Archives for January 2018

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.

Psalm 9:1–11; Genesis 12:10–13:18; Matthew 5:27–42

Originally posted 1/12/2016—revised and updated 1/11/2018

Psalm 9:1–11: Alter informs us that “this psalm and the next one are a striking testimony to the scrambling in textual transmission that, unfortunately, a good many of the psalms have suffered.” Despite these obstacles, the psalmist’s sincere praise to God comes through clearly, including one of those lines that we hear all the time: “Let me rejoice and be glad in You.” (3a).

However, we rarely hear exactly what the psalmist is rejoicing about because what he’s asking God to do for him almost, it seems, as a quid pro quo for his praise really not very nice:
“...let me hymn Your name, Most High,
when my enemies turn back,
when they stumble and perish before You.” (3b, 4)

This is definitely one of those “we were victorious because God is on our side” psalms. Our psalmist’s rejoicing in God’s retributive justice persists for the next two verses:
For You upheld my justice, my right,
You sat on the throne of the righteous judge.
You rebuked the nations, destroyed the wicked,
their name You wiped out forever.” (5, 6)

In the same way that genealogies are the repository for preserving the memories of dead individuals, so too for entire nations. Thus the psalmist takes special pleasure in noting that
The enemy–ruins that are gone for all time,
and towns you smashed, their name is lost.” (7)

Having lost their names, it’s as if these places never existed. Which is just fone for our psalmist…

Unlike these forgotten people, towns, and nations, God’s justice is infinite in extent, which of course is theologically true:
But the Lord is forever enthroned,
makes His throne for justice unshaken.
He judges the world in righteousness,
lays down the law to the nations in truth.” (8,9)

For this psalmist it’s all about God’s righteousness and justice. Even though the Covenant was between God and Israel, God nevertheless executes justice throughout the world. Like the laws of physics that operate uniformly throughout the universe, God’s righteousness and God’s justice likewise operate uniformly for every human being. As we’ve seen thus far in Genesis—and will see through the entire Old Testament—righteousness, justice, and truth are God’s major qualities.

On a more personal note our psalmist observes that God is where true protection lies. And it is God’s resoluteness in seeing justice is done that creates one’s deep trust in God:
“...the Lord is a fortress for the downcast,
a forthree in times of distress.
And those who know Your name will trust You,
for You forsook not Your seekers, O Lord.” (10, 11)

The problem is that when we witness injustice and God’s seeming inaction that our trust is corroded.

Genesis 12:10–13:18: There’s a famine in Canaan so Abram travels with Sarai down to wealthy Egypt. Afraid that the Egyptians will kill him in order to take beautiful Sarai as some Egyptian’s wife, Abram instructs Sarai to say she’s her sister. As he suspected would happen, “the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful.” (12:14). Word of Sarai’s beauty gets to Pharaoh and “the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house.” (12:15) Despite Abram’s misgivings, no harm comes to Sarai and “for [Sarai’s] sake [Pharaoh]  dealt well with Abram. (12:16). However, God is none too pleased with Abram’s deception and “the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife.” (12:17) Pharaoh is understandably upset and interrogates Abram, “Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife, take her, and be gone.” (12:20)

Why is this odd story here? It is an almost one-for-one foreshadowing of Israel’s history several generations later when there’s a famine, and Jacob’s entire family ends up in Egypt. As with Abram, things are good at first, but then Abram’s deception leads to the Pharaoh’s illness. parallel deception occurs hundreds of years later when Moses and his mother wind up in Pharaoh’s court.  Pharaoh’s sickness as a foreshadowing of the plagues that finally result in the the Pharaoh saying to Moses, “take your people and be gone.” As Abram is sent away from Egypt, so too the Jews. Here in Genesis we have a clear echo of Israel’s national story.

Abram, Sarai, and his nephew Lot end up in the Negeb, and then back to Bethel. Both Abram and Lot were quite wealthy–wealth being measured in heads of livestock and “Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support both of them living together.” (13:6). There’s an amicable parting between Abram and Lot. Abram settles in Canaan and “Lot journeyed eastward” heading as we will find out shortly, to city life in Sodom. I don;t think it’s unreasonable to view this incident as a foreshadowing of God’s command to expel the native Canaanites from their land when the Jews arrive back in the Promised Land under Joshua’s leadership.

