Archives for February 2018

Psalm 27:1–6; Genesis 46:28–47:31; Matthew 16:21–28

Originally posted 2/19/2016—revised and updated 2/19/2018

Psalm 27:1–6: Although this is a psalm of supplication, it rings with confidence in the salvific power of God, especially in its famous opening verse:
The Lord is my light and my rescue.
Whom shall I fear?
The Lord is my life’s stronghold.
Of whom shall I be afraid? (1)

Notice that this psalm is not some theological abstraction; it is intensely personal: “my light;” “my rescue;” “my life’s stronghold;” “of whom shall be afraid?’ The psalmist’s confidence extends to the knowledge that his enemies cannot conquer him, but they will “trip and fall.” (2)

God’s sheltering power is greater than any army, and we can easily imagine David murmuring these words as the sun rises on the day of battle. Even in the midst of the battle clash, his confidence in God allows him to say,
Though a camp is marshalled against me,
my heart shall not fear.
Though battle is roused against me,
nonetheless do I trust. (3)

The natural question is, could we pray with the same trust and confidence as David even as we face challenges and trials that are nowhere near as great as those he faced on the battlefield?

Following these statements of confidence in God, our psalmist turns to supplication:
One thing do I ask of the Lord,
it is this that I seek—
that I dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life. (4a)

This is the temple of Jerusalem in the safety of sanctuary, but for us the “house” is our bodies, assuredly where the Holy Spirit is dwelling within us. It is not just temporary, but “all the days of my life.” (4b)

God’s protective power provides “shelter on the day of evil” (5a). Even though God “conceals me  in the recess of His tent,” (5b) we do not hide from the trials that surrounds us. Rather, the freedom from fear and the assurance of God’s protection brings courage.—even when things seem to be at their most hopeless.

We can see David looking out over the field of battle as he stands up and looks out from behind the safety of God’s rock and sees the challenge ahead:
And now my head rises
over my enemies around me.” (6a)

I pray that I will be open to this same marvelous assurance that will hide me in God’s tent, yet give me the courage to look out at the and “sing and hymn to the Lord.” (6b) and when I, too, ask,
Hear, O Lord, my voice when I call,
and grant me grace and answer me. (7)

Genesis 46:28–47:31: Joseph and his father meet at last and it is a sweet reunion as Joseph “presented himself to him [Jacob], fell on his neck, and wept on his neck a good while.” And Jacob says he can now die in peace. (46:29, 30)

Now that Jacob’s family had arrived in Egypt there is the question of “what next?” But ever resourceful and clever, Joseph tells Jacob and his brothers that there is a significant industry that the Egyptians either abhor ar are not very good at: shepherding and ranching. And he has a particular part of Egypt in mind for them to settle in: Goshen. So, Joseph instructs the brothers that when Pharaoh asks, “What is your occupation,” they are to respond, “‘Your servants have been keepers of livestock from our youth even until now, both we and our ancestors.’” (46:34)

Joseph brings five brothers to Pharaoh, who generously says, “The land of Egypt is before you; settle your father and your brothers in the best part of the land; let them live in the land of Goshen;” (47:6) Once again, Joseph’s plans are happily realized as Pharaoh even puts them in charge of his own livestock.

There is a poignant scene when Joseph brings his father to meet Pharaoh, who asks how old Jacob is.  Jacob tells him he’s 130 years old, but tells the king, “few and hard have been the years of my life. They do not compare with the years of the life of my ancestors during their long sojourn.” (47:9), which is certainly the case. In what appears to be an unprecedented act of cross-cultural diplomacy, Jacob then blesses Pharaoh.

Severe famine continues and Joseph, who has control over the entire grain inventory of Egypt, sells the grain to the hungry populace: “and Joseph gave them food in exchange for the horses, the flocks, the herds, and the donkeys.” (47:17. The following year, the situation is even more desperate and Joseph sells food in exchange for land, expanding Pharaoh’s landholdings to the point where only the Egyptian priests have any land left.

A new rule is established as well: “Joseph made it a statute concerning the land of Egypt, and it stands to this day, that Pharaoh should have the fifth.” (26) So, here is the root of tithing, only for the Egyptians, it was essentially a 20% tax. The famine became a great vehicle for Pharaoh to consolidate his power—all because he benefited from Joseph’s foresight and cleverness. And of course, Israel’s family benefits nicely, as well: “Thus Israel settled in the land of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; and they gained possessions in it, and were fruitful and multiplied exceedingly.” (47:27)

Jacob lives in Egypt for another 17 years. Jacob’s last request of Joseph is that he be buried in Canaan. Joseph responds, “I will do as you have said.” (47:30). This request to return to Canaan will be echoed in a far different way some 400 years later.

Matthew 16:21–28: Jesus begins to reveal to his disciples what lies ahead: “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (21) What’s interesting is that in private, Jesus is very straightforward about what’s going to happen, including the rather unbelievable news of a bodily resurrection. Peter, understandably in my view, is in massive denial about this: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” (22) But rather than being sweetly therapeutic, Jesus retorts unsympathetically, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (23).

Yes, Jesus is correct theologically, but this is definitely one of those reminders why being Jesus’ disciple can be challenging at best and irritating at worst. Which I think applies to us as well as it did Peter. A walk with Jesus is not all buddy-buddy. He asks us to hear and do challenging things.

After what must have seemed like a dark fairy tale to his disciples, Jesus continues in the same (from a human standpoint) famously negative vein: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (24,25) To accept these words requires a massive shift, not just in outlook, but in a total rearrangement of one’s life. As Oswald Chambers would have it, we must abandon to Jesus our own self-centered lives and any thought of control over our life.

Finally, Jesus goes totally eschatological on his disciples, speaking of heavenly events to come:  For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.” (27). This is definitely an ‘end-times’ forecast, and a much more spectacular replay of how Jesus arrived on earth: not in visible glory, but as a tiny baby, nonetheless, as Luke has it, accompanied by a chorus of angels.

Well, that’s fine. Jesus will come someday in the far off future in a cloud of glory. But then he says something that has confused not only his disciples, but all of us in the centuries ever since: “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (28) That statement seems to be a forecast a near-term return since he makes it clear that some of the folks he’s talking to will still be alive.  But I wonder if he’s actually referring to his Ascension where he returns into his kingdom rather than from his kingdom, which certainly occurred in the lifetime of his disciples? The participle “coming” is ambiguous enough to accommodate both directions, I think.  [This is one of those times when I wish I could read this in the original Koine Greek…]

One thing we do know: After Jesus ascended he did not return in visible glory during the lifetime of his disciples, although that same near-term expectation is certainly what creates the sense of  Jesus’ imminent return in Paul’s letters and elsewhere in the New Testament. Instead, as Jesus promised in the Upper Room (John 16, 17), he sent the Holy Spirit instead. As we note whenever we say the Apostles or Nicene Creed, we still await Jesus’ return in glory. We wait with expectation, but we will never know the timing of this wonderful event, so it’s best not to obsess about the Return and in the meantime, to go about Kingdom business here on earth.

