Archives for September 2016

Psalm 107:33–43; 1 Samuel 10; John 1:14–28

Psalm 107:33–43: In the deuteronomic culture that was Israel and Judah, the terms of the covenant were crystal clear. Abandon God and he will cancel the elements of prosperity: “He turns rivers into wilderness/ and springs of water into thirsty ground,/ fruitful land into salt flats,/ because of the evil of those who dwell there.” (33, 34) Conversely, obedience renders blessing: “He turns wilderness to pools of water,/ and parched lands to springs of water,/ and settles there the hungry,/ firmly founds a settled town.” (35, 36)

And in that happy, God-fearing agrarian society, “they sow fields and they plant vineyards,/ which produce a fruitful yield.” (37) This fecundity extends to that most valuable proof of being blessed by God: progeny: “And He blesses them and they multiply greatly,/ and their beasts He does not let dwindle.” (38)

There is always the underlying theme of the rich and powerful oppressing the weak and poor, and to emerges here as how God will hand them the consequences of their oppression in due time: “He pours contempt upon the princes,/ and makes them wander in trackless waste.” (40) They will receive what they have handed out when they are captured by their enemies: “And they dwindle and are bowed down,/ from harsh oppression and sorrow.” (39)

Again there is symmetry. As the princes “bow down,” the weak and powerless will be raised up: “And He raises the needy from affliction,/ and increases his clans like flocks.” (41) This neverending tension between the powerful and the weak is the underlying moral of this psalm: “Let the upright see and rejoice,/ and all wickedness shut its mouth.” (42) The psalmist concludes not too subtly, “He who is wise will watch these/ and take to heart the Lord’s kindnesses.” (43)

Although I believe life is far more complex than this simple good-bad/ blessing-suffereing symmetry, the final verse is one we can take to heart in our fallen world today.  Watching and alert we will perceive God’s love.

1 Samuel 10: Samuel anoints Saul with oil, and announces, “The Lord has anointed you ruler over his people Israel. You shall reign over the people of the Lord and you will save them from the hand of their enemies all around.” (1) But that single act is not necessarily persuasive to Saul that he’s suddenly king. To prove the legitimacy of what Samuel has done, the old prophecy makes three predictions about who Saul will meet, what they’ll have with them—among other things, a person carrying bread and wine— and what will be said. The most dramatic of these encounters is with the prophets who are in a “prophetic frenzy.” Samuel tells Saul he will be caught up in the same frenzy: “Then the spirit of the Lord will possess you, and you will be in a prophetic frenzy along with them and be turned into a different person.” (6) Saul is then to meet up with Samuel seven days hence when the prophet appears.

As Saul leaves Samuel, “God gave him another heart; and all these signs were fulfilled that day.” (9)  This is a great reminder that an encounter with God and Jesus Christ is life-transforming. We come away with a “new heart.” The question of course is will be turn out like Saul or like David?

Samuel returns home. His uncle asks, “Tell me what Samuel said to you.” (15). Saul tells him everything except “about the matter of the kingship, of which Samuel had spoken, he did not tell him anything.” (16)

Samuel summoned the people to the Lord at Mizpah ” (17) and reminds them that they have rejected God’s protection even though God has led them from the wilderness to the promised land. To select the king, lots will be drawn. The lots narrow down to Saul’s family and “Saul the son of Kish was taken by lot.” (21) Of course the lottery has been rigged by God, who ensures that the lot falls upon Saul so that it appears he has been chosen at random and thus, it is God’s will rather than Samuel’s.

Saul is identified as king but is nowhere to be found. Eventually he’s found hiding in the baggage and is brought forth as Samuel announces: “There is no one like him among all the people. And all the people shouted, “Long live the king!” (24)

But there will be no honeymoon for the new king. The plots begin early: “some worthless fellows said, “How can this man save us?” They despised him and brought him no present.” (27) Moreover, there’s a tough political situation with the Ammonites, whose king has been gouging out the right eye of all the Israelites on the other side of the Jordan. Saul faces enormous challenges ahead.

It’s almost as if God sets out right away to prove that Israel has made a poor choice in demanding a king rather than allowing God to speak and lead through the prophets and judges.

John 1:14–28: John wastes no time in articulating the heavy theology of the incarnation: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (14) Further, John tells us, the Word is the instrument of God’s salvation which we have received as a gift: “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” (16) Our gospel writer then draws the great contrast between the old covenant and the new: “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (17)

But perhaps John’s boldest statement in that Jewish culture is that Jesus is the sole evidence we have have been given of what God is all about: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” (18) This would seem to be a direct reference to the theophany where Moses could see only God’s reflected glory. Now we will experience it head on through Jesus.

John moves into his narrative about John the Baptist—a far more complex story than the simplicity of the Synoptics. John the Baptist has apparently been brought before the temple authorities, who demand to know if he is the Messiah. John assures them he is not, but is rather the messenger announcing the arrival of the Messiah, which he substantiates by quoting Isaiah:

I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” (23)

The Pharisees challenge John about his effrontery, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” (25) But John simply responds that he merely baptizes with water and as for the one who is coming, “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” (27) strongly suggesting that one will be the actual Messiah.

I look at this passage as this gospel’s nativity story. The key here is that Jesus “birth” begins in heaven as the Word. The Word has been made flesh and is shortly to arrive on the scene. Although he nevers says it, we can’t miss the implication that this person will be the Messiah.

John the Baptist is the gospel writer’s dramatic bridge from high theology to the man Jesus himself. The final verse of the reading brings us out of theological discourse and sets us down at a specific place where Jesus will be introduced to everyone: “This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.” (28)

 

Psalm 107:23–32; 1 Samuel 9; John 1:1–13

Psalm 107:23–32: “Those who go down to the sea in ships,/ who do tasks in the mighty waters” (23) is a line famously quoted in Moby Dick by the preacher at the Seamen’s Bethel in New Bedford, just a few miles from where I am writing this.

These verses seem almost to be a different poem, inserted here in the midst of the poem about freed captives trudging home in the wilderness. Suddenly we have a new subject—sailors—enduring storms on the sea: “He [God] speaks and raises the stormwind/ and makes the waves loom high.” (25) On the other hand there is a striking parallel here as some suffer in the heat of the desert while others suffer in the midst of God’s mighty ocean.