Once Lot has left the scene, God comes to Abraham and makes the Grand Promise: “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted.” (13:16) The second half of the promise concerns land, specifically Canaan: “Rise up, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.” (13:17).  This promise is here in Genesis because it is Israel’s justification to conquer Canaan when they return from Egypt centuries later. Abram has a prior claim on Canaan from God centuries before Moses and the Israelites and thus it becomes the Long-Promised Land.

What subsequent history proves of course is that God keep his side of the promise. As for Israel itself—and all of us for that matter—we’re rather less reliable.

Matthew 5:27–42: Jesus continues to provide his radically unprecedented interpretation of the Law using his famous phrase, “You have heard that it was said/ But I say” construction. Nor does Jesus hesitate to take up the tough issues that vexed society then, just as they do today.

Jesus says, “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (28), which of course is exactly the statement that got Jimmy Carter into trouble in the 1970’s when he stated this passage and “enlightened society” came down around his head. Both Jimmy and Jesus are right of course. And as Bill Clinton so ably proved in 1998, we’d much rather have a president who commits adultery than one who tells us not to.

Perhaps the hardest one of all is Jesus’ redefinition of divorce: “anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (31) The Catholic Church takes these words at face value, even now in the 21st century. And I have to say, we Protestants who have gone to all sorts of interpretive lengths to alter Jesus’ rather clear meaning here are frankly are not on Jesus’ side. The Catholic Church is right and we Americans—both Catholic and protestant—don’t like it one bit.

Yes, I know there are all sorts of highly justifiable reasons for divorce, but at least as I read it here, Jesus is saying bluntly, “OK, go ahead and divorce. Just remember you’re committing adultery.” Not something we like to hear from our ostensibly loving God and Jesus as our friend. But there it sits.

My particular favorite from this reading is what Jesus says about oaths. Don’t swear on heaven or your head. In fact don’t swear on anything at all since it’s definitely broadcasting that you’re looking for an escape hatch out of your oath. Just “let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No.‘” (37) Don’t elaborate or invent complicated scenarios that try to justify your actions—that just gets you in deeper. Above all, don’t lie. I know to well from personal experience that when I’ve tried to evade a question that requires a simple Yes or No answer I just get in deeper. I completely agree with Jesus when he says that elaborating, “it comes from the evil one.” If Jesus were using today’s jargon,  I’m pretty sure he’s say, “Don’t waffle.” Like everything else Jesus said, what he is requiring from us is never really that easy.

Finally, the question of retaliation where Jesus famously says, ” if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (39) The same hard advice for those tempted to sue others: “take your coat, give your cloak as well. and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” (40, 41) Jesus’ demands are so contrary to our sinful human nature! If we actually followed Jesus on these issues the world would be a much happier place and thousands of lawyers would find themselves unemployed.

 

Psalm 8; Genesis 11:10–12:9; Matthew 5:17–26

Originally posted 1/11/2016—revised and updated 1/10/2018

Psalm 8: The superscript of this beautiful psalm of celebration notes that it is to be accompanied on the gittith, which as Alter points out, “is another musical instrument that has eluded persuasive identification.” In any event, its opening line is now the first line of a familiar praise song: “How majestic is Your name in all the earth.” (2)

Our psalmist focuses on the splendor of God’s creation—essentially a poetic reflection on the creation story of Genesis 1. As usual, we begin overhead in heaven, only this time it’s the literal heaven of stars and infinite distances that we experience on a clear night far away form the light pollution that characterizes modern civilization:

Whose splendor was told over the heavens.