 

 

 

Psalm 26; Genesis 46:1–27; Matthew 16:5–20

Originally posted 2/18/2016—revised and updated 2/17/2018

Psalm 26: Like several of the preceding psalms, notably 23, the psalmist sees life as a metaphorical walk through frequently treacherous territory. This psalm’s journey begins with a righteous walk with God:
Judge me, O Lord.
For I have walked in my whole wholeness,
And the Lord I have trusted.
I shall not stumble.” (1)

In fact, he challenges God to throw everything at him. Nevertheless, he remains committed to following this path of righteousness:
“Test me, O Lord, and try me.
Burn pure my conscience and my heart.
For Your kindness is before my eyes
and I shall walk in Your truth.” (2, 3)

He reminds God that by following him he means he has avoided the temptation manifested in the company of the wrong sorts of sinful people. In fact, I think he comes off as just a bit too defensive in his protestations:
I have not sat with lying folk
nor with furtive men have dealt.
I despised the assembly of evildoers,
nor with the wicked have I sat.” (4,5)

This uprightness is proper preparation for him to worship, presumably at the temple in Jerusalem:
Let me wash my palms in cleanness
and go round Your altar, Lord,
to utter aloud a thanksgiving
and to recount all Your wonders.” (6,7)

At the temple worshipping God is certainly where our poet wants to be—again a bit too enthusiastically, IMHO, to the point where it starts to sound a tad rote and artificial:
Lord, I love the abode of Your house
and the place where Your glory dwells.” (8)

And because of how well he has followed God he asks that should he die it would be with God, not all those evil people, especially those who would conspire against God or against King David:
Do not take my life’s breath with offenders
nor with blood-guilty men my life,
in whose hands there are plots,
their right hand full of bribes.” (9, 10)

Rather, he will “walk in my wholeness./ Redeem me, grant me grace.” (11) Having traced the path of righteousness, the psalm concludes with him standing in the place where he can now worship God with a clear conscience:
My foot stands on level ground.
In the chorus I bless the Lord.” (12)

There is no question the psalmist is sincere that in having followed God’s path of righteousness he has earned the right to worship. But the phrase, “grant me grace” at verse 11 causes us to realize how much better we have it under the terms of the New Covenant: we do not have to ask for grace (which really isn’t grace, is it?) Rather, we have received grace through the gift of Jesus Christ. Grace is something we have been given, not something we had to earn through our good works. And our expression of gratitude for this gift is indeed to walk the same path of the poet avoiding evil, but happily we are free of the anxiety have not having done it well enough.

Genesis 46:1–27: Jacob takes up Joseph’s and the Pharaoh’s offer to emigrate to Egypt. The authors assure us that this move is the will of God by noting that “God spoke to Israel in visions of the night, and said, “Jacob, Jacob.” And he said, “Here I am.” (2) [One wonders why God calls him Jacob instead of Israel.] God specifically points out that this he has approved this plan and that he will keep his promise of creating a great nation, only now down in Egypt, telling Jacob/Israel “I am God,  the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there.” (3)

So, Jacob and company pull up roots and take his entire family and all their possessions to Egypt. Because of the importance of genealogy to Israel, the author lists everyone of Jacob’s offspring, including his grandchildren. The brothers of course are the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel.

For the readers of Genesis in Babylonian exile, this list is crucial: they can trace their lineage all the way back to Jacob and therefore to Abraham. It is also a reminder that the nation Israel came into being in what ultimately became exile in Egypt. So, too, they are assured that they have retained their identity as a nation while exiled in Babylon many centuries later.

The author is careful to note the legitimacy of every child who became the ancestors of the nation: “All the persons belonging to Jacob who came into Egypt, who were his own offspring, not including the wives of his sons, were sixty-six persons in all.” (26) Our author then adds in Joseph, his wife, and his two Egyptian-born children arriving at the significant total of 70 , which represents completeness: “all the persons of the house of Jacob who came into Egypt were seventy.” (27) In short the migration of Israel starts out God-approved and with high hopes.

Matthew 16:5–20: Matthew’s almost obsessive focus on bread continues as Jesus says, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (6). The disciples take this quite literally, believing Jesus is warning them not to eat bread that may have been prepared or handled by these religious people. Jesus appears moderately annoyed that after the feeding of the 5000 and then the 4000, that they still do understand that the yeast Jesus is speaking about is metaphorical.

He says there’s no problem with getting physical bread, rather testily reminding them, “Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered?” (9, 10) The yeast metaphor Jesus is using is the malign influence of the Pharisees and Saducees. We can almost hear Peter saying, “Oh, now I get it!” Matthew is more abstract, telling us that “they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (12)

Now we come to what is at once one of the hinge points of the Gospel—and one of the most controversial. Jesus starts off by asking a fairly simple question, that on its face appears to be simply about Jewish history: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (13). The disciples ffer an array of candidates: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah. I suspect that among the twelve even some of the less well known prophets were mentioned. Haggai, perhaps?

But then Jesus spring his real question on the hapless disciples: “But who do you say that I am?” (15). Peter, being Peter, answers directly: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (16) Jesus is pleased and replies, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” (17) In short, Peter gets it not because of his native intelligence but because he is now guided by the Holy Spirit.

At this point Jesus gives what is the most profound blessing of his earthly ministry with a pun right in the middle of it: “And I tell you, you are Peter [Petros], and on this rock [petra] I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” (18) Debate has raged for centuries about just who is this “rock” on which the church is founded. The Catholic church reads it directly, and therefore Peter is the founder, the first pope since he has been given the “keys of the kingdom of heaven.” (19).

Protestants, on the other hand believe that Jesus is being self-referential and “this rock” is Jesus himself. The question then is, who is the “you” in the next verse, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (19) Is it Peter himself or is it the church at large? My own belief is that Jesus is being self-referential. After all, as Paul points out again and again, Jesus is the bridegroom and the church is the bride of Christ. Thus, there’s little question in my mind that Jesus is the rock upon whom the church is built and grew.

Psalm 25:8–22; Genesis 45; Matthew 15:29–16:4

Originally posted 2/17/2016—revised and updated 2/16/2018

Psalm 25:8–22:  The latter half of this Psalm is strongly reminiscent of Psalm 23, but is far more didactic, lacking the more famous tenderness and imagery of that more famous Psalm as it describes how God leads. Here, those being led are those lacking social status:
He leads the lowly in justice
and teaches the lowly His way.” (9)

This psalmist is clear as to the requirements that those being led by God must possess:
All the Lord’s paths are kindness and truth
for the keepers of His pact and His precepts.” (10)

This of course is theologically true. We follow God because we wish to obey him.

In the midst of this theological discourse, the psalmist, who is definitely feeling deeply guilty, interjects his plea for forgiveness with some desperation:
For the sake of You name, O Lord,
may You forgive my crime, which is great.” (11).

But he quickly returns to his more philosophical tone:
Whosoever the man who fears the Lord,
He will guide him in the way he should choose.” (12)

This is an interesting take on the nature of free will for those of us who follow God. We are free to choose, but because we are following God, we are much more likely to make a proper choice that keeps us on the path of righteousness. And for the person who does so,
His life will repose in bounty,
and his seed will inherit the earth.” (13)

Once again, we encounter that strong theme of a man’s worth determined by how he is remembered by his progeny.

The psalmist reinforces this general theology of following God’s law: “The Lord’s counsel is for those who fear Him” (14a) and reminds himself that
My eyes at all times are on the Lord,
for He draws my feet from the net.” (15)

Then once again, he interrupts his theological discourse with a personal supplication:
Turn to me and grant me grace
for alone and afflicted am I.” (16)

At this point our poet devotes the reminder of the psalm to his personal supplication as we discover more about the nature of his difficulties:
See my enemies who are many
and with outrageous hatred despise me.” (19)

As always, the psalmist concludes by asserting his obedience to God and on a note of hope that God will indeed answer:
May uprightness, wholeness, preserve me,
for in You I do hope.” (21)

And it is indeed that hope on which our faith is built: that blessed assurance that God is indeed listening to us and especially to our pleas.

