Archives for January 2018

Psalm 16:7–11; Genesis 25; Matthew 9:14–26

Originally posted 1/23/2016—revised and updated 1/23/2018

Psalm 16:7–11: The psalmist’s joy at his relationship with God permeates the second half of this psalm. He rejoices not just because God is inherently good, but that he can rely on God for direction, especially in times of distress:
I shall bless the Lord Who gave me counsel
through the nights that my conscience would lash me.” (7)

This counsel can happen because God is the psalmist’s first priority:
I set the Lord always before me,
on my right hand, that  I not stumble.” (8)

The effect of this close relationship is not only emotionally positive but its benefits even course through him physically:
So my heart rejoices and my pulse beats with joy,
my whole body abides secure.” (9)

Our psalmist states a truth that was not proven until recently:  Joy creates physical benefits when serotonin is released in the brain. In addition to joy, there is the assurance that God preserves him and will never abandon him:
For you will not forsake my life to Sheol,
You won’t let Your faithful one see the Pit.” (10)

Of course we will shortly encounter other psalms where the poet cries out in despair because God has apparently abandoned him. Nevertheless, our psalmist here speaks a theological truth. God is our faithful guide through our entire life—all we need to do is be faithful in turn and trust him (which of course as we all know is not always so easy): “Make me know the path of life” (11a)

And the consequence is joy no matter what happens:
Joys overflow in Your presence
delights in Your right hand forever.” (11b)

Even though its theme of God’s protection and guidance is similar, in some ways I find this psalm even more encouraging than Psalm 23 because it radiates such untrammeled joy.

Genesis 25: Well, they never taught this to us in Sunday School. The ever-virile Abraham marries another wife in addition to Sarah—a certain Keturah. He promptly sires six children, which become ancestors of various tribes known to the authors. But Isaac remains his favorite and “Abraham gave all he had to Isaac.” (5) Even though he is generous to the sons of his concubines, the patriarch “sent them away from his son Isaac, eastward to the east country.” (6)

With amusing understatement, the authors note that the 175-year old Abraham “breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people.” (8) Ishmael returns from wherever he was and together with Isaac, they buried their father in the now-famous cave of Machpelah. In case we  might have forgotten, the editors remind us: “in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, east of Mamre, the field that Abraham purchased from the Hittites.” (10) which of course is Canaan and one more evidence of ISrael’s claim on the land. As for Isaac: “after the death of Abraham God blessed his son Isaac.” (11)

Ishmael makes his final appearance, dying at age 137, and I suspect because Abraham is his father, his progeny is duly listed. What I had not realized is that Ishmael became the father of “twelve princes according to their tribes,” which settle “in the direction of Assyria.” (18)—a nice piece of symmetry in that both Abraham’s two sons each become patriarchs of twelve tribes. Ishmael’s descendants now fade from history as our authors turn to the descendants of Isaac.

We see a replay of the difficulties that Abraham and Sarah encountered in bearing children as we learn that Isaac was 40 when he married, but Rebekah remained barren. But Isaac turns to God and the problem is solved: “Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived”  (21) when Isaac was 60. We see hints of sibling conflict even while her sons are in the womb. Greatly distressed at this very difficult pregnancy, she prays and God informs her:

Two nations are in your womb,
    and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
    the elder shall serve the younger.” (23)

Hairy Esau emerges from Rebekah’s womb first giving him the right of primogeniture; Jacob follows a minute later, clutching Esau’s heel. Each twin becomes the favorite of a parent. Esau is Isaac’s favorite; Jacob is Rebekah’s. We see hints right there of a dysfunctional relationship not just between the brothers, but also between husband and wife. Isaac loves Esau “because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.” (28)

But perhaps the strangest part of this story is that Esau saw no value in his birthright and sells to to Jacob in exchange for a bowl of “red stuff” (30) Jacob forces Esau to swear to sell his birthright and “gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way.” (34) It’s clear in this exchange the brothers have no particular regard for each other. But as we will see, Jacob is the more cunning.

Was Esau merely stupid? Or is there something deeper at work here? For the Jews in Babylonian captivity reading this story it was surely a stark reminder that their heritage was crucially important and they would be wise to retain their racial identity and not to “sell their birthright” as God’s chosen people. Intermarriage and assimilation into the local culture would indeed be selling their collective birthright. Of course, as we know too well, the people of Israel had been selling its birthright to non-Jewish people and abandoning the Jewish God for centuries—which was the proximate cause of them ending up n Babylon in the first place.

Matthew 9:14–26: John the Baptist’s disciples come to Jesus and pose the question,“Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” (14) Clearly, there is judgement behind the question, but Jesus observes that fasting will come after the bridegroom (him) leaves the party.

Jesus then gives his soliloquy about patching old clothing and putting new wine in old skins–and the problems arising therefrom. Once again, Matthew is telling us that Jesus is somebody completely unexpected and unprecedented. The old rules do not apply where Jesus is concerned. Paul certainly employs Jesus’ admonitions here as justification for his argument that Gentiles may be in the church without them having to resort to the “old rule” of circumcision.

We have the “colliding healings” as Jesus heads to the synagogue leader’s house to heal his daughter and the hemorrhaging woman sneaks up behind him and touches his coat. The woman is healed because she had faith she would be healed. I think Matthew’s point here is that miracles can occur when we are motivated enough to believe in them. However, as we know, there are plenty of times when even those of great faith are not healed.

Jesus arrives at the synagogue leader’s house to find the mourners already mourning. He sends them away although they doubt him and laugh derisively. Jesus promptly heals the girl.

For me,the lesson here is Matthew’s juxtaposition of the woman of great faith, who is healed, against the doubting mourners that demonstrates the issue of faith versus doubt. The mourners were sure of the evidence that the girl was dead. They represent the opposite of faith: skeptics for whom no miracle will ever occur. Alas, the world today is awash in skeptics—and they miss the miracles even when they occur.

 

Psalm 16:1–6; Genesis 24:26–66; Matthew 9:1–13

Originally posted 1/22/2016—revised and updated 1/22/2018

Psalm 16:1–6: This “David psalm” appears to be a confession of faith by a person newly converted from a pagan religion—or perhaps from no religion at all. He opens with an appeal for the safety only God can provide, followed immediately by a bold statement about his relationship with God:
“Giard me, O God,
for I shelter in You.
“I said to the Lord,
‘My master You are.
My good is only through You.” (2)

The key point here is that true righteousness comes only through a relationship with God; it is not self-generated. I must respectfully disagree with those who say if we look deep enough within ourselves we will find righteousness.

Although idolatry was once the poet’s practice, this small-g gods (here called “the holy ones”) must find others who will worship them:
“As to the holy ones in the land
and the mighty who were all my desire,
let their sorrows abound–
another did they betroth.” (3,4)

It’s amusing to think about a wooden or carved stone idol having feelings and that their ostensible sorrows would “abound.”  But such is the depth of belief by people in their idols of choice. As for the idol he has rejected, he asserts it must find someone else to cling to (which is how I read “betroth.”)

ONce again, the poet restates his trust in God:
“The Lord is my portion and lot,
it is You who sustain my fate.” (5).

We get a glimpse of a father-son relationship between God and psalmist when he tells us,
“An inheritance fell to me with delight,
my estate, too, is lovely to me.” (6)

This verse is a signal to each of us to reflect on our own life estate–our life situation–as well.  It’s crucial to our faith and our well-being that we pause and thank God for all he has done and continues to do for us—or in the words of the first verse: to guard us.