When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
the moon and the stars You fixed firm.” (2b, 4)

But between these lines about the magnificence of creation, there’s a puzzling interjection:
From the mouth of babes and sucklings
You founded strength
on account of Your foes
to put an end to enemy and avenger. (3)

Alter suggests that “God draws strength from consciously aware humankind, made in His image, even from its weakest and youngest members, against the inhuman forces of chaos.” Perhaps. My take on this is that God’s creative power is expressed in every aspect of his creation, but especially form humans that are made in his image (imago deo), even tiny babies. As for the foes and avenger, it seems clear to me that it’s Satan and his cohort. Perhaps this verse was on John Milton’s mind when he wrote of the great battle between God and Satan in Paradise Lost.

In comparison to the enormity of space, humankind appears small and unworthy as our psalmist famously wonders why God even bothers with us:
What is man that You should note hum,
and the human creature that You pay him heed.” (5)

Yet, for some seemingly inexplicable reason, and even though most humans either ignore him or reject him altogether,  God has made humankind the apotheosis of his creation:
made him little less than the gods,
with glory and grandeur You crown him.” (6)

Our position in the hierarchy of creation is effectively in the middle: Less than God and slightly below the small-g gods (some translate this as ‘celestial beings,’). Nevertheless, we are greater than the remainder of all God’s creation:
You make him [humans] rule over the work of Your hands.
All things You set under his feet.” (7).

The psalmist then duly catalogs examples of living creatures over which humankind rules in what I take to be a hierarchical order, beginning with the domesticated animals on down to the fish in the oceans:
Sheep and oxen all together,
also the beasts of the field,
birds of the heavens and fish of the sea,
what moves on the paths of the seas.” (8,9)

That last line reminds us that God’s creation extends to places in God’s creation that we cannot visit (or visit only with great difficulty) and to the creatures at the very bottom of the ocean.

Of course, as human beings, we have taken this psalm to heart far too enthusiastically, using it as an ultimately inexcusable justification for exploitation of animal life, driving far too many creatures to extinction. Nevertheless, it would do us well to read this psalm frequently as it concludes with that ineffable note of awe by repeating its first line: “How majestic is Your name in all the earth!

Genesis 11:10–12:9: The Jewish penchant for genealogical record-keeping finds its expression once again in listing, almost in sing-song form, the descendants of Shem, which leads inexorably to Terah, “the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran.” (11:26). Not surprisingly, this particular genealogy is more carefully crafted than those of Noah’s other sons because of course it’s the ancestral line that leads directly to the Jewish race.

[This chapter also became grist for the mathematical mill of the seventeenth-century Irish bishop, James Ussher, who used the genealogies in the OT and in Matthew to calculate that God created the earth on the morning of October 23, 4004 B.C.  This of course, has led to the “young earthers” believing that creation is only slightly more than 6000 years old, all geological evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.]

I’m sure the author’s purpose here was not so much to date the day of creation as to lay out the all important introduction of Israel’s national story that begins with Abram, which begins with a journey, that is itself a foreshadowing of the journeys of the Hebrews yet to come both out of Egypt and eventually out of Babylon, which was the time when Genesis was written.

God commissions Abram, telling him in the famous verse, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” (12:1) At this point we don’t yet know the details of the Covenant–that comes later–but God’s word is sufficiently compelling to cause Abram to leave a very comfortable (and probably wealthy) life in Ur. As Christians, of course, this journey is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ journey from heaven to earth as John records it in John 1 and Paul in the famous hymn of Philippians 2.

Abram, his wife Sarai, and his nephew Lot eventually end up in the “hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord.” (12:8)  If they had remained there, Israel’s history would have been quite different. But we then read that “Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.” (12:9) where they will find a couple of cities that will play a significant role in Abram’s and Lot’s future.

Matthew 5:17–26: Jesus says something that the Christian church seemed to have forgotten down through the ages: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (17) Too often we have assumed that Jesus supplanted the law and prophets rather than its fulfillment, thereby rendering not just the Law, but the entire Jewish race irrelevant–and worse, worthy of annihilation. Our images of a blond, long-haired Jesus in everything from pre-Renaissance art to Christian bookstore kitsch forget too easily that Jesus never saw himself as anything other than Jewish.

