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.

 

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