us obliterate them as a nation,/ and the name of Israel will no longer be recalled.” (5) Perhaps even worse is that the enemies have created their own covenant with each other in contradistinction to the Covenant between God and Israel: “For they conspired with a single heart,/ against You they sealed a pact—” (6)

To make sure God gets his point that this is no vague generalized threat, our poet lists exactly who the enemies are: “the tents of Edom and Ishmaelites,/ Moab and the Hagrites,/ Gebal and Ammon and Amalek,/ Philistia with the dwellers of Tyre./ Assyria, too, has joined the,/ has become an arm for the sons of Lot.” (8,9) There is something about specifically naming one’s enemies that makes them all the more real and lends credence to their threat. It is also facing up to reality rather than remaining in denial about some vague generalized threat.

This specificity is a lesson for us who live in what appears to be a rapidly deteriorating American culture. As Christians it’s essential to name the threats that surround us and our nation. Unfortunately, it seems that our national enemies are not other nations that threaten us, but ourselves. We are so anxious for individual justice that we have forgotten the necessity of seeking communal justice. Our prayer becomes the psalmist’s prayer: Do not be mute and do not be quiet, God.”

Deuteronomy 17:8–18:22: We can call these portions of Moses’ long sermons the creation of the national constitution of Israel as he establishes the institutions and practices necessary to a coherent and cohesive nation. His instructions regarding the obedience to a judge’s decision of judges is exactly what we apply today: “You must carry out fully the law that they interpret for you or the ruling that they announce to you; do not turn aside from the decision that they announce to you, either to the right or to the left.” (17:11) In fact, one purpose of judges is to instill fear and respect, so that “All the people will hear and be afraid, and will not act presumptuously again.” (13) That seems to be less the case today…

We encounter another passage where the authors barely disguise the fact they are putting words into Moses’ mouth as they write several centuries later. The rules and limitations of kingship are written in such detail that it’s clear the authors have experienced personally the consequences of a corrupt king. There is a warning that the king cannot be a foreigner, nor can he acquire so many horses (a stand-in, I presume for military strength) that he takes on Egypt in war “since the Lord has said to you, “You must never return that way again.” (17:16) Moreover, the king must not seek excess wealth defined as many wives, silver or gold. Rather, “he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the levitical priests.” (17:18) All of this is a dead giveaway that the authors seek to remind their own king of his responsibilities and limitations.

Chapter 18 again reviews the privileges of Levites and priests. All the first fruits go to the Levites because “the Lord your God has chosen Levi  out of all your tribes, to stand and minister in the name of the Lord, him and his sons for all time.” (18:5) Once again a clear indication that our authors were indeed priests!

The come warnings and prohibitions against child sacrifice, witchcraft, and divination: “No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead.” (18:10, 11) As it clearly states, “whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord.” (18:12) Happily, these practices are still generally anathema today.

Finally, and again in something of a non-sequitur, Moses predicts that “God will raise up for you a prophet[d] like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.” (18:15) Anticipating the reasonable question about how to discern whether or not this person is a true prophet he tells us, “If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken.” (18:22) Of course, as Israel’s history will prove, the people basically ignored prophets such as Jeremiah and Isaiah. And this question of prophetic discernment is still with us today. People who claim to be prophets need to be tested along the lines outlined here.

Luke 8:1–15: Among the gospel writers it is Luke who gives women both starring (Elizabeth, Anna, Mary) and supporting roles, as he does here. In addition to the disciples, there is “Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others.” (2, 3a) Moreover, it is the women who provide financial support: “who provided for them out of their resources.” (3b) This is a fascinating and all too brief glimpse into a society where we assume all women were basically furniture. Luke is telling us that there were successful women as well. Above all, though, it is also a glimpse into Jesus’s heart since these women range form the formerly demon-possessed like Mary to the wealthy like Joanna. Luke is reminding us that Jesus accepts everyone, male and female, regardless of their station in life.

Jesus then tells the parable of the sower, which befuddles everyone, including the disciples. When he’s alone with the twelve, he tells them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables,” (10a) At first glance he then seems to contradict his entire ministry of bringing good news by asserting, “looking they may not perceive,/ and listening they may not understand.’” (10b) But all Jesus is doing is through the parable and then by this clear statement that not everyone who hears the Gospel will accept it and therefore accept Jesus for who he really is.

