Archives for August 2016

Psalm 101; Judges 1:17–2:23; Luke 18:18–30

Psalm 101: While the previous psalm (100) celebrates God’s righteousness and faithfulness, this psalm turns inward as the psalmist contemplates his own behavior and attitude before God as it opens with song about emulating God’s qualities, “Kindness and justice I would sing./ To You O Lord, I would hymn.” (1)

To be kind and just requires emulation of others who follow God: “I would study the way of the blameless:/ when will it come to me?” (2a) He will not consort with the wicked, but rather “I shall go about in my heart’s innocence/ within my house.” (2b)

Our poet notes that avoiding temptation and evil people is a key requisite: “I shall not set before my eyes/ any base thing.” (3a). This discipline leads to a firm resolution that “I hate committing transgressions./ It will not cling to me.” (3b) He will consciously work to stay out of harm’s way: “May a twisted heart turn far from me./ May I not know evil.” (4) These verses point out the psychological fact that if we consciously discipline ourselves to avoid sinful people and situations, it becomes easier to avoid succumbing  to temptation.

We suddenly get a sense that in this “David psalm,’ it is the king himself who is speaking. His state of semi-perfection [self-righteousness?] will motivate him to chastise others. In fact, he will go beyond chastisement against the wicked who speak ill of his friends: “Who defames in secret his fellow,/ him shall I destroy./ The haughty of eyes and proud of heart,/him shall I not suffer.” (5)

That a king is speaking becomes more obvious in the next verse: “My eyes are on the land’s faithful,/ that they dwell with me.” (6a) It is only these faithful people who follow the right path who will serve him: “Who walks in the way of the blameless,/ it is he who will serve me.” (6b)

The king’s court will consist only of those who, like him, follow justice and kindness: “Within my house there shall not dwell/ one who practices deceit./ A speaker of lies shall not stand firm before my eyes.” (7) In fact, the king is even more ambitious than that as he takes action throughout his kingdom: “Each morning I shall destroy/ all the wicked of the land,/ to cut off from the town of the Lord [Jerusalem]/ all the wrongdoers.” (8)

Obviously there is some hyperbole here since destroying all the wicked is an impossible task. But speaking as king, this psalm should have served to make it clear exactly what kind of people qualified to serve him. For us, of course, it’s a reminder that if we claim to be Jesus followers we must be pure of heart and work consciously to avoid situations where we are tempted to sin.

Judges 1:17–2:23: The task of conquering the Canaanites was not completed by Joshua and his army. As our authors make clear here, there was much left to be accomplished. They catalog the efforts of virtually every tribe. Judah is successful but “the Benjaminites did not drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem; so the Jebusites have lived in Jerusalem among the Benjaminites to this day.” (1:21) The house of Joseph uses spies to successfully capture Bethel, but “Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shean and its villages.” (27)  Nor did Ephraim “drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer.” (29) Zebulon, Asher, Napthali were equally unsuccessful—and so it went.

God was not exactly pleased and sent an angel speaking on God’s behalf chastises them and predicts a fairly grim future for Israel because of their military failure (an outcome the authors surely knew as the wrote many years later): “you have not obeyed my command. See what you have done! So now I say, I will not drive them out before you; but they shall become adversaries to you, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” (2:3)

Alas, “the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and worshiped the Baals.” (2:11) Worse, “they abandoned the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they followed other gods.” (12)

As today’s psalmist observes, bad things tend to happen when people are surrounded by evil. Israel “did not listen even to their judges; for they lusted after other gods and bowed down to them.” (2:17)

Israel’s judges were the only glue holding the nation together because “the Lord was with the judge, and he delivered them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge.”  (2:18) But when the judge died, Israel was quick to revert to its pagan ways. The authors conclude that this state of affairs remained in place “In order to test Israel, whether or not they would take care to walk in the way of the Lord as their ancestors did.” (2:22). Unsurprisingly, Israel generally failed the test. As, I suspect, given the state of the culture we live in, have we.

Luke 18:18–30: Perhaps Jesus most famous theological encounter was not with the assorted Pharisees and lawyers, but with the rich young ruler. Jesus The young man is an exemplar when it comes to following the Law and now asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (18). Jesus rather testily rebukes the man for calling Jesus “good,” asserting that “No one is good but God alone,” (19) which I take to be Luke’s message to his community that even those who have obeyed every law cannot begin to claim to be “good.”

Jesus goes on to tell him that following all the rules is insufficient and  famously says, “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (22) Interestingly, when he hears this statement, the young man is neither angry nor annoyed; he is sad. Jesus is requiring him to abandon everything in order to be a Jesus follower. This is the same kind of total abandonment that Oswald Chambers keeps talking about.

We tend to consign this saying of Jesus to the “hard sayings” category and/or come up with interesting rationalizations as to why we don’t need to take Jesus’ advice even though we are also rich. That said, I think the issue is attitude. Jesus was testing the man’s priorities and when he talks about camels and needles he is saying that if our wealth is a priority over Jesus, we cannot enter the Kingdom. If wealth ensures after we have the right priority, than I suppose it’s OK. But in the end Luke’s Jesus is concerned about the poor widows and the orphans—the societal last who shall be first in the Kingdom. If we cannot set the same priority but would rather tend to our portfolios first then we are exactly like the rich man. If we’re paying attention to what Jesus said, our response will be sad as well.

 

Psalm 100; Joshua 24:14–Judges 1:16; Luke 18:1–17

Psalm 100: There’s little ambiguity about the theme of this psalm as our poet announces “A thanksgiving psalm” in the first line. Our poet invites all of humankind and nature to join in worship: “Shout out to the Lord all the earth,/ worship the Lord in rejoicing,/ come before Him in glad song.” (1b, 2) Worship at the temple in Jerusalem must have been a noisy affair since the psalmist invites everyone not just to sing, but to shout as well, reminding curmudgeons like me who prefer solemnity that exuberance is an essential quality of worship.

The poet moves on quickly to inform us about why we’re thankful: “Know that the Lord is God./ He has made us, and we are His,/ His people and the flock He tends.” (3) Besides acknowledging that God has created us , we must remember that our relationship with God is well defined. We are his creatures. The hierarchy is clear: we are the created ones, God is the creator. As his created ones, we are his possession, signified here metaphorically as being his flock. Yet how many times do I behave as I’m the one in charge rather than God?

