Psalm 36; Exodus 20:22–21:27; Matthew 23:33–39

Originally published 3/14/2016. Revised and updated 3/14/2018

Psalm 36: While this psalm centers around the basic theme of righteousness in conflict with wickedness usually found in a psalm of supplication, it is much more a philosophical reflection on the mechanism of wrongdoing within the human heart. The psalmist postulates a dark corner of the human psyche that he calls ‘Crime,’ which is speaking to the conscience:
Crime’s utterance to the wicked
within his heart:
‘There is no fear of God before my eyes.’ (2)

This assertion makes it clear that the person who does not fear God [in both the senses of ‘fear,’ I think] will listen to—and be influenced by—this darkness that resides in all of us.

The next verse is scarily anthropomorphic as is describes the seductive power of evil as it mines the hatred present in the wicked man:
For it [crime] caressed him with its eyes
to find his sin of hatred. (3)

And having found that well of hatred, Crime drives the wicked man’s actions, beginning as always with speech while wickedness overcomes the motivation to do good in what was once a righteous man:
The words of his mouth are mischief, deceit
he ceased to grasp things, to do good. (4)

Our psalmist displays amazing psychological insight into humankind’s fallen nature. This model of hatred driving wickedness and that its potentiality exists within every human being is certainly on full display in our present culture where hatred is being so freely expressed on all sides. Once wickedness has overtaken righteousness all manner of conspiracy and wrongdoing ensues: Mischief he plots in his bed,
takes his stand on a way of no good,
evil he does not despise. (5)

While everyone searches for psychological insight into the motivations of the murderer who recently killed 17 students in Parkland, Florida, our psalmist has identified the root cause right here. Without a moral foundation evil overtakes the conscience and inevitably drives to action.

As the epitome of justice and kindness, only God stands in the wicked man’s way. God is and the only place where the righteous can find shelter from evil:
How dear is is Your kindness, O God,
and the sons of men in Your wings’ shadow shelter. (8)

Eschewing wickedness and being God’s man results in being invited to God’s sumptuous and  endless party—a stark contrast from the wicked man lying in his bed plotting evil deeds. Rather than evil the righteous feast on God’s justice and kindness:
They take their fill from the fare of Your house
and from Your stream of delights You give them drink. (9).

But most important of all, it is in God where we turn toward light and life and away from the dank, dark corner in which Crime lurks:
For with You in the fountain of life.
In Your light we shall see light. (10)

Only when we turn toward God, his light—and for us, the light of Jesus Christ—removes us from the darkness of sin. We cannot overcome ‘Crime’ in any other way.

Exodus 20:22–21:27: The driving narrative of Exodus comes to an abrupt halt as our authors turn to the detailed exegesis of the Ten Commandments. I certainly question whether God actually went into this level of detail concerning the Law, but this pause in the action gives our authors in Babylon ample opportunity to provide detailed instructions about pressing religious and social issues.

First and foremost among God’s law is the very clear command, “You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold.” (20:23), which law, of course, will be broken imminently. We find that God, at this point anyway, prefers natural materials as he instructs that altars must be made of a pile of rocks: “But if you make for me an altar of stone, do not build it of hewn stones; for if you use a chisel upon it you profane it.” (20:25)

The next topic concerns the rules concerning slave ownership. While it is personally difficult for me to think that a nation of former slaves are indeed themselves slave owners, I have to remember that my cultural context is wildly different from that of the Israelites.

One major instruction that was lost on subsequent cultures of slave owners, especially those in the Antebellum South, is that a slave “shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt.” (21:2). This statement also suggests that slavery was more like indentured servanthood; that a loan and consequent debt were often involved with slavery being the means of repayment.

There are also clear rules about the marital status and families of slaves: “If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him.” (21:3) Then we encounter the very real issue of a master giving a slave a wife, which means the master owns any issue of that “marriage.” (21:4)  As a clear indication that the Law was given by God for our own well-being, it recognizes that strong emotional bonds between slave and master could evolve, giving the slave the right to declare,“I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out a free person,” (21:5) At which point the slave’s earlobe is pierced with an awl, indicating permanent slave status.

But perhaps most disturbing aspect here is the apparent fact that fathers could sell their daughters. Perhaps in memory of what Joseph’s brothers did to him, at least the master “shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt unfairly with her.” (21:8) And in a stark reminder that women were chattel—the same status as livestock, a father could even designate a daughter to be his son’s slave although in that case the father “shall deal with her as with a daughter” (9) not a slave.

Following the laws about slavery, instructions about the nature and consequences of violent acts ensues.  Assault and battery, if it does not result in the victim’s death, seems to be quite acceptable as long as the victim “recovers and walks around outside with the help of a staff, then the assailant shall be free of liability, except to pay for the loss of time, and to arrange for full recovery.” (21:19)

And distressingly, for me anyway, the reality that slaves were property arises when the slaveowner strikes a slave. If the slave dies, the master will be punished, but “if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property.” (21)

Despite our discomfort, the Law provides the main rule of justice is the foundation of all these laws: That punishment must be commensurate with the deed: “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,” (23, 24) —a rule that extends down to our day, although as as our overstuffed prisons suggest, it is certainly not as well followed as well it could be.

Matthew 23:33–39: Jesus’ pronounces a final coda on the religious leaders by bluntly accusing them of being murderers guilty as charged all the way back to Abel and effectively cursing them: “so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.” (35) His final statement to them is about their inevitable doom: “Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation.” (36) Which of course happens when Titus invades Jerusalem in CE 70.

Matthew’s unstated point at the apotheosis of Jesus’ accusations is that if there was any doubt among the religious leaders that this Jesus must be eliminated, those doubts have now been eliminated. The wheels heading toward Good Friday have been firmly set in motion by Jesus himself.

With this thought of inevitable destruction on his mind, Jesus broadens his scope from religious leaders to Jerusalem itself in his famous lament: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” (37) He finally acknowledges that his words will go unheeded and the city itself will come to a tragic end: “See, your house is left to you, desolate.” (38)

At a theological level, Matthew is telling his Jewish audience, who are probably reading this sometime after the destruction of the city and temple by Titus, that God is no longer “in residence” in the Temple at Jerusalem. The Old Covenant has served its purpose and has been supplanted by the New: the Messiah, Jesus Christ. The Kingdom of God has no need for a physical temple because through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the Holy Spirit now dwells within each of us.

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