Jesus goes on to explain the parable in detail. There are four categories of people:

  • Those who the devil “takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.” (12)
  • Those who are initially enthusiastic but fall away quickly as soon as they encounter personal difficulties.
  • Those who place the things of the world in higher priority.
  • Finally, those who, “when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.” (15)

The question is, into what category do I fit? Have I “borne fruit with patient endurance?” Many days I doubt it.

 

 

 

Psalm 82:5–8; Deuteronomy 15:19–17:7; Luke 7:39–50

Psalm 82:5–8: In this highly imaginative psalm, God continues to address the small-g gods, excoriating them for their failure to administer justice among humans. The willful ignorance of these gods to allow injustice among humans is all-encompassing: “They do not know and do not grasp,/ in darkness they walk about.” (5a) The small-g gods were to be God’s judges on the earth and it’s clear that in God’s eyes they have failed in every respect. In fact, so great is their failure to see justice carried out that “All the earth’s foundations totter.” (5b) I take this apocalyptic statement as God’s observation that the perversion of justice threatens not only the foundations of human culture but even all creation. This line certainly resonates in the 21st century where among a plentitude of injustice we also under the threat of a nuclear weapon being detonated by terrorists.

God now speaks reflectively, realizing his mistake(!) in selecting these beings to be his judges and administrators of justice: “As for Me, I had thought: you were gods,/ and the sons of the Most High were you all.” (6) Wow! In the poet’s imagination, these failed gods were God’s own progeny. But now for their failure and corruption, God concludes his speech by telling them they are condemned to the same fate as humanity itself: “Yet indeed like humans you shall dies,/ and like one of princes, fall.” (7)

For our poet, only one true judge remains and it is essential that God take his rightful place in the created order: “Arise, O God, judge the earth,/ for You hold in estate all the nations.” (8)

This remarkable psalm places blame for injustice on mysterious intermediate beings that failed to insure that humans behaved justly with each other. But can we really blame a group of faceless beings assigned by God to see that men are just? For me that takes the blame away from the perpetrators, who are of course all of us.  I think it’s better to view this psalm as an extremely creative cry to a God who has allowed injustice to become the rule of the day. Alas, this is our same cry three millennia later.

Deuteronomy 15:19–17:7: This section of Moses’ interminable sermon is a catalog of rules under which the Israelites were to live and maintain a coherent civilization, including how to party.

Once again, the rule concerning livestock. The firstborn belongs to God. It is offered as a sacrifice and then, “You shall eat it, you together with your household, in the presence of the Lord your God year by year at the place that the Lord will choose.” (15:20) We presume this is our author’s designation for the tabernacle. However, if the firstborn is blemished in any fashion, it simply becomes dinner and “within your towns you may eat it, the unclean and the clean alike, as you would a gazelle or deer.” (15:22)

Then another review of the rules concerning Passover follows. It begins, as we would expect, with the sacrifice of a lamb “at the place that the Lord will choose as a dwelling for his name” (16:2) —again, the euphemism for the tabernacle. Everyone eats unleavened bread for 7 days. There’s some further clarification about this particular sacrifice. It can occur only at the tabernacle: “You are not permitted to offer the passover sacrifice within any of your towns that the Lord your God is giving you.” (16:5)

Then, the festival of weeks, which occurs “seven weeks from the time the sickle is first put to the standing grain.” (16:9) This festival asks (requires?) a “freewill offering in proportion to the blessing that you have received from the Lord your God.” (16:10), which certainly makes it a good verse from which to develop a stewardship sermon. Of course a tithe is by definition proportional to the blessings of the Lord.

Then, a review of the festival of booths (tabernacles), where everyone is [somewhat ironically in my view] required to “Rejoice during your festival, you and your sons and your daughters, your male and female slaves, as well as the Levites, the strangers, the orphans, and the widows resident in your towns.” (16:14) What’s interesting here is that unlike Passover, this is a party everyone—Hebrew and strangers alike— can attend. And as always, God wants to make sure that the widows and orphans are included in the festivities, so they are given particular mention. The clear implication here is that widows and orphans were routinely excluded from festivities.