Paul picks up on Jesus’ self-characterization of being the fulfilment of the Law and prophets in the theology he develops, especially in Romans and Galatians. Of course for Matthew, Jesus’ statement that “until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” (18) is his underlying theme of Jesus as being exactly that messianic fulfillment—a point Matthew makes continuously by citing Scripture that’s associated with every event in Jesus’ life that he records.

But as far as the Sermon on the Mount is concerned, Jesus is radically recasting the Law and Prophets into a new and frankly, more difficult ethos as he elevates anger and insult to the ethical equivalent of murder: “I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” (22)

These are tough new rules, and given today’s cultural coarseness, one we would do well to remember. Notice, too, that Jesus is not saying we shouldn’t be angry, but that we should not express that anger violently against others.

Rather than anger, Jesus is telling us to seek reconciliation. Nor should we linger, pleasurably nursing our resentment when wronged by others. Instead, “if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister.” (23, 24) The same goes for those who accuse you: “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.” (25) In other words, the parties should settle instead of going to trial where things could turn out very badly for you.

Among his countless other gifts, it’s clear Jesus would have been an excellent lawyer–a skill we will see again at his own trial where he refuses to answer stupid questions.

 

Psalm 7:12–19; Genesis 10:1–11:9; Matthew 5:1–16

Originally posted 1/9/2016—revised and updated 1/9/2018

Psalm 7:12–19: Our psalmist views humankind as bifurcated between the righteous and those who do evil as he observes that God “exacts justice for the righteous,” (12a) but also that God “utters doom each day” (12b) regarding the wicked.

Our poet employs a stark military image of God punishing the man who refuses to repent:
If a man repent not, He [God] sharpens His sword,
He pulls back His bow and aims it.
And for him [the wicked man], He readies the tools of death,
lets fly His arrows at the fleers.” (13, 14).

In short, the wicked will eventually pay for their crimes, even though God seems to be aiming but not necessarily releasing his arrows of punishment upon them. The key point here is that it the wicked who are responsible for their deeds, not God.

In one of the more ironic metaphors in the Psalms, our poet describes the gradual evolution of a man turning to wickedness as a perverse kind of pregnancy that goes through three stages:
Look, one spawns wrongdoing,
grows bug with mischief,
gives birth to lies.” (15)

Moreover, the wicked man cannot blame others for his condition; he has become wicked all on his own by virtue of the choices he has made:
A pit he delved, and dug it,
and he fell in the trap he made.” (16)

This is quite a different view than our own culture’s tendency to excuse crime and wrongdoing based on a theory that wicked acts are the result of exogenous circumstances—that the person who commits wrongdoing is some kind of victim. But as far as the psalmist is concerned, wicked deeds and words are the perpetrator’s responsibility and they eventually backfire::
His mischief comes down on his head,
on his skull his outrage descends.” (17).

Or as my father used to day, “The chickens always come home to roost.” Needless to say, our righteous psalmist is happy about God’s requirement for justice to eventually triumph:
I acclaim the Lord for His righteousness,
let me hymn the Lord’s name on high.” (18)

As should we. While it seems so often that injustice reigns, it would be insanely difficult to live in a world where there was no justice or righteousness at all.

Genesis 10:1–11:9: As we’ve observed before, without a belief in an afterlife, the only way one could be remembered is by one’s progeny, which is why Jews were so diligent about genealogy—right up to jesus’ own genealogy in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Inasmuch as the flood the story makes it clear there were only three sons of Noah (and their wives) survived, their respective descendants are listed. Here in Genesis we have the starkest example yet of how crucial the authors believed being able to trace one’s roots really was. Moreover, this particular genealogy traces not only individuals, but families and then entire nations.

One wonders if this list was solely compiled by the Jews writing Genesis, or if other nations of that time also recorded genealogies, especially ones dating back to the flood story, which as we’ve noted earlier had widespread currency beyond Israel. I suspect genealogies were important throughout most of civilization BCE—all following the basic structure we see here in Genesis: organized by families, families into tribes, and tribes into nations.

Along the way, some individuals Nimrod receive special attention: “He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; therefore it is said,Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the Lord.” (10:9) Perhaps this is because “he went into Assyria, and built Nineveh.” (10:11), a civilization which figures prominently in Israel’s later story.

