Psalm 44:10–17; Exodus 39:1–31; Matthew 27:57–66

Originally published 4/3/2016. Revised and updated 4/4/2018:

Psalm 44:10–17: While the previous section of this psalm concluded on a note of how faithful the psalmist and his peers have been to God, this section turns darkly accusatory toward God because it seems that God has not reciprocated that faithfulness. We encounter one of the longest passages of complaint against God in the Psalms. As the military language suggests, the psalmist probably writes just following a stinging military defeat of Israel. [Unfortunately, the psalm gives no hint as to what historical battle this might have been,] The psalmist does not hide his anger as he writes:
Yet You neglected and disgraced us
    and did not sally forth in our ranks.
    You turned us back from the foe,
    and our enemies took their plunder. (10, 11)

Worse, God’s inaction has resulted in a greater catastrophe than just a defeat in battle turning the metaphor of God being the good shepherd of Israel on its head:
You made us like sheep to be eaten
and scattered us through the nations.
” (12)

The nation of Israel itself appears to have been destroyed and its population scattered to the four winds—which of course is eventually exactly what happened, be it the Assyrian conquest of Israel, the Babylonian captivity, or Israel’s occupation first by Greeks then by Romans—all leading up to the destruction by Titus of the temple and most of Jerusalem in AD70.

But perhaps the bitterest complaint of all is how God failed to value—much less care for—his people:
You sold Your people for no wealth
and set no high price on them.
You made us a shame to our neighbors,
derision and mockery to those round us. (13, 14)

God’s failure regarding Israel is not just a national tragedy; it has grave personal consequences as the psalmist goes on to remind God—and us—of the shame he (and we presume others) is experiencing:
All day long my disgrace is before me,
and shame covered my face,
from the sound of revilers and cursers,
from the enemy and the avenger.
” (16, 17)

Underneath our poet’s anger and shame is the deepest feeling of all: abandonment. The psalmist’s faith has brought him nothing but shame. Which is exactly what makes these verses so powerful. We often feel that same sense of abandonment in God’s silence and our belief that he has failed to act as we want him to. We ask, ‘Why, God?’ and ‘Where are You, God.’  That is why this psalm is so powerful and so relevant today.

This psalm gives us a model that we can be angry at God. We don’t have to employ false reverence and pretend to like God. We can shake our fists at him. At times like these I’m with the psalmist: that old saw that when we didn’t see God walking beside us because he was carrying us is is a myth. I believe there are times like these described here, when God turns away and does not speak. We are completely, utterly on our own without a hope in the world.

Exodus 39:1–31: The tabernacle is complete, as are its furnishings. Now it is time to fashion the priestly garments. We assume it is “Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, engraver, designer, and embroiderer in blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and in fine linen.” (38:23) who leads the project of making “the sacred vestments for Aaron; as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (39:1)

The description of these vestments, including “the ephod of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen.” (2) pretty much follows the earlier description and demonstrates to me, anyway, that both sets of authors were actually looking at the same vestments, which had apparently survived down through Israel’s history—or subsequent replacement garments—to the Babylonian captivity when these authors were writing. The ephod contains the twelve precious stones representing the twelve tribes of Israel and enough gold rings that suggest it must have weighed upwards of 40 or 50 pounds.

However, two things are missing in this description: that is the mysterious urim and thummin. This omission suggests that these two rocks [or whatever they were] did not come to play a large role in actual worship.

In addition to the breastplate and robe, the artisans “also made the tunics, woven of fine linen, for Aaron and his sons, and the turban of fine linen, and the headdresses of fine linen, and the linen undergarments of fine twisted linen.” (27, 28). My suspicion based on no actual knowledge or facts is that these linen undergarments were the inspiration for the Mormon practice of wearing similar garments under their outer clothing.

Once again we are almost overwhelmed by the richness and magnificence of these descriptions. And again, we can only conclude that true worship of God demands the finest creations of human mind and hand [mens et manus—the MIT motto]. Which is one more reason why worship is serious business indeed.

Matthew 27:57–66: Even though the inner twelve disciples had abandoned Jesus, one disciple, who we assume has been following Jesus for some time but has never been mentioned until now, appears and asks for Jesus’ corpse: Joseph, the rich man from Arimathea. Joseph prepares the body and “wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock.” (59, 60). And in a detail I’d never noticed before, it is Joseph who rolls the rock in front of the tomb. His crucial role complete, “he went away” and drops from Biblical history. Almost in passing Matthew notes, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.” (61) As far as our ospel writer is concerned, Joseph, Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary” are the only ones who have not abandoned Jesus after he dies. I believe these three are the stand-ins for the ordinary worshipper; we lay people. On the day following Good Friday we are all sitting in front of the tomb, lost in our thoughts and in our loss. But unlike those three faithful followers, we know how the story turns out.

Ever the masters of selective memory, the religious officials are well aware of Jesus’ prediction that he will rise again after three days. They hurry to Pilate and say, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’” (63) I presume they didn’t want to post their own temple guard at the tomb and appealed to Roman authority on the grounds that dealing with the threat from “this imposter” required official sanction. Pilate must have been frustrated at this request, thinking he had finally gotten the religious leaders off his back with the crucifixion of “this imposter.” Yet, he’s doubtless thinking, here they were again with some cockamamie story about preventing a resurrection. Not wanting to provide any pretext whatsoever for more rioting in Jerusalem he agrees to provide a Roman guard, and instructs the temple officials to “make [the tomb] as secure as you can.” As we will find out shortly, what is secure to humans is not secure for God, who always breaks through the rocks we erect to hide from his relentless pursuit.