Something of a non-sequitur follows as rules for appointing judges and officials are laid out. Above all else, they “must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.” (16:19) Resonating with the psalm above, the command is crystal clear: “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” (20). As always, the great underlying theme of not only this book, but of the entire OT, directly following the command to worship only God is the quest for justice. Something at which we continue to fail.

Our reading concludes with the somber reminder of the consequences of worshipping anything or anyone God himself. If a man or woman is discovered doing “what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, and transgresses his covenant by going to serve other gods and worshiping them…and if it is reported to you or you hear of it, and you make a thorough inquiry” (17:3,4) If the charges are proved true, “you shall stone the man or woman to death.” (17:5) However, the sentence of death for this malfeasance requires the testimony of at least two or three witnesses. We not only see the roots of the legal system that relies on testimony, we also see the beginning of the jury system where there must be agreement of all the people: “The hands of the witnesses shall be the first raised against the person to execute the death penalty, and afterward the hands of all the people.” (17:5)

Luke 7:39–50: Jesus is still at dinner at the Pharisee’s house and today’s reading picks up with his observation to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” (39). Knowing what the Pharisee is thinking, Jesus replies with the hypothetical of a man who is owed bit a large and a small debt, both of which he then forgives. Jesus asks, “Now which of them will love him more?” (42) Simon the Pharisee answers logically, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” (43). Jesus tells him, “You have judged rightly.” (43b)

Jesus now explains how this applies in the real world. He observes that when he arrived for dinner, “I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.” (44) and to drive his point home, “You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet.” (45) And even, “You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.” (46) The woman may be the greater sinner, but like the man in Jesus’ story who owed much, she has therefore experienced the greater love.

The lesson for Luke’s readers and for us is clear: We may think ourselves to be righteous and “good Christians”—just as the Pharisee thought himself to be good— but in our self-satisfaction we cannot experience the real love that Jesus promises us. If we honestly face up to our real and true sinfulness, like the woman, we will experience an even more intense love for Jesus and what he has done for us when he tells us, “Your sins are forgiven.

 

Psalm 82:1–4; Deuteronomy 14:22–15:18; Luke 7:31–38

Psalm 82:1–4: This psalm focuses on the root causes of injustice in the world. It is strikingly different from other psalms in that it posits the existence of mythological small-g gods, who God is now calling to account. The scene is set in a mystical courtroom as God speaks as Judge from the bench, sentencing these mythological creatures: “God takes His stand in the divine assembly,/ in the midst of the gods He renders judgement.” (1)

It appears that it is the small-g gods who have abandoned their duty of seeing justice is carried out and are now the ones responsible for what goes wrong in the world. It is they who have motivated the wicked to carry out their cruel deeds as the psalm shifts to God’s voice: “How long will you [the small-g gods] judge dishonestly, / and show favor to the wicked?” (2)

In the next verses God outlines the duties not only of the small-gods, but of those humans that have abandoned their duties to those less wealthy and powerful than they: “Do justice to the poor and the orphan./ Vindicate the lowly and the wretched.” (3) Once again, we encounter that relentless underlying theme of the OT: God’s insistence on bringing justice to those who cannot obtain it for themselves: God’s priority for the poor, widows and orphans among us.

God instructs these mythological creatures to get with the program and cause their human agents to act: “Free the poor and the needy,/ from the hand of the wicked save them.” (4) Evangelicals may be uncomfortable with the idea of the existence of many small-g gods, who God calls on to bring justice. But there’s no question that our God insists first on justice before he insists on the finer points of theology.

Deuteronomy 14:22–15:18: Our authors are now into full-bore law-giving although they continue to do so in Moses’ voice as of he were giving the world’s longest sermon. Giving a tithe of one’s wealth—almost always crops and livestock—back to God is not a matter of free will; it is mandatory. Here, it even deals with the problem of transporting the offering to the place of worship. If “the distance is so great that you are unable to transport it, …then you may turn it into money. With the money secure in hand, go to the place that the Lord your God will choose.” (14:24, 25)

But what’s really great is that the tithe also becomes the occasion for a party: “ spend the money for whatever you wish—oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your household rejoicing together.” (14:26). That’s certainly a better motivation to give happily than many of the dour and pointed stewardship sermons I’ve heard through the years!