With God’s created order in mind, we “Come into His gates with thanksgiving,/ His courts in praise.” (4a). Once again we are reminded that worshipping God is our highest calling: “Acclaim Him,/ Bless His name.” (4b) And again, our poet tells us why we are engaged in joyful worship in one of the great verses in Psalms:
For the Lord is Good,
        forever His kindness,
        and for all generations His faithfulness.” (5)

The question is, do I live my life in the reality of God’s kindness and faithfulness? Or do I revert to my inborn cynical self? When joy seems far away this psalm reminds us that joy is close if we but acknowledge God’s love.

Joshua 24:14–Judges 1:16: Joshua comes to the heart of his speech at Shechem as he asks the Israelites gathered before him, “if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve.” (15a) He gives them a rhetorical choice: the gods of their ancestors “beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living” (15b). In one of the most famous and effective lines in any speech ever delivered, Joshua asserts, “but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (15c). The people respond enthusiastically, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods.” (16)

We can sense Joshua’s doubt as he goes on to make it clear that the god we choose is a binary. If the people choose to follow a small-g god then,“You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God.” (19) The people respond, almost shouting,“No, we will serve the Lord!” (21). But Joshua calls their bluff, telling them, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” (22) demanding that they “put away foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” (23) The people again respond that “The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.” (24) This scene demonstrates how easy it is to shout out our loyalty in an enthusiastic crowd. But words are not actions.

This speech is just as relevant today as it was some three millennia ago. We must choose between the small-g gods in our life or God himself. Jesus recapitulates Joshua when he tells the people at the Sermon on the mount that they cannot choose two masters, or as the King James Bible famously puts it, “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matt 6:24) This is the choice that each of us must make. Are we like Israel? Sincere in intention but weak in practice?

Like Moses before him, Joshua gives this last speech and then, “Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died, being one hundred ten years old.” (29) So, too, “Eleazar son of Aaron died.” (33) The last connection between Israel and the men who set out from Egypt so many years ago is almost sundered. Only Caleb is still alive.

The book of Judges opens where the book of Joshua ended. Where Moses and Joshua were the direct channels to God, now it is unidentified Israelites who inquire of God asking,“Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?” (Judges 1:1). Our authors, who I believe were from Judah, deliver a clear answer written as the voice of God that “Judah shall go up. I hereby give the land into his hand.” (2) The tribe of Judah asks the tribe of Simeon to assist and “the Lord gave the Canaanites and the Perizzites into their hand; and they defeated ten thousand of them at Bezek.” (4)

The Canaanite king, Adoni-bezek meets a grisly end, first having his thumbs and big toes cut off(!) and then brought as prisoner to newly-conquered Jerusalem, where he dies. More Israelite victories ensue as the continue to conquer the land that becomes Judah.

We then see a rerun of the incident describe in Deuteronomy bewteen Caleb and his daughter, who asks for—and receives— land.

But there’s a dark undercurrent here amidst all the triumphs. Despite these victories, Israel does not fully accomplish its God-given task. Not every Canaanite has been wiped out. Some Israelites “went and settled with the Amalekites.” (16) thus beginning the many centuries of trouble.

Luke 18:1–17: Jesus tells a parable of a persistent widow who comes to a corrupt judge again and again, asking, “‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’” (3). Her persistence pays off and the judge eventually acts “so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” (5). This parable indicates that we can still obtain justice in a corrupt world by persistence and prayer. The further interpretation is that it is God acts and brings justice even through corrupt people (politicians), “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” (7)

He then tells the more famous parable of the Pharisee and tax collector. The Pharisee prays in public, announcing all his good deed and denigrating those he sees as beneath him: “‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” (11) The tax collector, standing far off begs, “‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” (13) Jesus makes his point without ambiguity: “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other.” (14a) Prayer is a private affair, not an opportunity for self-aggrandizement—although I have certainly heard public prayers not unlike the Pharisee’s. In this political season we can take comfort in Jesus’ famous aphorism, “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”(14). Although at present I cannot name a humble politician…

Jesus then does something that is sweet and that I suspect was unprecedented in his culture: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” (16). Unfortunately, many churches today see children as an impediment to “serious worship,” preferring it to be strictly an adult event by not only eliminating a children’s sermon, but sending the children in the congregation away to Sunday School rather than having them join in worship. Jesus is telling us that absent the example of little children we tend to fool ourselves into thinking we’re full-fledged members of the Kingdom.

Psalm 99; Joshua 23:1–24:13; Luke 17:26–37

Psalm 99: Our psalmist opens with an awesome display of God’s mighty power over all the earth—both nature and nations: “The Lord reigns—peoples tremble,/ enthroned upon cherubim—the earth shakes.” (1) Unsurprisingly, it is Israel where God’s power is centered: “The Lord is great in Zion/ and exalted over all the peoples.” Therefore, Israel for certain and perhaps everyone on earth “acclaim Your name: / Great and fearful,/ He is holy.” (3) [The meaning of ‘holy’ here is ‘set apart.’]

But unlike the small-g gods, God does not exercise his dominion as cruel power. Instead, “with a king’s strength He loves justice.” (4a) In fact God is the creative source of all that is good, including judgement and justice, again centered in Israel: “You firmly founded righteousness,/ judgement and justice in Jacob You made.” (4b)

As the God of all that is righteous and just, he must be the focus of kingly worship, not just for Israel, but everyone: “Exalt the Lord our God/ and bow down to His footstool./ he is holy.” (5) This is a reverence we would do well to remember when we start thinking of God as our loving “Daddy.” Yes he is certainly that, but we dare not approach God casually. He is an awesome king worthy of our fear in both senses of that word.

At verse 6, the psalmist shifts his focus from the world stage more directly to Israel itself as he recalls the great personalities from its storied past: “Moses and Aaron among His priests/ and Samuel among those who call on His name/ called to the Lord and He answered them.” (6) The clear implication here is that if they called upon God, then so should we.

In fact, God communicated with every person who was part of the Exodus: “In a pillar of cloud did He speak to them.” (7a) And as long as the people kept their side of God’s covenant with them, God was there with them: “They kept His precepts and the statute He gave them.” (7b). Even when they failed, God is a God of patience, although the consequences of sin must be borne: “Lord our God, it was You Who answered them,/ a forbearing God You were to them,/ yet an avenger of their misdeeds.” (8) Once again, the implication is that as God was patience with the first Israelites, so too he will be patient with the present generation.