Thus it ever has been: no matter how hard subsequent rulers have tried to suppress the Jesus, the stone in front of the grave is always insufficient.  Jesus always surfaces again.  Indeed, “the last deception” has  changed history.  Which is why even in this American culture of “tolerance” where the current crop of cultural Pharisees attempts to define what “tolerable” and what is not (that being most things having to do with “outmoded” religious faith and scruples that go against the received wisdom–sound familiar?), Jesus will always surface.   It is indeed Friday in our culture–and becoming more so–but in the end, “the last deception” always turns out to be the Truth of Sunday.

 

Psalm 44:1–9; Exodus 38; Matthew 27:45–56

Originally published 4/2/2016. Revised and updated 4/3/2018:

Psalm 44:1–9: The first person plural pronouns that open the psalm indicate this is a “group supplication” that suggests the nation has suffered a defeat in battle. They are recalling how God assisted in past victories of Israel, probably the original conquering of Canaan:
God, with our own ears we have heard,
our fathers recounted to us
a deed that You did in their days,
in days of yore.
 (2)

In fact they give God complete credit for that previous victory:
You, Your hand dispossessed nations—and You planted them [Israel].
You smashed peoples [Canaanites] and sent them away.
 (3)

Our poet continues on the theme of how it is God who brings victory and the people and/or the army are only the means by which victory is accomplished:
For not by sword they took hold of the land,
and it was not their right arm that made them victorious
 but Your right hand and Your arm,
and the light of Your face when You favored them.” (4)

In short, Canaan was conquered because God—as he had promised—was on Israel’s side.  The poet then moves on to point out how the present nation/army can conquer the present enemy of God would be on their side now if they but acknowledge God as their true leader:
You are my king, O God.
Ordain the victories of Jacob [Israel].
 (5)

Then we encounter the uncomfortable implications of human war conflated with God:
Through You we gore our foes,
through Your name we trample those against us.
 (6)

This verse makes it clear to me anyway that wishing God’s assistance in battle exposes a side of God that I’d rather not think about. Does God really help armies eviscerate their foes. It seems an outright contradiction to our mage of a loving God. But perhaps we need to be reminded that God possess many qualities. Or is this psalm just completely off base in asking God to gore one’s enemies? I think when we examine the words more closely, that is not what the psalmist is saying at all.  When we say “God is on our side,” we are in effect saying that God is assisting us in our quest for victory. “Nice to have you along with us, God, now please deliver exactly that victory we have in mind.”  Rather, here, whatever victory that has been achieved has been done though human beings acting as God’s agents. Our poet emphasizes that it is neither he nor his tools of war that accomplish victory, but God himself who receives the all the credit:
For not in my bow do I trust,
and my sword will not make me victorious. 
(7)

The deep faith of the psalmist—and we presume the entire army— is what ultimately will lead them to victory:
God we praise all day long,
and Your name we acclaim for all time.
 (9)

The lesson seems clear: We need to place our trust in God, who then uses our gifts, skills, tools to carry out the task at hand.  When we fully trust  God, we are not asking God to be our aide de camp (to continue the military metaphor), but exactly the opposite.  Of course, as the psalmist acknowledges, that means not only admitting that we need to let go, but to actually relinquish our desire to control.  Easier said than done…

Exodus 38: Bezalel’s skills continue to be on display as he builds the large (7.5 feet square, 4.5 feet high) altar of burnt offering also built of acacia wood. He builds not only the altar itself, but all its tools and accessories as well: “all the utensils of the altar, the pots, the shovels, the basins, the forks, and the firepans: all its utensils he made of bronze.” (3) plus the grating—and moreover, it’s built for portability. But we should also give credit to the women who gave up their mirrors so he could fabricate “the basin of bronze with its stand of bronze.” (8)

Even though our authors persist in using the third person singular pronoun, “he,” indicating, I presume Bezalel, one has to assume that many talented hands were involved in the actual construction of the furnishings and the tabernacle itself. This is not dissimilar to today’s practice of giving the architect credit for the entire building as e.g. “Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall.” even though its design and construction involved the labor of thousands of people.

We have observed previously that our authors are sticklers for detail and nowhere is that more evident than in the final inventory: “These are the records of the tabernacle, the tabernacle of the covenant, which were drawn up at the commandment of Moses.” (21) Which goes on to account for the overseers of the project: Aaron’s son Ithamar, as well as Bezalel and Oholiab. Then the materials list:

• “gold from the offering, was twenty-nine talents and seven hundred thirty shekels, “(24)
•  “silver from those of the congregation who were counted was one hundred talents and one thousand seven hundred seventy-five shekels.” (25) which came from the head tax on everyone “from twenty years old and upward, for six hundred three thousand, five hundred fifty men.” (27)
• “The bronze that was contributed was seventy talents, and two thousand four hundred shekels.” (29)

So why all this detail, which we will encounter later in the OT when it comes to building Solomon’s temple? I believe the detail lends historical authenticity to the fact that the tabernacle was doubtless a physical—and therefore a historical—reality. It is also a vivid demonstration of the idea that “God is in the details”— a theme that Jesus took up when he spoke of the lilies in the field and God knowing the number of hairs on our head. This makes God much more real, a God who operates in real space and real time. Which has implications for us today: God is assuredly not the dreamy abstraction we would prefer him to be. God cannot be pushed aside. He is real and he is here.

Matthew 27:45–56: Matthew’s Jesus utters only one sentence the entire time he hangs on the cross and that only moments before he dies: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (46) This is the first line of Psalm 22, and yet another demonstration of how Matthew connects Jesus to the fulfillment of Scripture.

Matthew’s description of the crucifixion is dark, but more importantly, he shows how the crucifixion of Jesus was an earth-shattering event which changed the course of history: “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split.” (51)

But then he writes what I believe to be the most mysterious sentence surrounding the events of Jesus’ death: “The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” (52, 53) OK, but if this actually happened why do none of the other Gospel writers describe what has to be a mysteriously profound event? Or did Matthew just make this up as further demonstration of the profundity of what just happened: an event so enormous that not only was earth itself affected, but under the earth and in heaven as well? 