Genesis 24:26–66: Rebekah’s big brother, Laban, sees Rebekah decked out in the nose ring and jewelry that Abraham’s still unnamed servant has given her and invites the servant to dinner. Dinner is placed before the servant, but “he said, “I will not eat until I have told my errand.” (33). laban invites him to speak and the servant tells the story that Abraham insists that his son Issac’s wife must come from the father’s native land—hence his errand. He recounts how Rebekah’s appearance exactly followed the script that the angel had given–down to Rebekah’s reply, “‘Drink, and I will also water your camels.’” (46)

Laban and Rebekah’s father, Bethuel, agree to the deal because they, too, know God: The thing comes from the Lord; we cannot speak to you anything bad or good. Look, Rebekah is before you, take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has spoken.” (50, 51)

Needless to say, Abraham’s servant is overjoyed and deposits the dowry with Laban and Bethuel. But then there’s a hiccup: Laban and Rebekah’s mother ask to “Let the girl remain with us a while, at least ten days; after that she may go.” (55) The servant demurs, saying, “Do not delay me, since the Lord has made my journey successful.” (56) This is certainly an astute reply lest anyone change his or her mind. They call in Rebekah to ask her opinion and she replies with three words that I take to be our author’s message: “I will go.” (58) It also shows us that Rebekah, despite having no say in whom she is to marry, is going without coercion. Willingness to go—to follow God’s call— is a theme we see throughout the Bible from Abraham himself to Moses to Jesus, who went willingly to the cross.

Rebekah returns to Canaan with her maids. Seeing Isaac coming toward her in the distance, she quickly dismounts her camel and asks, “Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?” (65a). The servant replies, “It is my master.” Rebekah, “took her veil and covered herself.” (66).  The major key violin music swells and the scene fades to black.

Without doubt, this is one of the most detailed and romantic stories in the OT. It’s also one of the few where we hear the woman speak so much.

Rebekah of course becomes the mother of Jacob and Esau, and later plays a major role in indeceiving old Isaac in bestowing his blessing on Jacob rather than the elder brother. I think it’s important for us to know that Rebekah truly loved Isaac and came to love Jacob. Inasmuch as Rebekah plays a major role in israel’s national story, I’m sure that this romantic interlude amidst all the sturm und drang made the story all the more appealing in the telling. And every Jewish woman could look to Rebekah as the romantic bride that they would be pleased to emulate. We certainly see that same “willingness to go” in Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Matthew 9:1–13: Jesus returns to Capernaum where Jesus pronounces that the paralytic’s sins are forgiven and heals him. This of course reflects the Jewish view that illness was the result of sin—either the individual’s own sin or those of his family. Matthew is informing his mostly Jewish audience that Jesus’ primary role is to forgive sins, with physical healing as a happy side effect.

That this is Matthew’s intent is underscored when he reports that scribes observing this think–but do not say aloud: “This man is blaspheming.” (3). Being the Messiah, Jesus of course perceives their thoughts and says, Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’?” (5) And for the first time we hear Jesus identify himself as the “Son of Man,” which the Pharisees knew as one of the titles used in Hebrew Scriptures for the promised Messiah.

Matthew notes that the crowds “were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.” (8) In other words, Jesus was 100% human, which of course is what we believe, too.

It’s at this point that Matthew, the tax collecting author of this eponymous gospel appears on the scene. Jesus simply says, Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.”  (9) We then see another unexpected side of Jesus: party animal. He joins the festivities and eats in celebration, apparently at Matthew’s house with his new disciple’s friends. The hyper-religious Pharisees disapprove and Matthew sets out one of his major themes in Jesus’ reply: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” (12) His point to The Pharisees: You guys are fine, but there are many others who need caring for.

This being the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is constantly referring to the Scriptures, quotes Hosea 6:6: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”—a passage surely known by the Pharisees, but I’m sure they never heard it in this context before. Once again, we have Jesus shining a completely new light on Scripture. Matthew doesn’t tell us, but I’m sure the Pharisees were left speechless for there is simply no rebuttal to Jesus’ statement. Jesus made it clear that by supping with “sinners” he was acting out exactly what Hosea meant when he uttered that famous line. 

 

Psalm 15; Genesis 23:1–24:25; Matthew 8:23–34

Originally posted 1/21/2016—revised and updated 1/20/2018

Psalm 15: This short psalm is something of a relief from the reflections on wickedness of its several predecessors. Rather, it limns the qualities of the righteous in the answer to the rhetorical question, “Lord, who will sojourn in Your tent,
who will dwell on Your holy mountain?” (1).

Which is something of a rhetorical question since it clearly refers to the temple atop Mt. Zion in Jerusalem.

This psalm is metaphor-free.  It gives us the all-important yet simple list of the moral attributes of the righteous person, that is:
He who walks blameless
and does justice
and speaks truth in his heart.” (2)

The phrase, “speaks truth in his heart,” informs us that the first requirement is that we are honest with ourselves neither deluding ourselves nor being in denial. (And we know how challenging that can be!) Unfortunately, the culture seems more awash than ever with self-delusion. An article in the Wall Street Journal (Jan 19, 2018) notes that 80% of college students  and recent graduates aspire to be rich and 50% want to be famous.

As always, what we say and do to others is the crucial expression of the honesty already residing in our heart. However, here they are stated as negatives:
“Who slanders not with his tongue
nor does evil to his fellow man
nor  bears reproach for his kin.” (3)

The righteous man is capable of clear judgement and sees wrongdoing for what it is:
“The debased in his eyes is repugnant
but to Lord-fearers he accords honor. (4a)

The righteous man also keeps his promises:
“When he vows to his fellow man,
he does not revoke it.” (4b).

Finally, and perhaps most difficult for many, “His money he does not give at interest.” (5a) This seems to be a clear injunction against usury, but we cannot avoid what seems to me a clear implication that money we lend to our relatives and friends is interest-free. Also, “no bribe for the innocent he takes,” (5b) i.e., he is not bribed to testify in court against a person he knows to be innocent.

The simple conclusion to this list:
He who does these
will never stumble.” (5b)

Of course, for all of us performing well and consistently is far  easier said than done. But it is our focus on God in our heart that forms our character out of which our actions come. The question to ask is, “Am I being of good character?”

Genesis 23:1–24:25: Sarah, aged 127 years, dies before her husband, and “Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.” (23:2). The patriarch has been living among the Hittites as a resident alien, but now it is necessary to bury Sarah there and he does not own any land on which to provide this honor. The Hittites deeply respect Abraham and tell him to “Bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places; none of us will withhold from you any burial ground for burying your dead.” (23:6). But Abraham politely declines because has his mind set on the cave of Machpelah, which is owned by a certain Ephron. Abraham is willing to pay full price, but Ephron offers it to him free.  Nevertheless, following the precepts of his heart that our psalmist above has enumerated, Abraham insists on paying the 400 shekels even though it’s a mere pittance to Ephron. And he does so publicly “in the hearing of the Hittites” (16) as his witnesses. This was no secret transaction. “Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah facing Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. The field and the cave that is in it passed from the Hittites into Abraham’s possession as a burying place.” (23:19, 20)

So why is it so important to Abraham to buy this land and so important to the editors to consume an entire chapter telling this story? I think it is because it justifies Israel’s claim on the land of Canaan as their own. After all, Abraham had bought and paid for it. In other words, then the Israelites eventually return to Canaan they are morally and legally justified in seizing it from its inhabitants, who are in effect dwelling illegally on property bought and paid for by Israel’s patriarch.

It becomes increasingly evident that Abraham is something of a control freak. It’s time for Isaac to marry and Abraham is determined to make sure his son does not marry a Canaanite. He calls his servant to return to bring back a wife for Isaac from his native land. The servant notes this will be difficult and it might be preferable “to take your son back to the land from which you came.” (24:5) Abraham rejects the suggestion because “the Lord, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth, and who spoke to me and swore to me, ‘To your offspring I will give this land,’” (7) Once again, the editors are making it clear to all that Canaan is to be the new land of the Patriarch’s offspring.

After sealing the vow with the odd and rather repulsive (to me, anyway) gesture of the servant putting his hand under Abraham’s thigh, the servant departs. He arrives in Nahor, understandably puzzled about how he is going to find a wife for Isaac, and prays, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham.” (14:12) and creates a scenario of asking for a drink of water and the girl who replies, “‘Drink, and I will water your camels’—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac.” (24:14)

Lo, and behold, Rebekah—whose name was listed in Abraham’s brother’s — does exactly that. Even better, the “girl was very fair to look upon, a virgin, whom no man had known.” (16) The servant (who really deserves to have been named because of all the great work he’s done here) is convinced that Rebekah is the woman for Isaac. He pulls out a gold nose ring and two large gold bracelets and asks to see her father. Rebekah kindly offers him a place for the night.

