Psalm 28; Genesis 49; Matthew 17:14–27

Originally posted 2/22/2016—revised and updated 2/21/2018

Psalm 28: This psalm of supplication understands that communication requires both listening and speaking, and the poet prays that God will indeed hear him and reply to him as he cries in desperation,
My Rock, do not be deaf to me.
Lest You be mute to me
and I be like those gone down to the pit. (1)

If God does not hear, he will certainly not reply. For me, this is often my fear when I pray. Is God really there or is this just a pointless exercise? As a child might cry to a recalcitrant father, the psalmist repeats his cry. The point seems to be that perhaps God will really get the message if we keep repeating it:
Hear the sound of my pleading
when I cry out to You. (2a).

He reminds God that he is in the proper physical attitude for prayer and in the proper place:
I lift up my hands
to Your holy shrine.

What gives this prayer its added urgency is that our poet fears that God will do the opposite of hearing and speaking—that he will consign his supplicant to a horrible existence among evildoers:
Do not pull me down with the wicked,
and with the wrongdoers. (3a).

Even worse, they are hypocrites,
who speak peace to their fellows
with foulness in their heart. (3b)

In fact he continues, as if to prove he’s on God’s side, evildoers deserve appropriate recompense for their foul deeds: Pay them back for their acts
and for the evil of their schemings.
Their handiwork give them back in kind.
Pay back what is coming to them. (4)

The question arises, is it proper for us to pray to God to punish people who have done us wrong as our psalmist does here? With his command to love our enemies, Jesus seems to have overridden the the thematic thrust of this prayer.

The psalmist finally comes to the realization that God’s action is not required. Evildoers will come to a bad end completely on their own:
For they understand not the acts of the Lord
and His handiwork they would destroy and not build. (5)

This verse reenforces the idea that those who follow God build up and are a positive influence in society while evildoers destroy what has been built. I believe this is the essential dynamic of human affairs. This psalm sees culture in stark black and white terms; there is no room for ambiguity. Either we are building up under God’s leadership or we are tearing down without God.

This reality also accounts for the poet’s desperation. If God does not answer, he knows he will be cast among the destroyers. But happily—and as always the case—God comes to the righteous man’s rescue:
The Lord is my strength and my shield.
In Him my heart trusts.
I was helped and my heart rejoiced
and with my song I acclaim him.” (7, 8)

As always, God comes through in the end. And through our faith in the salvific power of Jesus Christ we know that we are saved.

Genesis 49: A dying Jacob calls his sons, and said, “Gather around, that I may tell you what will happen to you in days to come.” (1) And as the psalmist above has informed us, the brothers who have done evil will receive their due recompense—here, in verse form:

You shall no longer excel
because you went up onto your father’s bed;
then you defiled it” (4)

For their various murders and animal cruelty(!)—”and at their whim they hamstrung oxen”—Simeon and Levi receive a curse rather than a blessing:
Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce,
and their wrath, for it is cruel!” (7).

We can surmise that this is history was written centuries after the events by the men belonging to the tribe of Judah, who becomes a central focus of Jacob’s blessing, telling him that his descendants will rule over all the others:
The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
 nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him.” (10)

Appropriately, Joseph receives Jacob’s lengthiest blessing, concluding with:
     “The blessings of your father
        are stronger than the blessings of the eternal mountains,
         the bounties of the everlasting hills;
     may they be on the head of Joseph,
         on the brow of him who was set apart from his brothers.” (26)

But what’s interesting to me is that there was no tribe of Joseph; his paternal inheritance was split between  the “half tribes” of his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. Was it because he married an Egyptian wife? Or something else?

But perhaps most mysteriously, Benjamin is effectively cursed by his father:
Benjamin is a ravenous wolf,
  in the morning devouring the prey,
  and at evening dividing the spoil.” (27)

I’m pretty sure that the historical Jacob uttered none of this. Rather, the authors of Genesis writing centuries later have used this final statement as a rationale to summarize the various qualities of the twelve tribes of Israel. I’m pretty sure that the tribes that comprised the northern kingdom of Israel are among those receiving the curses, and perhaps this accounts for the disconcerting statement about Jacob’s youngest son, Benjamin.

Jacob then leaves detailed instructions regrading his burial and he asks his sons to bury him with his grandfather Abraham, his father, Isaac, and his late wife, his beloved Rebekah and his other wife, Leah.

At last, the man who stole the blessing from his brother, committed numerous sins, and yet who was immeasurably blessed by God breathes his last, “When Jacob ended his charge to his sons, he drew up his feet into the bed, breathed his last, and was gathered to his people.” (33)  I think it is remarkable that the authors acknowledged Jacob’s faults right alongside his strengths. We would do well when on our deathbed we ask that our eulogy to emulate this practice.

Matthew 17:14–27:  Jesus returns to his healing ministry. A father of an epileptic son tells Jesus that “I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.” (16) Jesus responds in what can only be 100% human frustration: “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” (17) So, who exactly is this faithless generation? It is his disciples who continue to demonstrate inadequate faith. Personally, I think it is every generation, including our own.

Jesus’ frustration becomes a teachable moment: “I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” (20)

As we well know, once Jesus has departed earth, his disciples do indeed move mountains, changing the world itself as Christianity ultimately takes over the Roman Empire. But I think we need to remember that faith of this power did not come to them until Jesus sent them the “comforter” in the form of the Holy Spirit after he left earth. As mere humans without the power of Holy Spirit, they—and we—can do little work in the Kingdom. But the mustard seed has been planted in their hearts.

Just in case they didn’t get the message the first time, Jesus repeats his announcement of his impending death and resurrection. Matthew tells us that upon hearing this again, “they [the disciples] were greatly distressed.” (23) I suspect in large part it wasn’t that they were afraid he would die on them, but that they had hitched their respective stars to a seeming lunatic.

Religious officials approach Peter and ask if Jesus pays the temple tax, to which Peter replies, “Yes, he does.” (24) We Americans find the idea of paying a tax to support a religious institution unconstitutional, but it has been common throughout history and irreligious Europe still pays for state-run churches today. So too in Capernaum: the temple tax is due. Jesus asks Peter, “From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” (25) Peter answers quite naturally that ‘others’ owe the tax. “Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free.‘” (26), his point being that as children of the Kingdom they will not owe religious taxes.

Nevertheless “so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up” (27) wherein Peter will find a gold coin with which to pay the tax. Thus, Peter will have paid the tax “to them for you and me” without having to use his personal funds. Thus, Peter and especially Jesus are still free and not beholden to the temple authorities. Jesus seems to be making a strong point here about his independence from the religious system of the day. He is indeed coming to replace conventional religious practices and organization with something quite different.

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