Genesis 45:  Joseph can remain silent no more. We come at last to his Big Reveal. Even though he throws everyone but his brothers out of the room his weeping can be heard by the Egyptians and even Pharaoh. He announces his identity to his brothers with utter simplicity: “I am Joseph.” And without taking a breath, asks in what can only be described as desperation: “Is my father still alive?” (3a)  His brothers cannot believe him, “so dismayed were they at his presence.” (3b).

Regaining his composure, Joseph asks them to come closer and gives them the details that only he would know. And he tells them, “do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.” (5) He elaborates, “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.” (7) and a third time to make sure his brother —and we—understand that the events that began with the brothers’ evil act he again asserts, “it was not you who sent me here, but God.” (8)

We cannot help but notice the parallels between Joseph and Jesus Christ. The people of Israel may have condemned Jesus to death, but it was God who had sent him. And of course, in the same way that Joseph’s arrival and the vents in Egypt ensure the survival of the root of the Jewish race, he has also ensured the survival of the Egyptians—Gentiles all. Just as Jesus has come and given his life so that both Jew and Gentile may live.

Pharaoh soon learns who the brothers are, and who Joseph really is. The king generously invites the entire extended family to Egypt, “father and your households and come to me, so that I may give you the best of the land of Egypt, and you may enjoy the fat of the land.’” (18) [Oh, that’s where that phrase comes from!] Which they do, although this ultimately leads to severe complications four centuries down the road.

This beautiful story concludes with two poignant scenes: Joseph and Benjamin—the true blood brothers of the same mother—embrace. And the final scene in Canaan, where we are allowed to witness Jacob’s reaction when he hears the good news from the returning brothers: “the spirit of their father Jacob revived. Israel said, “Enough! My son Joseph is still alive. I must go and see him before I die.’” (28)

Why do we love this story so much? Because it is a hero’s quest. Joseph has lost everything, and goes through significant trials but a far greater man emerges from those trials; generosity ensues; and a happy reunion occurs. Joseph was in effect buried in a tomb-like pit, but that pit leads to a new life for Joseph—and for his family. Which is exactly a picture of Jesus Christ, who lost everything on our behalf, but has restored life to us just as Joseph restored life to his family. This is indeed grace in action.

Matthew 15:29–16:4:

Following the story of the Gentile woman, Matthew provides us with a summary of Jesus’ many healing activities with a keen focus on the crowd’s reaction: “so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.” (15:31) Notice that rather than raising Jesus himself the crowd correctly praises “the God of Israel,” (just as Joseph did). This is Matthew’s assertion that the crowd perceived what the Pharisees never did: Jesus is not some ordinary magician performing healing tricks. Unlike those in power who saw that power threatened, the hoi polloi understood that it was the power of God himself who acted through this extraordinary rabbi.

Meals are always important to Matthew, and now he writes of the second hungry crowd: the feeding of the 4000. This time there was no option of sending everyone into town to buy lunch. They are in a remote spot and the disciples, who apparently forgot what happened before at the feeding of the 5000, once ask, “Where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd?” (32) This time it’s a few fish and seven loaves of bread. “And all of them ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full.” (37)

So why does Matthew essentially repeat this feeding story which occurs in pretty much the same way? If we step back and look at the events which occur between the feedings, Matthew is making the point that Jesus provides sustenance at every societal level and for every person, whether Jew or Gentile. After all, when the Canaanite woman came to Jesus, he says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (15:26) and she then refers to crumbs at the table. The clear message is that Jesus is the source of life—and for Matthew, both physically and spiritually.

Jesus has become a true celebrity and the Pharisees and Sadducees decide to test him to see if the reports about him are true or if he is just another magic-working charlatan. They demand to see “a sign from heaven,” (16:1) and in one of the more humorous interactions he has with the religious leaders, Jesus tells them about how to forecast weather.

But they “cannot see the signs of the times,” which is exactly how it is today: American culture goes on its merry way, but just as Jesus adds the ominous note that “no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” (16:4)—a clear reference to his death and resurrection—so, too, we are just like the Pharisees, blind to the implications of where our own culture is inexorably headed.

Psalm 25:1–7; Genesis 44; Matthew 15:21–28

Originally posted 2/16/2016—revised and updated 2/15/2018

Psalm 25:1–7: Unlike many psalms of supplication, which wonder where God is, this one begins on a more positive note of trust in God and implicitly that God is listening to him:
“To You, O Lord, I lift my heart.
My God in you I trust.” (1, 2a)

He wishes to avoid public shame, although he does not say what the cause of this shame might be:
Let me not be shamed,
let my enemies not gloat over me.” (2b)

Shame is something both we and psalmists don’t like to talk about, yet it is a primary feeling that everyone of us knows too well. The psalmist emphasizes how much he wishes to avoid that dreadful state—especially since he trusts God. It would be far better for his enemies to feel this shame:
Yes, let all who hope in You not be shamed.
Let the treacherous be shamed, empty-handed.” (3)

It appears that our psalmist believes that one way to be rescued from this shame is to deepen his knowledge of how God operates:
Your ways, O Lord, inform me,
Your paths instruct me.” (4)

As in Psalm 23, this process is a matter of being led by God, rigorously following God’s path: “Lead me in Your truth and instruct me,
for You are the God of my rescue.
In You do I hope every day.” (5)

By following God’s ways, the psalmist feels he can now ask for God’s forgiveness—the same forgiveness he has received in the past:
Recall Your mercies, O Lord,
and Your kindnesses—they are forever.” (6)

Our poet admits he has sinned and prays that God will forget those sins and instead in his unsurpassed mercy will remember him for the God-following man he has become:
My youth’s offenses and my crimes recall not.
In Your kindness, recall me—You;
for the sake of Your goodness, O Lord.” (7)

This psalm beautifully lays out the structure of a prayer supplication. We look to God for guidance and we acknowledge our past sins rather than being in denial about them. Prayer is more than just an episodic one-off pleas for forgiveness. Rather it is a continuous process. It is what we do as a basic part of our daily walk with God and aligning our very being with him. And in that alignment God enables us to cast off our shame and walk free. If course that’s the irony, isn;t it? So many people believe that freedom comes in rejecting God. But sooner or later they will discover that is a dead end path.

Genesis 44: The party is over and Joseph commands his servants to fill the brother’s sacks with grain and “put each man’s money in the top of his sack.” (1) Then, he directs them to put his expensive silver cup in Benjamin’s sack. The brothers leave and then Joseph tells his men to overtake the hapless brothers, accusing them of theft. The servant does so and the brothers are completely befuddled: “Why does my lord speak such words as these? Far be it from your servants that they should do such a thing!” (7) They offer to become Joseph’s slaves if the cup is found. Of course it’s found in Benjamin’s sack and the distraught brothers return to Joseph, throwing themselves at his feet. Joseph responds that they should know “that one such as I can practice divination” (15), i.e. he would know the cup was stolen so they were stupid to have taken it.

Uon returning to Joseph, the brothers desperately protest their innocence and Judah asks what I believe is the central question of this story: “What can we say to my lord? What can we speak? How can we clear ourselves?” (16) He acknowledges that all the brothers must become Joseph’s slaves. Joseph appears to relent and says that only Benjamin must remain as a slave. This of course is a question each of us must ask at some point in our lives when we realize we are in a hopeless situation.