So, why all this detail about finding Isaac’s wife? Because as we will see, she will become the mother of the Israelites. This is an extremely important detail in their national story and as we shall see in another virgin from Nazareth, who comes many centuries later, the purity and virtue of motherhood is exceedingly important.

Matthew 8:23–34: Jesus is catching some shut-eye on Peter’s boat when the famous storm comes up. The others are terrified and cry for help: “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” Jesus, after telling them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” (26) promptly quells the storm to the amazement of his disciples. We assume this is the same storm that appears in Luke but here in Matthew there is no walking on water.

Next, Jesus heals the two demoniacs and sends the demons into the pigs, which famously jump off the cliff. The swineherders are none too pleased and run back and tell the townspeople about what happened. The townspeople “begged him to leave their neighborhood.” (34) Or put another way, no good deed goes unpunished…

By juxtaposing these two events, Matthew is demonstrating that this Jesus fellow was much more than a miracle-healing itinerant rabbi. He has power over the earth (the storm) and power over the principalities and power under the earth (the demons). It important that this evidence comes early in the story to underscore Mathew’s assertion that Jesus is the true Messiah. This juxtaposition also provides the meta-framework for events yet to come in this gospel.

Psalm 14; Genesis 22; Matthew 8:5–22

Originally posted 1/19/2016—revised and updated 1/19/2018

Psalm 14: This is a psalm of philosophical soliloquy on the moral depravity of the society in which the psalmist finds himself. Once again, we have a prophetic (as in “forthtelling”) psalm that could have been written by Jeremiah or Ezekiel, who reflected on the same issues.

Our psalmist opens with a dark observation about the people around him:
The scoundrel has said in his heart,
‘There is not God.’
They corrupt, they make loathsome their acts.” (1a)

Not only have they rejected God, but this rejection has led inevitably to moral depravity.  In fact, and even worse than in Noah’s time where God at least found one good man, here the psalmist finds no one morally worthy: “There is none who does good.” (1c)

These corrupt people may think there is no God, but as in Noah’s time, God is in heaven observing human affairs, looking for that one good man:
The Lord from the heavens looked down
on the sons of humankind/ to see, is there someone discerning,
someone seeking out God.” (2)

But unlike God’s search centuries earlier where he at least found Noah, here the  search is fruitless:
All turn astray,
altogether befouled.
There is none who does good.
There is not even one.” (3)

One senses a certain judgement on the psalmist’s part as he again asks the question more incredulously, how these people can miss God’s presence?
“Do they not know,
all wrongdoers?
Devourers of my people devoured them like bread.
They did not call the Lord.” (4)

As far as the psalmist is concerned, these evildoers are like locusts—consuming the good and leaving only desolation in their wake. And they have forgotten (or ignore) the fact that “God is with the righteous band.” (5a)—a hint that at least a remnant of God followers still exist.

Once again, we encounter the theme of how the powerful exploit the poor, but they forgot that God is watching:
In your plot against the poor you are shamed,
for the Lord is in his shelter.” (6)

Armed with the knowledge that God is watching all this evil, the psalmist prays for God’s intervention:
Oh, may from Zion come Israel’s rescue
when the Lord restores His people’s condition.
May Jacob exult
May Israel rejoice.” (7)

This psalm is proof that we can cry out in despair created by the reality that we are surrounded by God-rejecting evil. But as we cry, we also know in our hearts that God is indeed still here and that he’s well aware of what’s going on. Although the present may look dark and hopeless, there is a future where God will finally bring justice. As America evolves to an increasingly post-Christian culture this psalm will stand out with grim relevance.

Genesis 22: The authors of the famous story of Abraham’s almost sacrifice of Isaac begin by telling us God’s motivation for this story that seems so bizarre on its surface but reveals an all-important truth: “God tested Abraham.” (1) Alas, as with so many stories in the Bible we only hear one side of the conversation. Would that we could have heard what Abraham said in reply to God’s command. Would it have been something like, “You’ve got to be kidding, God. After all the trouble it took to bring Isaac into the world the first place?” Or, perhaps, “Isaac was a gift from you and now you’re asking me to give that gift back to you in the most cruel way possible.” We know that child sacrifice was common in other cultures of Abraham’s time, so it may have come across to Abraham as a cruel but all-too-familiar request. He may have concluded with some justification that this God was not the generous protector he thought he was, but was just like the other capricious and cruel small-g gods that inhabited the countryside.

Or did Abraham intuit from the first that God would not force him to actually carry through on this cruel plan and provide some means of escape? That’s my preferred scenario: that Abraham ascended the mountain in the assurance that God would provide a means of avoiding the necessity to carry out this act.

Things go pretty far as Abraham builds an altar and somehow overcomes his son, (who, we need to remember, is about 100 years younger than he), in order to tie him down. We have to imagine that Isaac was either drugged into unconsciousness, or simply played along to amuse his obviously insane father. Abraham draws the knife and the angel intervenes at the last moment: “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” (12) The ram stuck in the thicket magically appears and Isaac is spared.

The angel tells Abraham (and I presume, Isaac as well) that he has passed the test and that God says, “ I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.” (17)

Why this story? Whether it’s historical fact or not really doesn’t matter. I think the authors put it there to remind the Jews in captivity that while they are undergoing a severe test of their faith in Babylon, they must remember that God is indeed faithful and will save them at the last moment just as he saved Isaac. When things seem darkest and most hopeless a sacrificial ram will appear in the bushes.

For us Christians, of course, this story is a metaphor for God sending his son, Jesus, to us. But unlike Abraham and Isaac, who escaped the dreadful act of a sacrificial death, Jesus did indeed become the final sacrifice on our behalf.

The chapter concludes with, yes, another genealogy—perhaps to provide narrative relief after the high drama that precedes it. This time of Abraham’s brother, Nahor. Among all his progeny, the delightfully-named Uz and Buz. As far as I can tell, these men play no recorded role in Israel’s history. There is one exception and that’s “Bethuel [who] became the father of Rebekah.” (22) Again we are reminded that women play as important a role in Israel’s story as the men.

Matthew 8:5–22: Although Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience, he clearly wants to make it abundantly clear that Jesus came for everyone, both Jew and Gentile. He makes his point with the healing of the centurion’s servant, who “is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.” (6) Jesus offers to go to the centurion’s house: “I will come and cure him.” But the centurion demurs and says, “only speak the word, and my servant will be healed.” (8). We then hear a wonderful speech about delegation, which means trusting the job will get done without having to be physically present: “I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” (9)

Jesus is impressed: “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith“(10) and he heals the servant from a distance. But the most important thing Jesus says is that Gentiles will be included in the kingdom heaven along with the faithful Jews: “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” (11)

Further, in what I think is a clear prophecy that Jesus will ultimately be rejected by the Jews, Matthew’s Jesus says, “while the heirs of the kingdom [the Jews] will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (12) I suspect that the community to whom Matthew was writing was eager to reject Gentile followers of Jesus and this is why the healing of the centurion’s servant is recorded as Jesus’ second miracle.

If the healing of the leper was the symbol of Jesus including the unclean, this incident makes it clear that Gentiles are included in the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, allowing us to know that Peter was married. One wonders if his wife accompanied her disciple husband on the three years of peregrination to come. Matthew has gone quite while without citing the Hebrew Scriptures, but at last he informs us, “This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.” (17) Although it is John who speaks of Jesus being the Word, there is little question that Matthew’s Jesus is the “Fulfiller of God’s Word.”

Matthew displays Jesus’ harsher, more demanding side with two would-be disciples. The scribe stands for those who are enthusiastic about becoming Jesus followers, but are not really ready to drop everything else, and above all, abandoning their present lifestyle. Jesus makes it clear that anyone who follows him will be leading neither a comfortable lifestyle nor staying in hotels: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (20) Moreover, Jesus is demanding the absolute first priority. Even burying dead fathers is unimportant compared to the Kingdom work that is afoot.

