Psalm 40:9-18; Exodus 34; Matthew 26:59-75

Originally published 3/29/2016. Revised and updated 3/29/2018

Psalm 40:9-18: Our psalmist wants nothing more than, “To do what pleases You, my God, I desire.” (9a) and he knows that what he has learned from God suffuses his very being: “and Your teaching is deep within me.” (b). Moreover, he puts what he has learned into practice:  “I heralded justice in a great assembly,” (10a) as he proclaims God’s teachings and his testimony of God’s mercy to all who will listen:
Look, I will not seal my lips.
Lord, You Yourself know.
Your justice I concealed not in my heart.
Your faithfulness and Your rescue I spoke.
I withheld not from the great assembly Your steadfast truth. (10b, 11)

This is a man who has been transformed by God’s mercy and he wishes to proclaim it aloud. But is it out of joy at God’s rescue, or is there a subtle expectation of a quid pro quo here? Having proclaimed God, we sense he believes God will reciprocate accordingly:
You, Lord, will not hold back
Your mercies from me.
Your steadfast truth
shall always guard me.
” (12)

But in this confession of his sins we see his sincerity and know that he is truly grateful for God’s faithfulness in spite of his own weakness and sins:
My crimes overtook me
and I could not see—more numerous than the hairs of my head—
and my heart forsook me.

His recollection of his many sins seems to pull him from joy back down to despair and supplication along with his relentless desire for God to take vengeance on his enemies::
Show favor, O Lord, to save me.
Lord, to my help hasten.
May they be shamed and abased one and all,
who seek my life to destroy it,
may they fall back and be disgraced,
who desire my harm
.” (14, 15)

But he recovers quickly as he once again focuses his thoughts on God’s goodness:
Let all who seek You
rejoice and exult in You.
May they always say, ‘God is great!
‘” (17)

Nevertheless, even in exaltation our poet knows that he remains constantly in need of God’s rescue and God’s forgiveness:
As for me, I am lowly and needy
My help, he who frees me You are.
My God, do not delay.

For me, this psalm of oscillation between despair and ecstasy is a beautiful example of the highs and lows every one of us experiences as the  human beings we are. Above all though, there is always one constant upon which we can rely: Our faithful God who loves us despite our numerous faults and sins.

Exodus 34: God grants Moses a mulligan as he instructs Moses to “Cut two tablets of stone like the former ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets, which you broke.” (1). Moses does so and once again ascends Sinai, since something this momentous event—the re-presentation of the Law—apparently cannot occur in the more mundane setting of the Tent of Meeting.

As Moses stands on Sinai, God speaks, making it clear that he has rethought his tendency to want to kill sinful Israel every time they sin. Now we hear one of the most beautiful verses in the OT that describes God’s generous grace:
      The Lord, the Lord,
      a God merciful and gracious,
       slow to anger,
       and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin (6, 7a)

Even though there is mercy God still demands justice and obedience:
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
 and the children’s children,
to the third and the fourth generation.” (7b)

In short, God is telling Moses—and us—that our sins have consequences that stretch far beyond our own lives and deeply affect the lives of our progeny and their progeny and on. We certainly see this effect in our society today where children who grow up in an unstable family situation go on to commit the crimes of their fathers. As awful as it seems, the truth is that the sins of the fathers do indeed too often beget the sins of the sons.

Upon hearing God utter these words, Moses bows to the earth and asks forgiveness for himself and the people he leads: “O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.” (8) As always, confession is an essential part of worship.

God renews the Covenant with Israel and this time the terms and conditions seem even more detailed. There are big issues such as their dealings with the inhabitants of Canaan: particularly around worship. They are not to make cast idols such as the golden calf and “You shall tear down their altars, break their pillars, and cut down their sacred poles” (13) and not to intermarry. There are also oddities such as “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” (26b).

While this reprise of the decalogue is similar, it has substantial differences from the earlier one written on the tablets Moses broke. This is much more about dealing with the Canaanites and avoiding their perverse religious practices. My suspicion is that there are at least two priestly groups involved in writing the book of Exodus, and here we see the words of the group that insisted on very specific worship practices as being even more important than the more famous ethical practices of the earlier tablets.

Perhaps the most significant new feature of this revised list of commandments is the order that first fruits belong solely to God. “The best of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God.” (26a)

Moses spends another forty days on the mountain communing with God. He then returns with the new tablets, but he “did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” (29) Aaron and the others are afraid to come near Moses so he covers his face with a veil. I’m pretty sure this detail was added to remind us that of all the Patriarchs, it is Moses who has had the closest connection to—and most conversations with— God. It’s clear that the authors of this book viewed Moses as the actual founder of the nation of Israel. The earlier Patriarchs may have led important tribes, but now we are talking nationhood

[Interesting side note from Alter that “glory” was mistranslated in the Latin Vulgate to mean “horns”, which explains why Michelangelo’s famous statue of the seated Moses includes small horns sprouting from Moses’ forehead…]

Matthew 26:59-75: The kangaroo court at Caiaphas’s house continues through the night as Matthew makes the sinister motives of the religious authorities perfectly clear: “the chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death.” (59). They finally find a guy who says, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.’” (61). Jesus remains silent to the high priest’s demand,“Have you no answer?“(62)

But when he does speak, Jesus follows his usual habit of not giving the answer they were seeking. In fact he provides essentially an apocalyptic riddle:
     “From now on you will see the Son of Man
    seated at the right hand of Power
    and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (64)

Even though Jesus’s answer is oblique, one priest exclaims that he has spoken blasphemy and they all chime in,“He deserves death.” (66). They spit in Jesus face and someone slaps him. In a detail I’ve never noticed before, they derisively ask Jesus, “Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?” (68) Needless to say, Jesus maintains his silence.

Frustrated out of their minds, the religious leaders could respond only like little children: spitting and slapping.  There is an almost comical note here as Jesus’ accusers ludicrously try to test his messianic powers by having him identify the people who slapped him—that a Messiah is somehow imbued with telepathic power.  And Jesus’ silence leaves the final question unanswered. For we must each answer that question for ourselves.

Matthew has made it clear that this “justice” is nothing of the sort. The evidence is flimsy and the group eagerly latches on to the words of the one priest who accuses Jesus of blasphemy. These proceedings are just another manifestation of how mobs are inflamed by incendiary words rather than evidence. Exactly what we see around us everywhere today, only even more amplified by the media.

But the real tragedy of today’s reading is Peter’s denial. At least he was there to be asked and to deny, as opposed to all the other disciples who had fled Jerusalem. Three times he denies he knows Jesus and then the cock crows, “And he went out and wept bitterly.” (75) Three times. The same number of hour darkness came over the earth during his crucifixion and the same number of days Jesus is buried. Like the number seven, three represents completeness. And three denials is the same as many denials.

Of course we are Peter. Only our denials far exceed three.

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