In desperation, Judah pleads for Joseph to release his young brother, describing how he had to beg his father, Jacob, to allow Benjamin to accompany them on their mission because Joseph had demanded it. If he were to return to Jacob without Benjamin, and if “he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die; and your servants will bring down the gray hairs of your servant our father with sorrow to Sheol.” (31) Judah then offers to be Joseph’s slave in place of his brother, telling him, “For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the suffering that would come upon my father.” (34).

The question is, why is Jospeh making the brothers suffer this way? I think it was because Joseph knew he had to put his brothers to a severe test and see if their change of heart was genuine. Were they still the cruel brothers that had stripped him and sold him into slavery, or had they truly repented of their crimes and finally become honest men?  We see a clear indication of the latter in the poignancy of Judah’s description of how Jacob had begged them not to take Benjamin.  Further, there is a hint of the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ on our behalf when Judah offers to replace Benjamin as the slave. I hope that Joseph sees that his brothers are truly changed men. 

Matthew 15:21–28: For me, the story of the Canaanite woman lies at the center of Jesus’ healings for a couple of reasons. The first is the power of persistence. Much to the great annoyance of the disciples, the woman keeps making a ruckus and they say, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” (23)  Jesus seems almost to agree, but rather than just sending her away, tells her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (24)  But this Gentile woman won’t give up; she kneels down and pleads, “Lord, help me.” Jesus replies rather harshly that she seems not to be getting his message about the exclusivity of his healing ministry, telling her, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (26). The woman knows she is one of those dogs, and she does something remarkable. She is the only person in the Gospel that pushes back on Jesus with one of the greatest lines in this gospel: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” (27).

Jesus acknowledges the woman’s persistent faith and heals her daughter.  Her persistence paid off. Her first prayer wasn’t answered, so she pushes on with the next one. She never gives up. I think this is a nice reflection of what our psalmist in today’s reading suggests: Call on God persistently.

But I think the most important reason for the centrality of this story is that the very Jewish Matthew makes it crystal clear that Jesus’ healing and grace is for all people, Jews and Gentiles alike, not just the Jews. Yes, the Jews may have been God’s chosen people and Jesus’ primary audience, but they were not God’s exclusive people. Matthew reminds his readers that God is the God of all humanity and Jesus therefore is for all of us as well.

I’m sure there were a number of Jews who accepted Jesus as their Messiah who were offended to think Gentiles could lay claim to Jesus. But here it is. Gentiles may be second in line to Jesus, but our faith in him saves us just as effectively as it did for the Canaanite woman.

Psalm 24; Genesis 43; Matthew 15:10–20

Originally posted 2/15/2016—revised and updated 2/14/2018

Psalm 24: This psalm opens with a reminder of God is the Creator; the source of all life, and that he is ruler over all:
The Lord’s is the earth and its fullness,
The world and the dwellers within it.
For He on the seas did found it,
and on the torrents set it firm.” (2)

Following this introduction, the psalm takes on a liturgical structure of question and response. We can almost see the pilgrims ascending the Temple Mount, their leader asking the question and the congregation replying in unison— exactly as we would read psalms responsively today.

The first questions deal with the qualifications of the people heading to worship as the questioner asks,
Who shall go up to the mount of the Lord,
and who shall stand up in His holy place?” (3).

The congregation answers,
The clean of hands and the pure of heart,
who has given no oath in a lie
and has sworn not in deceit.
” (4)

The congregational answer includes the intriguing phrase,
This is the generation of His seekers,
those who search out your presence, Jacob.” (6)

Yes, they are certainly seeking God, and in “Jacob,” which is also “Israel, I believe they are seeking out their own roots and identity. For us reading the psalm today, it suggests that we not only seek God, but that we also seek to understand our own selves—where we come from and where we are going. Self-awareness is a crucial aspect of being a worshipper of God. If we do not have insight into our own being we can hardly expect to gain insight into God’s.

The next question is of course the one Handel asks in his Messiah: “Who is the king of glory?” (8a) This short question has an obvious answer: “The Lord, most potent and valiant.” (8b) Then the psalm takes on a militaristic aspect: “The Lord Who is valiant in battle.” (8c)  At this point the pilgrims’ walk becomes a mighty victory procession entering the city fresh from conquering the enemy. At its head is God entering the city of heaven as conquering king:
Lift up your heads, O gates,
and lift up, eternal portals,
that the king of glory may enter.” (9)

The final liturgical question answers itself:
Who is he, the king of glory?
The Lord of armies, He is the king of glory.” (10)

It is psalms like these that remind us of God’s magnificence and power. That he would stoop to love us and rescue us through Jesus Christ is a made all the more remarkable in the light of his awesome power and glory. If we ever needed a reminder of why God is the object of our worship, it is right here.

Genesis 43: The famine continues in Canaan and it’s time to head back to Egypt and buy more food. Judah reminds his father that “The man solemnly warned us, saying, ‘You shall not see my face unless your brother is with you.’” (3). Jacob (here called Israel) accuses Judah of revealing more information to “the man” than necessary, particularly the fact that there was another younger brother, Benjamin. Judah replies that there is something about the mysterious Egyptian that seemed to give him deep knowledge about the family. After Judah says he will be surety for Benjamin, Jacob finally relents, insisting they bring presents—”a little balm and a little honey, gum, resin, pistachio nuts, and almonds” (11)— as well as double the money they had mysteriously showed up in their bags on the last trip.

How very much like Jacob we are when we are asked to give up the one thing that is most precious to us. We resist at first, but just as Judah stood surety for his young brother, Jesus stands in for us before God, when we relent and hand control of our lives over to Jesus.

The brothers arrive in Egypt. Joseph sees the brothers with Benjamin at a distance and instructs his servants to bring the men into his house prepare a feast. The brothers are afraid, thinking the worst, telling Joseph’s steward: “It is because of the money, replaced in our sacks the first time, that we have been brought in, so that he may have an opportunity to fall upon us, to make slaves of us and take our donkeys.” (18) The steward assures them Joseph has been paid, and suggests “your God and the God of your father must have put treasure in your sacks for you; I received your money.” (23) Notice that the steward reminds them that their God is the source of this generosity.  Then Simeon is brought out and there must certainly have been enormous relief on the part of all the brothers..

Joseph finally appears and after exchanging greetings with the brothers, he sees Benjamin. “Overcome with affection for his brother, and he was about to weep. So [Joseph] went into a private room and wept there.” (30) Seated for lunch, the brothers are “amazed” that the place cards at the are in the exact birth order of the brothers. Benjamin gets 5 times the lunch portions as any other brother. [One suspects this is because Benjamin was a growing teenager.]

The story’s drama is heightened by Joseph not yet revealing himself, but with various clues such as the seating order at lunch, the brothers must have suspected something.

Why does this story resonate so deeply with us today? Joseph is an archetype of Jesus. As Jesus makes clear later in Matthew, we often don’t realize he is sitting right next to us. We receive blessings from him, whose source—like the gold in the brother’s bags—we do not understand, but ultimately we realize it can come only from God. Jesus asks us to do difficult things just as Joseph demanded that the brothers bring Benjamin with them back to Egypt. But above all, Jesus invites us to sit down and sup with him. And like the brothers, we are merry in the Jesus’ saving grace.