Matthew does not record the reactions of the Jews to these extraordinary events.  Only the Roman centurion speaks, “(54)   And it is the realization of the Gentile soldier that makes Matthew’s key point about the crucifixion—and a point that has been made many time in the Hebrew scriptures, but Jews of Jesus’ time tended to forget:.  God is not the exclusive domain of the Jews; God, through Jesus Christ, is for every man and woman in creation.  The old order has passed away; the new order has begun.  Right here on Good Friday.  Which is one more reason why Sunday cannot really be celebrated without Friday in mind.

Finally, in a passage that is often overlooked on Good Friday, Matthew tells us, “ Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him.” (55) Notice the all-important phrase, they “had provided for him.” It is the women who have sustained Jesus’ physical needs throughout his ministry up to the point of his betrayal. And as we will learn, it is the women who will first learn the news of the Resurrection.  If we needed a clearer message of the important role of women in Jesus’ life and therefore their co-equal role in the life church, it is surely here. Alas, patriarchy has lived on too long in the church.

Psalm 43; Exodus 37; Matthew 27:32-44

Originally published 4/1/2016 with excerpts from April 2, 2014. Revised and updated 4/2/2018:

Psalm 43: This psalm seems a direct follow-on to the conclusion of the preceding psalm, where the last lines express the poet’s “Hope in God” and “His rescuing presence.” [Alter suggests that Psalm 42 and 43 were one longer psalm which was broken into two by the editors fro some unknown reason.] Armed with that hope, the opening line of this psalm begins with a veritable shout appealing to God for justice on both a national dn individual level:
Grant me justice, O God.
take up my case against a faithless nation,
from a man of deceit and wrong free me.
 (1)

I wonder how many times has this verse been uttered in desperation and hope down through the ages where a single brave individual stands against both a particular enemy as well as an entire society arrayed against him?

It’s clear that he feels abandoned by God as he is facing his enemies utterly alone and begging almost plaintively:
For You, O God, my stronghold,
why should You neglect me?

Why should I go in gloom, pressed by the foe? (2)

We see that not only is he facing an enemy but that he must be in exile far from Jerusalem as he asks God to come to this unfamiliar territory:
Send forth Your light and Your truth.
It is they that will guide me.
They will bring me to Your holy mountain
And to Your dwelling place.
” (3)

His prayer is not only that he makes it back to Jerusalem, but that he might once again come before God, who dwells in the temple (or tabernacle) there. And once there, he will bow down in worship:
And let me come to God’s altar,
to God, my keenest joy.
and let me acclaim You with the lyre,
O God, my God.
 (4)

Like the journey itself, the psalm ascends from the depths of seeming abandonment directly into the presence of God, where almost ecstatic joy replaces gloom ending on the same theme as Psalm 42:
Hope in God, for yet will I acclaim Him
His rescuing presence and my God. (5)

In just these few verses, our psalmist has taken a spiritual journey from the depths of despair to worshipful joy atop the mountain.

And that is our journey too.  Not just once in our lives, but again and again.  Because movement is the very nature of prayer. Prayer is not idle contemplation; it is a journey, it is dynamic; its bias is to action.

When I contemplate what a material, God-denying life must be like, I realize how flat that journey would be.  Having rejected God, I would be trapped in emptiness, and there would be no reason other than self-motivation to ascend.  But self-actualization (to be Maslovian about it) is always insufficient.  Because in the end, we find nothing but ourselves at the mountaintop.  No wonder the therapeutic industry is so vast.

Exodus 37: This chapter is a continuation of the details around constructing the Tabernacle and focuses on the details that go into its furnishings. Above all: the Ark of the Covenant. Then the table for the Bread of the Presence, the lampstand, and the Altar of Incense. All of these objects appear to have been crafted by Bezalel, although I suspect that like Michelangelo, he oversaw other workers in his studio.

As with the tabernacle itself, these descriptions are much more compact than the descriptions we’ve encountered in earlier chapters. These authors also continue to emphasize the connection between the objects and their builder as we read the opening words of virtually every sentence: “He made.” There’s no question that our scribes want to reassure us that these items are not “magic,” or somehow just appeared out of nothing. Rather they have been crafted assiduously by human hands. Unlike other religions of the time, none of these items pretends to be an image of God—an idol. They exist exclusively as the means to allow priests to come before the living God in proper and highly defined modes of worship.

That there is no idolatry here is emphasized by the Ark of the Covenant. It is not an object to represent God; rather it is a place where God’s presence can dwell giving Israel a direct and tangible connection to God.

Israel’s God is immanent. And despite the words of today’s psalm, God is not far away. It is this immanence that, for me anyway, explains why the construction of these objects is described in such almost excruciating detail. The authors want to make sure we understand that only the best materials were used by the finest and most skilled craftsmen. God deserves the absolute best we can offer him. Which frankly, I fail to do. Too often we are satisfied giving God only what we have left over.

Our authors conclude] with a detailed accounting of capital expenditures, ” All the gold that was fashioned for the task in every task of the sanctuary, the elevation-offering gold was twenty-nine talents…And the silver reckoned from the community was a hundred talents…” (24, 25)  We also learn that both a freewill offering and a tax are the income sources.  The tax is also a way of taking a census.

So, once again: precision, exactitude, accounting.  When Jesus talks about God knowing the number of hairs on our head, he is speaking out of this longstanding precision–another proof that there is nothing random about God or His creation.  This exactitude of course underlays all biology in our genes and DNA, as well as physics, as you can discover in any book about quantum physics at one end of magnitude and astrophysics at the other end.  More proof for me, anyway, that God is hardly an abstract spirit, but a builder and Creator–and he expects the same attention to detail from us.