We can feel the tiny ship being tossed to and fro by the mighty waves as the sailors attempt to hang on: “They go up to the heavens,/ come down to the depths,/ their life-breath in hardship grows faint./ They reel and sway like a drunkard,/ all their wisdom is swallowed up.” (26, 27)

Like those souls lost in the desert, “they cry to the Lord” (28a). And again, God is their rescuer: “from their straits from their distress He brings them out.” (28b) And in a verset that brings to mind Jesus calming the sea of Galilee: “He turns the storm into silence, and its waves are stilled,/ and the rejoice that these have grown quiet.” (29, 30a) I don’t think it’s stretching these verses too far to read them as a metaphor for how prayer can calm the stormy emotional seas of our own lives.

As always, our response to being brought by God to safe harbor away from the storm is gratitude expressed in worship in a reprise of verse 21: “Let them acclaim to the Lord in His kindness/ and His wonders to humankind.” Prayer, rescue, worship should be the liturgy of our life.

1 Samuel 9: Saul, “a handsome young man” is chosen to be Israel’s king. As is even the case today, it is tall people who win out: “There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else.” (2)

While searching in vain for his father’s lost donkey’s Saul feels they have come too far and that his father will begin to worry about his absence. The boy with him suggests they find a man of God, a plan to which Saul agrees. In a Hollywood-like coincidence, they come upon Samuel. It turns out that “the day before Saul came, the Lord had revealed to Samuel: “Tomorrow about this time I will send to you a man from the land of Benjamin, and you shall anoint him to be ruler over my people Israel.” (16) When Samuel sees Saul, God speaks up again to make sure the old priest got the message: “Here is the man of whom I spoke to you. He it is who shall rule over my people.” (17)

Saul is rather puzzled when Samuel tells him it is he “on whom is all Israel’s desire fixed, if not on you and on all your ancestral house?” (20) Saul replies that “I am only a Benjaminite, from the least of the tribes of Israel, and my family is the humblest of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin.” (21) Nevertheless, Saul dines with Samuel and is invited to stay overnight. The next morning, Samuel awakens Saul and they leave town together. Once they reach the town’s outskirts, Samuel tells Saul to send his boy on ahead of them. Samuel has an important task to perform…

What’s striking to me here is that even though Saul becomes a tyrant in the end (just as God predicted would happen), Saul is God’s choice. God has not abandoned Israel and has been careful to choose the best leader for them. But as always, it is Israel and then Saul who eventually abandons God. Nevertheless, Saul is God’s man at this moment.

John 1:1–13: The latest of the gospels to be written, John opens with a theological treatise. There is no John the baptizer as in Mark or nativity stories as in Matthew and Luke. Instead, the opening scene is in heaven itself at the beginning of time: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (1) And to make sure we get the point, John repeats himself: “He was in the beginning with God.” (2) The Word—who we will learn is Jesus—was with God at the beginning of creation—and is therefore the source of life itself: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” (3)

In fact, for John, the Word is the source of light that separated all life from the darkness. This is not just the darkness of night, but as we will see throughout John, the Light is just one of the many metaphors for Jesus. Those who reject Jesus are in the darkness.

John gives fairly short shrift to John the Baptist, making sure his community—and we— understand that the Baptizer was simply the messenger; that he “came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” (8) In a subtle pun, John informs us that “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (9) Much hangs on the word, “enlighten.”  For me, this is really John’s theme of the book: that the stories of Jesus he is writing about will enlighten us.

John also gives away the ending right here in the opening verses by telling us how Jesus was rejected by the Jews, “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” (11) But more importantly, that in that rejection there came good news to all humankind: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” (12) As we will see, John is all about “believing.” It is believing in the Light that is life-changing.

 

Psalm 107:17–22; 1 Samuel 7:2–8:22; Luke 24:36–53

Psalm 107:17–22: Our psalmist reminds us that as sinners we are foolish people and we reap the consequences of our stupid, sinful actions: “Fools because of their sinful way,/ because of their misdeed they were afflicted.” (17) Clearly, captivity was one of the consequences and apparently the food they were given was inedible (or more likely, ritually unclean) that it is rejected even to the point of starvation: “All food their throat rejected,/ they came to the gates of death.” (18)

Once again, God hears their desperate prayers and acts: “And they cried to the Lord from their straits,/ from their distress He rescued them.” (19) And once again, we are given reassurance that God will always rescue us if we turn to him: Foxhole prayers work. What’s interesting here is that the means of rescue is God speaking. In other words, prayer, even desperate prayer is a conversation: “He sent forth His word and healed them,/ and delivered them from their pit.” (20)

As always, our response to rescue is worship: “Let them acclaim to the Lord His kindness,/ and His wonders to humankind.” (21) Here there is the obvious sense of worship also being evangelical: of our responsibility to sing and tell God’s praises not just to ourselves, but to our neighbors and culture as well. Indeed, to all humankind.

In a direct reference to the fact that this psalm was sung at the temple, our psalmist concludes this passage by reminding us that worship then included sacrifices given in gratitude: “And offer thanksgiving sacrifices/ and recount His deed in glad song.” (22) The nature of our sacrifices may be different today, but we respond to the fact of our salvation with joy and yes, with sacrificial offerings our of the bounty God has so generously given us.

1 Samuel 7:2–8:22: The Ark has been rescued from the Philistines although trouble seems to follow it everywhere. In any event, “the ark was lodged at Kiriath-jearim, a long time passed, some twenty years,” (7:2) This becomes the catalyst for Israel’s repentance—at least for a time: “So Israel put away the Baals and the Astartes, and they served the Lord only.” (4) This time, when the Philistines try to attack Israel, Israel turns to God. As Samuel is offering a sacrifice, the Philistines show up, ready to attack. “But the Lord thundered with a mighty voice that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion; and they were routed before Israel.” (10) This time God is on their side and “the towns that the Philistines had taken from Israel were restored to Israel,” (14a) Plus, a bonus: peace “between Israel and the Amorites.” (14b)

Samuel is the paragon of a good judge as “he administered justice there to Israel, and built there an altar to the Lord” (7:17) at Ramah.

Samuel grows old and like his mentor Eli, he has two sons, whom he places in priestly positions. Alas, just like the sons of Eli, they “did not follow in his [Samuel’s] ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice.” (8:3) So in frustration, the leaders of Israel come to Samuel and tell him, “Give us a king to govern us.” (8:6) Samuel is none too pleased but prays to God about the matter. God answers, telling Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people,” noting that it is not Samuel whom they have rejected, “but they have rejected me from being king over them.” (8:7) The system of God as king and God-appointed judges as God’s administrators has broken down.