Matthew 15:10–20: We have observed many times that in the OT and especially the Psalms speech is the source of great evil. In the dispute about not washing hands before a meal, Jesus reminds the crowd of this truth: “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” (11) As is their wont, the disciples point out the obvious: “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” (12). Jesus blithely dismisses their concerns, noting that it is God who will make the final judgement.

He goes on to make the famous observation, “Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” (14) For us, it is false religiosity of the type on display by the Pharisees, that causes so many people to fall into the pit of despair. Today, it is the prosperity gospel of Osteen et al that insists if we are not getting rich and receiving “blessings” it is because we have sinned that exactly reflects the quid pro quo thinking of the Pharisees.

Peter, being Peter, asks for a deeper explanation, which Jesus patiently gives him (and us) via a physiology lesson about digestion: “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (17). Far worse, he asserts, are the words that “come out of the mouth [which] proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.” (18) Notice that Jesus also gives a moral physiology lesson here: it is the heart—the seat of our self-will—that is in unending conflict with our conscience, and which is the source of what comes out of our mouths. Then in a very Paul-like gesture, Jesus provides us with a list of the sins of which we are so readily capable: “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.” (19, 20a). Perhaps most lethal of all is “evil intentions,” for all other actions arise from that one. 

So, while our mouths may be the medium of communication, it is our heart and its intentions that define who we are. Which is why we ask Jesus to take up residence in our heart and not our minds.

Psalm 23; Genesis 42; Matthew 14:25–15:9

Originally posted 2/13/2016—revised and updated 2/13/2018

Psalm 23: What possibly can be said about this most beloved of Psalms that hasn’t been said or written already? The metaphor of God as shepherd occurs in many other psalms, but here there is a powerful simplicity and tenderness that captures our hearts. I am unsure as to why this psalm is read mostly at funerals because it is entirely life-affirming and really has far more to do with how God guides and shepherds us through the vicissitudes of our lives than as a benediction at life’s end.

If we’re willing to see ourselves as God’s sheep, the psalmist highlights the various events and trials that we encounter during our life and describes in this greatest of metaphors how God aids us.

  • It is God who ensures that I will not lack for the necessities of life: “I shall not want.” (1b)
  • God brings us rest and reflection when we’re exhausted and discouraged: “In grass meadows He makes me lie down/ by quiet waters he guides me.” (2)
  • God brings healing from emotional and physical disease: “My life He brings back.” (3a)
  • God guides us away for  evil and toward righteousness: “He leads me on the  pathways of justice/ for His name’s sake.” (3b)
  • God is our protector in dangerous times and places: “Though I walk in the vale of death’s shadow,/ I fear no harm/ for You are with me.” (4a)
  • God is our guide and comfort in the darkest of times, directing our life with both gentleness and vigor: “Your rod and Your staff—/ it is they that console me.” (4b)
  • God protects us from our enemies: “You set out a table before me/ in the face of my foes.” (5a)
  • God generously supplies us with our physical and spiritual needs—even to the point of excess: “You moisten my head with oil,/ my cup overflows.” (5b)

In short, this psalm addresses just about every way in which God is faithfully at our side in our quotidian lives. This psalm is no benediction, but a celebration of God’s presence in every aspect of our life—and a beautiful reminder of how much richer and blessed our lives are with God alongside us than without him. After reading this psalm it’s difficult to imagine the emptiness of a life that has intentionally rejected God and believes we humans are simply an accident of evolution.

Genesis 42: In one of the most dramatic stories in the Bible, all of Joseph’s brothers except Benjamin travel to Egypt to buy food. “`” (8) Joseph accuses them of being spies, which they vehemently deny. He locks them in prison for three days [once again that three-day theme of metaphorical burial we see again and again in these stories.]. He releases them but demands one brother remains as a hostage until they return with their youngest brother.

What we never heard in Sunday school is the remorse of the brothers for how they have wronged Joseph and their father: “They said to one another, “Alas, we are paying the penalty for what we did to our brother; we saw his anguish when he pleaded with us, but we would not listen. That is why this anguish has come upon us.” (21) Which leads to internecine sniping: “Then Reuben answered them, “Did I not tell you not to wrong the boy? But you would not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.” (22) The drama is intensified because this conversation occurs in front of Joseph, who understands every word spoken. The brother’s words affect him so deeply that “He turned away from them and wept.” (24)

What were Joseph’s feelings here? Was he angry? Did he feel a satisfying sense of justice? In his tears I think he realized that despite the evil his brothers had committed against him, he longed for his family and his father. And his order for them to return to him with Benjamin certainly suggests he wanted desperately to meet his youngest brother. In short, I think Joseph wanted to forgive them for the wrongs they had committed and he is feeling intense compassion for them, which he cannot yet reveal.

The brothers return to Canaan and to Jacob with sacks of wheat and unknown to them, sacks of money, which understandably causes great distress lest they be accused of stealing it. Jacob accuses the brothers, “I am the one you have bereaved of children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and now you would take Benjamin. All this has happened to me!” (36). Reuben promises to kill his own two sons should they not carry out their mission to return with Benjamin. But Jacob refuses, telling the brothers, “If harm should come to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol.” (38) At this point things seem to be at an impasse.

In addition to its compelling drama, we see that Joseph is an archetype of Jesus, who comes to earth among brothers (us) and is rejected. The scene between brothers and Joseph reveals the deep compassion that Jesus feels for each of us. And like the sacks full of money, he brings us unexpected rewards. As we know that the brothers’ lives ultimately will be transformed by Joseph, so too our lives are transformed by Jesus.

Matthew 14:25–15:9: Jesus walks on water out to the disciples’ boat, creating enormous fear, which he quickly disperses with the famous words, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” (14:27) Which of course is Jesus’ word for all of us. Ever impetuous, Peter volunteers to walk on water, which he does successfully until he actually realizes what he is doing, becomes afraid, and begins sinking. Jesus immediately rescues him. This of course is a dramatic illustration of the crucial importance of trusting God. It is also a wonderful illustration of the theme of today’s psalm, which speaks of the reassuring protection God brings to every aspect of our lives. This incident cements the faith of the disciples that Jesus is who he says he is: “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (14:33) Matthew then presents us proof of Jesus’ bona fides in the scene at Gennesaret of healing all—even those who “[touched] even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.” (14:36)

In what appears to be an official delegation sent by temple officials, “Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem.” (15:1) What’s interesting here is that they do not accuse Jesus directly of breaking the law (probably because they had no evidence), but rather to accuse his disciples on what seems to be a rather trivial offense: “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” (15:2)

In a marvelous rebuff, Jesus neither explains nor makes excuses but reverses the charges, asking them “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (15:3) Instead he cites the commandments, “‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’” (14:4) He then points out that rather than support their own parents, the Pharisees effectively dismiss their personal responsibilities when say to them, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ (15:5) Worse, they believe that absolves them from honoring their parents. Then, Jesus really lays it on them: “So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! ” (15:6, 7). As icing on the rebuttal cake, Jesus quotes Isaiah, “‘This people honors me with their lips,/ but their hearts are far from me.” (15:8)

This story should be read frequently in church, which frequently stands rightly accused of being filled with rule-bound hypocrites, who too often use their twisted interpretation of Scripture to escape responsibility to  exclude those they deem unworthy or to serve the poor and be an effective presence in the community. These “country club churches” prove that the habits and attitudes of Pharisees and scribes are still very much with us.

