Psalm 82:1–4; Deuteronomy 14:22–15:18; Luke 7:31–38

Originally published 7/6/2016. Revised and updated 7/6/2018

Psalm 82:1–4: This psalm focuses on the root causes of injustice in the world. It is strikingly different from other psalms in that it uses the device of God judging mythological small-g gods, who God is now calling to account. The scene is set in a mythical courtroom as God speaks as Judge from the bench, sentencing these lesser gods for their crimes:
God takes His stand in the divine assembly,
in the midst of the gods He renders judgement. 
(1)

It appears that it is the small-g gods have abandoned their duty of seeing justice carried out and are now the ones responsible for what has gone wrong in the world. It is they who have motivated the wicked to carry out their cruel deeds as the psalm shifts to God’s voice:
How long will you [the small-g gods] judge dishonestly,
and show favor to the wicked?” (2)

In the next verses God outlines the duties not only of the small-gods, but of those humans that have abandoned their duties to those less wealthy and powerful than they:
Do justice to the poor and the orphan.
Vindicate the lowly and the wretched.
 (3)

Once again, we encounter that relentless underlying theme of the OT: God’s insistence on bringing justice to those who cannot obtain it for themselves. God’s priority is always for the poor, widows and orphans among us.

God instructs these mythological creatures to get with the program and cause their human agents to act and follow God’s will:
Free the poor and the needy,
from the hand of the wicked save them
. (4)

Evangelicals may be uncomfortable with the idea of a biblical author suggesting the existence of many small-g gods, who God calls on to bring justice to the earth. But they are metaphors.  It’s worth noting that the rich and powerful too often set themselves up as small-g gods over others, especially the destitute and suffering. It is they who God is calling to account.

Deuteronomy 14:22–15:18: Our authors are now into full-bore law-giving although they continue to do so in Moses’ voice as if he were giving history’s longest sermon. Today, it is the touchy topic of finances. Giving a tithe of one’s wealth—almost always crops and livestock—back to God is not a matter of free will; it is mandatory. Here, it even deals with the problem of transporting the offering to the place of worship. If “the distance is so great that you are unable to transport it, …then you may turn it into money. With the money secure in hand, go to the place that the Lord your God will choose.” (14:24, 25)

But what’s really great here is that the tithe also becomes the occasion for a party: “spend the money for whatever you wish—oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your household rejoicing together.” (14:26). That’s certainly a better motivation to give happily than many of the dour and pointed stewardship sermons I’ve heard through the years!

Nevertheless, there are still rules. Every third year, the tithe is to be stored in the town center, so “the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.” (14:29) After God’s demand that the people worship him and no other small-g gods, the priority is to carry out God’s command to take care the poor, the widows and the orphan—and here, significantly, the resident alien. But the overall context of giving is clear: We are to give both dutifully and joyfully.

Chapter 15 deals with the remission of debts that is to occur every seventh year. Although its perfectly OK to exact debts from a foreigner, “you must remit your claim on whatever any member of your community owes you.” (15:3) This can be done because “There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy.” (15:4) In other words, there will be so much bounty that even after giving there still will be plenty left over.

But as always, this occurs “only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today.” (15:5) Moses expands on the duties to the poor and needy: “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community …do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor.” (7) Rather, “open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.” (8)

Here’s the command not only for Israel but for all of us who follow God: “Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake.” (10) But we must do it with a clean heart without an ulterior motive. Unfortunately, this verse has been ripped out of its context by those who hawk the prosperity gospel. They prefer that the poor and needy give to them so they can enjoy their ostentatious lifestyles.

The every-seven-years remission includes freeing any Hebrew slaves, And when they are freed, “you shall not send him out empty-handed. Provide liberally out of your flock, your threshing floor, and your wine press, thus giving to him some of the bounty with which the Lord your God has blessed you.” (15:14) It’s interesting that slave-holding in the antebellum South was frequently justified by the fact that slaves existed in biblical times. But they seem to have ignored the 7-year rule that frees slaves here in Deuteronomy. As for us, although we do not have slaves to free, the rule remains the same: we are to give to liberally to those in need.

Luke 7:31–38: Luke memorably records Jesus’ frustration not only with the Pharisees, but with everyone to whom he ministers. They keep missing his larger point, preferring to focus on the miracles he performs: “They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another,

‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
    we wailed, and you did not weep.’ (32)

In other words, most people have missed the real reason Jesus has come among them: to establish the Kingdom of God. Jesus is especially frustrated with their logical inconsistency and haughty theology. They accuse abstemious John the Baptist of being demon-possessed, while they accuse Jesus, who dines with social outcasts, as being “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (34) Of course we are being just as inconstant and yes, hypocritical, when we accuse others of bad theology or taking a point of view that does not completely align with ours. Worse, we behave like those people who accused John and Jesus of seeing only the negatives.

Interestingly, not every Pharisee has rejected Jesus’ message and actions. One even invites Jesus to dinner. [I wonder if it’s the same Nicodemus, who in John’s gospel, comes to Jesus in the night.] A certain “woman in the city, who was a sinner,” (37)—a prostitute we presume, comes to Jesus and “stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair.” (38) This poignant scene stands in stark contrast to the hypocrites that have frustrated Jesus just a few verses before this.

The lesson is clear by juxtaposition: it is better to come to Jesus in tears and weeping than in self-righteous theological judgement. There is no more efficient way to miss Jesus’ point about the Kingdom of God than to have Jesus play the flute for us and for us not to dance, focusing only on what we don’t like or what seems hard in following Jesus. This weeping woman is the only one (including the disciples) in this reading who truly understands what Jesus has so willingly and beautifully brought to all of us.

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