Nevertheless, there are rules. Every third year, the tithe is to be stored in the town center, so “the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.” (14:29) After God’s demand that the people worship him and no other small-g gods, the priority is to carry out God’s command to take care the poor, the widows and the orphan—and here the resident alien. But the overall context of giving is clear: We are to give both dutifully and joyfully.

Chapter 15 deals with the remission of debts that is to occur every seventh year. Although its perfectly OK to exact debts form a foreigner, “you must remit your claim on whatever any member of your community owes you.” (15:3) This can be done because “There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy.” (15:4) In other words, there will be so much bounty that even after givingm there will be plenty left over.

But as always, this occurs “only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today.” (15:5) Moses expands on the duties to the poor and needy:  “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community …do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor.” (7) Rather, “open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.” (8)

Here’s the command not only for Israel but for all of us who follow God: “Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake.” (10) But we must do it with a clean heart and no ulterior motive. Unfortunately, this verse has been ripped out of its context by those who hawk the prosperity gospel. They prefer that the poor and needy give to them so they can enjoy their ostentatious lifestyles.

The every-seven-years remission includes freeing any Hebrew slaves, And when they are freed, “you shall not send him out empty-handed. Provide liberally out of your flock, your threshing floor, and your wine press, thus giving to him some of the bounty with which the Lord your God has blessed you.” (15:14) Although we do not have slaves to free, the rule remains the same: we are to give to liberally to those in need.

Luke 7:31–38: Luke memorably records Jesus’ frustration not only with the Pharisees, but with everyone to whom he ministers. They keep missing his larger point, preferring to focus on the miracles he performs: “They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another,

‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
    we wailed, and you did not weep.’ (32)

In other words, most people have missed the real reason Jesus has come among them: to establish the Kingdom of God. Jesus is especially frustrated with their logical inconsistency and haughty theology. They accuse abstemious John the Baptist of being demon-possessed, while they accuse Jesus, who dines with social outcasts, as being “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (34) And we are being just as inconstant and yes, hypocritical, when we accuse others of bad theology or taking a point of view that does not completely align with ours. Worse, we behave like those people who accused John and Jesus of seeing only the negatives.

Interestingly, not every Pharisee has rejected Jesus’ message and actions. One even invites Jesus to dinner. [I wonder if it’s the same Nicodemus, who in John’s gospel, comes to Jesus in the night.] A certain “woman in the city, who was a sinner,” (37)—a prostitute we presume, comes to Jesus and “stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair.” (38) This poignant scene stands in stark contrast to the hypocrites that have frustrated Jesus just a few verses before this.

The lesson is clear by juxtaposition here: it is better to come to Jesus in tears and weeping than in self-righteous theological judgement. There is no more efficient way to miss Jesus’ point about the Kingdom of God than to have Jesus play the flute for us and for us not to dance, focusing only on what we don’t like. This weeping woman is the only one in this passage who truly understands what Jesus has so willingly and beautifully brought to all of us.

Psalm 81:12–17; Deuteronomy 13:1–14:21; Luke 7:18–30

Psalm 81:12–17: Writing in God’s voice, our poet continues to speak of the ‘what ifs’ of Israel’s history, “But My people did not heed My voice/ and Israel wanted nothing of me.” (12) This is one of the saddest lines in the Psalms, and it resonates deeply today. Where once a belief in God was foundational in society, today people truly “want nothing” of God, having not only rejected what God wants to give us, but even rejecting the very idea that God even exists at all.

Of course God has given Israel—and us—free will and we are free to ignore him: “And I let them follow their heart’s willfulness,/ they went by their own counsels.” (13) God has given us freedom: freedom to follow him or freedom to follow “our own counsels,” which, as a casual reading of history reveals, leads inevitably to bad outcomes. And which is where we seem to be headed as a culture at this moment.