Matthew 27:32-44: Matthew’s description of Jesus’ crucifixion is terse but vividly communicates the darkness and evil of the act. We meet Simon of Cyrene, and “they compelled this man to carry his cross.” (32) I’m sure Matthew inserts this detail to remind us that it was not just the Jews and Romans who are the means of Jesus’ execution. It is all of us.

Matthew omits many of the gruesome details of the act of crucifixion itself that we find in other gospels, simply stating that when offered a drink of wine and gall, Jesus refuses. Something we never see in visual depictions, but Jesus is doubtless stripped naked—the final humiliation— suggested by the fact that “they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots.” (35). Matthew emphasizes how Jesus has become the object of mockery and scorn with the visible sign on which “they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.’” (37).

This theme of mockery is amplified further as Matthew writes, “Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”” (39, 40)  Unlike the description in Luke, the “bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.” (44) There is no last minute repentance on the part of one of the thieves, nor reassuring words from Jesus that the thief will be joining him in Paradise. There is only darkness, scorn, and mockery. In fact, up to this point, Matthew’s Jesus has not uttered a word.

Once again, I think all of us who read these words must confront Matthew’s clearly implied challenge. We can either believe Jesus is who he said who he is or we are reduced to mockery. There can no middle ground. The sign above his head is either true or it is an object of derision. Matthew is telling us in his dark words here that when we come to the cross we are forced to choose to believe or to mock.

 

Psalm 42; Exodus 36; Matthew 27:11-31

Originally published 3/31/2016 with excerpts published 3/31/2104. Revised and updated 3/31/2018: Holy Saturday

Psalm 42: The famous opening line of this psalm establishes the theme of this psalm of supplication:
As a deer yearns for streams of water,
so I yearn for You, O God
. (2)

Rather than emphasizing the poet’s suffering as many other psalms do, the theme here is his passionate longing for God, who is apparently absent. The Germans have a better word for this intense longing because it also connotes a deep emotion that “longing” or “yearning” do not: Sehnsucht. This longing is expressed as “My whole being thirsts for God/ for the living God.” (3a) But alas, our poet feels he is far from God’s presence: “When shall I come and see/ the presence of God?“(3b)

Water in all its forms is the foundational metaphor of this psalm, and here it describes not only longing but a feeling of abandonment because the psalmist is surrounded by mocking enemies: “My tears became my bread day and night
as they said to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?'” (4)

This verse certainly expresses a primary theme of our own culture today. Since we cannot prove God scientifically, we who rely on faith are mocked for our stupidity in rejecting materialism—just as the psalmist was. He reminisces about happier days when
I would step in the procession,
when I would march to the house of God
with the sound of glad song of the celebrant throng.
 (5)

In the same way that we look nostalgically back on an earlier era in which Christian faith permeated our culture, he remains faithful and believes God will rescue him eventually. Once again, a brighter day will come when he will be able to join the procession headed to the temple, singing:
Hope in God, for yet will I acclaim Him
for His rescuing presence.
” (6)

As he recalls God’s blessings, our poet returns to the water metaphor. This time is is God’s presence expressed as immersing him completely at the ocean’s shore:
Deep unto deep calls out
at the sound of Your channels.
All Your breakers have surged over me.
 (8)

He imagines how he will speak with God when he returns:
I would say to the God my Rock,
‘Why have You forgotten me?
Why in gloom do I go, hard pressed by the foe?’
 (10)

But the thing that seems to vex him most is that his enemies “say to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?‘” (11) and he cannot provide irrefutable proof.

Have we not felt exactly the same when we feel God seems absent from our lives and an erstwhile friend, who knows we are people of faith, asks, “So, you claim to believe in God, but he’s nowhere to be seen, is he?'” And then they conclude, “Therefore, God does not exist.” Nevertheless, like the psalmist, we cling to hope:
Hope in God, for yet will I acclaim Him,
His rescuing presence and my God.
” (12)

Because we know that sooner or later, God is faithful and he will indeed show up. In this dark day—Holy Saturday—this psalm rings especially loudly. It is the day when all hope seemed to be lost. But Sunday’s coming.

Exodus 36: This chapter is basically a reprise of the construction of the Tabernacle that we saw in an earlier chapter. But where the earlier description was basically dry details, a definite joy and enthusiasm underscore this description and we can see the humanity involved. While the superintendents, Bezalel and Oholiab, are featured, it’s heartening to know that the work also included “every skillful one to whom the Lord has given skill and understanding to know how to do any work in the construction of the sanctuary shall work in accordance with all that the Lord has commanded.” (1)

I think it’s telling that the authors emphasize how the “skill and understanding” of the workers and artisans has been given and that the work is “in accordance with all that the Lord has commanded.” This chapter reminds us that God has given each of us gifts of skill and understanding. The question is, do we use them in to work in the Kingdom, or do we squander them on useless projects or even worse, like the servant who buried his talent in Jesus’ famous parable, we fail to use them at all?

The authors continue to emphasize how “everyone whose heart was stirred to come to do the work” (2) and that so many offerings pour in that the overseers (I presume Bezalel or Oholiab) tell Moses, “The people are bringing much more than enough for doing the work that the Lord has commanded us to do.” (5). One has the feeling that the offerings are gifts from a chastened people, who having seen some 3000 of their kindred struck down following the golden calf debacle, that the roots of much of their enthusiasm arises from feeling duty bound to whatever is commanded of them by God through Moses.

Our priestly author describes the construction of the Tabernacle in loving detail, describing each element and the material used.  Once again reminding us that details–especially in a sacred space–matter.  The old cliche, “God is in the details,” begins right here.  More importantly, it’s a reminder that our connection with God is not just a fuzzy abstraction, but we can encounter God everywhere in the warp and woof of our daily life.

