Psalm 79:9–13; Deuteronomy 5:22–6:25; Luke 5:27–39

Originally published 6/28/2016. Revised and updated 6/28/2018

Psalm 79:9–13: After describing the awful events and consequences of the Babylonian capture of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple, our psalmist turns to supplication. He reminds us that even in this darkest hour, faith remains and he knows that salvation comes only from God:
Help us, our rescuing God
For Your name’s glory
and save us and atone for our sins
for the sake of Your name.

This theological approach to prayer is accompanied by practical logic. Judah should not be shamed because one logical reason is that it makes God look bad to surrounding nations with their own gods:
Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’

In fact, our poet continues, not only should God appear, but God should take vengeance on those who conquered Israel. But it seems to be mostly for PR reasons that God should dramatically demonstrate his true power and not look weak compared to the small-g gods of the enemy:
Let it be known among the nations before our eyes—
the vengeance for Your servants’ spilled blood.

He begs God to listen and respond to their plight as captives of the Babylonians, as many face certain death:
Let the captive’s groan come before You,
by Your arm’s greatness unbind those marked for death
. (11)

The prayer for rescue is intertwined with the idea that God should display his true power in both deeds and especially words:
And give back to our neighbors sevenfold to their bosom
their insults that they heaped upon You, Master.

The psalm ends with the plea that God remembers that these captives are his chosen people, who have not abandoned their faith and that despite everything they will always be faithful and worship God:
But we are Your people and the flock that You tend.
We acclaim You forever.
From generation to generation, we recount Your praise.
” (13)

Once again, we tend to recoil when we read a psalm that seeks vengeance on enemies, although it’s worth noting that it would be God’s, not man’s, vengeance. Should we pray for our enemies to be destroyed? No. Jesus is quite clear on that point. But we need to remember that the psalms expose the deepest emotions of hurt, shame, and anger as the psalmists write. It is by writing that emotions are articulated rather than bottled up. An articulated emotion is one that is confronted. And just as the emotion is expressed in these verses, the anger slowly dissipates as the psalmist comes to the end, realizing that it is his faith in God that is the most powerful force of all.

Deuteronomy 5:22–6:25: Moses recounts the incident at the foot of Sinai where all the people could hear God’s voice out of the clouds and darkness. But God’s voice created well-placed fear among the people: “For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any longer, we shall die.” (5:25) Instead they invite Moses to do the listening, as they beg their leader to “Go near, you yourself, and hear all that the Lord our God will say. Then tell us everything that theLord our God tells you, and we will listen and do it.” (27)

Moses observes that “The Lord heard your words when you spoke to me” (28a) and that God actually appreciates their worshipful response. We can almost hear wistfulness in God’s voice as he says, “If only they had such a mind as this, to fear me and to keep all my commandments always, so that it might go well with them and with their children forever!” (29) Of course, our authors writing hundreds of years later write this with no little irony. If only…

Moses returns to his discourse on the law, telling the people that “ the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe …so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear theLord your God all the days of your life.” (6:1,2) Something I’d not noticed before is the great promise of earthly success that will occur if the people but only obey: “observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.” (6:3) Perhaps this is meant more as encouragement than theology.

We arrive at the words that Jesus quoted when he was asked which was the greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (6:5) Interestingly, the part about loving one’s neighbor as oneself is not here.

Moses outlines how the law is the absolute centrality of every aspect their existence. His list—almost humorous in its extent— covers everything:  “Keep these words in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem  on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (6:7, 8, 9) In other words: the law is everywhere and everything. Use every mnemonic device possible. Do not forget!!.

Having stated this key aspect of the law, Moses goes on to remind the people of the high price of disobedience, especially in the matter of worshipping small-g gods: “The anger of the Lord your God would be kindled against you and he would destroy you from the face of the earth.” (15)

Intertwined with the law is Israel’s national story, which is to be passed down through the generations. Moses tells them that when their children ask about the law, the parents are to tell the entire story, beginning with “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.” (6:22) and ending with the moral admonition: “ If we diligently observe this entire commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, we will be in the right.” (6:25).

I really don’t think Moses (or his amanuenses) could have made it any clearer than he does here. The law is not a theological or administrative abstraction. It is the driving force behind every person’s action and attitude. It truly is the focal point of Israel’s existence as a nation, for it is upon the law that God’s promise of favoring Israel is built. Moses’s admonition comes down to us today in the reality that without laws civilization descends into chaos.

Luke 5:27–39: Luke has already told us that Jesus is now the most famous person in northern Israel, so it’s really no surprise that when Jesus asks Levi the tax collector  to “Follow me” that he does exactly that. Levi knows that following Jesus promises a far better life than being the hated tax collector. Wealth cannot compensate for the loneliness and rejection he surely experienced on a daily basis.

So, Levi gives a party, and ever the judgmental prudes, the Pharisees ask Jesus why, as a respected and now famous rabbi, he would deign to sit among all those societal losers. Jesus’ famous answer—I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”(32)—quiets the Pharisees. But those words are also the distilled essence of the Good News, something that would not be missed among Luke’s community, which I presume included tax collectors and other social misfits. And of course it’s a trenchant reminder to those of us leading comfortable lives that we too are sinners and like Jesus, it’s our duty to reach out to those that society rejects.

Never ones to pass up an opportunity to point out any apparent departure from accepted practice, the Pharisees ask Jesus why they’re partying rather than being well behaved like John’s disciples, who “frequently fast and pray, [while] your disciples eat and drink.” (33) Jesus’ unexpected answer is that he is going to be around only for a short time and that they should feast while the bridegroom is present. There’ll be plenty of time for fasting after Jesus leaves them. Although I’m sure that  all those hearing them did not grasp the full implication of Jesus’ words.

Perceiving this, Jesus takes a different tack and points out that he is completely new. Like patching on old garment or sewing new skin on old wineskins, the new theology that Jesus has brought to the Jews—and to all of us— cannot simply be attached to the old law. This of course is Paul’s theme in Galatians and Romans. Followers of Christ do not have to attach themselves first to the Jewish culture and law in order to follow—and feast with—Christ.

I know that most of the time I fail to appreciate just how new and yes, radical, Jesus’ message really was—and remains. Too bad that we too easily tend to treat Jesus so often as “old hat.”

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