Psalm 22:29–32; Genesis 41:17–57; Matthew 14:15–24

Originally posted 2/12/2016—revised and updated 2/12/2018

Psalm 22:29–32: This benedictory conclusion of this remarkable psalm picks up the theme of worship in the preceding verses, observing that whether or not the nations know him, God nevertheless rules over all civilization—something worth remembering as we read/watch the unrelenting turmoil in the world today:
For the Lord’s is the kingship—
and He rules over the nations.” (29)

Our poet even extends this worship to (what Paul calls) the principalities and powers of the underworld. This verse seems to be a puzzling exception to the general rule in the Psalms that the dead, being dead, cannot worship God. Yet, here is exactly that. The dead are also worshipers:
Yes, to Him will bow down
all the netherworld’s sleepers.
Before him will kneel
all who go down to the dust
whose life is undone.” (30)

Returning back up to the earth’s surface, our poet gazes far into the future as he expresses confidence that his progeny will worship and serve God with the same fervor as he:
My seed will serve Him.
It will be told to the master for generations to come.
They will proclaim His bounty to a people aborning,
for [all] he has done.” (31, 32)

As we have observed many times already, for the Jews it is a person’s descendants who ensure whether or not he or she will be remembered down through the ages. Here at the very conclusion of this psalm which began on such a desperate note that God had forsaken him, our psalmist ends looking far into the future, confident that generations to come will know that God is always at their side and will worship him.

The trajectory of this marvelous psalm reflects a path of spiritual discovery from feeling completely abandoned by God and desperate up to the heights of assurance that God will not only be with the psalmist himself, but also for all the generations yet to come. It is a brilliant encapsulation of life as a walk of growing faith in who God is—and more importantly, the fact that God is with us.

Genesis 41:17–57: Today’s reading opens with the Pharaoh describing his dream to Joseph, who has just announced to Pharaoh and his court, “It is not I; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” (16) The first dream is seven fat cows being consumed by “seven other cows came up after them, poor, very ugly, and thin.” (19) Pharaoh’s second dream involves the same fat/ thin theme, only this time, it’s “seven ears of grain, full and good, growing on one stalk,” are consumed by “seven ears, withered, thin, and blighted by the east wind.” (23).

Joseph explains that “the dreams are one, and the same” and emphasizes that it is “God [who] has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do.” (25). The prisoner then explains that the dream means seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of famine. Once again, invoking God as the source of his insight, Joseph explains the fact that “the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about.” (32).

While Joseph’s seemingly effortless interpretation is impressive what is even more impressive is that Joseph suggests to Pharaoh precisely what he should do about the upcoming 14 years: “therefore let Pharaoh select a man who is discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land, and take one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven plenteous years.” (33, 34) and that this overseer should supervise the storage of that food so that it “shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine that are to befall the land of Egypt.” (36)

After looking around his court, the Pharaoh asks, “Can we find anyone else like this—one in whom is the spirit of God?” (38) Of course the answer is standing right in front of him. Remarkably, the Pharaoh immediately accepts that Joseph’s God is authoritative and has bestowed this wisdom on the young man standing in front of him: “Since God has shown you all this, there is no one so discerning and wise as you.” (39) The Pharaoh appoints Joseph as the man in charge of the program and at the age of thirty, Joseph ascends to enormous power as Pharaoh’s second-in-command, enjoying all the perks that come with high office, including a wife.

Joseph’s food program is wildly successful and he “stored up grain in such abundance—like the sand of the sea—that he stopped measuring it; it was beyond measure.” (49) In the meantime, he has two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. In the names of his sons we encounter Joseph’s autobiography. Manasseh means “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house.” (51). In short, Joseph has begun a new life; the old one is no more. Ephraim means “For God has made me fruitful in the land of my misfortunes.” (52), which is certainly the case.

So, does Joseph have relevance for us beyond being a great story? I think that Joseph’s journey against his will from an old life to a startlingly better life represents our own Christian walk when [in the spirit of Oswald Chambers] we abandon everything, including our egos, to God and let God take us where he will. Throughout his entire story, Joseph constantly trusts God and just as important is always clear to all that anything he is able to accomplish comes straight from God.

Joseph has  turned everything completely over to God, never forgetting that it is God who gets all the credit for what has happened. Joseph has never said, ‘Hey, I’m pretty good,’ nor has he ever indicated that he is master of his fate. Would that we do the same.

Matthew 14:15–24: We witness the earth-bound managerial expertise of the disciples when they come to Jesus after a long day of preaching and suggest that he “send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” (15). I know if I were in the same place, I would say exactly the same thing. After all, it’s simple logistics. People need to eat. But Jesus is always thinking beyond logistics and sees a entire other dimension when he replies, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” (16). I’m pretty sure the disciples felt that at this moment Jesus was being an unrealistic dreamer with his head in the clouds.

Logisticians that they are, they’ve already taken a picnic inventory of the crowd and know that only two fish and five loaves of bread are available. Their earthly logic is irrefutable: there’s just not enough to go around. Of course, Jesus ignores their realistic advice and asks them to bring the loaves and fishes to him. We know that what ensures to the tune of 12 baskets of leftovers.

The usual interpretation of this  miracle story is that God always provides beyond our fondest hopes. But I think another way of looking at it is the rational expectations and logic of the disciples as over against Jesus’ seemingly irrational actions. We humans—especially we engineers—look at life as a logic chain: A leads to B leads to C. Hungry crowd—>low food inventory—>send the people off to find their own food. But Jesus is just so annoyingly irrational because he sees the far larger picture. As a result he constantly wants to do the illogical thing. And because he’s not boxed in by logic great things happen.

The lesson here for me is that faith is not always about rationality. Jesus not only thought outside the box; he acted outside the box. He took risks and the consequent rewards were far greater than any rational act could have ever produced. Am I willing to take bigger and, yes, even irrational risks in the name of Jesus. Who knows what great things might result?

 

Psalm 22:22–28; Genesis 40:1–41:16; Matthew 14:1–14

Originally posted 2/11/2016—revised and updated 2/10/2018

Psalm 22:22–28: At last, God has responded to the psalmist’s pleas: “And from the horns of the ram you answered me.” (22) And in the joy of rescue, his greatest desire is to tell the good news to others and to worship God—and to encourage all Israel to worship God:
Let me tell Your name to my brothers,
in the assembly let me praise you.
Fearers of the Lord, O praise him!
All the seed of Jacob revere Him!” (23, 24)

Our response to God’s answering our prayers is a public event: it is better that all should rejoice together with us. This is exactly Jesus’ point in the parable of the Prodigal Son: when the prayers of the father are answered and his long lost son returns, he throws a party for everyone, even inviting the bitter brother.

In keeping with the great underlying theme of the Old Testament, our psalmist again points out that God is especially in favor of the poor, among whom he counts himself:
For He has not spurned nor despised
the affliction of the lowly,
and has not hidden His face from them;
when he cried out to Him, He heard.” (25)

God has heard his (and our) prayers and answered; now it is time to respond and for God to hear our praise, especially the poor:
For You—my praise in the great assembly,
My vows I fulfill before those who fear him.
The lowly will eat and be sated.
” (26, 27a)

But above all else, if we search for God we will find him because he’s already here—and he never left:
Those who seek Him will praise the Lord.
May you be of good cheer forever.” (27b)

For a psalm that began in the depths of abandonment with the cry to God, “Why have you forsaken me?” it has ascended through every woe to reach the highest heights of praise and adoration. Not just for the psalmist; not just for his friends and those around him; but for the entire world:
All the far ends of the earth will remember
and return to the Lord./ All the clans of the nations
will bow down before You.” (28)

This psalm ascends from the depths of despair to the heights of praise. Its structure resembles the act of Jesus Christ himself: from death to glorious resurrected life.