And that patient forbearance is also worthy of our serious and yes, even solemn worship as the psalmist concludes with his reminder of God’s great and unfathomable holiness: “Exalt the Lord our God/ and bow to His holy mountain,/ for the Lord our God is holy.” (9) We cannot fathom the greatness of God. We are his created beings whose primary duty is worship.

Joshua 23:1–24:13: Years pass and Joshua is now an old man. In the same way that Moses gave his valedictory address at the conclusion of Deuteronomy, Joshua also addresses Israel near the end of his life. He first reminds them that what has been accomplished is not of Israel’s own doing, “for it is the Lord your God who has fought for you.” (23:3). He goes on to remind them that the task of taking Canaan is not yet quite complete, but for those nations that remain, “God will push them back before you, and drive them out of your sight; and you shall possess their land, as the Lord your God promised you.” (5)

However, this can only occur if the people keep their side of the Covenant, especially the rules about idol worship: “You may not be mixed with these nations left here among you, or make mention of the names of their gods, or swear by them, or serve them, or bow yourselves down to them.” (7) Rather, “Be very careful, therefore, to love the Lord your God.” (11). The idea of “being careful” in our love for God resonates. Our love and worship is neither a random nor casual event.” Our love for God must be consciously deliberate.

A further warning about avoiding intermarriage follows: “[If you] intermarry with them, so that you marry their women and they yours, know assuredly that the Lord your God will not continue to drive out these nations before you.” (13) Inasmuch as the authors of this book are writing at a later date when they have observed the unhappy consequences of Israel’s intermingling, they must have written this passage with a sense of almost despairing irony.

A second speech opens chapter 24. Here, Joshua reviews the history of Israel, speaking in God’s voice, “Thus says the Lord.” He goes back further than Moses did, starting with Abraham’s father, “Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods.” (24:12) He traces Israel’s lineage through Isaac, Jacob and into Egypt. Joshua recounts Moses and Aaron and the crossing of the Red Sea [which is specifically named here].

Being a military man, Joshua recounts the various battles fought before arriving at Canaan, including the story of Balaam. Intriguingly, he tells the people that God “sent the hornet ahead of you, which drove out before you the two kings of the Amorites.” (24:12) Is this a metaphor whose meaning has been lost? Or were there actual hornets that invaded ahead of Israel and weakened the enemy, making Israel’s conquest all the more certain?

Following the rule, “tell them what you’re going to tell them; then tell them; and then tell them again what you just told them,” Joshua again reminds the people, “Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.” (24:14)

But as we know all to well, even then, Joshua’s message was ultimately lost on some number of the Israelites. Just as God’s message is lost on too many today.

Luke 17:26–37: Jesus continues his disquisition on the Kingdom of God and the coming of the Son of Man. His core message is that the coming will be unannounced and will surprise everyone as they are “eating and drinking, and marrying and being given in marriage.” (27) What happened to Noah and to Lot, who was also “eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building,” (28) will happen on “the day that the Son of Man is revealed.” (30). In short, ordinary life on earth will end unexpectedly.

Jesus tells the disciples to “remember Lot’s wife,” whose sin was to look back at her former life. We come into the Kingdom and “must not turn back.” (31) Our human efforts to create security for ourselves are ultimately futile, as Jesus reminds us in the famous verse: “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.” (34) This is the point of following Jesus and the point Oswald Chambers keeps coming back to: Only when we are willing to turn our ego and our efforts over to Jesus will we find real security.

The verses that follow are frequently used as proof texts for the Parousia, Jesus’ second coming as the “Rapture.” That “on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left” (34) and “There will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left.” (35) certainly suggests the secret rapture popularized in Evangelical churches. However, I believe Jesus is emphasizing his point about unexpectedness and surprise and that when it comes to the theology of the Rapture, they have been over-interpreted.

 

Psalm 98; Joshua 22; Luke 17:20–25

 Psalm 98: Our psalmist is effusive in his praise to God (while also taking credit for having composed a new hymn): “Sing to the Lord a new song,/ For wonders He has done./ His right hand gave Him victory,/ and His holy arm.” (1) The military undertone of the first verse carries into the second verse as well as our poet makes it clear that Israel’s God is the God of all creation and all other nations: “The Lord made known His victory,/ before the nations’ eyes He revealed His bounty.” (2)

And what is revealed by God? The psalmist is quick to answer, and it is not about his power or might, but “He recalled His kindness and His faithfulness/ to the house of Israel.” (3) This is where God is so radically different than the small-g gods that surrounded Israel: a victory speech that describes kindness and faithfulness. Would that the nations of our present world celebrate kindness and faithfulness rather that military strength.

The psalmist picks up the theme that all the earth is witness to God’s acts on behalf of Israel: “All the ends of the earth have seen/ the victory of our God.” (4) Israel—and we—respond in kind the best way that we can in worship: “Shout out to the Lord, all the earth./ Burst forth in glad song and hymn.” (4)

Our poet then dives down a level of abstraction to describe the exact nature of how the glad song and hymn is to be sung and played: “Hymn to the Lord on the lyre,/ on the  lyre,/ on the lyre with the sound of hymning./ With trumpets and the sound of ram’s horn,/ sound loud before the king, the Lord.” (5,6) What’s key for us here is that worship is a joyous and yes, a rather loud affair.  It is far from the reverent solemnity that we so often think of, but more of a noisy party. Something for me to remember when I start grumping about praise choruses…

God’s victory is so great that all the natural world and all other nations join in: “Let the sea and its fulness thunder,/ the world and those dwelling in it.” (7) This extent and quality of worship is evoked in the wonderful metaphor: “Let the rivers clap hands,/ let the mountains together sing gladly/ before the Lord.” (8, 9a)

This wonderful expression of worshipful joy is because God is coming to earth. But he is coming for a solemn purpose: “for He comes to judge the earth.” (9) At first, the idea judgement may seem to contradict the joy of the psalm, but God is coming to “judge the world in justice/ and peoples righteously.” (10) One cannot imagine a better world than one where all has been put to rights and righteousness reigns. That would be pure joy indeed.