God tells Samuel that “you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” (8:9) A passage of the downsides of kingly rule follows, obviously based on the all too real experience of our priestly authors. The king “will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots…He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers.. . . He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work.” (12-16). Worst of all, “he will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.” (17) Finally the ominous threat from God: “In that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” (18) I have to admit that God sounds a little jealous and peevish here.

This passage has tremendous resonance for me in this election season as it seems many in our society are crying out for “strong leadership” but like the Israelites they are failing to consider the cost of that strong leadership. We would do well to reflect on the poor choice Israel is about to make. They are determined and “the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” (8:19, 20) Substitute ‘president’ for ‘king,’ and this line is eerily apropos today.

Luke 24:36–53: Jesus finally makes his appearance before the inner circle of disciples with the simple greeting, “Peace be with you.” (36). Even though they had all heard about the resurrection, his surprising appearance caused them to be “startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.” (37) But terror quickly turns to joy. Jesus proves his corporeality by asking them to touch him, and then asks as if nothing is at all unusual,“Have you anything here to eat?” (41)  and then proceeds to eat a fish.

I think this passage is here because it’s likely that in Luke’s community the heresy that the resurrected Jesus was merely spirit had already arisen and Luke wishes to put these doubts firmly to rest.

Jesus resumes his role as rabbi and “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,” (45) explaining that the Hebrew scriptures predicted exactly the event occurred: “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day.” (46) Moreover, resurrection is accompanied by “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (47), which is Luke’s brief summary of the Great Commission to go into all the world and preach the gospel.

Jesus instructs them all to remain in Jerusalem because “I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (49) He proceeds out to Bethany, offers a final blessing and “he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” (50) Jesus’ resurrected appearance has transformed the disciples from a frightened band hiding from the authorities to men and women “continually in the temple blessing God.” (52) Jesus doesn’t merely save us, he transforms us.

Luke ends his Part I on this joyous note and he will circle back around to Jesus’ ascension in the first chapter of Part II, the book of Acts. However, whoever determined the order of the Canon is requiring us to read John before we come back to Luke.

 

Psalm 107:1–9; 1 Samuel 3,4; Luke 24:13–27

Psalm 107:1–9: This psalm of collective thanksgiving opens with, “Acclaim the Lord, for He is good/ for His kindness is forever,” and appears to celebrate an event of scattered Israel returning from exile:
Let the Lord’s redeemed ones say,
whom He redeemed from the hand of the foe,
and gathered them from the lands,
from east and west, from north and south.” (2, 3)

Here, redemption is not theological but political. They apparently have been held captive and through God’s intervention they have been set free to return home, which is far away. This suggests a prayer that would have been offered in Nehemiah’s and Ezra’s time after the Babylonian exile and the restoration of Jerusalem.

Our poet evokes the Exodus story, but this wandering sounds even more desperate than the original wandering in the wilderness since it appears there was no cloud or fire leading them nor was there water and food. Instead, they were more like released captives trying to get back home after many years:
They wandered in wilderness, waste land,
found no road to a settled town,
hungry, thirsty, too,
their life-breath failed within them.” (4, 5)

These wanderers “cried to the Lord in their straits,/ and from their distress He saved them.” (6) God responds and “He led them on a straight road/ to go to a settled town.” (7) We’re tempted to add another layer of meaning to ‘straight road,’ as in following God’s way, but I think the psalmist is simply referring to the fact that God led Israel physically back to Jerusalem—the ‘settled town.’

God’s rescue is the root cause for celebration and thanksgiving: “Let them acclaim to the Lord His kindness/ and His wonders to humankind.” (8) Notice the evangelical connotation here: that rescued Israel would shout to any and all nations around them about God’s manifest wonders.

1 Samuel 3,4: Although he is still a boy, “Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli.” (3:1) The authors note that “word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” (3:1b)

Samuel hears God’s voice, but logically assumes it is Eli who is calling him. Eli tells him to go back to bed, but Samuel hears God’s voice once again. Samuel awakens Eli again, who again tells him to go back to bed. Finally, on the third go, Eli realizes what’s happening: that God is indeed calling Samuel. Eli instructs the boy to lie down again and when he hears the voice to say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’ (9)

God does not bring good news but announces that the fate awaiting Eli and his family is about to be executed: “For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.” (13)

The boy is understandably reluctant to convey this news to Eli. But Eli insists and “Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him.” (18) Thus begins Samuel’s prophetic career and “the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord.” (3:21)

Chapter 4 opens with the defeat of Israel by the Philistines. 4,000 Israel soldiers lay dead, and it occurs to the Israeli generals that they need to have the Ark of the Covenant, currently located at Shiloh, brought to the field of battle, as a source of power and encouragement to the troops for the ongoing battle. The Ark arrives and all Israel begins shouting. It appears the ark is having its intended effect. When the Philistines learn this they “were afraid; for they said, “Gods have come into the camp.They also said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before.” (4:7)

But the Philistines regain their courage and defeat Israel, leaving 30,000 dead Hebrews in the field. Even worse, the ark is captured, and as predicted, the two sons of Eli die. A messenger brings the bad news back to Shiloh. Eli is already fearful and it’s clear he unsuccessfully resisted the plan to take the ark into battle: “for his heart trembled for the ark of God.” (4:13) The messenger tells Eli what has happened: “Israel has fled before the Philistines, and there has also been a great slaughter among the troops; your two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured.” (4:17) Eli, who we learn is 98 years old, falls over, breaks his neck and dies.

Eli’s pregnant daughter-in-law goes into early labor. Just before she dies, she names her son, Ichabod, “meaning, “The glory has departed from Israel,” because the ark of God had been captured and because of her father-in-law and her husband.” (4:21) Inasmuch as the man from God promises that Eli’s family will be wiped out we wonder what will happen with Ichabod.

There are several morals to this story, but for me the lesson is that God will not be trifled with. The disastrous decision to bring the ark into the field as some sort of talismanic encouragement to the troops is clearly a form of blasphemy. We cannot bend God to our own will and purposes. And yet that is exactly what people and entire nations have tried to do ever since this battle. This story is a powerful reminder to those who claim that God is on America’s side. Well, not really. The question is, are we on God’s side?