Such is the rhythm of our lives as well. If we are willing to pray to God in our times of deepest despair, we will hear God’s answer, and even if the answer is not the one we think we want, God has heard and responded. And that response is always worthy of our praise.

Genesis 40:1–41:16: There’s a wonderful symmetry in Joseph’s story. It was his dreams that became the root cause to his brother’s hatred and caused him to become a slave who ends up in a foreign prison. And now it is his dreams that effect his rescue and ultimately, his ascension to becoming the power behind the Pharaoh’s throne. This ascent begins inauspiciously while he is still in prison. The Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer and chief baker have offended Pharaoh, who casts them into prison. Joseph shows up one morning [he apparently has free run of the prison] and asks the two, “Why are your faces downcast today?” (40:7) They answer they’ve each had a memorable dream but have no one to interpret them. Joseph volunteers to interpret them, but not before the all-important step of giving God the credit for what he is about to do: “And Joseph said to them, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me.” (8)

The cupbearer explains his dream and Joseph tells him the good news, “within three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your office; and you shall place Pharaoh’s cup in his hand,” (13) He also asks the cupbearer to put in a good word for him to the Pharaoh, although we learn a bit later that “the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.” (22) Encouraged by this favorable interpretation, the baker asks Joseph to interpret his dream, too. The implication of the baker’s dream is pretty grim: he will be hanged within three days, and that is exactly what happens.

It appears that everyone in Egypt is dreaming. The Pharaoh dreams the famous dream of seven fat cows and the seven thin cows who eat the fat ones. The dream repeats itself in the form of seven “ears of grain, plump and good” (41:5) that are swallowed up by seven thin ears of corn. The usual crowd of court magicians are unable to interpret the dreams. At last, the cupbearer finally remembers Joseph, who interpreted the cupbearer’s and baker’s dreams correctly. We have to give the cupbearer some credit here. He says,“I remember my faults today,” (41:9) at least feeling bad for a while about having forgotten about Joseph.

Joseph is hauled out of the dungeon; they clean him up and he appears before Pharaoh.  The Pharaoh tells Joseph, “I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” (15) The key point of the story this far is that Joseph tells the Pharaoh exactly what he told the cupbearer and baker: “Joseph answered Pharaoh, “It is not I; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” (41:16)

And that is the lesson for us. Whatever great works we are able to do, it is God who has given us wisdom, insight, and strength. This is the consistent theme of the entire Joseph story: He understood he was man of unwavering faith in God and that no matter what he was able to accomplish, it was God who enabled him. And it was God who deserves the credit. Something we should remember when we are able to accomplish significant things in our own lives.

Matthew 14:1–14: This grisly story of the fate of John the Baptist at the hands of Herodias’ daughter and wife speaks to us at several levels. First, there is the moral stupidity of Herod, so taken by the infamous dance of the daughter that he grants her any wish—more proof that men too often think with their penis instead of their brain. Manipulated by Herodias’ wife—the same wife after whom Herod lusted— the daughter asks for John’s head. Even though Herod was anxious to be rid of John, he had not executed the prophet because of his inherent cowardice: “[Herod] feared the crowd, because they regarded [John] as a prophet.” (5) Herod’s moral cowardice is amplified by his response to the daughter’s request. Even though he was “grieved,” he carries through and executes John because he as made a stupid promise and does not wish to appear weak or vacillating before his guests—and certainly not before his wife and daughter.

We all have been Herod. Perhaps not as dramatically or with such fearful consequences, but I know have acted as a coward when challenged about my faith. There have been too many times when rather than offending my guests I’ve failed to speak up for Jesus.

This story also gives us a very clear picture of the extremely hostile atmosphere in which Jesus was operating. Matthew is clearly suggesting that if John came to a bad end for his prophecy, how much worse will be Jesus’ fate given his far more powerful words and deeds—and his unsurpassed ability to offend the religious leaders of Israel.

Matthew does not tell us what Jesus says when he hears of John’s death. We learn only that “when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” (13a) We have to assume it was to mourn the loss of a great friend and to reflect on the fate that he knew doubtless awaited him. This is a poignant reminder of Jesus’ very human nature that included the ability to weep and mourn.

But the crowds were relentless, and “they followed him on foot from the towns.” (13b) Even in the midst of Jesus’ deep mourning he remains fearless, and “he had compassion for them and cured their sick.” (14) Would I ever be able to reach out in compassion even when we ourselves are in pain? The clear message seems to be that we must if we wish to follow Jesus’ example.

Psalm 22:10–22; Genesis 39; Matthew 13:47–58

Originally posted 2/10/2016—revised and updated 2/9/2018

Psalm 22:10–22: The psalmist recalls how God was with him when he was born:
For You drew me out from the womb,
made me safe at my mother’s breasts.
Upon You I was cast form birth,
from my mother’s belly You were my God.” (10)

And now in his time of trouble, he asks God to remember that and pleads,
Do not be far from me,
for distress in near,
for there is none to help.” (11)

For now, far from the safety of his mother’s womb, he finds himself in mortal danger as
Brawny bulls surrounded me,
…They gaped with their mouths against against me—
a ravening roaring lion.”  (13, 14)

One of the most brilliantly dramatic and evocative descriptions ever written about the physical and psychological effects of terror follows:
Like water I spilled out,
all my limbs fell apart.
My heart was like wax,
melting within my chest.
My palate turned dry as a shard
and my tongue was annealed to my jaw. (15, 16)

These verses clearly describe the agonies of Jesus’ crucifixion, including the water that spills out of his body when the soldier pierced his side with a sword.  We can feel Jesus’ heart skipping beats and the dry mouth that leaves him speechless as he nears death; his thirst slaked only by a sponge of vinegar. Our poet continues to describe in detail the hopelessness and agony of his predicament on the cross:
For the came all around me,
a pack of the evil encircled me,
they bound my hands and feet.” (17)

They strip him naked and then in a remarkable parallel to what happened to Jesus’ robe at the foot of the cross:
They shared out my garments among them
and cast lots for my clothes.” (19)

In deepest agony, the poet pleads,
But You, O Lord,be not far. My strength, to my aid O hasten!
Save from the sword my life.” (20, 21a).

Which of course is exactly what happens to Jesus three days later–and the course of history is changed forever.

Genesis 39: Joseph is sold as a slave into Potiphar’s house and “the Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man” (2) and due to his competence he ascends quickly to the position of overseer of Potiphar’s house. The author’s make it quite clear that “the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field.” (5). A takeaway for us here is that God can bless people who are surrounded by a person who trusts deeply in God.

Joseph is “handsome and good-looking” (6) and Potiphar’s wife famously tries to seduce him. Joseph resists. FInally, she physically tackles him, and grabs his outer garment as Joseph flees outside.  She uses this as evidence for her fabricated story of Joseph’s attempted rape. The outraged husband tosses Joseph in jail.