Joshua 22: The great wrap up of Israel’s victory over Canaan continues. The land has been allocated and now it is time for the the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh to return to Gilead on the east side of the Jordan. They have kept their promise to fight for Israel in Canaan and Joshua commends them, “you have not forsaken your kindred these many days, down to this day, but have been careful to keep the charge of the Lord your God.” (3) Of course Josuha cannot let them go without a final word of advice: “Take good care to observe the commandment and instruction that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, to love the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to keep his commandments, and to hold fast to him, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.” (5) Which of course applies to all Israel—and to us even today.

The Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh (RGM) respond by building an altar “of great size” in Canaan. When the other 9 1/2 tribes hear of this, the believe the RGM tribes have committed treachery and “the whole assembly of the Israelites gathered at Shiloh, to make war against them” (12) because they believe the RGM have turned away from God to worship something or someone else. The Canaan side of Israel believes that God will punish them all for setting up a second altar beside the one at the Tabernacle.

The RGM reply that their intentions were pure and the altar is a celebratory act and tell the others that if “it was in rebellion or in breach of faith toward the Lord, do not spare us today.” (22) They point out that it is a memorial so that future generations will remember what their ancestors did for them, and assert, “Far be it from us that we should rebel against the Lord, and turn away this day from following the Lord by building an altar for burnt offering, grain offering, or sacrifice.” (29) This satisfies the others and Phineas, the high priest, states “Today we know that the Lord is among us, because you have not committed this treachery against the Lord; now you have saved the Israelites from the hand of the Lord.” (31) Everyone then goes happily on their way.

This chapter  clearly reveals the side of human nature that always assumes the worst in others. Rather than giving the RGM the benefit of the doubt, they jump to the grimmest possible conclusion. How many wars have been started; how many relationships have been broken because we act before understanding? Alas, this ability to assume the worst intentions of others is still rampant today.

Luke 17:20–25: Try as he might, Jesus has continual trouble explaining to others what the Kingdom of God is—a difficulty that persists to this day.

A Pharisee asks Jesus “when the kingdom of God is coming?” (20). Jesus answers with the least possible ambiguity: “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed.” (20b) He goes on, “For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (21)

Luke’s Jesus clarifies even further in conversation with his disciples—as well as Luke’s community and us—“The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it.” (22) He warns them and us not to be fooled by signs and wonders: “Do not go, do not set off in pursuit.” (23) Before the end of history occurs, the Son of Man, which is a clear reference to himself, “must endure much suffering and be rejected by this generation.” (25) Which of course is exactly what happens.

For me, this passage describes the kingdom as something stealthy and “among us.” Of course, we’d much prefer drama and end times—and many Christians focus on that to the exclusion of the suffering and injustice going on right around them. The kingdom of God is focused the acts of justice and righteousness that today’s psalmist describes. Some deride this as the “social gospel,” but with Jesus we must recognize that rejection is part of the job of being a Jesus-follower. Our mission is not so much to “save others,” but to minister to the needs of others.

Psalm 97:7–12; Joshua 21:9–45; Luke 17:11–19

Psalm 97:7–12: The majesty of the one and true God so outshines and outranks the deities of other religions such that “All idol-worshipper are shamed,/ who boast of the ungods.” (7a) I really like the idea of “ungods.” It connotes the exact opposite of everything that God is. If God is the God of justice, the ungod is the god of wickedness—and so on.

In addition to the idolatrous ungods, our psalmist seems to acknowledge the existence of another class of small-g gods, who must at at least be alive in some fashion for “All gods bow down to Him.” (7b)

In any event, Israel is truly overjoyed that God is their God and that he has acted righteously in their midst: “Zion heard and rejoiced/ and Judea’s villages exulted,/ because of Your judgements, Lord.” (8) This verse is a challenge to us when we feel God has judged us. Our response is not to be anger but rejoicing because in that judgement God has set us on a righteous path.

It is God’s righteousness and judgement that is reflected in us. We are to follow and to adopt the same stance as God himself because he is our protector: “You who love the Lord, hate evil!” (10a) And in response, God “guards the lives of His faithful./ From the hand of the wicked He saves them.” (10b)

The psalmist names those who follow God as “the just.” These are the people who God protects: “Light is sown for the just,/ and for the upright of heart there is joy.” (11) This agricultural idea of light being sowed like seed is a metaphor for the lives God-followers lead. God’s light—for me, that’s the Holy Spirit—results in an “upright heart.” This tender image stands in stark contrast with the opening verses of this psalm where “Fire goes before Him/ and all round burns His foes.” (3)

The eternal question hangs in the air: Are we upright of heart? Do we submit to God’s righteousness or do we prefer to retain total control over our thoughts and actions? If it is the former, then with the psalmist, we “Rejoice, O you just, in the Lord,/ and acclaim His holy name.” (12)

Joshua 21:9–45: The authors go into extreme detail as the describe the towns and surrounding pasture lands that are allocated to the various sub-tribes of the Levites:

  • the direct descendants of Aaron; (9-19)
  • the rest of the Kohathites belonging to the Kohathite families of the Levites; (20-26)
  • the Gershonites, one of the families of the Levites (27-33)

Land appears to have been given over to the levitical families on a proportionate basis from all the other tribes, all adding up to “the towns of the Levites within the holdings of the Israelites were in all forty-eight towns with their pasture lands.” (41) This level of detail leaves little question that our authors were priests, all descendants of these levitical families.

But the key verses here are the last three of the chapter. God has come through on all his promises: “Thus the Lord gave to Israel all the land that he swore to their ancestors that he would give them; and having taken possession of it, they settled there.” (43) Moreover, just as God had promised, Israel has conquered all and “not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the Lord had given all their enemies into their hands.” (44)

This is the moment of accomplishment. God has been at Israel’s side since the day they left Egypt. The Exodus is complete at last.

The final verse is one we can hold on to as tightly as Israel did: “Not one of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass.” Would that we kept our promises to God as faithfully as God does for Israel—and for us. As we will see, keeping Israel’s side of the great Covenant is not all that easy. Alas, the same goes for us.

Luke 17:11–19: Earlier in the chapter, Jesus’ disciples have asked their leader to “increase our faith.” (5) Jesus gives them clear instruction on how to do this via the parable of the slaves eating supper after their master has dined. Luke now provides a dramatic illustration of what Jesus was talking about.

As they headed toward Jerusalem, “going through the region between Samaria and Galilee, [they] entered a village, ten lepers approached him.” (11, 12) The lepers beg “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” (13). Jesus says nothing but simply gives the instruction to “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” (14a).