Luke 24:13–27: Only Luke records the walk to Emmaus. Two of Jesus’ disciples not of the inner circle depart Jerusalem in deep sadness. As they walk along, Jesus joins them, “but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” (16)

As if he didn’t already know, Jesus asks what the two are discussing. They rather incredulously reply that this stranger must be the only guy around for miles that didn’t know what happened in Jerusalem three days ago: “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people.” (19) They state what every follower of Jesus had wanted: “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” (21).

They go on to relate the mysterious events at the tomb and that the people there “had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.” (23). These two walkers are among what I gather to be a large number of people who stopped by the empty tomb. But no one, including these two, had yet seen Jesus.

Jesus replies, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!” (25) He then launches into a theological treatise and “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” (27)

This story is Luke’s way of conveying directly and forcefully that Jesus was indeed the Jewish messiah and that he was the complete fulfillment of all that had been prophesied in the Hebrew scriptures. It’s a different literary technique than Matthew and John who repeatedly say through the course of his public ministry that when Jesus did such and such it was “so the scriptures would be fulfilled.” Luke saves all this up for the very powerful human drama that is the walk to Emmaus. Luke is making it clear that Jesus is indeed the unrecognized Jewish Messiah.

Psalm 106:40–48; 1 Samuel 2:12–36; Luke 24:1–12

Psalm 106:40–48: I hope God never gets as angry with us as he did with Israel: “And the Lord’s wrath blazed against His people,/ and He abhorred their estate.” (40) The poet references the various invasions of Israel by the Philistines and others: “and gave them into the hand of nations,/ and their haters ruled over them.” (41) These were desperate times as “their enemies oppressed them,/ and they were subject to their power.” (42)

But God is relentlessly merciful and “Many times did He save them.” (43a) Nevertheless, Israel continues to sin against God and “they rebelled against His counsel/ and were brought low through their misdeeds.” (43b) And again and again, “He saw they were in straits,/ when He heard their song of prayer.” (44) And yet once again, God has mercy on Israel, but also reminds them of their side of the Covenant: “And He recalled for them His pact,/ relented through His many kindnesses./And He granted them mercy/ in the eyes of our captors.” (45, 46)

We arrive at the reason our psalmist has taken us through Israel’s history and mentioned again and again how Israel drifted away from God into worshipping false gods, but that God still had mercy. As he writes, Israel is once again in dire straits and captive to another nation (I presume Babylon) and as so often before, the psalmist cries out once again for God to have mercy and restore the nation:
“Rescue us, Lord our God
and gather us from nations
to acclaim Your holy name
and to glory in Your praise.” (47)

A simple but joyous conclusion concludes this fascinating psalm of supplication: “And all the people say: Amen, hallelujah!” (48)

So, what do we learn from this psalm besides the condensed details of Israel’s checkered history expressed in poetic form? We learn that God is indeed the God of second chances. And third, and fourth, and… Our sins are great but God’s mercy is greater.

 1 Samuel 2:12–36: Eli’s sons are classic PK’s—priest’s kids—and “had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests to the people.” (13) The authors provide detailed examples of their malfeasance as they steal the good meat of sacrifices and even demand, “Give meat for the priest to roast; for he will not accept boiled meat from you, but only raw.” (15) Needless to say, “the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the Lord; for they treated the offerings of the Lord with contempt.” (17)

Our authors brilliantly weave the contrasting story of young Samuel into this grim narrative, including the sweet detail that “His mother used to make for him a little robe and take it to him each year, when she went up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice.” (19) Eli blessed Elkanah and Hannah and as a result of this blessing, and having dedicated Samuel to God’s work, Hannah has five more children.

But this brief sunny period passes quickly and we return to the grim story of Eli’s sons. Eli makes a half-hearted plea to them, “Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealings from all these people.” (23) He even tries logic: if they sin directly against God, no one will be able to intercede for them, not even their father.”But they would not listen to the voice of their father.” (25)

In the meantime, even though he was not a Levite, “the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.” (26)

A “man of God,” (presumably an angel) shows up and tells Eli hav Levites were specially chosen, pointing out that priests already get “all my offerings by fire from the people of Israel.” (28) But the sons are greedy beyond this. As a result, even though God promised that Eli’s descendants would be priests for all time, the angel now asserts that God “will cut off your strength and the strength of your ancestor’s family, so that no one in your family will live to old age.” (31) Only Eli will be left to mourn the loss of his family and the end of his family line. Moreover, as a sure sign that this is God’s action, the angel announces that the “fate of your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, shall be the sign to you—both of them shall die on the same day.” (34)

So, why does Eli receive such harsh treatment when it’s his sons that have sinned so greatly? I think that Eli has observed their wrongdoing but has excused, perhaps even justified, their wrong behavior. If nothing else, this story is a lesson that parents do indeed bear some responsibility for the behavior of their children.

Of course the other thing that’s going on here is that the authors must carefully set up how Samuel, who is not a Levite, becomes a priest of Israel.

Luke 24:1–12: We arrive at Luke’s description of the Resurrection. The women arrive spices in hand and find the “stone rolled away from the tomb” (2) and the tomb empty. Two angels appear and as usual, induce great fear: “The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground.” (5)  Unlike most angelic visits they don’t tell the women to “Fear not” but simply announce rather brusquely IMHO, the words that signify the hinge of history: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” (5)

Luke’s angels go on to remind the women—and Luke’s community and us—that Jesus predicted all this, including “that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” (7)

The women do indeed recall this and “returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.” (11) Luke goes on to emphasize the crucial role of women in his account of the Resurrection and names three of them: “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James,” (10) as well as other unnamed women. In short, it is women who Luke sees as equals to the men, which stands in contrast to the rules of the Old Covenant where only men could encounter God. Something brand new is happening here.

Unsurprisingly, the women are greeted with more than a little skepticism: “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” (11) But Peter, being Peter, gets up and goes to check out the tomb for himself. Unlike John’s account (John 20:1-10) where Peter is accompanied by another disciple (probably John himself), here Luke seems to suggest that Peter went to the tomb alone.

Of course it’s these small discrepancies among witnesses that lend historical authenticity. Had all four gospel writers written exactly the same account with the same details of who went to the tomb or where the angels were or what they said we’d be pretty sure the Resurrection story was fiction. The differences among the gospels only strengthen the credibility of what happened on Easter morning.

Psalm 106:32–39; 1 Samuel 1:1–2:11; Luke 23:44–56

Psalm 106:32–39: Our psalmist’s major theme is the complaining and intransigence of the Israelites that is the root cause of the bad things that happened in the wilderness and in Canaan. Of course he’s right.

