Psalm 38:19–23; Exodus 29:31–30:16; Matthew 26:14–30

Originally published 3/24/2016. Revised and updated 3/24/2018

Psalm 38:19–23: Our poet’s David ironically confesses his ‘crime’ as if in a kangaroo court. But even this ‘confession’ has not placated his foes:
For my crime I shall tell,
I dread my offense.

And my wanton enemies grow many,
my unprovoked foes abound.
 (19, 20)

He then expresses the understandable frustration that we all feel when we believe we are innocent and even our most benign actions are seen as malevolent:
And those who pay back good with evil
thwart me for pursuing good.
” (21)

Unable to find succor even among his erstwhile friends who have not only abandoned him but are now also undermining him, there is only one place remaining to whom he can turn—and we hear the desperation in his voice as this  psalm closes on his final plea:
Do not forsake me, Lord. My God,
do not stay far from me.
Hasten to my help,
O Master of my rescue.
” (22, 23)

The psalm ends abruptly, almost as if the music stops just before the final resolution of a V-I chord. I think this is a brilliant move on the part of the psalmist. This final plea leaves us hanging. Does God indeed rescue him? Or does his agony continue? I think our psalmist recognizes that God does not always answer immediately. Life is like that. We pray, but then just like the ambiguous conclusion of this psalm, there is only silence.

Exodus 29:31–30:16: Instructions regarding the consecration of Aaron and his sons continues apace with a meal consuming the ram flesh along with some bread. This is holy food and “no one else shall eat of them.” (29:33) The full-bore consecration takes seven days—one day longer than it took God to create the earth, reminding us that the number seven is symbolic of completeness. The consecration is an expensive process with one bull sacrificed each morning. Through this process the altar itself becomes holy, and “whatever touches the altar shall become holy.” (29:37)

Now that the altar is consecrated, it is commissioned for daily use: “you shall offer on the altar two lambs a year old regularly each day.” (29:38) In addition, “one-tenth of a measure of choice flour mixed with one-fourth of a hin of beaten oil, and one-fourth of a hin of wine for a drink offering” (29:40) is offered each day. The lamb, the bread and the winde are, of course, the precursor to the Eucharist, except that the Lamb was offered only once at Calvary and therefore is no longer required.

We finally arrive at God’s explanation for all this sacrificing and burning. It’s really quite simple. It’s that the sacrifices will be “a pleasing odor, an offering by fire to the Lord.” (29:41). God adds that it is also at “the tent of meeting before the Lord, where I will meet with you, to speak to you there. I will meet with the Israelites there, and it shall be sanctified by my glory.” (29:42, 43). And by doing so, “ I will dwell among the Israelites, and I will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them; I am the Lord their God.” (29:45, 46)

It seems that with this act, the Covenant that God promised Abraham is finally and quite formally established. God’s side of the promise has been fulfilled. Can the Israelites keep their side of the contract?

As creatures of the New Covenant, God is no longer asking us for ritual sacrifice, since that work has been accomplished once and for all.  But as history so amply demonstrates, we humans require ritual: not just to remember but to know our place in the universe.  The question occurs: how much ritual is too much? Or too little?  Too much and ritual becomes an end in itself, off-putting to those to whom we seek to invite.  Too little and we forget why we are there.  But above all, if this chapter demonstrates nothing else, it is that ritual is not the end in itself; it is the means of remembering who we are, who God is and what he has done for us.

What’s also remarkable to me here is just how local God is. He makes it clear that he is dwelling right there, apparently only in this one place: the Tabernacle. There is no hint here of what later will become the omnipresent God, simultaneously everywhere. At this point, God seems to be in relationship with only one people, and that is the people of Israel. Does this mean he’s unavailable to other tribes and nations at this point? Has he not revealed himself to others? Given what the author of Hebrews says about the high Melchizedek to whom Abraham went, I can only conclude that the authors of Exodus are ignoring that deeper part of their history.

The priestly authors continue by describing the altar of incense, which at one square cubit is quite a bit smaller than the big time sacrificial altar. This, too, is a full-time offering, always burning, “a regular incense offering before the Lord throughout your generations.” (30:8) Catholics (and high church Episcopalians) have preserved the incense offering in  the Mass. There is no question that odor and smoke of incense further heightens the sense that one is in a holy space. And that is certainly the purpose here, as well.

Of course it takes funding to run this elaborate Tabernacle operation, and this detail is not forgotten. The entire population of Israel must contribute: “each one who is registered shall give: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), half a shekel as an offering to the Lord.” (30:13).  It is a flat tax and makes no distinction between the rich and poor. All pay exactly the same amount. This certainly suggests that before God we are all equal regardless of our wealth—or lack thereof. This idea has pretty much been lost by the time Jesus appeared, and he had to remind people that the widow who gave her two mites was giving more sacrificially than wealthy Pharisees.  And of course today, we tend to respect the wealthy givers more than the poor. But in the eyes of God, all are equal.

Matthew 26:14–30: This passage is certainly a happy coincidence in terms of its timing as we enter Holy Week tomorrow as we read of the last Passover meal of Jesus with his disciples. Not unlike having his disciples borrow the donkey for his entry into Jerusalem, Jesus sends his disciples on ahead to “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’” (18)

It’s clear that Jesus had at least one loyal friend in Jerusalem, willing to lend (or perhaps rent) out his house for this itinerant band from the countryside and their rabbi to have Passover.  One has to imagine that by this time, word of Jesus’ activities at the Temple had spread around the city and that housing him–even for Passover–would be viewed quite dimly by the Temple authorities.  So, to my mind, the man with the Upper Room is one of the many unnamed heroes of Jesus’ time, willing to take a risk for the man who was about to turn the world upside down.

Or perhaps there’s a simpler explanation. Did the man simply agree because he knew Jesus’ reputation and was honored that a celebrity wanted to have a Passover Seder at his house? Be that as it may, “the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal.” (19)

Jesus shocks them all with his announcement as the meal is underway: “while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” (21) In this dramatic scene of incipient betrayal the disciples react exactly as we would in the same circumstances: disbelief and denial: “And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?” (22) This denial reminds us not only that the disciples are very human and human nature has not changed a whit in 2000 years. The disciples are stand-ins for all of us.

Matthew finally reveals who will betray Jesus, having told us a few verses earlier that Judas has been paid the infamous 30 pieces of silver.  Jesus doesn’t make it easy on him, telling the group, “woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.” (24) But in Matthew’s telling it is not Jesus who incriminates him, but Judas himself, who does that in his own words with what is surely the most ironic question in the gospels, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” Just as when we betray Jesus in our seemingly innocent denials, but always well aware when we have sinned.

Jesus bless the food and institutes the words of the Eucharist but with the dire reminder at the end of what is about to come later that evening, “I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (29)

Did the disciples get it even now? Or did they think their Rabbi was just being obscure and discursive? We know how the story comes out. But for them, it was just another Passover. Never mind the odd exchange between Judas and Jesus. Which I’m pretty sure is what I would have thought were I there in the Upper Room. We humans can be awfully clueless a lot of the time.

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