The tragic irony is that there is a clear and simple way out of the mess Israel created for itself: “If My people would but heed Me,/ If Israel would go in My ways.” (14) As far as our poet is concerned, if the nation would simply follow God, he would reward them mightily: “in a moment I would humble their enemies,/ and against their foes I would turn My hand.” (15) Personally, now that we live under the terms of the New Covenant, I do not accept this simple quid pro quo formulation, but under the Law, there’s no question that this is exactly what God, speaking through Moses, has been promising Israel in the book of Deuteronomy.

God would not only humble Israel’s enemies, but there would be recompense as well: “Those who hate the Lord would cringe before Him,/ and their time of doom would be everlasting.” (16) While on the other hand, Israel would be greatly rewarded: “And I would feed him [Israel] the finest wheat,/ and from the rock I would sate him with honey.” (17) Notice that while Israel’s history is about water coming out of a rock, here even greater riches are promised in the symbol of honey emerging from a rock.

If only they would follow God. But alas, we know Israel’s history—and we are witnessing ours follow the same depressing path, knowing that rescue is so close at hand.

Deuteronomy 13:1–14:21: Moses’ disquisition on the perils of following small-g gods continues as he warns against the temptations of false prophets, whose predictions of “omens or the portents declared by them take place, and they say, “Let us follow other gods” (whom you have not known) “and let us serve them,you must not heed the words of those prophets or those who divine by dreams.” (13:2, 3a) Interestingly, Moses frames these temptations as  “the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul.” (3b) In the theocracy that was Israel, false prophecy is treason and the punishment of any Israelite speaking practicing it is death. We begin to understand why the great prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah and colleagues—were despised in their time even though they were trying to bring the people back to God, not to lead them to small-g gods.

Not only death, but this crime of tempting others to abandon God is so horrific that the people are to “Show them no pity or compassion and do not shield them. But you shall surely kill them” (8, 9a) by stoning. Which of course was Stephen’s fate for speaking of Jesus Christ. To the people of Israel, Jesus was simply another failed false prophet who was now dead and for Stephen to speak of Jesus being alive was anathema.

Moses in not just speaking academically here. It appears that he is dealing with a problem that has already surfaced before Israel even enters Canaan. Apparently there have already been “scoundrels from among you [i.e. Israelites, who] have gone out and led the inhabitants of the town astray, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods,”(13) If the investigation finds that this has indeed occurred, the crime is so abhorrent that not only is the false prophet to be killed, but “ you shall put the inhabitants of that town to the sword, utterly destroying it and everything in it—even putting its livestock to the sword.” (15) What are we to make of this? In the context of Israel being ruled by God—a theocracy— it is eminently logical if harsh. But without this threat hanging over the people’s heads, God seems to know that they would succumb to the attractiveness of idols. But as we know, even with these laws, many of the Jews did eventually did turn away from God.

Now that Moses has put, we presume, the fear of God into the people, he turns to more mundane issues, such as what the people can and cannot eat. This section forms the basis of what today we define as kosher. The basic bifold rule about livestock is simple: “Any animal that divides the hoof and has the hoof cleft in two, and chews the cud, among the animals, you may eat.” (14:6) He then gives examples of cloven hoof animals but that don’t chew the cud that must be avoided, most notably the pig. Likewise, finned fish are OK, but shell fish are banned. A long list of forbidden birds follows and eating insects is also (thank goodness!) forbidden. Finally,  “You shall not eat anything that dies of itself,” (21a) although it can be given “to aliens residing in your towns for them to eat, or you may sell it to a foreigner.” (21b)

The list of clean and unclean makes real sense when examine it from a health and environmental perspective. The most famous example is of course the problem of undercooked pork (trichinosis), and it seems that God definitely has a heart for the great birds such as eagles and ospreys (and less appealingly, vultures and buzzards).

Luke 7:18–30: Jesus’ fame is now so widespread that the most renowned prophet in Judea, John the Baptist, sends a delegation north to Jesus with instructions to ask, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” (20) Jesus summarizes his deeds to date: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” (22) Then, Luke makes it clear that Jesus does not intend to belittle John’s message or activities by offering him an olive branch, “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (23)

Is this the same John, who back in chapter 3 said, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (3:16)? Why is he so unsure now about who Jesus is? However, when we read that baptism passage carefully we see that John never actually addresses Jesus face-to-face, nor does John say anything specific about Jesus being the fulfillment of his prophecy. Luke’s baptism passage is ambiguous. John may not have even seen the dove descend form heaven or heard God’s voice.In this context, the visit from John’s emissaries makes sense.

