Psalm 33:6–11; Exodus 11:1–12:20; Matthew 21:23–32

Originally published 3/4/2016. Revised and updated 3/5/2018

Psalm 33:6–11: Our psalmist recounts the Genesis creation story in flowing verse:
By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
and by the breath of His mouth all their array.
He gathers like a mound the sea’s waters.
puts in treasure houses the deeps.” (6,7)

I’m particularly drawn to the idea of great wealth “in the deeps” being stored in “treasure houses” because it suggests that the material of creation is of great value. Which of course it is. Humankind has been drawing on these treasure houses for millennia, but now we are drawing on those reserves at an increasing pace.

While God’s mercy and love is inexhaustible, the contents of these treasure houses are not.One imagines that the psalmist had no idea that humans would one day exploit those “treasure houses” in the sea with offshore drilling rigs and their concomitant risks. Will our exploitation of our earth continue unabated or will we realize that what God has given us in his glorious creation is finite and we desecrate  those treasure housesit to the point of self-destruction?

The verse that follows speaks of a condition that seems particularly elusive today:
All the earth fears the Lord,
all the world’s dwellers dread him. (8)

The western world seems overcome by either indifference to God or outright rejection of his existence. On the other side are the religious fanatics that destroy creation and their neighbors in a wrongheaded conception of what “fearing God” means. We humans seem capable of almost infinite misunderstanding as we attempt to recreate God in our own image.

But we need to remember that in the end, it is God who is the ultimate Creator, bringing the universe and all that is in it into being ex nihilo:
He did speak and it came to be,
He commanded, and it stood, (9)

The psalmist reminds us that despite everything humans do and despite our attempts to ignore, reject or even forget him, God will have the final word. In the end, God will triumph over all our human endeavors:
The Lord thwarted the counsel of nations,
overturned the devisings of peoples. (10)

All our efforts to see ourselves as small-g gods will come to naught.

At the end of history it is only “The Lord’s counsel [that] will stand forever.” (11a) Humankind will finally look back at its works and see them for the empty idols they are. Only God’s work in creation and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts will matter: “His heart’s devisings [are] for all generations.” (11b) The question becomes, why do we refuse to accept the superiority of God’s devisings over our own? Alas, we know the answer: our human pride.

Exodus 11:1–12:20: God comes to Moses and tells him to prepare the people for one final plague. God promises that Pharaoh “will let you go from here; indeed, when he lets you go, he will drive you away.” (11:1). One suspects that even Moses was pretty doubtful at this point. After all, even God couldn’t get Pharaoh to change his mind ten previous times.

This time, though, God adds an instruction that at the time probably seemed puzzling, but will have great value later on: Moses is to “Tell the people that every man is to ask his neighbor and every woman is to ask her neighbor for objects of silver and gold.” (11:2) This will be feasible because the “Lord gave the people [Israelites] favor in the sight of the Egyptians.” (11:3) Nevertheless, I suspect there was a lot of skepticism on the part of the Israelites at this point.

Moses then describes God’s plan to kill every firstborn in Egypt but that there will be a crucial distinction as the angel of death passes over Egypt. A loud cry will arise in Egypt but “not a dog shall growl at any of the Israelites—not at people, not at animals—so that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.” (11:7)

Needless to say, Pharaoh won’t buy any of this—and God knows it: “The Lord said to Moses, “Pharaoh will not listen to you, in order that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt.” (11:9)

Something I had not noticed before is that the passover event is so central to the history of Israel that the calendar for Israel is set from this point forward: “This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.” (12:2) This calendar continues today in 2018 as the Jewish Calendar and we now are in year 5778.

The instructions for what will become the Passover are detailed and complex. In anticipation of the instruction to depart quickly, it becomes “dinner on the run,” with “your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly.” (12:11)

I think a crucial aspect of the Passover is that it requires participation by every household and careful preparation. The first nine plagues were basically a battle between competing gods: the gods and magicians of Egypt and the God of Israel. Now with this event, Israel’s God will make it eternally clear which God is greater: “I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord.” (12:12) Which of course he does.

One of the clues that suggests this story was written much later in Israel’s history is the detailed instructions about how Passover “shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.” (12:14). Given the urgency surrounding the actual passover, one suspects Moses would not have paused the story to explain how Passover was to become a central festival of Jewish life. with all the detailed instructions about leavened and unleavened bread.

But at this point the doorposts and lintels are smudged with blood, the lamb stew is ready to be eaten and with the Israelites, we wait in anticipation for God’s most fearsome plague.

Matthew 21:23–32: Having had no figs for breakfast, Jesus returns to the temple where things seem to have calmed down a bit. The chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and asked, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (23). As usual Jesus declines to answer the question, telling the priests they must answer his question first:  “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” (25)

This is a brilliant yet unanswerable question because “from heaven” indicts the religious leaders for not believing John. At the same time, the “human origin” answer will inflame the crowd “for all regard John as a prophet.” (26) Of course, standing right in front of the religious leaders is the one person in history who really could answer the question. Jesus is “both heaven and human,” as Jesus is from heaven but comes from a human mother. Here is where we see the roots of the doctrine that Jesus is simultaneously 100% God and 100% human.

Jesus then tells the parable of the two sons asked by their father to work in the vineyard. The first refuses to go but then changes his mind and goes anyway. The other tells his father that he will go but then fails to do so.  Jesus asks the crowd “Which of the two did the will of his father?” (31) The crowd correctly answers that the one who refused but then changed his mind was the obedient one.

His message is clear here: the sinners who have rejected God initially but then repent are the ones who enter the kingdom. The religious hypocrites may profess to love God, but in reality they follow their own hearts rather than God and therefore are in effect refusing to enter the kingdom.

At a higher level of abstraction this parable is also about the Jews who professed to worship God but rejected Jesus as over against the Gentiles who had no idea who God was, but came to accept Jesus enthusiastically—whence the roots and growth of the Christian church.

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