Thirsty, the poet tells us, “They caused fury over the waters of Meribah,” (32a). Frustrated beyond all reason, Moses strikes the rock, “and it went badly for Moses because of them.” (32b). ‘Badly,’ of course, is God telling Moses he will not enter the promised land. The poet lets Moses partially off the hook, explaining that it was the fault of the ever-whining mob that “rebelled against him,/ and he pronounced rash things with his lips.” (33)—the ‘rash things’ being his assertion that he rather than God would cause the water to come forth. ANd how often does frustration cause us to say rash things we quickly regret?

When Israel enters Canaan they do not follow God’s explicit instructions and “They did not destroy the peoples / as the Lord had said to them.” (34) The logical consequence of this disobedience is that “They mingled with the nations and learned their deed./ And they worshipped their idols,/ which became a snare to them.” (35, 36).

The psalmist describes in detail the heathen practices that the Israelites adopted—details that I feel have been glossed over by the authors of Joshua and Judges: “And the sacrificed their sons/ and their daughters to the demons.” (37) To make sure we fully comprehend the nature of this evil, our poet clarifies: “And they shed innocent blood,/ the blood of their sons and their daughters/ when the sacrificed to Canaan’s idols,/ and the land was polluted with blood guilt.” (38)

These are not mere lapses in judgement, rather it is the word we don’t use too much these days: an abomination to God as the poet reminds us: “And they were defiled through their deeds/ and went whoring through their actions.” (39)

We may think that our culture is better than they. After all we don’t sacrifice our children to tin idols. But with the reality of abortion as convenience and now increasingly euthanasia, are we so much better than ancient Israel?

1 Samuel 1:1–2:11: The eponymous book opens with the story of the birth of Samuel. As has happened so often, the heroine of the story, Hannah, is barren even though her husband, Elkanah, “loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb.”  (1:5) Hannah’s sister, Peninnah, lords it over her because she is barren. Elkanah attempts to comfort her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” (1:8) but she is inconsolable.

Weeping bitterly, Hannah prays, and vows that if she can have a male child she will dedicate him to God’s work as a nazarite. In a detail I’d not noticed before, Hannah is moving her lips but not speaking as she prays. Talking aloud to God was de rigueur in that culture and the priest, Eli, thinks she is drunk. “But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled.” (1:15) and tells Eli she has “been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.” (16) Eli reassures her that her prayer will be answered and goes away a happier woman. Hannah’s prayer is also a demonstration that God hears us even when we do not pray according to accepted convention.

In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.” (20). When it’s time for the annual pilgrimage to offer sacrifices at Shiloh, she remains behind, telling Elkanah that “I will offer him as a nazirite for all time.” (22). Her husband (who already has plenty of children) agrees with her plan since it will bring joy to his wife: “Do what seems best to you, wait until you have weaned him; only—may the Lord establish his word.” (23) Elkanah’s words are of course prophetic.

Hannah brings Samuel to Eli and with no little joy exclaims, “Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.” (28)

Hannah prays a psalm of joy and thanksgiving, which is basically a pre-echo of Mary’s Magnificat in Luke. For example, Hannah prays,
He raises up the poor from the dust;
    he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
    and inherit a seat of honor.” (2:8)

And Mary prays,
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52, 53)

Both women have been blessed by God with a son and both women are grateful to God for answered prayer. Hannah and Elkanah return home and the reading closes with Samuel, who “remained to minister to the Lord, in the presence of the priest Eli.” (2:11)

I think Luke has intentionally used Hannah’s thanksgiving prayer to remind us that Mary’s son Jesus will be used by God in powerful ways just as we will see that Samuel was used powerfully by God.

Luke 23:44–56: Luke records the dramatic events that surround Jesus’ death: “the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two.” (45) Luke’s Jesus utters his last words, a public announcement about two of the three persons of the Trinity:“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (46)

In a detail recorded only here, and clearly for the encouragement of Luke’s Gentile community, “When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.” (47) [And is also the basis of Lew Wallace’s famous book, and Richard Burton’s famous movie, “the Robe”]

The spectacle over, the crowd departs, “but all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.” Luke does not have to tell us what they are feeling. This simple line is suffused with utter and total abandonment. Things had turned out so differently than the bright promise of just five days earlier. The must have been wondering how things could have gone so desperately wrong. And we wonder if any of Jesus’ many warnings that something like this would happen occurred to any of them as they stood there.

Joseph of Arimathea, “a good and righteous man” (50) was a member of the council but “had not agreed to their plan and action.” (51a) What we rarely hear about this Joseph is that “he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.” (51b) Was he still waiting expectantly now that Jesus was dead? His actions in asking Pilate for the body and laying “it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid” (53) suggest that he had resigned himself to the reality that the kingdom of God was a chimera but that Jesus and his ministry deserved a dignified ending. Would that Luke had told us what Joseph thought when he heard about the resurrection.

Luke provides the important detail that “the women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid.” (55) Had they not observed this, the crucial events of the Resurrection may have turned out quite differently. The women returning to the tomb to anoint the body are the crucial witnesses to the miracle yet to come.

 

Psalm 106:24–31; Ruth 4; Luke 23:32–43

Psalm 106:24–31: When we read this poem that condenses the 40-year wilderness trek into a few verses, the sense of just how far from God Israel had drifted becomes dramatically clear. Our poet tells us, “And they despised the land of desires,/ they did not trust His word.” (24) This is probably a reference to the report of the ten spies sent into Canaan and the eight who told Moses the land was occupied by fierce tribes.

Rather than enter into Canaan trusting God would aid them, “they muttered in their tents,/ they did not heed the voice of the Lord.” (25) And for this disobedience they were condemned to wander 40 years as God “raised His hand against them,/ to make them fall in the wilderness.” (26).

We encounter a further catalog of sins that are all described in Numbers: “And they clung to Baal Peor/ and ate sacrifices to the dead.” (28) This apostasy “provoked Him through their acts,/ and the scourge broke out among them,” (29)—a reference to the skin diseases that arrived in the camp.