But no matter where Joseph is, God’s love envelopes him and this love enables Joseph to once again rise to the top of the heap: “But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love; he gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer.” (21) The jailer places Joseph in charge of everything in the jail, freeing the jailer for a life of leisure: “The chief jailer paid no heed to anything that was in Joseph’s care, because the Lord was with him; and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper.” (23)

So, what is the point of this story other than to highlight Joseph as being a supremely competent and handsome manager? Again and again, the authors make the point that Joseph enjoys success because it is God who “shows him steadfast love.” Just as God loves each of us. Obviously, we cannot all be Joseph, but we do know that whatever our circumstances, even as a slave or as a prisoner, we can do everything to God’s glory because God first loved us. Will we prosper like Joseph did in every aspect? Probably not, (and one suspects a bit of editorial license here on the part of the authors). But we can never forget that we are loved by God regardless of who we are and where we are. But we must also be like Joseph and not forget God. Nor did Joseph complain about what happened to him, no matter how dire the circumstances. He simply remained steadfastly God’s person. Just as we should.

Matthew 13:47–58: More parables that make it crystal clear that the world contains good and bad people. As far as Jesus is concerned, there is no ambiguity or gray area. Only that there will be a culling ay the end of history when “The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (49b, 50)

Jesus returns from his peregrinations around Galilee back to his hometown, Nazareth. Unlike Luke, who tells the story of Jesus’ sermon at the synagogue, Matthew observes that Jesus is rejected because he was the carpenter’s son: too well known in a family that was regarded by its neighbors as having zero status; a family without distinction, power, wealth, high office, or anything else to suggest a source of Jesus’ power. We are exactly the same as the neighbors of Nazareth. We make exactly the same judgements about others based on our faulty perception of where power should come from—family, wealth, title— forgetting that the power Jesus displayed comes from one place only: the Holy Spirit.

And in our cynicism and disbelief, it becomes impossible to participate in or derive benefits from the power of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps this is the unforgivable sin that Matthew described earlier. If we reject the Holy Spirit, we will certainly be cast into the outer darkness at the end of history. Nor in the meantime will we ever enjoy the benefits of Jesus’ healing power. That certainly seems to be the choice made by the people of Nazareth—and Nazareth fades from further mention in the Gospels.

 

Psalm 22:1–9; Genesis 38; Matthew 13:36–46

Originally posted 2/9/2016—revised and updated 2/8/2018

Psalm 22:1–8: This opening line of this psalm of supplication—”My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?—is among the most familiar lines in the Psalms because it is what Jesus spoke in his agony on the cross.  [Although he spoke it in his native tongue of Aramaic rather than Hebrew.] Anyone who heard those lines on that fateful day knew the lines that followed spoke of the desperate realization that unlike the sunny optimism of the preceding psalm, God’s rescue was not forthcoming:
Far from my rescue are the words that I roar.
My God, I call out by day and You do not answer,
by night-no stillness for me.” (2b, 3)

To be deserted by a silent God was perhaps even greater torment for Jesus than his very real physical pain. Our psalmist goes on to plead with God:
In You did our fathers trust,
they trusted, and You set them free.” (5)

Why would God listen to them but not the pleas of the psalmist?  Not only did God listen to his forefathers, he acted on their behalf:
To You they cried out, and escaped,
in You they trusted and were not put to shame.” (6).

The psalmist asks the eternal question we all ask at some point in our lives: You’re there for others, God, but why have you abandoned me?

He goes on to theorize that perhaps God’s silence is because of his inherent unworthiness which is evident by the mocking disrespect of the men around him:
But I am a worm and no man,
a disgrace among men, by the people reviled.
All who see me do mock me—
they curl their lips, they shake their head ” (7, 8)

In some ways this cry contains even greater pathos that the psalm’s first line. It is one thing to be mocked by one’s peers but to believe one is unworthy even to be heard by God only compounds the agony. Yet, the world is full of this self-loathing that keeps so many from discovering the comfort and succor that only God through jesus Christ can provide.

And yet… a tiny flame of hope burns, a hope that God will indeed hear his cries:
Who turns to the Lord, He will set him free.
He will save him, for he delights in him.” (9)

This is the hope that we have to believe that despite the agony and the feeling of abandonment, Jesus still felt as he hung on the cross. That God’s abandonment was only temporary. It is the same hope that we can call on even in the deepest night of the soul.

Genesis 38: One wonders why the story of Judah’s offspring interrupts the flow of the Joseph story. Judah has married the Canaanite woman, Shua, who bears him two sons, Er and Onan. Er marries Tamar but he is “wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death.” (7) Judah asks the younger son Onan to impregnate the widow Tamar, but he only masturbates “so that he would not give offspring to his brother.” (9) For this, God puts him to death as well. I think it’s crucial to note that Onan died not because he “spilled his seed on the ground” but because he selfishly did not follow Judah’s orders to continue the ancestral line. Judah then invites the widowed Tamar to live in his house.

Judah’s wife, Shua, dies and following the requisite period of mourning, Judah is on the move. Tamar hears this and stations herself at the city gate. She is veiled, so Judah does not recognize her. Thinking her to be a prostitute, Judah promises to pay with a “kid from the flock,” but Tamar insists n a pledge that he will indeed pay for her services:  “Your signet and your cord, and the staff that is in your hand.” (18) Judah hands these items over to Tamr and has sex with her, resulting in her impregnation.

Judah eventually discovers that the woman he had intercourse with is pregnant is Tamar who “has played the whore” and he demands she be burned. But Tamar cleverly produces the pledge items, making it clear to all that Judah is the father, so he must relent, “and said, “She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” (26). But he never has sex with her again.

In an eerie replay of Rebekah and her twins Jacob and Esau, Tamar also has twins. In order to ensure the firstborn child has the right of primogeniture, the midwife wraps a red thread around the wrist of the first one to emerge. That hand is withdrawn back into the womb and the second child comes out first.

So why is this story about Judah and Tamar here? Is it more than just a tale of yet more family dysfunction? Somehow I think the story has symbolic parallels to the future history of Israel. Judah marries a Canaanite woman, just as the Israelite generations to come would do. Very little good comes of Judah’s marriage, and this story must stand as a warning to the Jews in Babylon about what happens when intermarriage forbidden by God occurs. Moreover, it is something of a morality tale for all of us, as well.

Matthew 13:36–46: Once again, Jesus accedes to the disciple’s request to explain a parable. This time it’s the one about the wheat and weeds. And again, Jesus is very clear in his explanation: The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one and the enemy who sowed them is the devil” (37-39a). He also makes it clear that the harvest “is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels.” (39b)  Following the judgement at the end of history, the evildoers “will [be thrown] into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (42) We will see this acted out big time in Revelation, for whom I believe Jesus’ words was a major inspiration for the judgement scene near the end of that apocalyptic book. There can be little question that this verse must have certainly been an inspiration for the lurid paintings of the Last Judgement by Hyronomous Bosch back around 1486 and also Michelangelo’s painting of the last judgement behind the altar in the Sistine Chapel. 

This is also an uncomfortable parable for us since most of prefer not to think about the possibility of there ever being a last judgement at the end of time. But Jesus is awfully clear here as he explains every detail of this parable. We cannot ignore it. At least there is the wonderful promise, “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” (43)

At this point, Jesus focuses on the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven, describing its myriad qualities with a series of with what I think of as a series of “mini-parables employing the similes of “treasure hidden in a  field” (44) and “a merchant in search of fine pearls.” (45) In both cases the discoverer pays a price to obtain that treasure or those pearls. But he does so happily. As should we. Above all, Jesus is telling us that following him on the journey will be arduous and its rewards are well hidden, but if we seek to understand and follow, the rewards will be far greater than buried treasure and a string of pearls.