Of course, in reading this passage, I realize I am both the scribe who doesn’t want to camp by the side of the road and also the man with higher priorities than following Jesus.

 

Psalm 13; Genesis 21; Matthew 7:24–8:4

Originally posted 1/18/2016—revised and updated 1/18/2018

Psalm 13: This classic psalm of supplication opens with the desperate plea to God,
How long, O Lord, will You forget me always?
How long hide Your face from me?” (2)

The psalmist’s emotional state is so tormented that it seems as if God has abandoned him forever. Even worse than abandonment, God may have forgotten him. In the culture being forgotten was even worse than death because to be forgotten was as if one had never existed at all.

The impact of God’s seeming abandonment means our poet has nowhere to turn for succor: “How long shall I cast about for counsel,
sorrow in my heart all day?” (3a)

In the midst of feeling abandoned by God, he is surrounded by people out to get him: “How long will my enemy loom over me?” (3b)

At the end of his rope, he utters one last desperate plea for God to respond before he closes his eyes in death:
Regard, answer me, Lord, my God,
Light up my eyes, lest I sleep death.” (4)

And if that happens, his enemies’ triumph will be complete:
Lest my enemy say, ‘I’ve prevailed over him,’
lest my foes exult when I stumble.’” (5)

Implicit in this verse is the fact that if the poet dies without God’s response, God himself will have failed in his duty to save the righteous.

Just when things seem darkest and there is nothing more to say, the door of the poet’s heart cracks open, and he remembers that God is indeed faithful and will return:
But I in Your kindness do trust
my heart exults in Your rescue.” (6a)

And with that rescue worship follows: “Let me sing to the Lord,/ for He requited me.” (6b)

This deep dive into despair and abandonment followed by the heart’s ascent to realizing that even when surrounded by opponents God remains faithful beautifully expresses the same emotional roller coaster that any person of serious faith will experience. I suggest that we do not understand what real faith entails if we do not at some point (or points) experience this emotional descent into feeling abandoned followed by coming to realize that God has been there all the time.  It seems to me that real faith cannot exist without it being severely tested along the way. The question is, will I stop only halfway through this psalm or will I continue to its worshipful conclusion?

Genesis 21: At last, in Abraham’s and Sarah’s old age Isaac is born and quickly circumcised. The author reminds us of Sarah’s original laugh when she was told that she would have a son. Once again, Sarah laughs, but rather than a snort of derisiveness, this is deep and affecting laughter that only true joy can bring: “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” (6). And she is rightly astounded at what God has wrought: “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” (7)

But Isaac’s birth is not all sweetness and laughter. After Isaac is weaned, Sarah sees Hagar’s son, Ishmael, playing with him. Sarah demands that Abraham send Hagar and her son out of the household, which “was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son [Ishmael].” (11) Once again, God intervenes and soothes Abraham’s feelings, telling him that Ishmael will become the leader of “a great nation.” Mollified, Abraham equips Hagar with some food and water and sends her away.

The scene shifts to a desperately thirsty Hagar, who has placed Ishmael under some bushes as she cries, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” (16). Hagar is in the same distraught state that today’s psalm describes. And as the psalmist observes, God answers, telling Hagar to “lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” (18). She wakes up and spies a well, obtains water and “gave the boy a drink.” (19) Inasmuch as Ishmael is Abraham’s son, the authors do not want to cast a dark light on him and tell us that “God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow.” (28) Hagar obtains a wife for Ishmael from Egypt and the the three of them disappear from the pages of Genesis.

But what do we make of laughing Sarah? She is the instrument of Hagar’s and Ishmael’s departure? Frankly, she doesn’t come off as sympathetically as Abraham. She may have laughter, but for me she has a cruel streak of jealousy as well.

Abimelech reappears and asks Abraham to “swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my offspring or with my posterity, but as I have dealt loyally with you, you will deal with me and with the land where you have resided as an alien.” (23) Which Abraham agrees to do.

Sometime later, Abraham complains that Abimelech’s servants had seized his well, and Abimelech makes good on his oath, returning it to Abraham. Abraham returns the favor by giving the king sheep and oxen.  The king returns to Philistia. Abraham plants a tamarisk tree and names the place Beer-sheba. Once again we see the crucial role that water plays in the history of Israel.

What are we to make of this covenant between Abimelech and Abraham? What will become between Israel and what is already Philistia (a far older culture than Israel), which becomes Israel’s sworn enemy? Yet, the authors also tell is that “Abraham resided as an alien many days in the land of the Philistines.” (34) Perhaps even more important is the point that the authors make about Abraham residing “as an alien.” If we assume this chapter was written while Israel was in Babylonian exile, this is a reassuring encouragement. As Abraham dwelt as an alien, so too can Israel. A great nation arose from Abraham. So, too, the implication that great things are yet to come for shattered Israel. As Christians we know what great thing will come from Israel: Jesus Christ.

Matthew 7:24–8:4: Jesus concludes his sermon with the famous illustration of houses built on rock and sand in his call to action: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.” (7:24) The point of the metaphor is clear: it’s not just hearing God’s word that matters, it’s about acting on them. Likewise, “everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.” (7:26)

This is a real challenge for me since I’m pretty good at reflection; less good at action. But Jesus leaves no room for navel contemplation or waffling about the importance of action. Acting out our faith is as very foundation on the rock of our lives. I think there’s a subtext here, as well. One suspects that Matthew’s Jewish audience was more inclined to theological disputation than to action, and our gospel writer is reminding them that they are required to act on what they’ve heard. As are we.

Action also sets the tone for the remainder of Matthew’s gospel where we see Jesus act again and again. The first miracle in Matthew is the healing of a leper, which to that culture was about as dramatic a miracle you can get. The leper kneels and states, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” (8:2) Jesus replies, “I do choose. Be made clean.” (8:3) The leper is healed. We can imagine the dramatic impact on the crowd as Jesus even touched the leper in the first place. One simply did not touch lepers. There are two miracles here: Jesus touching the leper followed by the actual healing.

For me, this passage has a deep undertone of the choice that each of us makes. We can choose to be healed by Jesus–or choose not to. But it is Jesus, who always without fail says, I do choose!” He comes to us, touches us, and makes us clean through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Psalm 12; Genesis 19:30–20:18; Matthew 7:13–23

Originally posted 1/17/2016—revised and updated 1/17/2018

Psalm 12: The David psalm begins with a note of supplication but for the entire culture,  not just an individual:
Rescue, O Lord! For the faithful is gone,
or vanished is trust from the sons of man” (1)

[“Sons of man” in the Psalms usually refers to the entire human race.] Now, there’s a verse that seems especially apropos in increasingly post-Christian America.

The next lines takes on a prophetic cast as it castigates the culture at large:
“Falsehood every man speaks to his fellow,
smooth talk, with two hearts they speak.” (3)

[Although at the moment, I wouldn’t mind some ‘smooth talk’ coming out of the White House…]  As we have observed many times, speech is the crucial medium of communication in this mainly pre-literate age. One’s spoken words were the fundamental instrument of trust—or of destruction. Here, it appears that the culture is awash in con men, ach attempting to dupe each other with “smooth talk.”

But our prophet/psalmist makes it clear that these lying smooth talkers will come to a bad end in a fairly dramatic fashion:
The Lord will cut off all smooth-talking lips,
the tongue that speaks of big things,
those who said, ‘Let us make our tongue great,
our own lips are with us–who is master to us?‘” (4, 5)

As usual, it is arrogant pride that leads to self-delusion that one controls one’s destiny. How many people today assert “who is master to us?” Facebook and Twitter certainly represent a manifestation of these prideful “great tongues.”

