Psalm 35:1–10; Exodus 17:1–18:6; Matthew 22:41–23:12

Originally published 3/10/2016. Revised and updated 3/10/2018

Psalm 35:1–10: We know from its first line that this is a psalm of supplication. But unlike many where despair at God’s absence is the theme, this somewhat disturbing one, written in David’s voice, begins with an aggressive desire for harm to come to the poet’s enemies:
Take my part, Lord, against my contesters,
fight those who fight against me. (1)

The military imagery in the first four verses add urgency to the prayer that God not merely intervene in this situation, but that God would use his power alongside David to crush the enemy:
Steady the shield and the buckler,
and rise up to my help.
Unsheathe the spear to the haft
against my pursuers. (2, 3)

However, even a psalm this aggressive does not condone the death of David’s enemies, but only for them to experience the defeat of humiliation as he himself has been humiliated. This is where we get the sense that David is praying out of deepest possible frustration. This is indeed the prayer of an angry man:
Let them be shamed and disgraced,
who seek my life.
Let them retreat, be abased,
who plot harm against me. (4)

The lesson here is that no matter how much we despise our enemies or how much harm they have done to us, we should not pray for therideath. But like David we can certainly mutter angrily to God as a form of psychological release.

There is still more despairing anger to process. Having prayed for their abasement, the poet now employs metaphors that evoke how he would like to see his enemies disgraced:
Let them be like chaff before the wind.
may their way be darkness and slippery paths,
with the Lord’s messenger chasing them. (6)

In other words, David is calling on God to employ supernatural forces—angels—to help carry out his desire to see his enemies leave him alone. Again, there is more hyperbole here than actual intent for God to carry out precisely what he is asking for.  We then learn that David was trapped unawares and has committed no crime. His sense of the injustice done to him comes to a boiling point:
For unprovoked they set their net-trap for me,
unprovoked they dug a pit for my life. (7).

And in the spirit of an eye for an eye, he wishes his enemies to be ensnared in exactly the same way:
Let disaster come on him unwitting
and the net that that he set trap him. (8)

So in light of Jesus’ words about loving our enemies, can we pray the same prayer today? I would say yes, but only as a means to process our anger and hurt before God. Jesus has set the standard about loving our enemies and frankly, I don’t see the harm in an innocent person saying what he’s feeling to God in the privacy of prayer and wishing that those who have done us wrong without provocation become ensnared by their own conspiracy. Better we work out our anger before God than on those around us—or even on ourselves.

Exodus 17:1–18:6: Life is hard for the wandering Israelites and while they are amply supplied with manna, once again they are thirsty and we hear the same complaint again: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (17:3) We can feel Moses’s frustration when he asks God, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” (4) God instructs Moses to use his magic staff and strike a rock, which he does “in the sight of the elders of Israel.” (6)

Moses names the place “Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”  (7) Proving of course that there is nothing new about human nature. We feel exactly the same way during difficult passages in life, wondering if God is with us or not. And like Moses striking the rock and bringing forth water, we eventually receive confirmation that he is indeed with us. But always on God’s own schedule, which tests our patience just as Israel’s patience was tested. But indeed, God always answers one way or the other.

Not only are they stuck in the desert, but they encounter Amalek, who doubtless is after the wealth that the Israelites are carrying with them. Moses appoints Joshua as commander to fight, which he does. There’s a direct correlation between Moses’ famous arm and Joshua’s success: “Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed.” (11) In almost humorous scene, the exhausted Moses (what about Joshua?!?) Aaron and a guy named Hur stand on each side of Moses holding up his arms until “Joshua defeated Amalek and his people with the sword.” (13)

Amusing as the scene of two men holding up Moses’ arms all day is, it conveys an important lesson: we cannot accomplish great things on our own; but always in fellowship and community. When I was being treated for cancer, it was the caring people—the Aarons and Hurs— around me who held up my arms. I could never have done it on my own.

All of a sudden Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law appears on the scene. We learn that Moses had sent his wife, Zipporah, and his sons, Gershom and Eliezer, back to Midian. But now, Jethro had heard what happened, and he joins up with Moses and the gang in the wilderness, binging Zipporah and the kids out to join Moses. If Moses was 83 years old when all this was happening, Jethro must have been over 100. Yet here he is, ready to go. Proof that we’re never too old to be in community and that family ties are immensely strong.

Matthew 22:41–23:12: Now it’s Jesus’ turn to ask a trick question of the Pharisees: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” (22:42). They respond with what they learned in Pharisee Sabbath School: “The son of David,” But Jesus then quotes a line from Psalm 110, asking, “ If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” (45). The logical conundrum is too much for even these most skilled of theological lawyers to deal with: “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.” (22:46).

The dialog with the scribes and Pharisees ends on a bitter note as Jesus tell the crowd that they do a great job of preaching, but are far less great at practicing what they preach: “Therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” (23:3) Jesus goes on to  accuse them more specifically. They “tie up heavy burdens”—both real and metaphorical, I presume—”hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” (23:4).  This is an obvious reference to religious leader’s tendency to make people feel guilty but not to bring succor to those who suffer. Something still practiced in many churches today.

Moreover, they are publicity hounds, the celebrities of their time and place: “They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.” (23:6,7)

But then Jesus says something that I think he does on purpose to make sure the religious officials finally act against him. He strips them of their haughty titles: “Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.” (10) And then is what in retrospect is an obvious self-reference he says, “The greatest among you will be your servant.” (11) as he concludes with the immortal saying: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (12)

Jesus is indeed about to turn the world upside down in what will become the hinge point of western history. He is speaking for himself for he is about to endure the greatest possible humiliation—the cross— followed by the greatest possible exaltation—his resurrection.

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