The same for Caanan, another big player, whose geography included “the territory of the Canaanites extended from Sidon, in the direction of Gerar, as far as Gaza, and in the direction of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha.” (10:19). One’s eye does not skip over those famous cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, which will figure later in the book.

One comes to the end of chapter 10 with a clear sense that humankind is back from the almost dead—and back with a vengeance.

This of course leads to the Babel story which solves a particular problem. Inasmuch as the Noah story asserts everyone is descended from a single family, these descendants quite naturally all speak the same language. But by the time the authors wrote Genesis it was apparent that numerous languages abounded , requiring an explanation. They found the solution by writing about those folks who settled on the plain of Shinar and who started building a tower as an expression of their technological prowess as well as their pride: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” (11:4)

In fact, God is a bit worried about their technical prowess: “this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” (11:6) Which is certainly the direction our own culture has taken now that we possess the capability to create and modify life itself. We have created our own metaphorical towers of Babel.

The human pride and arrogance that distressed the antediluvian God is now again on full display. But God had promised not to wipe people out, so he resorts to Plan B: “let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” (11:7)

For the authors of Genesis, this a nice explanation that aligns their national story with reality on the ground. And we also benefit now by having the word “babble” passed down to us. In fact, what we witness every day in the print and electronic media reminds us that the echoes of Babel persist right to today.

Matthew 5:1–16: We arrive with Jesus on the hillside outside Capernaum. The crowd is already there, Jesus sits down and his disciples gather round as Jesus teaches the most famous list since the Decalogue. Just as the original Ten Commandments established the basis of Israel’s civilization, the Beatitudes form the ethical basis of the Kingdom of God, about which Jesus will have much much to say throughout this gospel.

Perhaps their most radical aspect of Jesus’ list is that its ordinances do not begin with “Thou shalt” or “Thou shalt not” but rather, the word “blessed.” This seems a clear indication of what Paul describes in Romans and Galatians as Christians living by a new and even more radical regime: the marvelous consequences of the operation of the Holy Spirit living within us.

The law is no longer an externality handed down from God above on stone tablets. Rather, Jesus is describing a state of being that comes from within one’s being. Our behavior has been turned inside out. We are blessed because we are. Just as God observed the goings-on at Babel, Jesus, as God on earth, knows well that we humans are disinclined to obey rules. Whatever we are, the fruits of out thoughts and deeds must arise from within us, nurtured by the Holy Spirit.

As many have observed before me, Jesus turns the moral order upside down. The poor in spirit rather than the connected or the powerful will inherit the kingdom—a direct assault on the religious establishment. The pure in heart, the emotionally downtrodden are more blessed than the perfectionist practice of the Pharisee sees God. And so forth.

From our vantage point 2000 years later we do not fully appreciate just how radical the Beatitudes were. These first words out of Jesus’ mouth define—and immediately energize— the conflict between Jesus and established religious order.

It’s important to observe that Jesus is not advocating some sort of “secret society” religion. Instead, his followers—we ourselves included— are to be “the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.” (14) Jesus is not advocating only a life of inward awareness of who we are, but also a life of action and witness:  “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (16) To be sure, there is being, which are the qualities the Beatitudes set out as our foundation. But there is doing as well.

Psalm 7:1–9; Genesis 9; Matthew 4:12–25

Originally posted 1/8/2016—edited and updated 1/8/2018

Psalm 7:1–11: The author’s ostensible motivation for writing this psalm of supplication is a certain Cush the Benjaminite, who is mentioned only here in the BIble. Given the psalm’s somewhat military flavor, we presume he is writing about the period of conflict between David and Saul. Perhaps Cush was Saul’s ally.

Whoever he was, he was doubtless part of the army pursuing David after his break with Saul. Writing in David’s voice, our author makes it clear David’s straits are pretty desperate:
Rescue me from all my pursuers and save me.
Lest like a lion they tear up my life
rend me, with no one to save me. (2b,3)

David asserts his innocence by daring God to allow him be killed in battle if he has done any of the wrongs that his enemies are accusing him of:
Lord, my God, if I have done this,
if there be wrongdoing in my hands.
If I paid back my ally with evil,
if I oppressed my foes without reason–
may the enemy pursue and overtake me…” (4-6a).