This healing occurs because the ten lepers obeyed Jesus and “as they went, they were made clean.” (14b) Luke’s point is that the lepers had to have faith in Jesus to start out on their journey. Only by their obedience did healing occur. Which was exactly Jesus’ point earlier in his discussion of the slaves. And is exactly Luke’s point to his readers—and to us.

Of the ten who Jesus healed, only “one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.” (15, 16a) It is in the next line that Luke makes his point even more trenchantly. Not only did a mere 10% of the persons who were healed healed thank Jesus, but “he was a Samaritan.” (16b) Despised by the Jews as being pagan and irreligious, it was the Samaritan who recognized—and thanked—Jesus.

Luke’s point to his community is obvious: it is the Gentiles who see Jesus for who he really is, while the other nine, presumably Jews, blithely go on their way. Di we thank jesus for all he has done for us or do we simply head down the road without acknowledgement?

 

Psalm 97:1–6; Joshua 19:40–21:8; Luke 17:1–10

Psalm 97:1–6: That God is king of all creation and that this is an occasion of supreme joy is made clear from the very beginning of this psalm of worship: “The Lord reigns —let earth exult,/ let the many islands rejoice.” (1) The sense that God is above us, hidden from direct view and only partly visible to us is reinforced with the image of “Cloud and dense fog around Him.” (3a) But as always, it is God’s character that is the most important focus of our worship: “justice and judgement the base of His throne.” (3b)

Above all, God is far from our popular image of a bearded old gentleman snoozing on his throne. He is active and yes, inspires fear in both senses of the word, as he wipes out those who would oppose him: “Fire goes before Him/ and all round burns his foes.” (3) As well, God remains active in his natural creation: “His lightnings lit up the world;/ the earth saw and quaked./ Mountains melted like wax before the Lord.” (4, 5a) This is no mild and avuncular God; he is truly “Master of all the earth.” (5b)

God’s incomprehensible greatness and above all his uncompromising justice is why we worship him: “The heavens told His justice,/ and all peoples saw His glory.” (6)

This psalm is a reminder of the futility of our attempts to put God in a box of our own design, and to try and understand God. God cannot be understood. We can only stand in awe and worship. And I believe that every worship service should at some point acknowledge God’s unfathomable majesty.

Joshua 19:40–21:8: The allocation of land for each tribe by lottery continues as we read that the territory given to Dan “was lost to them.” (47a) Undeterred, “the Danites went up and fought against Leshem, and after capturing it and putting it to the sword, they took possession of it and settled in it.” (47b) This concludes the allocation of land on the west side of the Jordan.

Joshua and his heirs are themselves to be rewarded with an exclusive inheritance: “By command of the Lord they gave him the town that he asked for, Timnath-serah in the hill country of Ephraim; he rebuilt the town, and settled in it.” (19:50)

However, the job of allocation is not complete. God again speaks to Joshua, reminding him that he must  “Say to the Israelites, ‘Appoint the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses.” (20:2) The are the cities to which those who inadvertently kill another person are to flee. Our ever-helpful authors recapitulate the rules of sanctuary: First, sanctuary is not automatic. The fleeing person is instructed to “stand at the entrance of the gate of the city, and explain the case to the elders of that city; then the fugitive shall be taken into the city, and given a place, and shall remain with them.” (20:4) A public trial (which I presume to be a confession of the facts) follows and sanctuary is allowed until “the death of the one who is high priest at the time: then the slayer may return home, to the town in which the deed was done.’” (20:6) This odd aspect of time of sanctuary is probably a way of explaining that significant time is required until avenging tempers cool.

Six cities are appointed as cities of refuge: Kadesh, Shechem, Hebron, Bezer, Ramoth, and Golan.

Ah, yes, let’s not forget the Levites. While the tribe of priests do not receive land for the obvious reason that they are busy with priestly duties and cannot farm, they are the urban tribe and receive cities, where I presume they are the appointed leaders. The direct descendants of Aaron received 13 cities; the Kohathites received 10; the Gershonites received 13; and the Merarites received 12. Which looks like 48 cities in all. If I’m not mistaken, these ‘cities’ are small villages where there is a small number of permanent structures and perhaps some simple fortification.

Luke 17:1–10: At this point, Luke reviews some of what I assume to be Jesus’ sermon notes and seminars with his disciples. First, temptations to sin will come our way: “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come.” (1) But in a clear message to the eventual leaders of his church, he is clear that they must never be the agents of temptation of those whom they lead: “It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” (2).

In short, while Jesus holds all his followers to a high standard, the standards to which leaders are to be held is even higher. Unfortunately, that has not always the case in the church. The priest scandal of the Catholic church certainly comes to mind, but there are local examples as well.

Then Jesus turns to the difficult issue of forgiveness: “If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive.” (3) However, it’s crucial to note that the first act our responsibility as the offendee to confront the offender. And if there is repentance, then forgiveness is not an option; it is a requirement. But I also suggest where there is no repentance we are not obligated to forgive.

This idea of repetitive forgiveness is difficult for us, but Jesus makes it awfully clear: “if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” (4). I presume however that this is a sincere repentance. This concept must have been even more difficult in that culture where vengeance rather than forgiveness was the order of the day.

In the section about faith, Luke call Jesus ‘Lord:’ “The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” (5) I’m not sure if this is an intentional title shift on Luke’s part or not. In any event, the title makes it clear that these commands are indeed God’s intent and we are to follow them.

Finally, Jesus makes the distinction between leader and led very clear. We who are part of Jesus’ church are definitely the led, no more intrinsically worthy than slaves. We do our jobs, but that does not confer the right to act as the master: “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” (10) In the Kingdom there is only one leader. That is Jesus, who is our Lord. This is what Oswald Chambers keeps getting at when he tells us that to follow Jesus we must abandon our own ego and intentions in favor of the Lord’s.

Psalm 94:1–11; Joshua 14:6–15:19; Luke 14:25–32

Psalm 94:1–11: Only here do we encounter such an aggressive description of God: “God of vengeance, O Lord,/ God of vengeance, shine forth!” (1) Our psalmist wants God to act against the wicked and he wants God to act now: “Rise up, O judge of the earth,/ bring down on the proud requital.” (2)

The primary sin of the wicked is pride as they lord it over the oppressed, causing the psalmist to plead, “How long the wicked, O Lord,/ how long will the wicked exult?” (3) The wicked believe they are beyond God’s reach and are pridefully boastful: “They utter arrogance, speak it,/ all the wrongdoers bandy boasts.” (4) These people are still among us today, believing they know it all, are above it all, and care not a whit about the impact of either their words or actions on other people.

