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.

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