Speech occupies the central theme of this psalm and now it is God’s turn to speak. His answer comes quickly via the unexpected image of God arising out of the poor and those who have been duped and oppressed in order to wreak his vengeance on the high and mighty:
“‘From the plunder of the poor, from the wretched men’s groans,
now I will rise,’ says the Lord.” (6)

But God’s word is far different than that of the despicable speech of lying men,
The Lord’s sayings–pure sayings,
[are] silver tried in a kiln…refined sevenfold.” (7)

As usual, the supplication concludes on a note of assurance that appears to refer back to David: “You, Lord, will guard him,
will keep him from this age for all time.” (8).

Alter observes that the last line of this psalm—”All around go the wicked,  they have dug deep pits for the sons of men“—seems misplaced, as if it should go earlier in the psalm, satafter verse 3. Who am I to disagree?

Genesis 19:30–20:18: The editors writing Genesis wanted to make sure to include the reason for the seemingly never-ending enmity between Israel and its neighbors, Moab and Ammon. Not surprisingly it the issue of bloodline plays the central role. Lot’s two daughters make their father drink, have sex with him, and become pregnant. The result is “the firstborn [daughter] bore a son, and named him Moab; he is the ancestor of the Moabites to this day. The younger [daughter] also bore a son and named him Ben-ammi; he is the ancestor of the Ammonites to this day.” (19: 37, 38) Israel’s undying hatred of these tribes is seemingly justified by the sin of incest. 

The story turns to yet another sojourn by Abraham and Sarah, who now residing in Gehar. Even at 100 years of age, Sarah is apparently quite a sexually desirable woman and Abraham once again employs the ruse, “she is my sister,” to protect himself from being killed by King Abimelech of Gerar. But the ruse has no effect as the king “took Sarah.” God shows up once again in dream, this time to the king, and says, “You are about to die because of the woman whom you have taken; for she is a married woman.” (20:3). But the king protests that he did not to have sex with her: “Abimelech had not approached her; so he said, “Lord, will you destroy an innocent people?” (4)

Abimelech asserts his innocence and points out that Sarah confirmed Abraham’s lie: “she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’” Abimelech goes on to tell God that his motive was honorable: “I did this in the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands.” (5) God returns in a subsequent dream and takes all credit for Abimelech’s restraint, saying, “Yes, I know that you did this in the integrity of your heart; furthermore it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her.” (6) He also tells the king to give Sarah back to Abraham, r there will indeed be severe consequences.

Nevertheless, Abimelech is understandably upset at the ruse, telling Abraham, ““What have you done to us? How have I sinned against you, that you have brought such great guilt on me and my kingdom?” and tells Abraham off: “You have done things to me that ought not to be done.” (9). Understandably he asks Abraham, “What were you thinking of, that you did this thing?” (10) Abraham replies that “I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.” (11). Which seems to me to be an understandable explanation.

But then Abraham drops the bombshell–not just on Abimelech, but on all of us. Sarah is his step-sister: “Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife.” (12) Abimelech relents and gives Abraham “sheep and oxen, and male and female slaves, and gave them to Abraham, and restored his wife Sarah to him,” (14) plus 1000 pieces of silver. The king tells Sarah she is completely vindicated; Abraham prays to God, who restores fertility to the women of the kingdom: “God healed Abimelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children.” (17)

So what gives with this story? There’s no question that Abimelech was wrong in taking Sarah in the first place. So, is the point here only to tell us that Abraham and Sarah are step-siblings? If so, why? If nothing else, it demonstrates out just how special this as yet childless couple was in the eyes of God.

Also, Abraham said he was fearful that “there was no fear of God at all in this place.” I think the story demonstrates that God is at work in places that we think are godless.

One last thought: If we assume these stories are being compiled during the Babylonian captivity, I think it’s also a warning to the captors of Israel. Taking and raping Israel’s women will cause the Babylonians to meet the same fate as the one Abimelech barely avoided.

Matthew 7:13–23: Jesus’ sermon, designed to provoke us to really examining what it means to follow him, continues. He tells his listeners that his followers are embarked on a difficult path. I presume he’s speaking directly to his disciples when he says, “the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (14) One big reason why the path is difficult hits on exactly the problem today’s psalm addresses: smooth talkers who mislead. Jesus gives the warning that we would do well to heed carefully today: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (15)

His advice to determine whether these prophets are true or false is to judge them by what they do, not what they say: “ You will know them by their fruits…In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.” (16, 17) In the end it is our deeds—what we do with the gospel—that really matters.

We certainly need to remember Jesus’ warning as we contemplate the popularity of modern day televangelists and those who monger of the prosperity gospel. To use the word’s of today’s psalmist, they are full of “smooth talk” in their charismatic TV appearances and they smooth-talking books. While appearing to be spiritual, they have taken the psalmist’s words to heart:

“Let us make our tongue great, our own lips are with us—who is master to us?”

These false preachers are full of self-pride, make millions, fly around in private jets, and live in mansions. Worst of all, those who follow them are engaging in an empty, ultimately meaningless religion—and giving away their scarce resources to a con man. Even though it appears they are practicing “true religion,” they have deceived themselves. As far as Jesus is concerned, this self deception leads to a miserable fate: “I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’” (22)

Matthew takes this theme of self deception up again in chapter 25 when Jesus talks about the sheep and the goats and those who failed to see Jesus in the faces of the poor, the hungry, the naked, and the prisoners. I suspect Matthew places such emphasis on the narrow gate, the fruit-bearing tree, and the problem of self-deception for still another reason. At the time he is writing late in the first century, there are already plenty of false gospels floating around and he desperately wants his readers/ listeners not to be drawn into the trap of Gnosticism.

Psalm 11; Genesis 19:1–29; Matthew 7:1–12

Originally posted 1/16/2016—revised and updated 1/16/2018

Psalm 11: This very personal psalm begins with the poet’s assertion of his trust in God: “In the Lord I sheltered” (1a) as he expresses dismay in his fearful friends who have advised him to escape his enemies: “How could you say to me, ‘Off to the hills like a bird!” (1b) Yes, he acknowledges,  his enemies are out to attack the righteous (including himself) just as a hunter aims at that bird in flight:
For, look, the wicked bend back their bow,
they fix to the string their arrow
to shoot from the gloom at the upright.” (2)

The ‘gloom’ suggests the enemies prefer dark and cowardly conspiracy rather than standing up and confronting our poet on in the sunlight.

It appears the wicked have corrupted human justice and given these circumstance, our psalmist really has no other options than to look to God for protection:
The foundations destroyed,
what can a righteous man do?” (3)

This rhetorical question finds its answer immediately:
The Lord in His holy palace,
The Lord in the heavens His throne
His eyes behold,
His look probes the sons of man.”

God’s omniscience means he knows every aspect of human affairs, be they righteous or evil. And it’s clear that, as far as our psalmist is concerned, God is on the side of the righteous and despises those who have corrupted his ordained order.
The Lord probes [both] the righteous and the wicked.
the lover of havoc He utterly hates.” (5)

In the end, the wicked will get their just desserts as the poet employs a clear allusion to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah:
He rains fiery coals on the wicked,
sulphur and gale-winds their lot.” (6)

The psalmist then reminds us that as the embodiment of righteousness, God will always take the side of the righteous man:
For righteous the Lord is,
righteous acts He does love.” (7a)

And it is the righteous who will return God’s downward gaze on humankind as the righteous look back up to God: “The upright behold His face.” (7b)

For our psalmist there is no ambiguity. It is a binary world: you are either on God’s side or you are against him. As a person who basks in the gray areas, this clear bifurcation seems overly simple, but as Jesus’ many words on the subject (e.g., dividing the sheep and the goats) and John’s Revelation makes clear, in the end there is no ambiguity: you and I are either for Jesus or against him.

Genesis 19:1–29: We recall that God is going to check out Sodom and Gomorrah and see if there are ten righteous people left there. Two angels arrive at Lot’s house in Sodom, who invites them in for dinner. He asks them to spend the night with him, where it is obviously safer, but they demur, “No; we will spend the night in the square.” (2) Clearly, the mission God has sent these two on is to directly test Sodom’s level of sinfulness. But they never get the chance. While they’re still in Lot’s house eating dinner, a gang of men pounds on Lot’s door demanding “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.” (5) Of course in this context, ‘know’  is not about getting acquainted.