They are healed only because “Phineas stood and prayed,/ and the scourge was held back.” (30) While the psalmist refers to Phineas’ prayers, it skips over the part where he killed the idol worshippers. In fact, Phineas and his descendants come out well in the psalmist’s opinion: “and it was counted for him as merit,/ generation to generation forever.” (31)

Ruth 4: Boaz sits down with his unnamed next-of-kin. He also arranges for “ten men of the elders of the city” (2) to sit as witnesses to what he is about to say. He tells this next-of-kin, that he has first right of refusal to acquire Naomi’s late husband’s land. Boaz tells him, “If you will redeem it, redeem it; but if you will not, tell me, so that I may know; for there is no one prior to you to redeem it, and I come after you.” (4).

We don’t hear the next-of-kin’s reply and Boaz goes on to mention almost as an aside that the acquisition of the land includes acquiring Ruth the Moabite. This seems to scotch the deal when the next-of-kin says, “I cannot redeem it for myself without damaging my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.” (6) What goes unmentioned but is clearly understood here is that he probably believes that having a Moabite in the family is beyond the socially acceptable pale.

Following the custom of Israel, the next-of-kin removes his sandal, hands it to Boaz and the transfer of rights to Boaz is affirmed in front of the ten witnesses. Doubtless much to the surprise of the men there, Boaz announces, “I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon, to be my wife, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance” (10a). While he justifies his intention as acting in “the name of the dead may not be cut off from his kindred and from the gate of his native place,” (10b) I think there’s little question that Boaz is also deeply in love with Ruth.

The townspeople and the elders bestow a wonderful benediction on Boaz that rings down through the centuries: “May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you produce children in Ephrathah and bestow a name in Bethlehem.” (12)

Boaz and Ruth “come together” and in a pre-echo of a descendant’s birth fourteen generations down the line, “the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son.” (13) And of course that blessing has come true not only for Israel’s greatest warrior-king, David, but more importantly, for Jesus. Moreover, since Ruth was a Gentile, we know that Jesus’ blood by birth is for Israel and for all the world.

And in perhaps the happiest ending of any book in the Bible, “Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.” (16,17)

Naomi, who believed God had abandoned her, discovers that through the unstinting loyalty of a Gentile daughter-in-law, God has been there all the time. A valuable lesson for us as well.

Luke 23:32–43: We turn from joy to the grimmest part of Luke’s gospel. Jesus hangs on the cross surrounded “with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.” (33) The leaders believe they have been the victors as they “scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” (35) Not only the Jews ridicule Jesus, but Luke gives the Gentiles equal time as “the soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (36, 37)

For me, the two criminals—one mocking and rejecting Jesus and the other stating “this man has done nothing wrong” (41)—are Luke’s symbolic stand-ins for the entire world. In the end, it comes down to a two-alternative forced choice: accept Jesus for who he says he is or reject him. As much as we Christians would like to accept Jesus but still remain in personal control of our lives, that alternative is not available. As Oswald Chambers says over and over, we must wholly abandon ourselves to Jesus Christ—or not.

 

Psalm 106:13–23; Ruth 2,3; Luke 23:13–31

Psalm 106:13–23: As it inevitably does, Israel, which sang God’s praises after crossing the sea falls away from God as they trek through the wilderness:  “Quickly they forgot His deeds,/ they did not await His counsel.” (13) Not awaiting God’s counsel seems a direct reference to when Moses struck the rock at Meribah.

The catalog of disobedience continues. The Israelites “felt a sharp craving in the wilderness,/ they put God to the test in the waste land” (14) asking for something to eat besides manna. God ferociously answers their prayers with the infamous quail as “He gave them what they had asked,/ sent food down their throats.” (15) A reminder that when we go to God with prayer requests we need to be thoughtful about what we’re asking for.

Then the famous attempt to overthrow Moses and Aaron as leaders: “They were jealous of Moses in the camp,/ of Aaron, the Lord’s holy one.” (16) The consequences of this disobedience were dire: “The earth opened and swallowed Dothan/ and covered Abriam’s band./ And fire burned through their band,/ flame consumed the wicked.” (18).

The catalog of disobedience comes to its climax at the foot of Sinai: “They made a calf at Horeb/ and bowed to a molten image.” (19) In an arresting statement that compares idol worship to the fulfilling beauty of worshipping the living God, our poet beautifully summarizes the futility of worshipping a dead image: “And they exchanged their glory for the image of a grass-eating bull.” (20)

But perhaps the greatest sin of all is the same one Israel continued to commit through its history and is also our own central sin: Forgetting God and putting ourselves above him:
They forgot the God their rescuer,
  Who did great things in Egypt,
  wonders in the land of Ham,
  awesome deeds at the Sea of Reeds.” (21,22)

The poet reminds us that only one man stood between hapless Israel and its destruction: “And He would have wiped them out/ were it not for Moses His chosen one—he stood in the breach before Him/ to turn back His wrath from destruction.” (23) Of course for us, it is Jesus Christ who stands between God and us and who has saved us not only from God’s demand for justice, but from ourselves.

Ruth 2,3: The beautiful story of Ruth continues. Desperately poor, Ruth supports Naomi and herself by gleaning leftovers in the field after the men have come through with their scythes. Boaz notices her and tells his workers to leave behind more grain for Ruth to pick up. He then invites her to lunch and then instructs his workers to poll out barley stalks they have picked, toss them on the ground and allow Ruth to collect them.

Ruth comes home to her mother with plenty of barley and tells her about Boaz. Naomi tells Ruth that Boaz is a kinsman. His act of kindness seems to erase Naomi’s bitterness toward God as she exclaims, “Blessed be he by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” (2:20) Naomi instructs Ruth to remain close  to the women working Boaz’ fields, telling her, “It is better, my daughter, that you go out with his young women, otherwise you might be bothered in another field.” (2:22) Ruth obeys, and “stayed close to the young women of Boaz, gleaning until the end of the barley and wheat harvests.” (2:23)

Naomi obviously has plans for Ruth and tells her to go and lie down next to Boaz as he is relaxing after lunch. Then, in what I take to be a custom of the time (and which seems very forward even in our age of sexual freedom), Naomi tells Ruth, “When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” (3:4)

She complies, and in one of the simultaneously romantic and funny verses in the Bible, “At midnight the man was startled, and turned over, and there, lying at his feet, was a woman!” (3:8) Ruth introduces herself and Boaz commends her for her probity, “May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich.” (3:10)

Boaz invites her to remain until morning and offers to introduce her to a next-of-kin with the intent (I presume) of becoming her guardian, if not her husband. Boaz, who it appears is falling in love with Ruth, tells her, “If he is not willing to act as next-of-kin for you, then, as the Lord lives, I will act as next-of-kin for you.” (3:13)

Boaz sends Ruth back home with six measures of barley in her cloak. Naomi advises Ruth to not rush things with Boaz, but to “Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out, for the man will not rest, but will settle the matter today.” (3:18)

This serene story is a testament to the virtues of loyalty and patience. And once again, it is women who are the key players in this story. Leaving me to ponder again the attitude toward women in the evangelical world. Were it not for Ruth’s loyalty and willingness to serve, the history of Israel would have turned out quite differently.