In fact, this chapter makes it clear that the Tabernacle is the work of human hands and skill— an emphasis missing from the earlier description. We meet “those with skill among the workers made the tabernacle with ten curtains” (8) The pronoun “he”  begins each sentence that describes a particular object, reminding us that it is the work of human hands that is connected with each item—curtains, loops, gold clasps, upright frames, silver bases, bars of acacia wood. One has to believe that the leaders and artisans who built the great cathedrals of Europe relied on this section of Exodus to motivate their people—especially when it came to giving offerings—but hopefully with the same willingness shown by the people of Israel here.

Matthew 27:11-31:[One of the things that over the years has convinced me that the Gospel writers are truly inspired by the Holy Spirit is just how much information and feeling is packed into the incredible economy of language.  Speaking as a guy who writes quite a bit, I know it is far more difficult to write with economy than with verbosity.  And here in the account of Jesus’ trial, conviction, and torture there is not a superfluous word. But these few words paint as rich a picture as any Renaissance artist was able to accomplish.]

Jesus is before Pilate and answers the governor’s question, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  with three terse words, “You say so.” As always, Jesus’ answer flings the question back onto the questioner. What’s interesting here is that when “he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer.” (12)

What do we make of Jesus’ silence? I’m sure that in the numerous capital trials over which Pilate had presided, he had never encountered a man unwilling to speak in his own defense and “the governor was greatly amazed.” (14) It seems clear (to me anyway) that Jesus’ silence simply means he will not dignify these false accusations with an answer. To speak and defend himself would have given his accusers legitimacy. His silence deprives them of the satisfaction thinking they had any case whatsoever.

Pilate quickly figures out the emptiness of their plot—”he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over.” (18)— as he cuts quickly to the chase and decides to use a method that he thinks will result in Jesus’ release. He offers them the choice between Jesus and Jesus “who is called the Messiah” (17) As if in proof of the correctness of instincts, Matthew tells us that “his wife sent word to him,Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” (19).

But Pilate badly misjudges the mood of the crowd and his ruse to establish Jesus as the innocent party is turned on its head when the crowd, which has obviously been incited by the religious officials, demands that Jesus be crucified. Mobs are unpredictable and two millennia later we see the same evidence in the misguided enthusiasm of people for the political Barabbases of our own day. They would rather turn the world upside down than do the right thing.

To avoid a riot, Pilate gives in, but not before he famously “took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” (24)

The people respond, “Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” (25) This verse, which at first reading appears to blame the Jews down through history, became the justification for mistreating Jews down through history, blaming them for Jesus’ death. Yet, what the people shouted is in the Torah—that the sins of the fathers will be visited upon subsequent generations. But to use it as a rationale to blame the Jews for Jesus death is a singular wrong committed by the church and culture down through history.

The question hangs in the air two thousand years later: Could Pilate have done anything else than what he did? I confess that no reasonable alternative occurs to me. It stands in history as proof that incited mobs are unstable and unwise.

Psalm 41; Exodus 35; Matthew 27:1-10

Originally published 3/30/2016. Revised and updated 3/30/2018

Psalm 41: Our psalmist, writing in David’s voice, opens with general thanksgiving for God’s protection:
May he be called happy in the land.
And do not deliver him to his enemies’ maw. (2).

He moves quickly to a general prayer for healing and then to a specific request for his own healing:
May the LORD sustain him on the couch of pain.
—You transformed his whole bed of illness,
I said, ‘LORD, grant me grace,
heal me, though I offended You.’ (3, 4)

It’s clear that David’s illness is severe and that his enemies eagerly await his passing:
My enemies said evil of me:
‘When will he die and his name be lost?'”  (5)

Even their ostensibly kind visits to his bedside are not only insincere but have an evil agenda: And should one come to visit,
his heart spoke a lie. (6)

Worse, this visitor is all too happy to spread the lie that David is near death:
He gathered up mischief, went out, spoke abroad
…[saying] evil of me, “Some nasty thing is lodged in him.
As he lies down, he will not rise again. (8).

David cannot even rely on the one friend whom he had he trusted. In his illness, he has been abandoned by everyone.  Worse, he is the focus of corrupt plots and public lies.  One can only imagine the hatchet job the modern media would be able to do here:
Even my confidant, in whom I did trust,
who ate my bread,
was utterly devious with me. (10)

So, David understandably asks for healing by the only one in whom he can trust: “And You, O Lord, grant me grace, raise me up,” (11a). But his motives are not as pure as we had hoped as he concluded the supplication with “that I may pay them back.” (11b) In fact, David puts God to the test, stating that if God heals him,
In this I shall know You desire me—
that my enemy not trumpet his conquest of me.
” (12)

I’m not convinced this is a prayer we should offer on our sickbed. Jesus instructed us to love our enemies. And his healing power made it clear that illness was not the direct result of personal sin. But if nothing else, this psalm demonstrates once again that we can bare our deepest and darkest wishes to God.

Happily, I have never been in the dire situation described in this psalm and it’s doubtless more endemic to kings and leaders. (Shakespeare is chockablock with plotting around the king’s deathbed.)  But there’s still a lesson here for us: In the end, there is only One in whom we can place all our trust:
And I, in my innocence, You sustained me
and made me stand before You forever.
 (13).

As the general prayer at the beginning of this psalm reminds us, [“Happy who looks to the poor.  On the day of evil may the LORD make him safe.” (1)] God’s steadfastness is for all of us: leader, king, or desperately poor.  Whether we are desperately ill or when all around us are inconstant or worse, God is constant; God will indeed sustain us through the valley of the shadow of death.

Exodus 35: Now that Moses has received these extremely detailed instructions from God while he was up on the mountain, he comes down to communicate them to all Israel, saying, “These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do.” (1) Not surprisingly, the first instruction is all about obeying the Sabbath. The penalty for breaking Sabbath was harsh indeed: “whoever does any work on [the Sabbath] shall be put to death.” (2)

While I am certainly no Bible scholar, it’s becoming obvious that another group of priests (who certainly have strong feelings about keeping the Sabbath) are writing this portion of Exodus.