At this point the psalmist becomes more specific about the sins of the wicked. First, they care neither about other people nor the natural environment and take pains to oppress: “Your people, O Lord, they crush,/ and Your estate they abuse.” (5) The wicked have no qualms, even about killing others whether directly or indirectly, as the commit the most heinous crimes against the weakest among them: “Widow and sojourner they kill,/ and orphans they murder.” (6)

Even if they believe in God, they believe their actions will not be punished: “And they say, ‘Yah will not see,/ and the God of Jacob will not heed.’” (7) In today’s world, where increasing numbers of people believe that God does not even exist, the idea of obeying God’s commands or experiencing the dire consequences of disobedience feels oddly quaint. Rather, it’s all about trumpeting and acting on individual rights, regardless of the impact on others. I’m pretty sure this psalmist would have written exactly these lines had he been writing in 21st century America.

The wicked among us may believe they are exempt from God’s punishment, but our psalmist knows better as he warns them, “Take heed, you brutes in the people,/ and you fools, when will you be wise?” (8) God is on to them: “Who plants the ear, will He not hear?/ Who fashions the eye, will he not look?” (9) What makes us think we can get away with it? Pride and a belief we are responsible to no one.

Above all, as our creator, knows all too well the wiles of the wicked: “The Lord knows human designs,/ that they are mere breath.” (11) No matter how clever the wicked may think they are, their plans and conspiracies are “mere breath,” and will be blown apart when God turns his attention to them. In short, there are always consequences. But our perception—and that of the poet’s as he asks “How long?” in verse 3, it sometimes it seems that God takes an awfully long time to act.

Joshua 14:6–15:19: Caleb, the other spy with Joshua 45 years previously, who reported that Canaan was ripe for invasion, resurfaces here as he reminds Joshua about the promise Moses made so many years ago: “I wholeheartedly followed the Lord my God. And Moses swore on that day, saying, ‘Surely the land on which your foot has trodden shall be an inheritance for you and your children forever.” (14:8,9) He’s now 85 years old and asserts, “I am still as strong today as I was on the day that Moses sent me; my strength now is as my strength was then, for war, and for going and coming.” (14:11). Caleb is no wallflower, coming to Joshua and asking for an unspecified favor. Rather, he knows exactly what he wants and demands, “So now give me this hill country of which the Lord spoke on that day.” (12)

Joshua complies, and our authors, writing many years later, observe, “So Hebron became the inheritance of Caleb son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite to this day, because he wholeheartedly followed the Lord, the God of Israel.” (14:14). The lesson for us is clear: if we wholeheartedly follow God, we can ask directly for what we believe is ours. Jesus makes this point later when he says, “Ask and you will receive.”

An interlude of county hall-of-records description of the land given to the tribe of Judah follows. It appears to be quite extensive, stretching all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. The parenthetical insertions giving the modern names as e.g., “the southern slope of the Jebusites (that is, Jerusalem)” (15:8) and “Mount Jearim (that is, Chesalon)” (15:10)  suggest that our authors were descendants of the tribe of Judah and is certainly proof that they were writing many years later.

We then return to the story of Caleb occupying his territory and driving out its inhabitants. He’s successful in a couple of places, but is clearly having trouble with one city as he promises,“Whoever attacks Kiriath-sepher and takes it, to him I will give my daughter Achsah as wife.” (15:16) Caleb’s nephew, Othniel, does so and is rewarded with Achsah as his new wife.

Clearly, Achsah has inherited her father’s forthrightness, and tells her husband to ask his father-in-law for a field. Then, separately, she encounters Caleb, who asks, “What do you wish?” (15:18) We sense her irritation at being forced to live in the Negev desert and she loses no time in demanding,“Give me a present; since you have set me in the land of the Negeb, give me springs of water as well.” (15:19) Caleb complies. Like father, like daughter.

Luke 14:25–32: This is truly one of the hard sayings of Jesus: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (26). And just to make sure we get the point, he reiterates, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (27) It’s difficult to rationalize around this obvious priority that Jesus is demanding of us. Attempts at part time or half-hearted discipleship is not discipleship at all. As Sara Wohlbrecht once put it, either we’re “all in” or we aren’t. Discipleship is a binary proposition.

However, it’s worth noting that Jesus is not asking for blind, unthinking discipleship. Rather, before deciding to become his disciple, we must sit down and evaluate the cost of that discipleship. Just as the man building a tower needs to be fully funded or a king going to war needs to determine “whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand.” (31)

When I sit down and think through discipleship and reflect on my own priorities it’s pretty clear that I’m not the disciple Jesus demands.

Psalm 93; Joshua 13:8–14:5; Luke 14:7–24

Psalm 93: This brief but beautiful and evocative psalm celebrates God as king of all creation. The psalmist wastes no time in getting to his theme with the interesting image of what God wears: “The Lord reigns, in triumph clothed, / clothed is the Lord, in strength He is girded.” (1a) God is eternal, older than even the earth itself: “Your throne stands firm from of old,/ from forever You are.” (2)

As occurs many times in the Psalms, flowing water represents the power of nature. Its rushing speaks, growing ever louder: “The streams lifted up, O Lord,/ the streams lifted their voice,/ the streams lift up their roaring.” (3) But God is even greater than the powerful waves of the ocean: “More than the sound of many waters,/ the sea’s majestic breakers,/ majestic on high is the Lord.” (4)

At this point of celebrating God’s grandeur our poet turns to the relationship between God and Israel. God, who is more majestic than all of creation, is the same God who has given Israel the Law, which is what gives the nation its moral order: “Your statutes are very faithful.” (5a). And God dwells among them, specifically at the temple in Jerusalem: “Holiness suits Your house.” (5b). Above all, God is eternal: “The Lord is for all time.” (5c)

This psalm reminds me that the God who loves me, and with whom I have a relationship, is greater—far greater—than the power of nature and greater than anything I can imagine.