Here in Luke 7, Jesus himself gives the highest possible encomium as he endorses John and his ministry: “What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” (26) And then, Jesus quotes the same passage from Isaiah that John had used to describe himself: “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,/ who will prepare your way before you.’” (27) Then, in an indirect reference to his own birth, he asserts, “ I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (28)

So, what’s Luke’s point here? My guess is that Luke’s community included a group of passionate John followers. Perhaps a conflict had arisen between them and those who rejected John as being relevant now that Jesus had come. So Luke walks the knife edge, asserting through the words of Jesus that John was the greatest prophet of the time, and indeed, “more than a prophet” because he has coming just ahead of the Messiah’s appearance on the scene. But in the end, there’s no confusion of hierarchy. John may have been the greatest prophet of all, but he was still only the messenger to someone greater than he. And even more surprisingly, Luke asserts that anyone in the Kingdom of God is greater than John.

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.

Psalm 81:1–6; Deuteronomy 11; Luke 6:39–49

Psalm 81:1–6: This psalm celebrates a festival with great musicality—including both orchestra and choir:
Sing gladly to God our strength,
       shout out to the God of Jacob.
       Lift your voices in song and beat the drum,
      the lyre is sweet with the lute.” (2,3)

It turns out that the occasion being celebrated is a festival about the moon: “Blast the ram’s horn on the new moon,/ when the moon starts to wax, for our festival day.” (4). This party seems rather pagan compared to the other very specific festivals (Passover, tabernacles, etc.) described in such detail in the Torah. Nevertheless, at some point in Israel’s history, it became an official holiday: “For it is an ordinance in Israel,/ a rule of the God of Jacob.” (5) Moreover, the psalmist asserts, “A decree He [God] declared it for Israel.” (6a)

Perhaps this one evolved from some other ordained festival. In any event, the psalm gives us no clue as to when in the calendar year it was celebrated. Since there’s a new moon ever 28 days, it seems unlikely it was a monthly holiday.

At least the festival is connected to Israel’s history, hearkening back to the time God saw the misery of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt: “…when He sallied forth against Egypt’s land—/ a language I knew not I heard.” (6b) I presume our speaker is referring to the language spoken by the Egyptians , which of course would have been forgotten by anyone living in Israel centuries later.

Deuteronomy 11: Once again, Moses reprises Israelite history from Egypt to the banks of the Jordan, this time in the context of “You shall love the Lord your God, therefore, and keep his charge, his decrees, his ordinances, and his commandments always.” (1) He is speaking to the generation that grew up during the wilderness trek: “Remember today that it was not your children …, but it is you who must acknowledge his greatness, his mighty hand and his outstretched arm.” (2)

Moses’ rhetorical tack is that having been witnesses to all the great acts of God, keeping the commandment to love God is the key “that I am commanding you today, so that you may have strength to go in and occupy the land that you are crossing over to occupy,.” (8) [All this is somewhat puzzling. Weren’t the people who actually participated in the Exodus all now dead? I assume these are the children of the Exodus, so how did they witness all these events Moses is recounting. Obviously, the authors of Deuteronomy are less bothered by a timeline than I.]

Moses also provides a brief lesson in agriculture, comparing how they grew food in Egypt to the abundance that they are about to enjoy in Canaan: “For the land that you are about to enter to occupy is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sow your seed and irrigate by foot like a vegetable garden.  But the land that you are crossing over to occupy is a land of hills and valleys, watered by rain from the sky.” (11) Most important though, is that it is “a land that the Lord your God looks after.” (12)

There’s only one condition they must fulfill. Only if  they “heed his every commandment that I am commanding you today—loving the Lord your God, and serving him with all your heart and with all your soul—then he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil.” (14) This is a quid pro quo that predates the grace that Jesus has brought to us.