Once again, we encounter the details of the material requirements for the Tabernacle and there is a general plea for skilled labor to help build it:”All who are skillful among you shall come and make all that the Lord has commanded:” (10) These authors are far more succinct in describing the  the Tabernacle, its furnishings, and the priestly vestments than the endless detail that was covered in the earlier chapters, which I believe were written by others.

Rather, there seems to be an emphasis on the people who will participate in this enormous project rather than on construction details.  This time rather than being forced to hand over their possessions, the people are asked to give willingly, which they do happily: “And they came, everyone whose heart was stirred, and everyone whose spirit was willing, and brought the Lord’s offering to be used for the tent of meeting, and for all its service, and for the sacred vestments.” (21)

There is certainly greater enthusiasm as these authors again and again speak of willing hearts, “So they came, both men and women; all who were of a willing heart brought brooches and earrings and signet rings and pendants, all sorts of gold objects, everyone bringing an offering of gold to the Lord.” (22)

In this account of building the Tent of Meeting, Moses introduces Bezalel and Oholiab, who will be overseeing the project, as being God-ordained for the task: “Then Moses said to the Israelites: See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel [and God] has filled him with divine spirit, with skill, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft.” (30) And they have been imbued with talent that has come directly from God, who “has filled them [Bezalel and Oholiab] with skill to do every kind of work done by an artisan or by a designer or by an embroiderer…” (35)

Frankly, I find this version of building the Tabernacle more congenial than the earlier sections because of its emphasis on the willing hearts of the people and God’s ordination of the skilled artisans who will carry out this project. It seems much more like a collaboration between Israel and God rather than a project that has been commanded from on high. This is basic psychology. People then and people today will give willingly from their hearts when they feel a part of God’s project rather than having it imposed on them from on high.

Matthew 27:1-10: Today is Good Friday. It is certainly appropriate that we read of Jesus’ appearance before Pilate.

The conspirators have a single goal, which they themselves cannot carry out, so “the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus in order to bring about his death.” (1) Jesus is handed over to Pilate, who happens to be in Jerusalem primarily to keep the peace during the tumultuous Passover. I’m sure he’d much rather be enjoying the Roman comforts of his digs up north in Caesarea.

Matthew interrupts the Jesus story to update us on the Betrayer: “When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders.” (3) Judas is deeply regretful about what he has done, telling the officials, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” (4). But they will not accept back the infamous 30 pieces of silver he was paid. Judas throws the money on the floor and “he went and hanged himself.” (5)

So, why does Matthew, alone among the Gospel writers,  present us with a repentant Judas? I think because he wants to communicate two things. First, he’s making it clear that Satan took over his heart and made Judas just one more instrumentality of the inevitable course of events of the Passion story. Second, I think Matthew is suggesting that anyone of us could have been Judas. It’s just not that difficult to act on our darkest impulses and then come to regret our actions later.

The chief priests pick up the silver that’s laying on floor, but with their inevitable self-righteousness announce,“It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.” (6) For Matthew this is the final hypocrisy. The officials intimate that since Judas accepted the money it is now untouchable when in fact it is the blood money that is actually on their heads—not Judas’s.

Matthew tells us they used the money to buy a potter’s field to bury the unsanctified dead, allowing him once again to assert how Scripture was fulfilled, this time, he says, from Jeremiah. Even though Matthew says it’s Jeremiah, the actual prophecy appears to be from Zechariah. Naturally, theological controversy has ensued with all kinds of creative ideas for explaining Matthew’s apparent error. As an engineer, I prefer the simplest explanation: Matthew made a mistake. But of course for biblical inerrantists, that’s unacceptable.

Psalm 40:9-18; Exodus 34; Matthew 26:59-75

Originally published 3/29/2016. Revised and updated 3/29/2018

Psalm 40:9-18: Our psalmist wants nothing more than, “To do what pleases You, my God, I desire.” (9a) and he knows that what he has learned from God suffuses his very being: “and Your teaching is deep within me.” (b). Moreover, he puts what he has learned into practice:  “I heralded justice in a great assembly,” (10a) as he proclaims God’s teachings and his testimony of God’s mercy to all who will listen:
Look, I will not seal my lips.
Lord, You Yourself know.
Your justice I concealed not in my heart.
Your faithfulness and Your rescue I spoke.
I withheld not from the great assembly Your steadfast truth. (10b, 11)

This is a man who has been transformed by God’s mercy and he wishes to proclaim it aloud. But is it out of joy at God’s rescue, or is there a subtle expectation of a quid pro quo here? Having proclaimed God, we sense he believes God will reciprocate accordingly:
You, Lord, will not hold back
Your mercies from me.
Your steadfast truth
shall always guard me.
” (12)

But in this confession of his sins we see his sincerity and know that he is truly grateful for God’s faithfulness in spite of his own weakness and sins:
My crimes overtook me
and I could not see—more numerous than the hairs of my head—
and my heart forsook me.
 (13).

His recollection of his many sins seems to pull him from joy back down to despair and supplication along with his relentless desire for God to take vengeance on his enemies::
Show favor, O Lord, to save me.
Lord, to my help hasten.
May they be shamed and abased one and all,
who seek my life to destroy it,
may they fall back and be disgraced,
who desire my harm
.” (14, 15)

But he recovers quickly as he once again focuses his thoughts on God’s goodness:
Let all who seek You
rejoice and exult in You.
May they always say, ‘God is great!
‘” (17)

Nevertheless, even in exaltation our poet knows that he remains constantly in need of God’s rescue and God’s forgiveness:
As for me, I am lowly and needy
My help, he who frees me You are.
My God, do not delay.
(18)

For me, this psalm of oscillation between despair and ecstasy is a beautiful example of the highs and lows every one of us experiences as the  human beings we are. Above all though, there is always one constant upon which we can rely: Our faithful God who loves us despite our numerous faults and sins.