Joshua 13:8–14:5: The book turns from military narrative to county hall-of-records, as Joshua performs his final task: the detailed allocation of conquered lands to the 12 tribes of Israel. This record is valuable because it creates as firm sense that unlike many of the surrounding tribes and nations when this book was written, Israel’s roots are not mythical; they are grounded in the land.

We are again reminded that the tribe of Levi is set apart: “To the tribe of Levi alone Moses gave no inheritance; the offerings by fire to the Lord God of Israel are their inheritance, as he said to them.” (13:14)

The authors then turn to describing the tribal land grants. First up are the tribes that elected to reside on the east side of the Jordan: Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe (always an amusing concept) of Manasseh.

Next up will be the allotment of conquered land west of the Jordan River to the remaining tribes. Once again, our authors—whom I’m presuming to be priests from the tribe of Levi—remind us: “but to the Levites he gave no inheritance among them.” (14:3)

Given these historical roots it’s easy to see why modern day Israel clings so fiercely to the land it conquered and the portions of the West Bank it still occupies. The present day tension between Israel and Palestine goes back three millennia.

Luke 14:7–24: Jesus gives sound social advice for guests who have been invited to dinner where there is a rigid hierarchy of seating: “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host.” (8) Should someone of higher rank show up, both host and guest are placed in an embarrassing position. Therefore, Jesus advises, “But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.” (10)

As is always the case, Jesus’ point is much greater than the psychology of social convention as he reminds us in his famous statement, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (11) [This is advice that a certain present day businessman turned politician would do well to put into practice.]

Luke’s Jesus—perhaps more than in any other gospel—is concerned with the lower rungs of society: “when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” (13) This of course is a prominent running theme of the Old Testament, so even though Jesus’ words may seem radical, they are not. But it’s great to know that some at Saint Matthew have put Jesus’ advice about banquet-giving into practice by offering a weekly banquet to the homeless of Walnut Creek.

As usual, Luke weaves in one of Jesus’ more famous parables: the story of the great banquet to whom many prominent people have been invited. Each invitee finds his excuse not to attend. Upon learning this news, the host is incensed and orders his slave to “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” (21) Even then, places at table are not filled, so the slave is ordered to go even further: “Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled.” (23)

The invited guests of the parable are Israel. The poor, crippled, and blind are Gentiles. And there’s a missionary sense here when Jesus commands his slave to go far afield into the roads and lanes.

Once again we have a dramatic indication that the Kingdom of God is going to be quite different than the revolution Jesus’ followers, including even his disciples, are expecting. Of course this seems obvious to us on the other side of jesus’ death and resurrection. But I’m pretty sure that if I’d been listening to Jesus relate this parable alongside his followers I’d be just as clueless as they, thinking it was an interesting but weird story.

Psalm 92:10–16; Joshua 12:1–13:7; Luke 13:31–14:6

Psalm 92:10–16: The enemies receive their just desserts as God looks on: “For, look, Your enemies, O Lord,/ for, look, Your enemies perish.,/ all the wrongdoers are scattered.” (10) And now, the psalmist witnesses their destruction as well: “And my eyes behold my foes’ defeat,/ those hostile toward me, my ears hear their fall.” (12)

Unlike the enemies, which are ephemeral grass that withers and dies, the righteous man, i.e., the psalmist, are like deep-rooted trees that reach to heaven: “The righteous man springs up like the palm tree,/ like the Lebanon cedar he towers.” (13) Trees are of course immovable; they grow where they are planted. These magnificent trees grow in just one place: “Planted in the house of the Lord,/ in the courts of our God they flourish.” (14)

There is a natural—an almost sexual—connotation in the nature of this flourishing: “They bear fruit still in old age,/ fresh and full of sap they are.” (15) The message is clear: even in our old age we remain “fresh and full of sap” when we are “planted” near God. And in our flourishing even in old age we bear glad witness to what God has done for us: “to tell that the Lord is upright,/ my rock, there is no wrong in him.” (16) How much better it is to be God’s tree—our lives planted firmly near him— than withering grass that denies the reality of God.

Joshua 12:1–13:7: The authors provide a complete summary of the territory and associated kings “whom the Israelites defeated, whose land they occupied beyond the Jordan toward the east, from the Wadi Arnon to Mount Hermon, with all the Arabah eastward.” (12:1) Ever striving for accuracy, the authors are careful give Moses credit for the territory on the east side of the Jordan River that became “a possession to the Reubenites and the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh” (6) recounted in Deuteronomy before Israel crossed over the river.

Had Joshua been an English or American general, the list of 16 kings whom Joshua and the Israelite army defeated that follows (12:9-24) would probably have been engraved on a bronze tablet at the Joshua Memorial. (Maybe there is such a thing!) As they may have planned, Joshua is immortalized in the Bible such that we read of his glorious exploits some 3 millennia later.

Despite these excellent victories, the job of conquering Canaan remains incomplete. God makes this clear to the aging Joshua: “You are old and advanced in years, and very much of the land still remains to be possessed.” (13:1) The authors, speaking in God’s voice go on to list the lands of the Philistines and Canaanites yet to be conquered.  God promises to do the clean-up required himself: “I will myself drive them out from before the Israelites.” (13:6)

As we will read later, this incompleted task will present substantial problems to Israel in the years to come. Nevertheless, Joshua’s last task is to divide Canaan “for an inheritance to the nine tribes and the half-tribe of Manasseh.” (13:7) Details of each tribe’s allocation to follow…

Luke 13:31–14:6: As we’ve read earlier, Jesus’ activities in Galilee have come to the attention of Herod. Now, “some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” (31) [It’s interesting to note that the people who warned Jesus were Pharisees; apparently not every Pharisee was hostile to Jesus.] As usual, Jesus’ response is at once both clear and veiled: “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.’” (32) The reference to the third day can be both the actual third day from the time Jesus receives this warning—or it can be a reference to Jesus’ resurrection on the third day.

Nevertheless, Jesus takes the Pharisee’s warning seriously, but not for the reason we’d expect. Instead, he says, “I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.” Jesus knows what the ultimate response in Jerusalem—an obvious reference to its religious leaders— will be. He laments, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (34) It seems that not only does Jesus know his fate based on the fate of the prophets that preceded him, but he also knows the fate that will ultimately befall Jerusalem itself.

