Psalm 82:5–8; Deuteronomy 15:19–17:7; Luke 7:39–50

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

Psalm 82:5–8: In this highly imaginative psalm, our psalmist, writing in God’s voice, continues to address the small-g gods, excoriating them for their failure to administer justice among humans. The willful ignorance of these gods to allow injustice among humans is all-encompassing:
They do not know and do not grasp,
in darkness they walk about.
” (5a)

Apparently God’s plan was to have these small-g gods be God’s judges on the earth and it’s clear that they have failed in every respect. In fact, so great is their failure to see justice carried out that “All the earth’s foundations totter.” (5b)

I take this apocalyptic statement as God’s observation that the perversion of justice threatens not only the foundations of human culture but even of all creation. This line certainly resonates in the 21st century where among a plentitude of injustice we also under the threat of a nuclear weapon being detonated by terrorists.

God now speaks reflectively, realizing his mistake(?!) in selecting these beings to be his judges and administrators of justice:
As for Me, I had thought: you were gods,
and the sons of the Most High were you all.
 (6)

Wow! In the poet’s imagination, these failed gods were God’s own progeny. But now for their failure and corruption, God concludes his speech by telling them they are condemned to the same mortal fate as humanity itself:
Yet indeed like humans you shall die,
and like one of princes, fall
. (7)

For our poet, only one true judge remains and it is essential that God take his rightful place in the created order:
Arise, O God, judge the earth,
for You hold in estate all the nations.
 (8)

This remarkable psalm places blame for injustice on mysterious intermediate beings that failed to insure that humans behaved justly with each other. But can we really blame a group of faceless beings assigned by God to see that men are just? For me that takes the blame away from the perpetrators, who are of course all of us.  I think it’s better to view this psalm as an extremely creative cry to a God who has allowed injustice to become the rule of the day. Alas, this is our same cry three millennia later.

Deuteronomy 15:19–17:7: This section of Moses’ interminable sermon is a catalog of rules under which the Israelites were to live and maintain a coherent civilization, including how to party.

Once again, we read the rule concerning livestock—not surprising considering that Israel was an agrarian society and livestock were the measure of wealth. The firstborn belongs to God. It is offered as a sacrifice and then, “You shall eat it, you together with your household, in the presence of the Lord your God year by year at the place that the Lord will choose.” (15:20) We presume this is our author’s designation for the tabernacle. However, if the firstborn is blemished in any fashion, it simply becomes dinner and “within your towns you may eat it, the unclean and the clean alike, as you would a gazelle or deer.” (15:22)

Then another review of the rules concerning Passover follows. It begins, as we would expect, with the sacrifice of a lamb “at the place that the Lord will choose as a dwelling for his name” (16:2) —again, the euphemism for the tabernacle. Everyone eats unleavened bread for 7 days. There’s some further clarification about this particular sacrifice. It can occur only at the tabernacle: “You are not permitted to offer the passover sacrifice within any of your towns that the Lord your God is giving you.” (16:5)

Then he addresses the festival of weeks, which occurs “seven weeks from the time the sickle is first put to the standing grain.” (16:9) This festival asks (requires?) a “freewill offering in proportion to the blessing that you have received from the Lord your God.” (16:10), which certainly makes it a good verse from which to develop a stewardship sermon. Of course a tithe is by definition proportional to the blessings of the Lord.

Then, a review of the festival of booths (tabernacles), where everyone is [somewhat ironically in my view] required to “Rejoice during your festival, you and your sons and your daughters, your male and female slaves, as well as the Levites, the strangers, the orphans, and the widows resident in your towns.” (16:14) What’s interesting here is that unlike Passover, this is a party everyone—Hebrew and strangers alike—can attend. And as always, God wants to make sure that the widows and orphans are included in the festivities, so they are given particular mention. The clear implication here is that widows, orphans, and foreigners (“strangers”) were routinely excluded from festivities.

Something of a non-sequitur follows as rules for appointing judges and officials are now laid out. Above all else, they “must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.” (16:19) Resonating with the psalm above, the command is crystal clear: “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” (20). As always, the great underlying theme of not only this book, but of the entire OT, directly following the command to worship only God is the quest for justice. Something at which we humans continue to fail.

Our reading concludes with the somber reminder of the consequences of worshipping anything or anyone God himself. If a man or woman is discovered doing “what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, and transgresses his covenant by going to serve other gods and worshiping them…and if it is reported to you or you hear of it, and you make a thorough inquiry” (17:3,4) If the charges are proved true, “you shall stone the man or woman to death.” (17:5) However, the sentence of death for this malfeasance requires the testimony of at least two or three witnesses. We not only see the roots of a legal system that relies on testimony, we also see the beginning of the jury system where there must be agreement of all the people: “The hands of the witnesses shall be the first raised against the person to execute the death penalty, and afterward the hands of all the people.” (17:5)

Luke 7:39–50: Jesus is still at dinner at the Pharisee’s house and today’s reading picks up with the host’s observation to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” (39). Knowing what the Pharisee is thinking, Jesus replies with the hypothetical of a man who is owed bit a large and a small debt, both of which he then forgives. Jesus asks, “Now which of them will love him more?” (42) Simon the Pharisee answers logically, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” (43). Jesus tells him, “You have judged rightly.” (43b)

Jesus now explains how this applies in the real world. He observes that when he arrived for dinner, “I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.” (44) and to drive his point home, “You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet.” (45) And even, “You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.” (46) The woman may be the greater sinner, but like the man in Jesus’ story who owed much, she has therefore experienced the greater love.

The lesson for Luke’s reader—and for us—is clear: We may think ourselves to be righteous and “good Christians”—just as the Pharisee thought himself to be righteous and good. But in our self-satisfaction we cannot experience the real love that Jesus promises us—the love that we mask with our own pathetic self-generated attempts at love. If like the woman, we honestly face up to our real selves and our true sinfulness, we will experience an even more intense love for Jesus and what he has done for us when he tells us, “Your sins are forgiven.

 

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