Exodus 34: God grants Moses a mulligan as he instructs Moses to “Cut two tablets of stone like the former ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets, which you broke.” (1). Moses does so and once again ascends Sinai, since something this momentous event—the re-presentation of the Law—apparently cannot occur in the more mundane setting of the Tent of Meeting.

As Moses stands on Sinai, God speaks, making it clear that he has rethought his tendency to want to kill sinful Israel every time they sin. Now we hear one of the most beautiful verses in the OT that describes God’s generous grace:
      The Lord, the Lord,
      a God merciful and gracious,
       slow to anger,
       and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin (6, 7a)

Even though there is mercy God still demands justice and obedience:
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
 and the children’s children,
to the third and the fourth generation.” (7b)

In short, God is telling Moses—and us—that our sins have consequences that stretch far beyond our own lives and deeply affect the lives of our progeny and their progeny and on. We certainly see this effect in our society today where children who grow up in an unstable family situation go on to commit the crimes of their fathers. As awful as it seems, the truth is that the sins of the fathers do indeed too often beget the sins of the sons.

Upon hearing God utter these words, Moses bows to the earth and asks forgiveness for himself and the people he leads: “O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.” (8) As always, confession is an essential part of worship.

God renews the Covenant with Israel and this time the terms and conditions seem even more detailed. There are big issues such as their dealings with the inhabitants of Canaan: particularly around worship. They are not to make cast idols such as the golden calf and “You shall tear down their altars, break their pillars, and cut down their sacred poles” (13) and not to intermarry. There are also oddities such as “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” (26b).

While this reprise of the decalogue is similar, it has substantial differences from the earlier one written on the tablets Moses broke. This is much more about dealing with the Canaanites and avoiding their perverse religious practices. My suspicion is that there are at least two priestly groups involved in writing the book of Exodus, and here we see the words of the group that insisted on very specific worship practices as being even more important than the more famous ethical practices of the earlier tablets.

Perhaps the most significant new feature of this revised list of commandments is the order that first fruits belong solely to God. “The best of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God.” (26a)

Moses spends another forty days on the mountain communing with God. He then returns with the new tablets, but he “did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” (29) Aaron and the others are afraid to come near Moses so he covers his face with a veil. I’m pretty sure this detail was added to remind us that of all the Patriarchs, it is Moses who has had the closest connection to—and most conversations with— God. It’s clear that the authors of this book viewed Moses as the actual founder of the nation of Israel. The earlier Patriarchs may have led important tribes, but now we are talking nationhood

[Interesting side note from Alter that “glory” was mistranslated in the Latin Vulgate to mean “horns”, which explains why Michelangelo’s famous statue of the seated Moses includes small horns sprouting from Moses’ forehead…]

Matthew 26:59-75: The kangaroo court at Caiaphas’s house continues through the night as Matthew makes the sinister motives of the religious authorities perfectly clear: “the chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death.” (59). They finally find a guy who says, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.’” (61). Jesus remains silent to the high priest’s demand,“Have you no answer?“(62)

But when he does speak, Jesus follows his usual habit of not giving the answer they were seeking. In fact he provides essentially an apocalyptic riddle:
     “From now on you will see the Son of Man
    seated at the right hand of Power
    and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (64)

Even though Jesus’s answer is oblique, one priest exclaims that he has spoken blasphemy and they all chime in,“He deserves death.” (66). They spit in Jesus face and someone slaps him. In a detail I’ve never noticed before, they derisively ask Jesus, “Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?” (68) Needless to say, Jesus maintains his silence.

Frustrated out of their minds, the religious leaders could respond only like little children: spitting and slapping.  There is an almost comical note here as Jesus’ accusers ludicrously try to test his messianic powers by having him identify the people who slapped him—that a Messiah is somehow imbued with telepathic power.  And Jesus’ silence leaves the final question unanswered. For we must each answer that question for ourselves.

Matthew has made it clear that this “justice” is nothing of the sort. The evidence is flimsy and the group eagerly latches on to the words of the one priest who accuses Jesus of blasphemy. These proceedings are just another manifestation of how mobs are inflamed by incendiary words rather than evidence. Exactly what we see around us everywhere today, only even more amplified by the media.

But the real tragedy of today’s reading is Peter’s denial. At least he was there to be asked and to deny, as opposed to all the other disciples who had fled Jerusalem. Three times he denies he knows Jesus and then the cock crows, “And he went out and wept bitterly.” (75) Three times. The same number of hour darkness came over the earth during his crucifixion and the same number of days Jesus is buried. Like the number seven, three represents completeness. And three denials is the same as many denials.

Of course we are Peter. Only our denials far exceed three.

Psalm 40:1-8; Exodus 32:30-33:23; Matthew 26:47-58

Originally published 3/28/2016. Revised and updated 3/28/2018

Psalm 40:1-8  Once again written in David’s voice, this psalm opens with an intensely physical metaphor for God listening to his pleas for rescue to be saved from drowning:
I urgently hoped for the Lord.
He bent down toward me and heard my voice,
He brought me up from the roiling pit,
from the thickest mire.
And He set my feet on a crag,
made my steps firm. (2,3)

If we ever needed an apt metaphor for the state of American society it is surely right here. How often our lives seem to be bogged down and close to drowning in the relentless noise and the scandalous muck modern life. There is only one firm place; only one place of peace: the crag of God–and it is only God who can lift us up and place us there.

