Psalm 35:11–18; Exodus 18:7–19:9; Matthew 23:13–22

Originally published 3/12/2016. Revised and updated 3/12/2018

Psalm 35:11–18: Our psalmist now deals with disloyalty, particularly the disloyalty of supposed friends who fail to reciprocate the good he did for them. As we saw in the earlier verses, David (or our psalmist) is beset by woes brought on by the evil acts of people he once trusted.David’s agonized prayer continues as he recounts his afflictions at the hands of his enemies.  Now, he appears to be on trial for some crime he didn’t commit.I’m struck by how the torture he feels arises from the words rather than the actions of his enemies:
Outrageous witnesses rose,
of things I knew not thy asked me. (11)

I don’t think there is a more hopeless feeling than to have been betrayed by the people you once trusted, and then to have them act against you:
They paid back [with] evil for good—
bereavement for my very self. (12)

This is even worse than mere betrayal as he then recounts how he was there for them in their own times of trial:
And I, when they were ill, my garment was sackcloth,
I afflicted myself with fasting. (13)

He was a mourner when a friend who was as close as his brother experienced loss:
As for a friend, for a brother,
I went about as though mourning a mother,
in gloom I was bent. (14)

Yet, his friendship and his kind acts have come only to naught as they now repay kindness with derision:
Yet when I limped, they rejoiced, and they gathered,
they gathered against me,
like strangers, and I did not know.
Their mouths gaped and they were not still. (15)

Can there be anything more hurtful than “with contemptuous mocking chatter/ they gnashed their teeth against me?” (16)  In the case of children, we call this bullying.  For grown men, it is an affliction we must generally bear in silence.

The abandonment and suffering created by his friend’s betrayal is palpable. In this utter desolation and loneliness, there remains but one hop. There is one who will never abandon him, who will never betray him as he turns in desperate appeal to God, who up to now has remained silent:
O Master, how long will You see it?
Bring back my life from their violence,
from the lions, my very being. (17)

But underneath David’s agony remains a firm foundation of faith in God.  Unlike so many of us, David does not blame God for his woes.  Instead, in what seems to be a quid pro quo if God comes to his rescue, he promises to make public proclamation of God’s benevolence,
I shall acclaim You in a great assembly,
in a vast crowd I shall praise you. (18).

But will God answer?

Exodus 18:7–19:9: Moses’ father-in-law arrives along with, we presume, Zipporah and his two sons. Moses recounts events to date and “Jethro rejoiced for all the good that the Lord had done to Israel, in delivering them from the Egyptians.” (18:9) Jethro makes a sacrifice “and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God.” (18:12)

The next day Jethro remains at his son-in-law’s side as Moses deals with both the administrative and judicial problems that inevitably arise from a mob of 600,000. If we needed a model of an Old Testament figure who had managerial experience and probably an MBA in administration, it is Jethro, who’s obviously been very successful over in Midian. He asks Moses, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, while all the people stand around you from morning until evening?” (1814). Moses replies that it’s his job, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make known to them the statutes and instructions of God.” (18:16). 

Jethro tells Moses he will wear himself out because “the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.” (18) Jethro is my idea of the perfect consultant, because rather than just pointing out the problem, he offers a solution. He advises that Moses should continue to be the intermediary to God, and continue as chief teacher, but that “You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain.” (18:21) He proposes an administrative hierarchy where these trustworthy men “bring every important case to you, but decide every minor case themselves.” (18:22)

Happily, Moses takes Jethro’s advice and there is now a management structure for the Israelites. Many woes and trials for Israel and Moses are yet to come, but Jethro’s advice was doubtless crucial to the Israelite’s survival as a cohesive people for the upcoming forty years. For me, this is a statement that God prefers good order to randomness. Not just in creation but in conducting human affairs—and certainly in the church. In short, the Moses-Jethro story tells us that delegation is key to community. Unfortunately, there are far too many one man shows in the church where the senior pastor tries to be like Moses, fails to delegate, and burns himself out.

Jethro’s consulting gig ends as “Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went off to his own country.” (18:27)

The Israelites arrive at the foot of Sinai and “Moses went up to God,” who always has a the covenantal message for Moses to tell the people: “If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” (19:5, 6) For the first time there is a more specific promise describing Israel as God’s chosen people: they are to become “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.”  The people respond to God’s message delivered by Moses quite positively, “answering as one, “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.” (19:8).  Things are looking up for Israel, just as they tend to do at mountaintop experiences.

The real test is yet to come. Something we need to remember when we’re all fired up for God and have promised enthusiastically to always do his will.

Matthew 23:13–22: Jesus, knowing what is coming, and I think to a certain extent, to make sure the conspiracy moves into action, continues his disquisition (harangue?) before the scribes and Pharisees, “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven.” (23:13)  If you’re a religious leader, those are fighting words!

But wait, there’s more.  Jesus tells them, even if these guys make a single convert by crossing the sea, “you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (23:15).  And then, frosting on the rhetorical cake: “Woe to you, blind guides.” (23:16).  Imagine the impact on us if Jesus has told us that our religiosity in raising our child had resulted only in creating a “child of hell.” And don’t forget, Jesus speaks these words not in private ut in front of the crowd for all to hear.  Even though Jesus has spoken the truth, the religious leaders are publicly humiliated and inwardly seething.  There’s little question now that they’ll hesitate to take Jesus out any way they can.

Jesus accuses the scribes and Pharisees of putting their trust in the practice of religion rather than trusting God: “And you say, ‘Whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gift that is on the altar is bound by the oath.'” (18) But Jesus points out, “whoever swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by the one who is seated upon it.” (22). But we do exactly the same thing as the Pharisees. We put our trust in the form of religion rather than in the reality of God. As we know too well, the institution inevitably does a fine job of disappointing us.

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