Psalm 81:1–6; Deuteronomy 11; Luke 6:39–49

Originally published 7/2/2016. Revised and updated 7/3/2018

Psalm 81:1–6: This psalm celebrates a festival with great musicality—including both orchestra and choir:
Sing gladly to God our strength,
  shout out to the God of Jacob.
Lift your voices in song and beat the drum,
   the lyre is sweet with the lute.” (2,3)

Rather oddly, it turns out that the occasion being celebrated is a festival about the moon:
Blast the ram’s horn on the new moon,
when the moon starts to wax, for our festival day.
 (4).

This party seems rather pagan compared to the other very specific festivals (Passover, tabernacles, etc.) described in such detail in the Torah. Nevertheless, at some post-Torah point in Israel’s history, it became an official holiday—fully decreed and approved by God himself:
For it is an ordinance in Israel,
a rule of the God of Jacob.
A decree He [God] declared it for Israel.
 (5, 6a)

Perhaps this holiday evolved from some other ordained festival. In any event, the psalm gives us no clue as to when in the calendar year it was celebrated. However, since there’s a new moon every 28 days, it seems unlikely it was a monthly holiday.

At least the festival is connected to Israel’s history, hearkening back to the time God saw the misery of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt:
…when He sallied forth against Egypt’s land—
a language I knew not I heard.
 (6b)

I presume our speaker is referring to the language spoken by the Egyptians , which of course would have been forgotten by anyone living in Israel centuries later.

Deuteronomy 11: Moses continues to reprise Israelite history from Egypt to the banks of the Jordan, this time in the context of “You shall love the Lord your God, therefore, and keep his charge, his decrees, his ordinances, and his commandments always.” (1) He is speaking to the generation that was born and became adults during the 40-year wilderness trek: “Remember today that it was not your children …, but it is you who must acknowledge his greatness, his mighty hand and his outstretched arm.” (2)

Moses’ rhetorical tack is that having been witnesses to all the great acts of God, keeping the commandment to love God is the key “that I am commanding you today, so that you may have strength to go in and occupy the land that you are crossing over to occupy,.” (8)

[All this is somewhat puzzling. Weren’t the people who actually participated in the Exodus all now dead? I assume these are the children of the Exodus, so how did they witness all these events Moses is recounting. Obviously, the authors of Deuteronomy are less bothered by a timeline than I am.]

Moses also provides a brief lesson in agriculture, comparing how they grew food in Egypt to the abundance that they are about to enjoy in Canaan: “For the land that you are about to enter to occupy is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sow your seed and irrigate by foot like a vegetable garden.  But the land that you are crossing over to occupy is a land of hills and valleys, watered by rain from the sky.” (11) Most important though, is that it is “a land that the Lord your God looks after.” (12)

There’s only one condition they must fulfill. Only if  they “heed his every commandment that I am commanding you today—loving the Lord your God, and serving him with all your heart and with all your soul—then he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil.” (14) This is the covenantal quid pro quo that predates the grace that Jesus has brought to us.

Moses reiterates that since these commandments must be obeyed without fail, the people would do well to “bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead.” (18) as well as teaching these precepts to their children and reflecting on them before going to sleep at night and before getting up in the morning. There is a clear command to parents that their children must be raised in the Jewish faith: “Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.” (19)

And for safe measure, “Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates,” (20) We may chuckle at the extent to which Moses went to get the people to remember, but all of these (well, maybe not writing on my forehead) are a key to a close relationship with God. It’s about more than just obeying commandments, it’s writing them on our heart and soul, which implies clearly that obedience comes because we want to be obedient.

Finally, Moses reminds them, “I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: ” (26) A blessing when the commandments are kept; a curse “if you do not obey the commandments of theLord your God, but turn from the way that I am commanding you today, to follow other gods that you have not known.” (28) Once again, the specificity about the main commandment—to avoid idol worship— gives me the sense this sermon is being written retrospectively long after Israel has succumbed to the very activity Moses warns against.

Luke 6:39–49: Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount continues as Jesus launches into several parables. While there is hierarchy—”A disciple is not above the teacher,” (40)—we disciples should still teach others. But we cannot teach others f we haven’t dealt with ourselves. Which brings Jesus to hypocrisy—famously explained in his famous aphorism, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (41) Only when we’ve removed the speck can we see clearly and only then can we be effective examples to others. So the question is, why are we such hypocrites? It’s certainly the primary manifestation of our fallen nature and our quest being always at the top of the social heap. As always, the root cause is pride.

Next, Jesus makes the simple observation that like trees, what we say—our fruit— is the product of the attitude of our heart: “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.” (45) I think this is exactly what Moses is getting at when he uses his rather disturbing metaphor of circumcising the foreskin of our heart—A circumcision which means we are a God-follower. Frankly, I prefer Jesus comparing the attitude of our hearts to fruit trees.

It all boils down to not only “being,” but also “doing.” Jesus asks rhetorically,  Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?” (46) It’s perhaps the most brutal truth of all: we can hear and speak all the “good things” we want. But speech without action is nothing more than empty rhetoric—”a house on the ground without a foundation.” (49a) Jesus asks us to do one simple thing—just as Moses asked Israel to do one simple thing. Let our deed correlate to your words. And we have to begin with ourselves, not judging other people for their failures.

Alas, in this era of social media and political spin we are so awash in empty words that it’s almost impossible to find actions that backs up those words. As a culture I think we are headed societally to the fate of the house build on sand: “When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.” (49b) But at the individual level, we can be good fruit. It’s a question of keeping our mouths shut and taking personal responsibility to remove the hypocritical logs out of our eyes before writing that snarky post on Facebook or tweeting something humorous but mean.

 

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