Psalm 102:23–29; Judges 5; Luke 19:11–27

Psalm 102:23–29: After speaking of the entire nation, our poet returns to his personal situation, recalling his illness: “He humbled my strength on the highway,/ he cut short my days.” (24) We presume the “he” here is an enemy of the poet, not God. As well, ‘highway’ is the path or highway of life itself.

Desperate, he returns to the earlier theme of the psalm as he pleads for his very life, “O my God/ Do not take me away in the midst of my days!” (25) Again the sense of his ephemerality as over against God’s eternity that is even more ancient than heaven itself: “Of old You founded the earth,/ and heavens—Your handiwork.” (26)

This contrast between our mortality and God’s eternity is intensified in the final verses: “They will perish and You will yet stand.” (27a) The psalmist deploys the metaphor of clothing first that like garments that wear out, we are just as temporary:”They will all wear away like a garment” (27b)

The metaphor takes on a second meaning in the next verse that like clothes, God changes the old for the new just as humans are born, live a while, and then die: “Like clothing You change them, and they pass away./ But You—Your years never end.” (28)

Despite our brief time as individuals on earth, what God has founded—which given the context of the middle verses of the psalm, I take as Israel—lives on generation after generation: “The sons of Your servants dwell safe,/ their seed in Your presence, unshaken.” (29)

While the subtext of this psalm is about Israel’s longevity compared to that of a single human, it is equally about the Church, which lives on through the centuries as we are born, live and then die.

Judges 5: Our authors interrupt the narrative with the famously beautiful Song of Deborah, which some scholars believe to be the oldest part of the Bible. It begins with Deborah telling Israel,
    “Hear, O kings; give ear, O princes;
      to the Lord I will sing,
       I will make melody to the Lord, the God of Israel.” (3)

Israel found itself in desperate straits, having drifted far from God—”When new gods were chosen,/ then war was in the gates.” (8a)—the people turn to Deborah crying,
    “Awake, awake, Deborah!
      Awake, awake, utter a song! (12)

Of course Deborah brought far more than a song as she led Barak and his troops into battle.

The song then divides the tribes of Israel into two groups: those that went to battle and those who did not. Benjamin, Zebulun,Naphtali,  Issachar “came with Deborah,/ and Issachar faithful to Barak/  into the valley they rushed out at his heels.” (15a). As well, “Zebulun is a people that scorned death;/ Naphtali too, on the heights of the field.” (18)

But other tribes hesitated: “Among the clans of Reuben/ there were great searchings of heart.” (16) And, “Gilead stayed beyond the Jordan;/ and Dan, why did he abide with the ships?” (17)

Deborah’s song becomes onomatopoetic as we can almost hear the battle being fought:
     “The torrent Kishon swept them away,
       the onrushing torrent, the torrent Kishon.
        March on, my soul, with might!” (21)

We suddenly hear an angel of God curing those who did not join in the battle: ”
     “Curse Meroz, says the angel of the Lord,
            curse bitterly its inhabitants,
        because they did not come to the help of the Lord,
             to the help of the Lord against the mighty.” (23)

I think that when we are called but try to escape the call, God will pursue us relentlessly. But like the price of our rejection is exceedingly high and like Meroz (whoever he was) we ignore God at our peril. While Moses and Jonah and Gideon all initially resisted the call, they all eventually followed God. These tribes did not, and they earned only enmity. Would that we discern God’s call and then we follow the call.

At this point the song turns to Jael and her assassination of the enemy, Sisera. The details are just as gruesome in poetry as in the narrative:
She put her hand to the tent peg
      and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet
      she struck Sisera a blow,

        she crushed his head,
       she shattered and pierced his temple.” (26)

But then, unlike the narrative of Sisera’s story, the song presents another scene describes Sisera’s mother as she anxiously awaits her son’s return: “the mother of Sisera gazed through the lattice: ‘Why is his chariot so long in coming?” (28) She rationalizes that they obviously were triumphant and they are delayed because they are dividing the spoils, some of which she imagines will be hers: “two pieces of dyed work embroidered for my neck as spoil.” (30)  In a brilliant literary move that preserves the tension, the poet turns away from the scene. We are left to imagine the mother’s agony when she hears the bad news. 

That imagining only strengthens the last verse of this song and condenses Israel’s story of its relationship with God into a single couplet:
     “So perish all your enemies, O Lord!
            But may your friends be like the sun as it rises in its might.” (31)

Luke 19:11–27: In the preface to the elaborate and rather frightening parable of the talents (here, “pounds”) Luke informs us that Jesus tells this parable “because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.” (11) Clearly, he is attempting to reset the disciples’ expectation of immediate political glory.

Most sermons I’ve heard about this parable tend to focus on the three slaves, two of whom made a return on the investments given to them—and the third who hid the money away because he was afraid of the ruler. But it’s crucial not to skip over the significant meaning in the introduction: “A nobleman went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return.” (12) This would seem to be self-referential: Jesus, the nobleman, comes from heaven to earth and then will return to heaven.  In a clear reference to Israel, he was an unwelcome visitor: “the citizens of his country hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to rule over us.’” (14) We certainly could take this as a reference to the crucifixion.

Nevertheless, in the parable, the nobleman returns—which I take to be a reference to the second coming of Jesus—and as promised in Revelation judgement is rendered as to the effectiveness works that each slave has accomplished. If we accept Jesus and work in the Kingdom we will enjoy a return and be blessed. But if we do nothing and hide our gifts and talents like the third slave, then we end up with nothing. In short, the Kingdom is about what Kingdom work we do.

But perhaps the most ominous aspect of this parable  is its ending: “But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.’” (27) Is this a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 CE? Luke, writing, around 90 CE would certainly know of this event. In any event we are forced to recall that working for the Kingdom is a serious business.

 

 

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