To intensify his protest of innocence, he tells God he’s even willing to die for it:
…and trample to earth my life
and make my glory dwell in the dust.” (6b)

Having asserted his innocence by establishing his willingness to die if he has inadvertently wronged Cush, (we presume), he turns to God. Now, he basically demands divine justice (and probably retribution):
Rise up, O Lord, in Your anger,
Loom high against the wrath of my enemies.” (7)

What’s intriguing here is that by virtue of his righteousness, David believes God owes him justice: “Grant me justice, Lord, as befits my righteousness
and as befits my innocence that is in me.”(9)

Does this mean that we can pray to God and demand justice when we’ve been wronged? Needless to say, these sorts of prayers are made every day, I think it is perfectly acceptable to pray for justice, but Jesus changed the rules about praying for God to wreak vengeance on our enemies.

That said, our psalmist observes one very true thing about God to bear in mind whenever we pray: “He searches hearts and conscience,
God is righteous.” (10)

We may be able to deceive others and even deceive ourselves, but there is no lying to God.

Genesis 9: Now that Noah and his family have landed once again on dry earth, God establishes some basic rules. It is impossible to read this chapter without seeing it as the basis of God’s more elaborate Covenant established with Moses many centuries later. In some ways, it seems it is Noah’s rescue forecasts the rescue of Israel from Egypt and eventually from Babylon that establishes Israel as God’s most-favored nation.

The rules set by God are clear. First, God sets mankind at the top of the food chain: “The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered.” (2) The only prohibition is eating the blood of any animal.

God uses the rainbow as a sign of this covenant, which seems so much more pleasant than the bloody sacrifices that will follow in the Temple. One wonders why God needs to be reminded of his promise, but then again, God seems to realize he erred in flooding the earth: “I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” (16) But we must note that this covenant is  between God and the natural world, of which humankind is but a part.  …A covenant which humankind has pretty well trashed by its depredations against nature down through the centuries.

We then have a further demonstration that the Noah story is a major part of Israel’s national story. Noah plants a vineyard and over-samples its products. He gets drunk (although we can hardly blame him for all he has gone through.) “Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father,” (22), who goes and tells his brothers who cover their naked father without looking. But Ham, having inadvertently seen his father’s nakedness receives only a curse for his troubles: “Cursed be Canaan;/ lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” (25) Which of course provides a handy justification for God’s subsequent commands to wipe out the inhabitants of Canaan when Israel re-enters the promised land with Joshua.

I hadn’t realized that at 950 years, Noah almost outlives Methuselah…

Matthew 4:12–25: Jesus departs Nazareth and begins his ministry at Capernaum by the sea of Galilee. Unlike Luke, Matthew skips right over the nasty business at the Nazareth synagogue where the membership tries to throw Jesus off a cliff for his apparent heresy. As is always the case with Matthew, Jesus’ every move has a direct connection to Scripture and there is no exception with regard to the location where Jesus begins his public ministry. His appearance in Capernaum,  is noted by Matthew as a fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
    on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
    have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
    light has dawned.” (14-16)

What I had not noticed before is that Jesus starts out by preaching exactly the same message as his mentor, John the Baptist: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (17)

Jesus, however, is certainly a more appealing character than his second cousin and his charisma is so strong is that all he has to do is say to Peter and Andrew, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” (19) They promptly abandon their livelihood for the uncertainty of becoming disciples of an as-yet unknown young preacher. Of course that turned out to be a world-changing decision for them–and for us.

It takes little time for Jesus’ fame to spread, and certainly healing the sick was a great attraction. But what’s different than John, is that Jesus’ fame spreads way beyond Israel and the Jews: “And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.” (25) This is Matthew’s subtle way of reminding the Jewish community to which he is writing that  Jesus came for everyone, for all humankind, not just the Jews.