The other underlying message here is that even those who feel they are inconsequential actually can have enormous impact on the community and even entire nations.

Luke 23:13–31: The Moravians do not linger over the cruelty of Jesus’ trial and his crucifixion as this passage moves rapidly from Pilate to Golgotha.

Pilate’s frustration at the Jews for bringing Jesus back to him is obvious and he again asserts Jesus’ innocence: “I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him.” (14) He observes that Herod did not bring an indictment as well, but as a sop to the crowd, he offers to “have him flogged and release him.” (15)

But the crowd will have none of it, and its hysteria grows as they shout, “Crucify, crucify him!” (21) Again, Pilate asserts Jesus’ innocence, but in one of the saddest verses in this gospel, “they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed.” (23) Their voices prevailed and the mob wins. Just as they have down through history and do even today in our so-called “social media.”

Pilate thus goes down in history as the weak leader who wanted to prevent a riot and gave into the mob. Luke’s treatment of the Jews is even harsher as he makes it clear that it was the mob that triggered the crucifixion. And alas, what evil has been committed against the Jews by Christians ever since in vengeance for this act.

On the Via Dolorosa, Luke’s Jesus pronounces his final prophecy about the imminent destruction of Jerusalem and its inhabitants: Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’” (28)

Writing from his knowledge of what happened in Jerusalem in 70 CE, Luke knows that all of Jesus’ words were fulfilled. The juxtaposition of this prophecy and the crucifixion seems to be the Luke’s way of implying that the destruction of Jerusalem was a direct consequence of the evil committed by the Jews in rejecting their Messiah.

Psalm 106:6–12; Ruth 1; Luke 23:1–12

Psalm 106:6–12: Following the invocation of the first five verses, there is confession of the sins of the poet’s generation: “We offended like our fathers, we wronged,/ we did evil.” (6) These three words, ‘we did evil’ are powerful for their brevity. We can dress up our sins in pretty language and complex rationalization, but in the end our sinful acts all have their roots in this simple three-word phrase.

Recalling “our fathers,” the poet takes us back to the Exodus and the sins of the Israelite fathers, particularly the events of chapters 14 and 15 of the eponymous book: “Our fathers in Egypt/ did not grasp Your wonders./ They did not call to mind Your many kindnesses/ and rebelled by the sea, at the Sea of Reeds.” (7) I’m sure the poet has the famous complaint of the Israelites in mind when they said, “Was it for lack of graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness?” (Ex. 14:11)

Despite their grumbling—and doubtless ours—God is merciful: “Yet He rescued them for His name’s sake,/ to make known His might.” (8) I really like the concept of God’s mercy being a direct demonstration of God’s might.

The poet’s description of the crossing of the sea evokes the power of God’s rescue: “He blasted the Sea of reeds, and dried it up,/ and He led them through the deep as through wilderness.” (9) The idea of the crossing of the sea being the first wilderness of many yet to come provides a fresh view of what that crossing must have felt like. A sea bottom is certainly a form of wilderness.

God is our rescuer: for the ancient Israelites, for the poet’s generation—and for us. There is no more dramatic and tangible description of God’s rescue than the Exodus story: “And He rescued them from the land of the hostile/ and redeemed them from the hand of the enemy.” (10). The Israelite foes were literally covered over, just as God covers our own sins, and as so many psalms plead, covers our enemies: “And the waters covered their foes,/ not one of them remained.” (11)

The response to rescue is worship: “And they trusted His words,/ they sang His praise.” This verse is certainly a reference to the “Song of the Sea” in Exodus 15.

Ruth 1: If the metaphor for Joshua and Judges is riding the swirling rapids of an angry river of grotesquery and evil, the book of Ruth is like arriving a placid pool of pellucid water. I think the editors of the Hebrew Bible placed Ruth here not only for historical chronology, but to provide us a break from the unrelenting drama and certainly the evil that is the conclusion of Judges.

The story is simple. Elimelech of Bethlehem, who is married to Naomi “went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons.” (1) His two sons marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. But Elimelech and his two sons die, leaving three widows: Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth.

Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem but tells her daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, …[and] grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” (9). Naomi realizes that if they return to Judah, there is no way that a Hebrew man would marry a Moabite woman.

Naomi realizes that by returning to Judah she will live the destitute life of a widow but wants something better for the two younger women, believing their only hope is to marry again to Moabite men: “Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband.” (12) Orpah takes Naomi’s advice and decides to return to Moab: “Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.” (14)

Ruth is resolute in remaining with Naomi and in one of the most beautiful songs in the Bible, sings,
Do not press me to leave you
    or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
    where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
    and your God my God.” (16)

Naomi and Ruth arrive in Bethlehem only to be met by its incredulous inhabitants: “the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?”” (19) Then Naomi sings, but her song is one of bitterness toward God:
  “I went away full,
    but the Lord has brought me back empty;
why call me Naomi
    when the Lord has dealt harshly with me,
    and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” (21)

There is such beauty intertwined with pathos in this chapter that so wonderfully describes the human condition: loss and return; bitter tears and sublime singing; and above all, the possibility of a new life.

Luke 23:1–12: Jesus is brought before Pilate and the Jews make the indictment as harsh as possible, accusing Jesus of treachery and sedition through exaggeration and lies: “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.” (2) Pilate asks Jesus if he is king of the Jews and Jesus replies with the same non-answer as he did in front of the temple officials: “You say so.” (3) Pilate promptly announces, “I find no basis for an accusation against this man.” (4). Desperate to get Jesus out of their hair once and for all, the leaders double down the indictment accusing Jesus of stirring up “the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place.” (5)

Pilate asks if Jesus is a Galilean, and uses this jurisdictional excuse to palm the Jesus problem off on Herod, who is in charge of Galileans. Herod’s quite excited to have Jesus come before him as “he had been wanting to see him for a long time, because he had heard about him and was hoping to see him perform some sign.” (8) Jesus stands mute before Herod while the scribes and priests “stood by, vehemently accusing him.” (10) Herod and his troops join in the mockery and clothe Jesus in “an elegant robe.” But having no basis of indictment because of Jesus’ refusal to answer, Herod sends Jesus back to Pilate.