Desperate to protect them, Lot even offers his two daughters to the crowd: “Let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” (8) rather than have them harm his guests. [This certainly gives us insight into the depressingly low value that men of that day placed on women.]

The gang of men reject Lot’s offer, shouting “Stand back!” (9a), reminding Lot that he “came here [to Sodom] as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” (9b) The gang tries to force its way past the door, but the angelic guests strike the men blind so “they were unable to find the door.” (11) [Reminding us that tragedy is awfully close to comedy.]

The angels have been deputized by God to make the decision and there’s no question now how this will turn out. The angels turn to Lot asking, “Have you anyone else here? Sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or anyone you have in the city—bring them out of the place. For we are about to destroy this place.” (12, 13) But Lot’s sons-in-law don’t buy into the warning, thinking Lot was joking. Even Lot is hesitant [“he lingered‘] to leave Sodom and the angels have to forcibly remove him, “so the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, the Lord being merciful to him, and they brought him out and left him outside the city.” (16)

Lot is grateful but makes it clear he is a city-dweller and, unlike his uncle Abraham, he cannot live without the urban creature comforts and asks the angels to spare a little city, Zoar, so he can live there. The angels agree and famously warn everyone  not to look back. Also, we know that Lot’s wife disobeyed and became the famous pillar of salt.

If we assume that Genesis was compiled during the Babylonian captivity, I think the story of Lot is a warning to those Jews who too readily adapted to Babylonian culture and were on the verge of being assimilated by it. They had a choice: to stay and ultimately be destroyed (which I take to be assimilation and losing their Jewish identity) or were they willing to go back to the rigors of life in a ruined Jerusalem and thereby remain faithful to God?

For me, this dramatic story is an allegory for each of us: Are we willing to reject the comforts and diversions of our culture’s “city life” with its many hedonistic pleasures in exchange for the austerity and struggles that a life with God entails? Or will we look back longingly and think of how much we enjoyed that former life, regretting that we abandoned it? If the latter is our choice, we become as worthless to Jesus as a mound of salt.

Matthew 7:1–12: Jesus’ entire ethical corpus is contained in his words of the Sermon on the Mount. Once Matthew has finished laying out Jesus’ new standards of thinking, behavior and relationships with each other, the community, and with God, our author will go on to demonstrate how Jesus executes these new standards in his actions–and how we should follow likewise. Jewish author that he is, he lays out this “New Torah” in detail first.

Until recently, the Sermon on the Mount has formed the core of Western Judeo-Christian civilization, and is the foundation of our legal system. Jesus cites a list truths that define human nature that have not changed since Genesis. We know them all—and have done them all:

  • On hypocrisy: “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (5)
  • On our failure to distinguish between the holy and the profane: “do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.” (6)
  • On persistence: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” (7)
  • On the rewards of persistence: “For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” (8)
  • On personal relationships: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?” (9)

All of these boil down to the simple golden rule that despite our behavior, we know to be true: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you;” (12a)

But what strikes me here is that is far as Jesus is concerned, his words here on the mountain are simply the practical distillation of all the stories, prophecies, and psalms that have defined Judaism: “for this is the law and the prophets.” (12b) In short, Jesus really has said nothing new or original that everyone in the crowd, including us, do not know already in our hearts to be true. But Jesus has framed these ancient truths in a completely new way. When civilizations and cultures ignore these rules, pretending that in their new and advanced state that they are no longer relevant, the death of that empire is not far behind. As far as American culture is concerned, the writing seems to be already on the wall.

Psalm 10:12–18; Genesis 18; Matthew 6:19–34

Originally posted 1/15/2016—revised and updated 1/15/2018

Psalm 10:12–18: The psalm becomes one of supplication and our psalmist appeals directly to God: “Rise, O Lord, raise Your hand,
forget not the lowly.” (12)

In his heart I’m pretty sure he is confident that God will indeed care for the lonely, but I think he’s asking a larger existential question: why are there the lonely in the first place? And accompanying that question, its inverse:
Why has the wicked despised God,
has said in his heart, ‘You shall not seek out.’” (13).

These of course are questions of theodicy: why is there evil and evil men in the world when God is almighty and all-good? There is no satisfactory answer; we can only say that oppression of the poor and the pride of the wicked is the result of a fallen humans in a fallen world.

The psalmist’s frustration at God for allowing this state of affairs is barely concealed as he points out that God is well aware of this situation:
For You have seen mischief
and looked on vexation.” (14a)

Yet, despite that frustration, our poet also knows that the poor have no one to turn to but God, and that God does indeed come to the aid of the oppressed:
The wretched leaves his fate in Your hands.
It is You Who help the orphan.” (14b)

I think he realizes how much more grim the fate of the poor would be were it not for God.  This state of affairs does not prevent the psalmist from making a wishful appeal to God to take action even to the point of doing away with evil altogether:
Break the arm of the wicked ,
and seek out evil,
let wickedness not be found.” (15)

After all, he argues, “The Lord is king for all time.” (16)

As with all psalms of supplication, this one ends on a note of confidence that God has indeed heard his prayer, which brings with it the encouragement of God’s presence and the final verse recapitulates the psalm’s theme with great clarity: :
“The desire of the poor you have heard, O Lord,
You make their heart firm, Your ear listens.
To do justice for the orphan and the wretched,
and let none still oppress man in the land.” (17, 18)

These verses are a clear statement of the great theme that courses through the OT: God demands mercy on the poor and God’s justice will eventually come to punish the wicked. However, as Jesus points out, it is up to us as God’s representatives on earth to bring that mercy and justice to the poor and downtrodden. As we well know, God’s love and mercy operate through human agency: it is a primary responsibility of any person who claims to be a Christian.

Genesis 18: Abraham recognizes that the three men are two angels and the Lord. He washes their feet and makes a veal lunch for them, underscoring the hospitality that is due the stranger, as the Law will eventually make clear. It strikes the strangers as odd that Abraham would bring them a meal, but his wife Sarah is nowhere to be seen. “They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?”” (9). Clearly, the message they intended to deliver was intended for Abraham and Sarah together. Abraham answers the question honestly: “There, in the tent.” (9) The chief angel makes his announcement—I assume loud enough that Sarah could hear him in the tent: “your wife Sarah shall have a son.” (10). Sarah, who is years beyond menopause, hears this news and cannot suppress her sarcastic laughter of disbelief. God picks up on this and responds, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” (14) Sarah, being human, denies she laughed “for she was afraid.” But God gets the last word, “He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.” (15).

I can sympathize with Sarah; she must have been quaking in her boots. It’s natural human responses like these that underscore the authenticity of the story. And we see the caring and patient side of God. This exchange with Abraham and Sarah reveals how the Jewish God is wildly different from the constantly battling and venial small-g gods who inhabit the other nations of the time—and alas, will come to inhabit Israel many years down the road—and as they inhabit our own world..

The story of the destruction of Sodom includes dialog I’d never noticed before. Abraham accompanies his guests as they leave. Coming around a bend, Sodom comes into view and God asks rhetorically,Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?” (17, 18) Even so, Abraham doubtless has a suspicion of what God has in mind.

But God does not just stretch out his hand and destroy Sodom. Instead, he seeks evidence that Sodom is as evil as he has heard it is from those who have escaped the city’s  depredations: “I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.” 21). Again, this is a huge difference from the small-g gods of the time: Unlike them, God does not operate on whim, but true justice demands evidence first.

Abraham raises the very real problem that the righteous will be destroyed along with the wicked. The famous round of questions follows: Abraham asks, “Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it?” (24) God responds that “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” (26) Abraham repeats the question, reducing the number each time, eventually reaching ten. And God makes it clear that he will relent even if there are only ten righteous souls.

The point seems clear: God will be merciful even to evil when righteousness is present, even if it is present only in small amounts. God will always err on the side of justice and he cares immensely for the righteous. And of course that exactly what God and Jesus expect from us in turn.