Moses reiterates that since these commandments must be obeyed without fail, the people would do well to “bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead.” (18) as well as teaching these precepts to their children and reflecting on them before going to sleep at night and before getting up in the morning. And for safe measure, “Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates,” (20) We may chuckle at the extent to which Moses went to get the people to remember, but all of these (well, maybe not writing on my forehead) are a key to a close relationship with God. It’s about more than just obeying commandments, it’s writing them on our heart and soul, which says clearly that obedience comes because we want to be obedient.

Finally, Moses reminds them, “I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: ” (26) A blessing when the commandments are kept; a curse “if you do not obey the commandments of theLord your God, but turn from the way that I am commanding you today, to follow other gods that you have not known.” (28) Once again, the specificity about the main commandment—to avoid idol worship— gives me the sense this sermon is being written retrospectively long after Israel has succumbed to the very thing Moses warns against.

Luke 6:39–49: Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount continues as Jesus launches into several parables. While there is hierarchy—”A disciple is not above the teacher,” (40)—we disciples should still teach others. But we cannot teach others f we haven;t dealt with ourselves. Which brings Jesus to hypocrisy—famously explained in his famous aphorism, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (41) Only when we’ve removed the speck can we see clearly and only then can we be effective examples to others. So the question is, why are we such hypocrites? It’s certainly the primary manifestation of our fallen nature and our quest being always at the top of the social heap. As always, the root cause is pride.

Next, the simple observation that like trees, what we say—our fruit— is the product of the attitude of our heart: “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.” (45) I think this is exactly what Moses is getting at when he uses his rather disturbing metaphor of circumcising the foreskin of our heart—A circumcision which means we are a God-follower. Frankly, I prefer Jesus comparing the attitude of our hearts to fruit trees.

It all boils down to not only “being,” but also “doing.” Jesus asks rhetorically,  Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?” (46) It’s perhaps the most brutal truth of all: we can hear and speak all the “good things” we want. But speech without action is nothing more than empty rhetoric—”a house on the ground without a foundation.” (49a) Jesus asks us to do one simple thing—just as Moses asked Israel to do one simple thing. Let our deed correlate to your words. And we have to start with ourselves, not other people.

Alas, in this era of social media and political spin we are so awash in empty words that it’s almost impossible to find actions that backs up those words. As a culture I think we are headed societally to the fate of the house build on sand: “When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.” (49b) But at the individual level, we can be good fruit. It’s a question of personal responsibility in getting specks out of our eyes.

 

Psalm 80:13–20; Deuteronomy 9:7–10:22; Luke 6:27–38

Psalm 80:13–20: Following his review of Israel’s history using the metaphor of a growing vine, our psalmist accuses God, “Why did You break through its walls so all passers-by could pluck it.?” (13) Any farmer worth his salt would make sure that the vine he is growing remains protected from harm. Yet, God has inexplicably allowed harm to come to the very vine he planted so many years ago. In a brilliant extension of the metaphor, Israel’s animals are compared to a wild animal and marauding insects: “The boar form the forest has gnawed it,/ and the swarm of the field fed upon it.” (14)

We can hear the poet’s anguish as he pleads for God to remember his promise and return to Israel, “God of armies, pray, come back,/ look down from the heavens and see,/ and take note of this vine, and the stock that Your right hand planted,/ and the son You took to Yourself.” (15, 16) Israel is more than it a metaphorical vine it is a metaphorical son adopted by God. The metaphors merge in the next line. Israel, the adopted son, has met the same fate as the destroyed vine:  “burnt in fire, chopped to bits,/ from the blast of Your presence they perish.” (17)

The psalmist pleads for God to restore the nation, relying fully on the metaphor of Israel as God’s adopted son: “May Your hand be over the man on Your right,/ over the son of man You took to Yourself.” (18) Of course for us Christians, we can read these verses as the son being Jesus, and the phrase, “son of man,” is certainly evocative. But I think that’s reading too much in here.

The poet promises that if God returns, faithfulness of the people will return as well: “And we will not fall back from You./ Restore us to life and we shall call on Your name.” (19) The psalm ends with a repetition of verse 4: “Lord God of armies, bring us back. Light up Your face, that we may be rescued.” (20) But alas, as we know, the northern kingdom of Israel never came back. It was hopelessly intermarried with others and fated to become the despised Samaria of Jesus’ time. Sometimes even the most fervent, beautifully spoken and evocative prayers remain unanswered.