As is Luke’s wont, he weaves prophecy and parable in with Jesus’ healing. But the healings are never random; they always serve to illuminate Jesus’ radical mission. Here, he is at “the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath.” (14:1a) Luke observes that the Pharisees “were watching him carefully.” (14:1b)

A man with severe edema appears, but Jesus does not heal him immediately. Rather, he poses the sabbath question as binary two-alternative forced choice question: “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” (14:3) The answer can only be ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ But no Pharisee is willing to answer. Jesus heals the man, sends him on his way, and again asks, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?” (14:5) Again, he is met with stony silence.

Jesus’ logic seems so obvious and compelling. Why wouldn’t any of the several Pharisees there at dinner answer him? I think the reason is obvious: to answer would have meant admitting that they were wrong. But pharisaical pride was incredibly strong. Just as our own pride keeps us silent when we hear something about us whose answer is so compelling and true that we fear that by answering our entire edifice of faulty logic will come crumbling down around us. And we will look like the fools we actually are. That’s the problem with Jesus: he forces us to examine ourselves. And when we do that honestly we see a prideful, sinful self—someone we’d rather not admit we are.

Psalm 92:1–9; Joshua 10:29–11:23; Luke 13:18–30

Psalm 92:1–9: This hymn celebrates God’s eternal power at the center of worship: “It is good to acclaim the Lord/ and to hymn to Your name, Most High,” (2) As in many psalms, the subject of the hymn is God’s two overriding qualities: “to tell in the morning Your kindness,/ Your faithfulness in the nights,/ on ten-stringed instrument and on the lute,/ on the lyre with chanted sound.” (3,4)

It is God and the glory of his creation which motivates us to worship him: “For You made me rejoice, Lord, through Your acts,/ of the work of Your hands I sing in gladness.” (5)

Following this introduction, the song turns to the contrast between the depth of God’s works as over against those of the seemingly successful wicked. What we know of God is but a scintilla of his actual being: “How great Your works, O Lord,/ Your designs are very deep.” (6) We should reflect at length on this couplet. Rather than like the psalmist who accepts God’s unknowable depth, we tend to spend too much time trying to figure out God and to get our mind around him. It’s a futile effort. As the psalmist tells us, we should bask in his kindness and faithfulness.

The hymn compares God’s depth against the superficiality of the wicked: “The brutish man does not know,/ nor does the fool understand this:” (7) And what is ‘this?’ It is the sheer brevity of our existence. While we’d like to think the wicked are the ones who live on successfully, our psalmist reminds us, “the wicked spring up like grass,/ and all the wrongdoers flourish—/ to be destroyed for all time.” (8) The wicked are metaphorically grass that grows high and seems to be taking over the earth, but then is mowed down. By contrast, God is everlasting, “And You are on high forever, O Lord.” (9) In this era of seeing the rich and powerful enjoy their success and set up foundations by which they attempt to be remembered, we know their efforts are merely ephemeral. Only God endures.

Joshua 10:29–11:23: The authors present us a catalog of Israel’s military successes under Joshua’s leadership.

  • Libnah
  • Lachish
  • Gezer
  • Eglon
  • Hebron
  • Debir

These battles in which there are no survivors ensure that “Joshua defeated the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings; he left no one remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded.” (10:40)

With the southern portions of Canaan defeated, Joshua turns his attention to the north. These armies—”the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, and the Jebusites in the hill country, and the Hivites under Hermon in the land of Mizpah.” (11:3)—are far greater than the ragtag bands they defeated in the south. The kings unite as a single force and form “a great army, in number like the sand on the seashore, with very many horses and chariots.” (11:4)

We sense Joshua’s and Israel’s potential discouragement when they see the size and strength of the army they now have to fight, “the Lord said to Joshua, “Do not be afraid of them, for tomorrow at this time I will hand over all of them, slain, to Israel; you shall hamstring their horses, and burn their chariots with fire.” (11:6)

Despite the strength of the forces arrayed against them, they are victorious: “all the towns of those kings, and all their kings, Joshua took, and struck them with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying them, as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded.” (11:12) Success is clearly the result of obedience as the authors note the chain of command: “As the Lord had commanded his servant Moses, so Moses commanded Joshua, and so Joshua did; he left nothing undone of all that the Lord had commanded Moses.” (11:15)

The remainder of the chapter summarizes Joshua’s conquests: “There was not a town that made peace with the Israelites, except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon; all were taken in battle.” (11:19) As always, our authors give all credit to God being on their side: “For it was the Lord’s doing to harden their hearts so that they would come against Israel in battle, in order that they might be utterly destroyed, and might receive no mercy, but be exterminated, just as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (11:20)

The taking of Canaan is complete; it is now wholly Israel’s “And the land had rest from war.” (11:23)

So, do these descriptions of battles fought and won reflect actual history? Inasmuch as Israel came to occupy the land, there’s no question Israel conquered Canaan at some point—although it’s not impossible that Joshua’s exploits are more fiction than fact. What we have to question is God’s involvement, which frankly I take as a later addition written by the victors to make sure everyone knew that God was on their side. We see traces of this even today when we hear of “American exceptionalism” and with every politician’s empty rhetoric including the shopworn phrase, “God bless America.”

Luke 13:18–30: Luke turns his attention to Jesus’ parables that describe the qualities of the Kingdom of God. In the parable of the mustard seed that grows from barely visible seed to giant bush, Jesus predicts the growth of the kingdom into something great. Which is certainly what happened to the church in the first centuries of its existence. To emphasize his point about growth, he then compares the Kingdom to yeast that causes bread to expand.

Although the Kingdom will grow, it will not include everyone, and especially one nation in particular. Obviously, this question of who is very much on the mind of Jesus’ followers, as “Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” (23) As he does so many times, Jesus uses metaphor to remind us that the Kingdom is not entered into casually or half-heartedly. Entrance is “through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.” (24) He goes on to emphasize this exclusivity, implying that at the end of history, many will “knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then in reply he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’” (25)

Jesus makes it clear that the ones who will be knocking but not admitted is Israel itself: “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out.” (28)  Luke’s Jesus tells us quite clearly that the people who will be populating the Kingdom are Gentiles: “people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.” (29) The Jews, who despise the Gentiles, and see themselves as God’s chosen people, will lose their pride of place. Worse, those whom they despised will be the ones entering the kingdom as Jesus utters the final damning answer to the question of who will occupy the Kingdom: “Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” (30)

The question is, of course, are we like the Jews of Jesus time or are we willing to enter through the narrow gate of Jesus Christ himself?