Psalm 35:19–28; Exodus 19:10–20:21; Matthew 23:23–32

Originally published 3/13/2016. Revised and updated 3/13/2018

Psalm 35:19–28: Still in desperate straits, our psalmist pleads to God that he did not provoke the actions and words of his enemies and that their evildoing ways are a threat to all people of good will, not just him personally:
Let not my unprovoked enemies rejoice over me
let my wanton foes not leer.
For they do not speak peace
and against the the earth’s quiet ones plot words of deceit. (19, 20)

As always, it is what comes out of their mouths that is their most offensive sin. How true this is today. Offensive speech has become our national currency. In order to make sure God gets his point, our psalmist quotes exactly what they are saying against him, accusing him of crimes he did not commit:
They open their mouths wide against me.
They say ‘Hurrah! Hurrah! Our eyes have seen it! (21)

Again, this is exactly the situation today as our so-called political discourse consists of accusations being hurled against all manner of elected and appointed officials—or anyone the mob may not approve of.

Not only has our psalmist witnessed these depredation sand evil speech, but he asserts that God himself has seen his enemies evil deeds and that these acts should prod God to act [or at least speak] against them:
You, Lord, have seen, do not be mute.
My master, do not keep far from me.
Rouse Yourself, wake for my cause,
my God and my Master, for my quarrel. (22, 23).

Our psalmist believes he’s on the side of the angels and his enemies clearly are not—and he is willing to stand up and be judged for the accuracy of his assertions:
Judge me by Your justice, Lord, my God,
and let them not rejoice over me. (24)

He goes on even more specifically about what he wants God to do to them:
Let them not say in their heart,
‘Hurrah for ourselves.’
let them be shamed and abased one and all,
who rejoice in my harm.
Let them don shame and disgrace,
who vaunted over me. (25, 26)

On the other hand, our poet knows he still has a few friends on his side and he asks,
May they sing glad and rejoice,
who desire justice for me.
And may the always say,
‘Great is the Lord
who desires His servant’s well-being. (27)

So, the eternal question is can we pray for harm to our enemies? I think the answer even here is clearly ‘no.’ But can we pray for them to “don shame and disgrace?” In some cases I really think we can because we are praying for them to experience the humiliating consequences of their wrongful and hurtful words and deeds. One of the greatest frustrations of life is to see others commit injustice and, yes, for them to persecute us and God seems to let them get away with it. Our poet is praying for justice and  therefore I think he is on firm theological ground with this prayer.

Exodus 19:10–20:21: It is time for the Israelites to experience God up close and personal—or at least reasonably up close. God instructs Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes.” (19:10) Consecration, that is preparing ourselves to encounter the holy, is a prerequisite to worship and hearing God. This action is also a precursor to the sacred act of Baptism.

There is also a hint of a Resurrection to come many years down the road when God announces that all must “prepare for the third day, because on the third day the Lord will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.” (19:11) As indeed, Jesus appeared on the third day.

All of Mount Sinai becomes holy ground as God declares it to be off limits on pain of death. In preparation for worship the people must not only be clean but men are told to abstain from sex, “do not go near a woman.” (19:15) On the third day God speaks to Moses, apparently in the sight of the people. Like all theophanies, this one is quite dramatic: thunder, lightning and a trumpet blast whose origin is unclear. God? Angels perhaps? “As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder.” (19:19) God once again warns Moses, “Go down and warn the people not to break through to the Lord to look; otherwise many of them will perish.” (21)

Inasmuch as Exodus was probably written during the Babylonian captivity, I believe our priestly authors are recounting this scene at the foot of Sinai as a clear precedent to the nature and rules of worship in the Temple, where the Holy of Holies was set off and only the appointed high priest—a descendant of Moses and Aaron—could enter but once a year.

With this elaborate set-up for worship on the mountain, God speaks to Moses. And we know what he said: the Ten Commandments, beginning with the most important one, reminding the people exactly who he was and what his bona fides were: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before  me.” (20:2, 3)

I think it’s crucial to note that at this point in Israel’s history these commandments were spoken, not written. But what a speech it was—all lightning and crashing thunder— because “When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance,” (20:18) And they told Moses they would listen to him, but could he please make God stop speaking so loudly and frightenly. Moses replies,“Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” (20:20)

There we have a basic condition of the Old Covenant: “Fear God and you will be motivated not to sin because otherwise you will die.” And the Ten Commandments list the specific ways in which you are not to sin. But as the history of Israel amply demonstrates, they (and we) are unable to follow the law simply because we fear God (in every sense of that word). Our self-centeredness and desire to control our own wants and needs are simply too strong for us to consistently obey God.

Matthew 23:23–32:Matthew builds to the climax of what Jesus came to earth to tell us.  And it is not easy to hear as he continues his long discourse about the shortcomings of the religious leaders. In what can only be described as a longstanding human trait, the never-ending focus on the tangible trivial while ignoring less tangible but far more important spiritual matters. Jesus excoriates them, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” (23) This is a verse that should be read prior to every Church Council meeting in the land.

Then, Jesus hits on what I think is the defining quality of all good hypocrites: focusing solely on our appearance rather than the dirty reality of our character: “inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth” (27)  Church is an especially attractive place for this practice: This is where we publicly display our exterior selves in attractive physical and spiritual clothing.  We want nothing more than to appear whole and “with it” to those around us, even though we are broken inside.

Jesus continues relentlessly, giving us the best metaphor of all about the nature of hypocrisy: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.” (27).

He challenges their assertion that they would not have killed the prophets as their ancestors had. But Jesus points out their bad logic by observing, “Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets.” (31) This is Jesus’ most powerful accusation.Not only do the scribes and Pharisees claim they would not have killed the prophets had they been present back then, but Jesus knows they are about to kill the Prophet in their midst right now.

We, too, are guilty when claim we are better than our ancestors when in fact we are about to commit the same crime is perhaps the worst hypocrisy of all.  This is on display everywhere as our society today believes it is more “enlightened” and more “tolerant” than our benighted forebears. We are just like the scribes and Pharisees: ready to pounce and annihilate anyone who dares point out our societal failings in a way that does not comport with the accepted (and dare I say it: politically correct) “wisdom” of our self-appointed leaders in Hollywood and Washington DC.

I’m sure that Matthew has included these Jesus speeches, (that spoken by anyone else we might call a tirade), in his gospel to make sure that his primarily Jewish audience understood that the leaders of the Old Covenant were corrupt. The old order of religion is self-contradictory and it is finished. Jesus represents a revolutionary and brand new order.  And, as we are soon to see, this revolutionary new order, what we call the New Covenant, turns on the hinge of history: the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

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