Deuteronomy 9:7–10:22: This reading emphasizes how Moses continues to be Israel’s intercessor with God and how it was Moses alone who rescued them from God’s wrath at their constant sinfulness.  To drive his point home about the importance of obedience to God, Moses turns to a lengthy historical description of how Israel disobeyed God in the wilderness, reminding them, “at Horeb you provoked the Lord to wrath, and the Lord was so angry with you that he was ready to destroy you.” (9:8) Moses casts himself in the role of protector of Israel against the wrath of God, reminding them that he was gone only 40 days and when he returned, “I saw that you had indeed sinned against the Lord your God, by casting for yourselves an image of a calf; you had been quick to turn from the way that the Lord had commanded you.” (16) Once again, Moses successfully intervened on their behalf, “I was afraid that the anger that the Lord bore against you was so fierce that he would destroy you. But the Lord listened to me that time also.” (19)

Moses’ catalog of Israel’s grievous sins continues, this time focusing on the incident of the spies sent to Canaan and God said, ““Go up and occupy the land that I have given you,” you rebelled against the command of the Lord your God, neither trusting him nor obeying him.” (23) Moses’ anger at the people is palpable when he states, “You have been rebellious against the Lord as long as he has known you.” (24) Again Moses intervenes on their behalf, noting he “lay prostrate before the Lord when the Lord intended to destroy you” (25) for 40 days and nights. Moses asserts that he persuaded God to relent because the Canaanites might scoff, “‘Because the Lord was not able to bring them into the land that he promised them, and because he hated them, he has brought them out to let them die in the wilderness.’” (28) This raises the intriguing question of whether God cared about what the Canaanites thought about him. I doubt it. But Moses’ argument worked.

Having destroyed the first set of tablets on which God had written the commandments, God tells Moses to make more tablets and the Ark in which they will be carried.   Moses relates how he journeyed back up the mountain and “ I stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights, as I had done the first time. And once again the Lord listened to me. The Lord was unwilling to destroy you.” (10:10)

Now 40 years later, Israel stands at the border of Canaan, ready to enter.  In this valedictory, Moses pleads with the people to obey the law, which is really quite simple: “O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God.” (12, 13)  Moses tells the people that God loves them and in a memorable metaphor, he begs them to “Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer.” (10:16)

These final words of Moses’ lengthy sermon are perhaps the finest summary we have about who God is and what he cares about, and how we must follow his example: “the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.” (10:17, 18)  Moses reminds them that God has now fulfilled his promise to Abraham: “Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in heaven.” (10:22)

Of course the the question is, will Israel take Moses’ words to heart? Will we?

Luke 6:27–38: In the context of today’s psalm and Moses’ long sermon, Jesus’ words in Luke’s rendition of the Sermon on the Mount are even more revolutionary, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (27, 28) Do not seek vengeance. Rather, do the complete opposite: “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.” (29)  In fact, be willing to be lose all your worldly possessions, whether by giving them away or being robbed.

And then, perhaps Jesus most widely known moral assertion, although he is rarely credited by those who say it, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (31) Jesus makes it clear that all these things are easy to do when we love the person, “If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.” (33) But he’s asking us to do a hard thing, “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” (35)  (36) Jesus promises we’ll still be rewarded, but it will not be on the worldly terms we expect. It will be on the terms that operate in the Kingdom of God: “Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High.” (35a)

But then something even more revolutionary and contrary to everything the religious leaders of the time (and many today) believed and taught: God loves sinners: “he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” (35b) And our response must be the same as God’s: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (36) Wow. That is so difficult and ironically, perhaps most difficult to do with those with whom we are in a close relationship. There’s no question that as my Facebook newsfeed demonstrates so well, the world is short on mercy. Mercy must begin with us.

For Jesus, it’s all about reciprocity: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.” (37, 38a) Even if people do not accept that Christ has saved them, they (we!) would do well to at least practice these virtues. It is only by this reciprocity that society can hang together, much less flourish.