Psalm 80:9–12; Deuteronomy 8:1–9:6; Luke 6:12–26

Originally published 6/30/2016. Revised and updated 6/30/2018

Psalm 80:9–12: Our psalmist turns to an agricultural metaphor to review Israel’s escape from Egypt to Canaan as he addresses God:
You carried a vine out of Egypt,
You drove away nations and planted it
. (9)

As he extends the metaphor of Israel as a growing vine, we understand that it is God who facilitated their settling in Canaan. And as we read in Deuteronomy, it is God who allowed them prosper because at first, anyway, Israel obeyed God and kept his commandments:
You cleared space before it
and struck its roots down,
and it filled the land.
” (10)

We can see the poet’s nostalgic memories of a time long past in a place long distant as he writes,
The mountains were covered by its shade,
and by its branches the mighty cedars
. (11)

The vine of Israel grew and as vines do, Israel covered a broad kingdom from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River:
You sent forth its boughs to the sea
and to the River its shoots.
” (12)

This remarkable metaphor anticipates Jesus’ metaphor of the vine and branches in John 15. In that sense when Jesus says, “I am the vine and you are the branches,” he is telling us that in the context of the vine metaphor here in the psalm—that would be familiar to every jew, I suspect— it is Jesus who has become the new Israel—and it is in Jesus where we grow and prosper.

Deuteronomy 8:1–9:6: As his long second sermon continues, Moses elucidates a philosophical rationale for the 40 years in the wilderness: “your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments.” (8:2)

We encounter a verse that Jesus quoted word for word at the Sermon on the Mount as Moses reminds the people that God has done all these things “in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (8:3) And it is those words by which they—and we—grow and thrive as Moses tells them that “as a parent disciplines a child so the Lord your God disciplines you.” (8:5)

So, Israel’s response once again must be to keep God’s commandments and in doing so, they will reap enormous benefits in almost an echo of today’s psalm, “the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey.” (7,8)

But once again, Moses reminds them of the consequences of “failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today.” (11) The problem is pride. It is forgetting that what they are enjoying is a gift from God and coming to believe that prosperity is the result of their own skills and labor: “when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (13, 14) Instead, Israel—and we—must “remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth.” (18)

Which is exactly our problem today. We believe that what has been created around us, our possessions, our technologies are entirely our creation when in actuality is is God who has given us physical and mental resources to create a prosperous society. But also as we look around it’s easy to see that our prosperity and our freedom will all come to naught as we continue as a nation to become prideful in our individual achievements and the cult of individual rights continues to chip away at God’s moral bedrock.

To drive that point home, Moses reminds them (once again!) that it is God who is going to bring their victory over the Canaanites: “Know then today that the Lord your God is the one who crosses over before you as a devouring fire; he will defeat them and subdue them before you, so that you may dispossess and destroy them quickly, as the Lord has promised you.” (9:3) And when God does that, Moses warns, “do not say to yourself, “It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to occupy this land”; it is rather because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is dispossessing them before you.” (9:4) Right here is the moral justification for Israel’s invasion of Canaan: the people who are there are wicked who among other things, sacrifice their children to small-g gods.

But that victory will be God’s alone and again, Moses warns them not to allow pride to turn their heads because “the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to occupy because of your righteousness; for you are a stubborn people.” (9:6) The Israelite conquest of Canaan is God’s means of accomplishing his larger purpose. This casts a new light on God’s ultimate purpose: to wipe out an evil people and simultaneously “to fulfill the promise that the Lord made on oath to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” (9:5)

Is this rationale—that the annihilation of people is because they are evil in God’s sight—justified? That will remain one of the great unanswered questions of a God we will never fully comprehend.

Luke 6:12–26 : Luke, ever the detailed historian, provides us the complete roster of Jesus’ twelve Apostles. What’s worth noting is that Jesus’ choices came only after “he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God.” (12) This also tells us there is nothing random about Jesus’ choice; it is the result of long and probably agonized prayer. In his list, bringing up the rear, Luke tells us that “Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor” (16) was also a conscious choice, not an error on Jesus’ part. The question hangs in the air, did Jesus know at that early point that Judas would one day betray him? My guess is yes because Jesus knew what the end game would be.

Jesus’ fame continues to spread as he continues his preaching and healing ministry: “with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.” (17)

Luke, as doctor, goes farther than the other gospel writers in describing how Jesus healed people, He states that “power came out from him and healed all of them.” (19) Having just read that Jesus engaged in frequent and lengthy prayer, I don’t think it’s an unfair conclusion to think that it is praying to his father which is the ultimate source of this healing and preaching power.

We come to Luke’s compact version of the Beatitudes given at Sermon on the Mount. His focus is on Jesus as bringer of social justice and personal joy:

Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,

    for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.” (20, 21)

Those who suffer will one day find true everlasting joy: “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.” (22) However, Luke seems to be careful in pointing out that this joy may not actually come in our lifetime: “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.” (23) One suspects he is writing to a community beginning to experience persecution.

As in the OT scriptures, it is the poor and hungry and who are God’s—and now Jesus’—primary concern. And there is the promise that all who weep now will laugh later.

In a beautiful symmetry, Luke’s Jesus then gives what we could call the “anti-Beatitudes,”—the same three qualities of wealth, hunger and weeping but as a mirror image:
But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now,
    for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
    for you will mourn and weep.” (24, 25)

If we ever needed a clear message about what our Christian duties are, it is right here. But in addition, it is Jesus’ statement that in the Kingdom of God everything is turned upside down and inside out compared to the state of things here on earth.

Finally, if we think that by preaching and practicing Jesus’ message everybody will be overjoyed at our arrival, Jesus is telling his listeners—and us—to think again:  Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” (26) So, all the nonsense about the US being a “Christian country” or trying to bring Jesus into politics is, by Jesus’ own words, doomed to failure. If someone in power speaks well of us or our message, we know their words hide contempt. Evangelical leaders continuing to endorse Donal Trump would do well to reflect on this passage.

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