Psalm 18:25–29; Genesis 30:25–31:21; Matthew 11:11–24

Originally posted 1/30/2016—revised and updated 1/30/2018

Psalm 18:25–29: Our poet emphasizes the nature of what we could call the deuteronomic or quid-pro-quo God. The formula is simple: Human behavior elicits a corresponding response from God. At a personal level, the poet observes,
And the Lord requited me for my merit,
for my cleanness of hands in His eyes.” (25)

The formula for proper behavior and following the law is simple. God’s reward is a direct correlation to how we approach God—or ignore God’s rules. Our poet points out that God responds to us exactly in the way we behave:
With the faithful You deal faithfully,
with a blameless man, act without blame.
With the pure one, You deal purely,
with the perverse man, deal in twists.” (26, 27).

In short, our behavior matters to God. Or put another way, “What you sow, you will reap.” We may think this is an oversimplified picture of human behavior and of how God deals with that behavior, but at its core this psalm is about consequences. Every action—whether good or bad—will create its consequence—perhaps not right away, but actions and consequences are as immutable as Newton’s Third Law. I take the “dealing in twists” to mean that if we deal with others in a convoluted fashion with a malevolent intent in mind, God will do the same to us, usually (to mix metaphors) hoisting us on our own petard.  Once again, it’s easy to see where the Pharisees were coming from when Jesus turns all of this “quid-pro-quoness” of our relationship to God inside out and upside down.

It continues to amaze me how many people believe they can undertake risky actions without a thought to the consequences those actions will engender. Perhaps the consequences may not become apparent for many years, but as out psalmist promises, they are certainly there eventually.

As in so many other psalms we read here how God is always looking out for the poor and lonely, but he also has his eyes on those who think they can get away with things outside of God’s sight:
For it is you who rescues the lowly folk
and haughty eyes You bring low.” (28)

Our poet goes on to observe that our relationship with God is much deeper than just being on our best behavior. God is our constant guide:
For You light up my lamp, O Lord,
my God illuminates my darkness.” (29)

God brings the illumination of insight, but he  also brings us strength:
For through You I rush at a barrier,
through my God I can vault a wall.” (30)

As fallen human beings we all walk in the darkness of sin. God shines right through our tendency to sin right into our hearts. And if we know God, we can overcome obstacles that lie before us. And of course we know how many years after this psalm was written exactly how God brought the Light into a darkened world.

Genesis 30:25–31:21: Jacob has had enough of working for his father in law and decides it’s time to leave Laban’s sheep, goat and cattle business and set up on his own. Laban realizes that Jacob has been instrumental in making him a rich man: “I have learned by divination that the Lord has blessed me because of you,” and tells Jacob to name his wages. Jacob refuses the wages, but sets up a deal here he will get all the striped(?), black, and spotted (hereafter, SB&S) sheep, while Laban will retain the pure white ones. Laban thinks he can trick Jacob  by separating out the existing SB&S sheep and sending them off in another direction three days away with his sons.

But Jacob is more clever than his father-in-law and has his own trick up his sleeve. Using a weird method of having sheep breed in front of striped tree branches he manages to breed very strong and healthy SB&S sheep. [One more good reason why we should not consider the Bible to be a scientific text!] Over a period of time, Jacob ends up a strong flock, while Laban is left with the feebler flock. In the agrarian economy of the time, Jacob “grew exceedingly rich, and had large flocks, and male and female slaves, and camels and donkeys.” (30:43).

Laban’s sons figure out what Jacob has done and he is now persona non grata in Laban’s household even though it was Laban who tried to cheat Jacob. Jacob tells Rachel and Leah, “You know that I have served your father with all my strength; yet your father has cheated me and changed my wages ten times, but God did not permit him to harm me.” (31:7-8) Jacob goes on to tell them that God has instructed him “leave this land at once and return to the land of your birth.” (31:13) Rachel and Leah observe that Laban has squandered their inheritance: “Are we not regarded by him as foreigners? For he has sold us, and he has been using up the money given for us.” (31:15).

So they conspire to escape Laban’s clutches: “Rachel stole her father’s household gods. And Jacob deceived Laban the Aramean, in that he did not tell him that he intended to flee.” (31:20) Jacob, his wives and children, and all his moveable four-footed wealth depart Haran and return to Canaan. Leaving, I presume, one very angry Laban.

The parallels of this story to Israel’s escape from Egypt some 400 years later are striking. It is the sojourner, Jacob, who creates the wealth of Laban, just as Egypt benefitted from Hebrew slave labor. And there is plotting and eventually escape. And Canaan is always the destination. Since we presume it is Jews in Babylonian captivity reading this story, they would have come away inspired by Jacob’s cleverness and his willingness to stand up to the man who was in essence his captor–and then to escape form him.

Matthew 11:11–24: As he continues to speak of John the Baptist and himself, he tells his listeners that “among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist;” (11a) but adds that “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (11b) He also points out that people have a habit of not really listening to any prophet. suggesting that the problem is them, not the prophet: “and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!” (14, 15)

Not heeding what prophets have to say is a deeply ingrained human habit: “It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;/ we wailed, and you did not mourn.’” (16b, 17)

Not listening and then making judgements about the prophet is even more egregious. We are too quick to draw the wrong conclusion. Jesus notes that the people didn’t like John because he was too ascetic: “John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’.” (18) On the other hand, they make the same poor judgement about Jesus because he behaves oppositely. They see him as too much the party animal: “the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (19).

In the hinge point of this reading, Jesus tells us that “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” But we are too hasty; we do not take the time to wait and assess someone’s actions because it easier–and lazier–just to spout our opinions. Which of course is what Facebook was really invented for.

This all too human failure to observe Jesus’ actions of healing and ministering seriously and then to realize via wise reflection that he has brought the Kingdom of Heaven to earth is a source of enormous frustration for Jesus: “He began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent.” (20)  Jesus observes that had he performed those same deeds in the most evil cities any Jew could think of—Tyre and Sidon—they would have repented. But Chorzin, Bethsaida, and even Capernaum have ignored his message and failed to repent. And as far as Jesus is concerned in this moment of anger and frustration, “I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.” (24) Which is not exactly the good news people wanted to hear. But nobody seemed to be listening anyway.

We do exactly the same thing as the Jews in Jesus’ day. We hear only what we want to hear and then we rush to judgement rather than observing, listening, reflecting, which are the paths to wisdom—and to repentance.

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