Psalm 86:1–10; Deuteronomy 27:11–28:24; Luke 9:37–50

Originally published 7/16/2016. Revised and updated 7/17/2018

Psalm 86:1–10: It has been a while since we encountered a David psalm, and here the poet reveals him not as powerful warrior or king but as humble supplicant:
Incline You ear, Lord, answer me,
for lowly and needy am I. 
(1)

He reminds God of his faithfulness and is seeking rescue from a dire situation:
Guard my life, for I am faithful.
Rescue Your servant who trusts in You
—You my God.
 (2)

The remaining verses in this stanza are a beautiful opening to prayer that at once praises God’s wonderful qualities and the supplicant’s humility:
For You, O Master, a good and forgiving
abounding in kindness to all who call to You.
Hearken, O Lord, to my prayer,
and listen well to the sound of my pleas. (4, 5)

In these days of tragedy piled upon tragedy, the psalmist’s words, spoken in David’s voice, are a respite and a wonderful reminder that despite humankind’s ability to foment evil everywhere, God is still with us. It is in desperate times like these where these words become far greater than a a lovely hymn sung thousands of years ago. It is a cry to God for today—and it is my prayer for today:
When I am straits I call to You,
for You will answer me.
      There is none like You among the gods, O Master
      and nothing like Your acts.

Our world is just as cluttered with small-g gods as David’s. Yet we continue to pin our hopes on their ultimate futility. That we humans can somehow become gods ourselves and create peace through bellicose words and pointless actions. With David we pray for the day when:
All the nations You made
      will come and bow before You, O Master
      and will honor Your name.” (9)

For only in God alone does hope reside:
For You are great and work wonders.
       You alone are God.” (10)

Without God there is only an emptiness into which evil can ascend. Alas, that is what seems to surround us these days.

Deuteronomy 27:11–28:24: Moses’ sermon ends with his call with a dramatic gesture involving all the people—a kind of sealing of the pact between God, who has spoken through Moses, and all the people of Israel. This action will include both blessings and a curses—with an ephasis on curses. The tribes of Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin are to gather on MT. Gerizim for the blessing. The tribes of Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali are to gather on Mount Ebal for the curse. The Levites are to be the pronouncers—obviously a strong voice was a Levitical requirement.

One wonders how the authors decided to split up the tribes in this manner. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin are on the “blessing mountain,” and these are the tribes that ultimately the southern Kingdom of Judah, which is captured by Babylon, which is probably where this book’s authors came from.

What follows is a remarkable litany of curses that recapitulate the key laws and rules that Moses has spoken through this book and has demanded to be written down. The Levites speak the curse or blessing aloud and “All the people shall respond, saying, “Amen!” (27:15) Twelve curses—”Cursed be anyone…”—follow, ranging from pieces of the Decalogue to sexual behavior to one that I think Israel—and we— tend to ignore all too easily: “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.” (27:19)

In a marvelous display of psychological insight, blessings follow the curses. But these blessing will only occur if “you will only obey the Lord your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today.” (28:1). And just to make sure the people get the point, Moses repeats himself in the next verse: “all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the Lord your God:” (28:2). If the people but obey God and the Law, they will prosper: “Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your livestock, both the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock.” (28:4)

One of the blessings appears in many benedictions today: “Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out.” (28:6)

More curses follow, reminding the people of the price of disobeying God: “But if you will not obey the Lord your God by diligently observing all his commandments and decrees,” (28:15) there will be dire consequences: “The Lord will send upon you disaster, panic, and frustration in everything you attempt to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly, on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken me.” (28:20)

It is in this spoken ritual where we see the “deutero” in Deuteronomy. The Covenant between God and Israel is ultimately a simple black and white contract. Obedience to God results in blessing; disobedience results in curses.

So if all these laws have been written down on stones, why go through this spoken ritual? The reason seems clear to me. It is exactly the same reason that oaths are spoken aloud in courtrooms today: Once we have uttered something in public we are bound far more tightly by the spoken word than simply reading something silently. It also why we speak liturgies in worship. Our spoken word is simply more powerful and binding than our thoughts.

Luke 9:37–50: Children appear in Luke more than any other gospel. Here, a boy has been possessed by a demon, although the symptoms—”It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him” (39)—sound more like epilepsy. Jesus heals the boy in the midst of a seizure and “all were astounded at the greatness of God.” (43) What’s interesting here is that people aren’t astounded at Jesus’ healing prowess, but at “the greatness of God.” Which is Luke’s message to all of us: Jesus is acting in his Father’s name. We cannot forget God in the midst of our amazement at Jesus.

Luke interrupts his disquisition on children and returns again to a key underlying theme of his gospel: Jesus will die. This time, he reveals that “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” (44) People, especially the disciples, remain firmly in denial. It’s almost as if Luke’s Jesus is telling everyone that they won’t be able to complain they weren’t warned. It’s easy for us: we know how the story turns out. But it’s far more difficult for the disciples to even contemplate the possibility of losing their charismatic healing leader. And I’m sure they enjoyed basking in Jesus’ reflected glory. And in another example of just how human they were (and how authentic it makes this gospel), the disciples “were afraid to ask him about this saying.” (45) Which is exactly how I behave when I won’t pursue an unpleasant subject because I’m pretty sure I really don’t want to hear the answer.

Immediately following this, Luke returns to Jesus’ attitude toward children, and verses I remember from Sunday School as a young child at Lake Avenue Congregational Church in Pasadena: “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.” (48). But as an adult I cling to my cynicism, afraid to lower my defenses and come to Jesus as a child would, as a tabula rasa to engage fully with him—and above all, to love him as a child does its parents.

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