Psalm 103:6–22; Judges 8; Luke 20:9–19

 Psalm 103:6–18: The psalm turns to celebration of God’s ineffable qualities. The first is what I believe is the underlying theme of the OT: God’s demand for justice for the poor and downtrodden: “The Lord performs righteous acts/ and justice for all the oppressed.” (6) And God is “compassionate and gracious” (8a)

One of the famous verses in the Psalms reminds us that God is “slow to anger and abounding in kindness.” (8b) Even when God is angry at Israel’s inevitable transgressions our psalmist assures us that God “will not dispute forever/ nor nurse His anger for all time.” (9).  In fact, while we deserve severe punishment for our sins, God is always lenient: “Not according to our offenses has He done to us/ nor according to our crimes requited us.” (10)

At the heart of God’s justice lies his kindness: “For as the heavens loom high over the earth,/ His kindness is great over those who fear Him.” (11) God is graceful and forgiving as he knows that we are his beloved and are not defined by our sins: “As the east is far from the west,/ He has distanced us form our transgressions.” (12)

In fact, God is our father and “As a father has compassion for his children,/ the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.” (13) And of course we are beneficiaries of God’s greatest act of compassion: sending his son Jesus to die for our transgressions.

So why does God show such great compassion in the face of our sinfulness? Our poet seems to answer that it is because we are short-lived creatures who can hide nothing from God, reminding us that God “knows our devisings,/ recalls that we are dust.” (14) We are ephemeral, here on earth only briefly: “Man’s days are like grass,/ like the bloom of the field…/ when the wind passes by him, he is gone.” (15, 16a)

We may be here only temporarily, but by contrast, “the Lord’s kindness is forever and ever/ over those who fear him.” (17) It’s worth remembering that not only is God eternal, but so too are his justice and his kindness. And for us, Jesus is the greatest expression of God’s love and kindness.

The scene shifts to heaven, which as Revelation makes clear, is the place from which God rules over all creation: “The Lord set His throne firm in the heavens/ and His kingdom rules over all.” (19) We are then treated to a little more detail about the what the angels of God: “Bless the Lord, O His messengers,/ valiant in power, performing His word,/ to heed the sound of His words.” (20)

Our poet envisions them as part of God’s armies (note the plural here): “Bless the Lord, all His armies,/ His servants performing His pleasure.” (21) What’s crucial here is that these messengers are obedient to God and like good soldiers, they carry out God’s orders.

The psalm ends on the high note of God’s activity and that he reigns over all the earth: “Bless the Lord, O all His works,/ in all places of His dominion.” (22a) But despite his wide-ranging power and majesty, God still cares for each of us as individuals, just as he cares for our psalmist, who ends these soaring verses on a personal note: “Bless, O my being, the Lord!” (22b)

What a terrific thought to reflect upon: that God, who rules over creation and commands legions of angels, also loves each one of us as individual created beings. And that he cares so much that he sent Jesus to us.

Judges 8: After Gideon winnows his army to a mere 300 men and then triumphs over the Midianites, not everyone is pleased to have been excluded: “Then the Ephraimites said to him, “What have you done to us, not to call us when you went to fight against the Midianites?” And they upbraided him violently.” (1) Gideon calms them by telling them they’ve done great things, but the incident reminds us that people then—and now—will be envious of those who accomplish great things.

But this envy morphs into bitter resentment as Gideon asks the people of Succoth for bread. They refuse, claiming that he has not yet completed the task at hand since he is still pursuing the Midian kings. Gideon promises that when he captures the kings, “I will trample your flesh on the thorns of the wilderness and on briers.” (7). The people of Penuel also refuse to aid Gideon’s men, so Gideon vows that “When I come back victorious, I will break down this tower.” (9). Why these refusals? Was it envy or simply stubbornness because their agenda was not playing out the way they envisioned?

In any event Gideon successfully captures the Midianite kings and carries out his threats on the leaders of Succoth and Penuel. We then encounter a strange scene where Gideon asks his eldest son, Jether, to execute the two kings. “But the boy did not draw his sword, for he was afraid, because he was still a boy.” (20) So Gideon kills them himself. But the question of why he asked his son to be the executioner hangs in the air. He seems to be testing his son. Gideon, having tested God, apparently believes that everyone should be tested in one way or the other.

Now that the Midianites have been conquered, the people ask Gideon to be their king and establish a dynasty: “Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also; for you have delivered us out of the hand of Midian.” (22) But he refuses, telling them, “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you.” (23) Certainly at this point Gideon’s heart was in the right place.

But unlike the prophets and judges before him, who never swerved from God, Gideon comes to believe his own press releases. He asks to be paid for his work from the Midiaite booty and ends up with 1700 shekels of gold, which he promptly uses to make an idol, “an ephod of it and put it in his town, in Ophrah.” (27) As a result, “all Israel prostituted themselves to it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and to his family.” (27) Gideon seems to say the right things, but his actions prove otherwise. Some things about leaders and politicians have remained constant down through the ages.

Nevertheless, Gideon is judge for 40 years, and sires 70 sons(!) But as soon as he dies, “the Israelites relapsed and prostituted themselves with the Baals, making Baal-berith their god.” (33) Once again, they “did not remember the Lord their God, who had rescued them from the hand of all their enemies on every side.” (34) Nor did the Israelites “exhibit loyalty to the house of Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon) in return for all the good that he had done to Israel.” (35). Which is something every politician should bear in mind when he starts to believe that his legacy will live on after him.

Luke 20:9–19: Since we know how the story turns out, this parable of the wicked tenants who end up killing the owner’s “beloved son” is completely obvious to us. It’s all about how Jesus was rejected by the Jews. But it was certainly not obvious to most of Jesus’ listeners since they still believe he has come to Jerusalem to carry out a political coup and restore Israel. Jesus concludes his parable with the dire warning, that the owner “will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” (16) The disciples remain in denial and exclaim, “Heaven forbid!” (16b)

But Jesus is not finished with them and asks, What then does this text mean:

‘The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone’?” (17)

He continues relentlessly, “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” (18) Suddenly the priests realize that “he had told this parable against them” (19) They realize they are the corrupt tenants and that Jesus has proclaimed himself to be the cornerstone upon which they will stumble and fall.

As is usual with Jesus parables, it operates at two levels. There is the first meaning that the priests and scribes pick up: Jesus is talking about the here and now. But then there is the second meaning for Luke’s community and for us: We either accept Jesus for who he said he is, or we stumble on his message. In rejecting Jesus as the cornerstone of the church, there can be only one bad outcome at the end of history.

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