At this juncture I have to believe that the scribes and priests were becoming desperate since they doubtless thought Pilate and Herod would cooperate readily in their plan. Luke also reveals his attitude toward the Jews, whom he describes in harsher terms as being vehement and mocking Jesus. Pilate, at this point anyway, is simply being an impartial actor. But the Jewish accusers are resolute and about to create a serious problem for Pilate.

As is frequently his wont, Luke inserts a little sidebar into the main events of the story: “That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies.” (12) Luke’s clear implication is that both Pilate and Herod bear responsibility for what is about to occur. But the irony that Jesus would be the catalyst of a friendship blossoming between the two men who were enablers of the most infamous event in history is not lost here.

Psalm 106:1–5; Judges 20:32–21:25; Luke 22:63–71

Psalm 106:1–5: The introduction—or invocation—to this lengthy historical psalm opens on a note of worship: “Acclaim the Lord, for He is good,/ for His kindness is forever.” (1) Even though we may concentrate our entire being on the act of worship, there is no way that we can fully express all that God is and does for us: “Who can utter the Lord’s mighty acts,/ can make heard all His praise.” (2) Unlike many worship songs we hear today, these verses are exclusively about God and his all-surpassing greatness; there are no phrases about how this makes us feel better—reminding us that worship is directed upward, not to ourselves.

Rather, the psalmist asserts that our happiness arises from our right actions in community: “Happy those who keep justice,/ who do righteousness at all times.” (3) Of course this is ultimately an impossible mission and it is only through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit dwelling within us that we find true joy.

Our psalmist hints that God’s people and he are in a dark situation, suggesting that this psalm was written while Israel was in exile: “Recall me, O Lord, when You favor Your people,/ mark me for Your rescue.” (4) It appears that unlike the previous psalm, this one deals with Israel’s manifold sins as he writes pleadingly that God will “see the good of Your chosen ones,” (5a) and that God will again reflect the joy of the people whom he has chosen: “to rejoice in the joy of Your nation,/ to revel with Your estate.” (5b) One senses that a confession is coming…

Judges 20:32–21:25: Having experienced two days of victory, on the third day the “Benjaminites thought, “They are being routed before us, as previously.” (20:32) Ten thousand armed Israelites approach Gibeah but in their pride, “the Benjaminites did not realize that disaster was close upon them.” (34) More skirmishes result in the attack on Gibeah itself and the Israelites “in ambush” set fire to the city. Realizing they have been defeated, the Benjamites flee toward the wilderness but are overtaken, resulting in the death of 18,000 Benjamite warriors, “all of them courageous fighters.” (44) Another 5,000 “were cut down on the main roads” (45) and then another 2,000 Benjamite warriors are slain. A mere 600 Benjamites escape and hide for months in the rock of Rimmon. But Gibeah and its inhabitants are destroyed.

Prior to commencing this civil war, “the Israelites had sworn at Mizpah, “No one of us shall give his daughter in marriage to Benjamin.” (21:1) But they come to regret this vow and after offering a sacrifice of well-being, “the Israelites had compassion for Benjamin their kin, and said, “One tribe is cut off from Israel this day.” (21:6) Because of this vow, they realize the tribe of Benjamin will die out and they decide, “There must be heirs for the survivors of Benjamin, in order that a tribe may not be blotted out from Israel.” (20:17) It’s late in the game, but at least they come to their senses.

In a bizarre turn, they realize that one portion of a tribe, Jabesh-gilead, did not come to fight the Benjamites. Another vow had been taken earlier that any tribe that did not show up for the war against Benjamin would be put to the sword with the exception of its virgin women. So, a portion of the israeli army then puts Jabesh-gilead to the sword, killing everyone, and brings 400 virgins back to camp. They attempt to hand over the virgins to the 600 remaining Benjamite warriors, whoin their wounded pride refuse the offer.

So, Israel comes up with an alternative plan that certainly seems egregious. They instruct the 600mBenjaminites to lie in wait outside a festival in Shiloh and to kidnap the dancing girls, which they proceed to do. A lame excuse has concocted by Israel: “Then if their fathers or their brothers come to complain to us, we will say to them, ‘Be generous and allow us to have them; because we did not capture in battle a wife for each man. But neither did you incur guilt by giving your daughters to them.’” (22)

The story ends here as everyone returns home. Why is this story here and told in such detail? I think it’s to remind Israel of its past sins and the consequences of ignoring God or worse, using God as an excuse for evil actions. The last verse in the reading says it all, IMO: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” (21:25)

Doing what is right in our own eyes—just as society does today—leads to dire consequences as evil stacks up upon evil. Yes, what happened to the Levite in Gibeah was evil, but Israel’s response to commit genocide before realizing its implications is also evil. And the “solution” of kidnapping virgins from Shiloh to ensure the tribe of Benjamin doesn’t die out is certainly is not what would have happened had all the tribes, including Benjamin, been following God rather than the evil of their own hearts. There’s a serious lesson for us here.

Luke 22:63–71: Now in captivity, Jesus is subjected to humiliation for the remainder of the night as “the men who were holding Jesus began to mock him and beat him; they also blindfolded him and kept asking him, “Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?”” (63, 64)

Early Friday morning, Jesus is brought before the temple authorities who demand, “If you are the Messiah, tell us.” (67) Jesus replies that if he told them they wouldn’t believe him anyway, but then goes on to assert, “from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” (69) The authorities ask, “Are you, then, the Son of God?” (69). Jesus turns their words back on them in his famous reply, “You say that I am.” (70) Thus, he has sealed his fate, as his interrogators exclaim,“What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips!” (71).

Of course, as Luke makes clear, Jesus didn’t actually say “I am the Son of Man” at all. He simply made the theological point that the Son of Man would sit on the throne next to God, which is exactly what the Hebrew scriptures taught. Luke makes it crystal clear that Jesus’ interrogators had already concluded he was claiming to be the Son of Man by the mere action of bringing him up on the charge of blasphemy. In short, this was no interrogation to find the actual truth; it was the preordained conclusion of a kangaroo court.

Even today we see preordained conclusions all around us about what Jesus says or means—from Christians as much as those who are not. We’d much rather make our own judgmental conclusions about Jesus rather than actually listening to him.