Matthew 6:19–34: The Sermon on the Mount continues. [Perhaps it would be better called the “Sermon Series on the Mount.”]  Jesus certainly understands human priorities when he says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (21) Our priorities always follow what is in our hearts. In much of America, where basic human needs are pretty much met for the vast majority of people, our priorities appear to be in the acquisition of things and in status as demonstrated by the implied value of possessions such as houses and cars. Yet, inside every human heart the same insecurities exist—which Jesus sees and understands.

The symptoms of this insecurity are clear: we worry too much. Jesus tells us, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (25). Yet living a worry-free life, especially in this age of over-communication where we are aware of every trouble on the globe, is perhaps the most difficult task of all. We are surrounded by endless advertisements and articles about saving for retirement, but Jesus has the temerity to say, “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’” (31). There’s even a bit of racial sarcasm when Jesus observes, “For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things.” (32)

Really? Does this mean I can be profligate and not bother to save resources for later? I think Jesus’ final statement is where we need to focus: “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (33)  Once again, it’s about priorities. If we are working to advance the Kingdom, we will have the insight to allocate our resources in their proper place, including saving for retirement. But do I really follow Jesus and put “striving for the Kingdom of God” in first place? The honest answer is ‘No, I do not.’

I think Jesus recognizes that no matter what he says about worry, we’re still going to do it. So, in what I consider to be one of the wisest pieces of advice in the entire Bible, he tells us that we should at least focus on the tangible present rather than the intangible future: “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”  (34) This has been brought home to me dramatically via a diagnosis cancer. Enjoy today. Do good for others today. Recurrence of my cancer may happen tomorrow. But that will be tomorrow’s concern.

Psalm 10:1–11; Genesis 16,17; Matthew 6:5–18

Originally posted 1/14/2016—revised and updated 1/13/2018

Psalm 10:1–11: This psalm rings out for social justice as it describes the plotting of the wicked [and presumably wealthy] against the poor and oppressed: “In the wicked man’s pride he pursues the poor.” (2a) But that same plotting also leads inevitably to the wicked man’s downfall: “but is caught in the schemes he devised.” (2b)

As far as our psalmist is concerned, the root cause of this wickedness arises from rejecting God:
For the wicked did vaunt in his very lust,
grasping for gain–cursed, blasphemed the Lord.” (3)

And in a phrase all too familiar to our modern ears, the wicked man believes he can get away with it because, “‘There is no God’ is all his schemes.” (4)

Our psalmist asserts that assumption is faulty because in assuming there is no God, the wicked person misses the fact that God’s “judgements are high above him.” (4) Even if he thought that were so, the wicked man always believes he is exempt from God’s judgment and
“said in his heart, ‘I will not stumble,
for all time I will not come to harm.'” (6)

The only difference today is that the wicked, having rejected even the idea of God altogether, pay no attention even to the idea that there might be a God, never mind one who judges us and our actions. This is exactly the sin of pride we hear all around us today as people plan and plot, believing their plans to be foolproof.  Which is also why we enjoy watching the high and mighty brought low—especially in a perp walk.

As is always the case in that mostly pre-literate time it is speech that is the instrument of deception: “His mouth is full of oaths,
beneath his tongue are guile and deceit,
mischief and misdeed.” (7)

But there really isn’t that much difference between a spoken word and an ill-considered tweet other than the technology that enables a vastly larger audience than a mere spoken word.

Worst of all is that the wicked prey on the innocent and the poor:
He waits in ambush in a sheltered place,
from a covert he kills the blameless,
for the wretched his eyes look out.”  (8)

To make sure we get the point, our  psalmist repeats his assertion with a simile that compares the wicked to a dangerous beast:
He waits in covert like a lion in his lair,
lies in wait to snatch up the poor.” (9)

And as we see all too often today, the poor and defenseless are indeed ensnared, too often by admiring those who would do them harm:
The lowly bow down,
and the wretched fall into his traps.” (10)

The persons who come readily to my mind in these verses are the con men who prey on the elderly, duping them into handing over their assets on a false promise because “beneath his tongue are guile and deceit.” As always, this psalm demonstrates clearly that human nature and its capability to do evil has not changed in one whit in 3000 years.

Genesis 16,17: The story of Sarai and Hagar is a story of how we should not rush God and resort to our own plans. Sarai gives Abram permission to have sex with her Egyptian slave, Hagar. Abram happily complies and Hagar becomes pregnant by him. When Hagar discovers this and “saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress.” (16:4) proving that she could become pregnant while Sarai could not. Sarai blames Abram for her slave girl’s arrogance, and shouts at Abram, “May the Lord judge between you and me!” (16:5) Abram cooly replies, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.” (16:6) And Sarai punishes her slave, Hagar, who runs away.

The story takes a strange twist when an angel comes to Hagar and remonstrates, “Return to your mistress, and submit to her.” (16:9) But then in a manner oddly parallel to what happens many centuries later, the angel promises Hagar, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.” (16:10) and in a poem strikingly similar to the Annunciation to Mary, the angel says, Now you have conceived and shall bear a son;/ you shall call him Ishmael.” (11) But unlike the Annunciation in Luke, the angel warns,
He shall be a wild ass of a man,
with his hand against everyone,
and everyone’s hand against him;
and he shall live at odds with all his kin.” (16:12)

Ishmael is the progenitor of the Arab race and our authors used this story as a proof text for the eternal enmity between the sons of Abraham—the Jews—and the sons of Ishmael—the Arabs.

God finally breaks his frustrating silence and comes (presumably in the form of an angel) to Abram, who is now 99 years old, and reiterates the Covenant, renaming Abram and Sarai in the process. But the most astounding promise he makes to the old man with the new name, Abraham, is “I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” (17:2). Abraham responds by falling on his face and worshipping as God describes the Covenant that creates the identity of the Jewish race to this day: “ I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” (17:7) And once again, there is the promise of Canaan, where Abraham is currently a resident alien, becoming the home of Abraham’s offspring: “I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.” (17:8) [I suspect the Canaan promise was inserted by the editors in Babylon, when Genesis was written down , to demonstrate Israel’s basically eternal claim on this land.]

The physical sign of the Covenant is circumcision: “Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old,” (17:2). What I’d not noticed before is that every male in the household, including slaves is to be circumcised.

Abraham is clearly buying into the Covenant, assuming  up to this point that Ishmael will be the heir. But then God , who always has a surprise up his sleeve, renames Sarai to Sarah and tells the couple that she will bear a son, whom they are to name Isaac, with whom “I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.” (19)

Ishmael will do just fine as well. God promises, “I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.” (17:20), which as we observed above is the other semitic race, the Arabs. And if we accept that Ishmael is the ancestor to the Arabs just as Sarai’s son, Isaac is the ancestor of the Jews, that last line the angel speaks to Hagar—”he shall live at odds with all his kin.“—echoes eerily down to the present day.

The authors of Genesis are very clear about circumcision, observing that Abraham was circumcised along with Ishmael at the age of 13, and all the males of the household including slaves. My only response here is, “Ouch.”

Matthew 6:5–18: Jesus provides direction on the matter of prayer. He makes it clear that prayer is a private conversation with God and not to “be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.” (5) Rather, we are to “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (6).

Moreover, prayer is not an opportunity for empty speechifying: “do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.” (7) In other word, our prayers should just get to the point and then move on. This command is something that certainly escaped the attention many pastors at churches I attended as a kid, where the “pastoral prayer” involved seemingly endless droning on.

It’s interesting that Jesus refers to the prayers of the Gentiles, presumably praying to their many small-g gods, since Matthew is informing us that Jesus has observed Gentiles in prayer–not something I’d not thought of before. But it’s also a reminder that Israel of the time was also full of occupying Roman soldiers and presumably many other Gentiles. Also, as Paul and the author of Hebrews make clear, Jesus’ is here for everyone regardless of his or her ethnicity. His instructions apply to Gentiles as well as Jews.

