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.

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