Psalm 79:1–8; Deuteronomy 4:32–5:21; Luke 5:12–26

Originally published 6/27/2016. Revised and updated 6/27/2018

Psalm 79:1–8: This psalm is a searing cry of anguish at the destruction of Jerusalem and the massacre of its people in the Babylonian invasion and conquest in 586BC. First, destruction of the temple:
God, nations have come into Your estate,
they have defiled Your holy temple.
They have turned Jerusalem to ruins
. (1)

Then, widespread death accompanies the destruction in a striking image of becoming fodder for birds and animals:
They have given Your servants corpses
as food to the fowl of the heavens,
the flesh of Your faithful to the beasts of the earth
. (2).

The poet’s camera slowly pulls back from the temple mount to a wider angle, revealing the gruesome sight surrounding it:
They have spilled blood like water
all around Jerusalem,
and there is none to bury them.
 (3)

As a result only shame and despair remains. Judah has
become a disgrace to our neighbors,
scorn and contempt to all round us.
 (4)

The psalmist turns his head upward, shaking his fist toward heaven as he asks the question on the heart of every faithful person who has experienced great tragedy:
How long, O Lord, will You rage forever,
Your fury burn like fire?
  (5)

He asks quite logically that God should turn his attention to the ones who have caused all this:
Pour out Your wrath on the nations
that did not know You/ and on the kingdoms
that did not call on Your name.
 (6) A

fter all, they’re the ones who have brought death and destruction. They’re the ones who “have devoured Jacob/ and his habitation laid waste.” (7)

The psalmist cries that those alive now are the ones being punished unfairly for the crimes of their ancestors as he pleads,
Do not call to mind against us our forebear’s crimes. (8a)

But the anger and despair begin to melt as our poet moves from despair toward prayer. After all this death and anguish, a scintilla of faith remains:
Quickly, may Your mercies overtake us,
for we have sunk very low
.” (8b)

This psalm is proof that anger toward God at the unfairness of life is ancient. These verses also remind us that it is permissible to shake our fist at God, to be angry and despair at what has happened to us. Even though God did not necessarily cause these things to happen, God can take our anger.

But it’s also a reminder that as our anger expends itself, there is a solid foundation of faith in God and his love that lies underneath our despair. In tragedy there is really nothing or no one else to whom we can turn than to finally turn to God.

Deuteronomy 4:32–5:21: Moses reminds the people that what they have experienced these past forty years is unprecedented in human history: “has anything so great as this ever happened or has its like ever been heard of?” (4:32) Has any small-g god “ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by terrifying displays of power, as the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?” (34) Moreover, God has enabled them to drive “out before you nations greater and mightier than yourselves, to bring you in, giving you their land for a possession, as it is still today.” (38)

Moses is sermonizing that God has done all these incredible and wonderful things, and that the least they can do in response is to “acknowledge today and take to heart that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other [and to] keep his statutes and his commandments.” (39) After all, Moses concludes, these decrees are “for your own well-being and that of your descendants after you, so that you may long remain in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for all time.” (40)

At this point our authors insert what seems to be a non sequitur: the definition of three cities of refuge east of the Jordan. My theory is that somebody found a scrap of scroll on the floor of the scriptorium and that it was supposed to be in Numbers when the cities of refuge west of the Jordan were defined. But it was too late to alter that scroll, so it was pasted in here.

Next we encounter the device of Moses giving a second speech, which I’m sure the authors saw as investing greater authority in the laws and precepts they’re laying out than if they had just written them in the third person as in the other books of the Pentateuch.

This second speech opens with the version of the Decalogue that is most familiar to us—the one that tends to get inscribed in stone tablets and placed in front of courthouses in the Southern states of the US.

Unsurprisingly, the first three commandments have to do with human relationship with God and the fundamental rule that lies above all others: “you shall have no other gods before me.” (5:7) It’s almost as if God already knew this would be the sin that ultimately brings Israel and then Judah crashing down some centuries hence. To make sure they get the message, Moses reminds the people that “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me.” (9) But that he will show “steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (10)

It all seems so simple, doesn’t it? Keep the law and God will love you. Well, today’s psalm demonstrates the consequences of disobedience. The Old Covenant sure looks great in principle, but in practice it turns out to be another thing. Israel’s—and our—inherent turning toward worshipping idols and disobedience of God is the consequence of our own pride and ego.

Nevertheless, the seven last commandments that have to do with human-to-human relationships continue to form the basis of western civilization.

Luke 5:12–26: The healing of the leper includes a fascinating dialog we don’t see elsewhere. The leper says, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” (12), which to me means that he had absolute faith in Jesus’ ability to heal, but that Jesus could forego healing him if he so chose. Happily for the leper, Jesus responds, “I do choose. Be made clean.” (13) This raises the issue for me that healing is not necessarily guaranteed or automatic, but that God has a choice in the matter. What we have no insight into, however, is exactly what criteria, if any, does Jesus use to determine healing? What is necessary however, is that like the leper we must have faith that we can be healed.

Luke reminds us also, that Jesus was not in public ministry at all times, but that “he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.” (16) Jesus knew how to avoid burnout and that his number one priority was to remain connected to his Father.

Jesus is now more popular than ever in the countryside and his fame has spread even to Jerusalem. “Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting near by (they had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem).” (17). Mostly, they were there to witness Jesus healing, including the case at hand, the paralytic lowered down from the ceiling of structure where Jesus was preaching by four faithful friends.

Jesus speaks not to the paralytic, but to the friends and tells them, “your sins are forgiven you.” (20) The religious authorities are outraged at this apparent blasphemy. To which Jesus calmly responds, “Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’?” (23) He promptly heals the paralytic, who rolls up his bed and walks out, “glorifying God.“(25).

The crowd, including the Pharisees and teachers, is stunned into silence. There is no argumentation from the religious leaders; they are “filled with awe” and all they can say is, “We have seen strange things today.” (26)

The arguments with the Pharisees about blasphemy will come later, but there’s no question that from this point forward, Jesus will be seen as a dangerous vector by the religious establishment in Jerusalem. More dangerous than John the Baptist who preached, but did not heal. Jesus has truly done the more difficult and unexpected thing. That’s what makes him so dangerous then—and today.

 

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