Jesus then tells us how to pray in what we have come to call the Lord’s Prayer, which is the great common ground of worship in every Christian church. What’s interesting here is that Jesus emphasizes the importance of forgiveness, pointing out the reward of forgiveness: “if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” (14) Likewise, the consequences of withholding forgiveness: “if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (15). I think this emphasis reminds us that forgiveness is the primary duty of the Christian in community. As we observe those around us, public figures, and especially ourselves, forgiveness is always in short supply—hence, Jesus’ admonition. The scarcity of true forgiveness is why we so admire those Christians in South Carolina in 2015, who forgave the gunman that shot and killed nine people in their community–and thereby averted the riots that have so disfigured other places where vengeance is the order of the day.

In general, Jesus views a relationship with God as anything but a public display of religiosity. In addition to those who pray loudly in public using empty words, Jesus disdains those who put on a public show of fasting. We even see a note of wry humor when he says, “do not look dismal, like the hypocrites.” (16a) God is not interested in our looks, and when Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward,” (16b) we can hear his dripping irony as he makes it clear that this empty “reward” is being identified as a hypocrite. One more proof of just how impossible it is to fool Jesus, who looks into our hearts—not at our faces or hearing our empty words.

Psalm 9:12–21; Genesis 14,15; Matthew 5:43–6:4

Originally posted 1/13/2016—revised and updated 1/12/2018

Psalm 9:12–21: Our psalmist reminds us that God is compassionate: “He forgot not the cry of the lowly.” (13b) Presumably the poet counts himself among the lowly and afflicted as he asks for God’s personal intervention:
Grant me grace, O Lord,
see my torment by my foes.” (14a).

This is a torment so intense that he is near death and only God can save him: “You who raise me from the gates of death.” (14b) He then offers the justification for God’s rescue that we see frequently in Psalms: that if the poet is dead he cannot praise God. Therefore, if only for that reason, God should save him:
So that I may tell all Your praise
in the gates of the Daughter of Zion
Let me exult in Your rescue.” (15)

[Alter tells us that the phrase “Daughter of Zion” refers to Jerusalem.]

At this point we read the words that the rescued poet would be saying or singing at the city gate: “The nations sank down in the trap that they made,
in the snare that they made their foot was caught.” (16)

Knowing the history of Israel, this description of self destruction through sin and idolatry is exactly what the prophets also describe at length. And like the prophets, he asserts that “The Lord is known for the justice He did.” (17) But despite that threat of godly justice, many still reject him:
The wicked turn back to Sheol,
All the nations forgetful of God.” (18)

This is a pretty apt description of American society: we seem to be far the trail of not only consciously forgetting God but rejecting him altogether. If they can be raised from their studied indifference to God, many declare faith in God to be an unnecessary psychological crutch that the truly enlightened do not require. As for me, looking around at the cultural and social mess surrounding us, I can only conclude that the God-deniers are in deep denial about the descent into depravity of our own society that has become forgetful of God.

The psalm ends by returning to what I’ll call the Great Theme of the OT: God’s compassion and eventual rescue of the lowly as he metes out judgement to those who have forgotten the poor and weak. Our psalmist asserts that there is always hope no matter how desperate the circumstance: “For not forever will the poor man be forgotten,
the hope of the lowly not lost forever.” (19)

God’s rescue may be a long time in coming, but come it will. In the meantime, I’ll go with the psalmist in the last two verses:
Arise, O Lord, let not man flaunt his strength,
let nations be judged in Your presence.” (20)

Pride is always at the root of sin. But above all for God to remind the his creatures:
“...put fear upon them,
to let nations know they are mortal.” (21b)

Genesis 14,15: There’s a big battle among a bunch of kings with unpronounceable names down “in the Valley of Siddim (that is, the Dead Sea).” (14:3). The kings of Sodom and Gomorrah meet a grisly end by falling into tar pits, (just like the dinosaurs down at the LaBrea tar pits.  Among the booty of the conquering kings is Lot. Word of Lot’s capture gets back to Abram, who uses his private army to rescue his nephew: “He led forth his trained men, born in his house, three hundred eighteen of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan.” (14:14). The sortie succeeds and Abram “brought back all the goods, and also brought back his nephew Lot with his goods, and the women and the people.” (14:16)  I presume this story is here to demonstrate Abram’s great humanity as well as being the progenitor of Israel’s military prowess that we will see centuries later in the conquering of Canaan.

Abram returns the conquering hero and “King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High.” (14:18) Melchizedek blesses Abram, who returns the favor by giving Melchizedek one tenth of all he has. What’s so significant here is that while Abram has heard instructions and a promise from God, he is no priest of “God Most High.” This also tells us that God is not only the god of the Jews, but God of all humanity, and frankly, worship of this monotheistic God predates Israel itself.

This is the same Melchizedek who figures so prominently in the book of Hebrews, as its author demonstrates that Jesus Christ arises from the priestly line of Melchizedek and therefore is not subject to the rules imposed on Jewish priests, but is instead much greater than it.

Finally, we come to the Covenant between Abram and God. God comes to Abram and tells him, “I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” (15:1) Clearly the “reward” is progeny since Abram already has great wealth as he points out to God that he has no heirs. God responds, “no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” (15:4) We hear at last the famous words, Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” (15:6) and at last, Abram “believed the Lord.”

A very weird sacrifice involving cutting animals in half and Abram having to chase away birds of prey seals the Covenantal deal. Then, in further evidence (to me anyway) that Genesis was not written until much later in Israel’s history, Abram has a dream which recapitulates Israel’s captivity in Egypt in great detail, including that it will last 400 years. Why would this dream be included? I think the authors wanted to prove that the captivity in Egypt was part of God’s plan, and that for the Jews in exile in Babylon, this is a reminder that all that happens to them is part of God’s plan as well.

We then see the completion of the Covenant “When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.” (15:17) as God promises “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates,” (15:18)  We also learn that this same land is already occupied by “the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites,  the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.” (15:19-21) So Abram’s heirs will have a lot of conquering to do, which of course is exactly what they do centuries later under Joshua. This verse is at once troubling since it forecasts bloody battles in the conquering of Canaan, but to the writers of Genesis, since God has spoken in this way to the founder of the Jewish race as part of the Covenant, the decimation of all these nations and tribes has been completely justified. 

Matthew 5:43–6:4:In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus completely reinterprets the Law along pretty revolutionary lines. Now he comes to the most revolutionary statement of all: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” (5:43) which is of course an overarching theme of the OT and was deeply ingrained in every person sitting in front of him.. And now he drops the ethical bomb: “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (5:44, 45)

Even at a 2000 year remove, this statement is truly about the hardest thing  Jesus ever said. Imagine its impact on the crowd. Unfortunately, Matthew doesn’t describe the people’s reaction, but it must have been polarizing. For misinterpreting Scripture so egregiously the Pharisees in the crowd must have thought Jesus was bonkers at best, an agent of Satan at worst. But I suspect the majority of poor and oppressed in the crowd welcomed a revolutionary in their midst—a revolutionary who would finally set things right by bringing justice to the poor and oppressed—the as yet great unfulfilled promise in the OT.

What’s fascinating is Jesus’ explanatory logic chain: It comes down to extending the love that we already have for those we know in the context of obtaining a greater reward [Jesus is master of the carrot and the stick!]: “if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” (5:46a). Loving one’s enemies is the logical extension of that very same preexisting love. And Jesus closes the argument by reminding them that they have an outstanding example to follow: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (5:46b)

Imitating God leads logically to Jesus’ next topic: excessive piety and religiosity, once again framed in the concept of a heavenly reward: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (6:1) Rather, Jesus advises, our piety is to be inward-directed. Which makes sense: it’s about our relationship with God, not with other people. To put piety on public display is simply another expression of the sin of pride. We can imagine this statement may have been even more offensive to the Pharisees in the crowd than even Jesus’ comments about loving one’s enemy.

Religiosity continues on full display today, which is what allows people to justify their non-participation in a relationship in community by saying, “they’re all hypocrites.” Which of course we are.