The natural response of rescue is thanksgiving, praise, and singing. Nor is it just praise and worship, but that our infectious joy becomes a witness to others:
And He put in my mouth a new song—
praise to our God.
May many see and fear

and trust in the LORD. (4)

These famous verses are akin to testimonies of new Christians who recount their conversion to Christ, escaping the mire and muck of sin.When we hear stories of wonderful rescues by God from metaphorical roiling pits such as those who are rescued from the perils of addiction by turning to God, we understand exactly what the poet is describing and our hearts are glad.

This rescue reminds our psalmist—as it should remind us—that
Happy the man who puts
in the Lord his trust
and does not turn to the sea monster gods
and to false idols.
” (5)

While we may not worship ‘sea monster gods’ like the Canaanites, we surely are surrounded by an almost infinite variety of false idols that will never hear our pleas, much less rescue us.

Our psalmist launches into effusive praise and reminds us that
Many things You have done—You,
O Lord our God—Your wonders!
And Your plans for us—none can match you
.” (6a)

Despite the implication of “plans” here, I don’t think it’s that God has specific mapped-out plans for us as individuals. If he did we would be mere automata. I think too many Christians have taken “God’s plan” to too low a level of abstraction:  That God has pre-programmed just about every aspect of their lives: from where they will go to school, who they will marry, etc. etc.  For me, that is to deny the gift of free will we’ve been given–not to mention that life is far more random.

Instead, I think the poet is describing God’s loving overall plan for us is to follow him. Whatever God’s plans for our lives may be we can look back and see how God has rescued and guided us:
I would tell and I would speak:
they are too numerous to recount.
” (6b)

“God’s plans for us” are how He has revealed Himself and His love for us through Jesus Christ.  It’s difficult to conceive of a more exciting plan more worthy of praise and singing.

Exodus 32:30-33:23 Even though the Levites have killed 3000 Israelites, God is not fully satisfied at Israel’s repentance. Moses pleads to God, offering to have God erase him from memory and from God’s book: “if you will only forgive their sin—but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written.” (32:32). But God is not interested in making Moses a substitutionary sacrifice. The people have sinned and as this point, God says, “when the day comes for punishment, I will punish them for their sin.” (32:34). Which God proceeds to so: “the Lord sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf—the one that Aaron made.” (32:35) That final phrase makes sure no one—least of all God— is confused, Aaron made the idol.  It did not magically appear out of the fire.

At Moses’ begging, God relents, but it is punishment delayed.  As always with God, “And on the day I make a reckoning, I will make a reckoning with them for their offense.” (32:35).  Thus it ever is.  Sins have consequences. Even forgiven ones.

The promise of return to Canaan still stands, but these “stiff-necked people”  will not be the ones to enjoy it. Rather, God announces, “To your seed I will give it.” (33:1)

Moses pitches the Tent of Meeting some distance from camp and everyone can see that God in the pillar of cloud is coming down to talk with Moses. I continue to be struck (as I’m sure the Israelites were, too, of the intimate relationship Moses has with God: “And the LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his fellow.”  Then, Moses “would return to the camp, and his attendant Joshua son of Nun, a lad, would not budge from within the Tent.” (33:11) We will be hearing more about this “lad.”

Moses continues to press his case to know God even more intimately: “And now, if, pray, I have found favor in Your eyes, let me know, pray, Your ways, that I may know You, so that I may  find favor in Your eyes.” (32:14).  Moses has experienced the presence of God through the burning bush, through the clouds on Sinai, and now “face to face” via the pillar of cloud  at the Tent of Meeting.  Yet, he does not really know God.  So, Moses asks once more if God will reveal Himself. God finally agrees, noting that to look God in the face would kill Moses, but “you will see My back, but My face will not be seen.” (32:23).

So, when we think we “know” God or think we “know his plans for our lives,” we would do well to recall this dialog with the man who led the Jews out of Egypt. Even he could not fully know God.  That is why God is God—and God, like Narnia’s Aslan—is more than a bit dangerous.  Like Moses, we cannot look God fully in the face.  Only through Jesus can we come into God’s presence.

 Matthew 26:47-58  I’ve always wondered why the men, whom I assume to be the Temple Police, who came to arrest Jesus would not recognize him on sight. After all, Jesus had been, shall we say, a pretty visible presence in the Temple courtyard for most of the week.  I think Judas’ signal has to be to accommodate the final irony of this story: that a kiss, the sign of affection, is a signal of betrayal; the least sincere kiss in history.

Judas arrives with “a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people.” (47) and promptly betrays Jesus with the most infamous kiss in history. Jesus’ last words to his betrayer are remarkable for their pathos: “Friend, do what you are here to do.” (50). The kindness in Jesus’ voice not only indicates he knows what is about to happen, but seems to suggest that Judas has been motivated by forces outside himself. And in those words there is even a suggestion of forgiveness. History has been cruel to Judas, but Jesus greets him in resigned peace. Could we ever greet one who betrays us with the same kind equanimity?

And yet.  And yet, Jesus calls Judas “friend.”  I know in my heart that Jesus uttered this word with utter sincerity.  That even in this betrayal, Jesus truly loved Judas with as much intensity as he loved the other disciples who remained loyal to him–and the one who wanted to fight back.

Emotions run strong and Matthew tells us “Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear.” (51). Other gospels tell us it was ever-impetuous Peter, but as is usual for Matthew, it is the act that is more important than the person. Jesus reminds all who can hear, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (53) But Jesus does not call upon God; in Gethsemane he has fully accepted his fate and the cup of bitterness he is about to drink.

Jesus also remarks that the crowd has “come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit?” (55) when they could have arrested him in the temple. Jesus certainly knows that the plot is being executed under cover of night because the religious authorities were afraid the crowds around Jesus would riot. Jesus implicitly accuses the authorities of cowardice. One wonders what went through their heads as they heard these words. As always, though, Matthew’s Jesus reminds us that “this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.” (56)—a clear reference to the suffering servant of Isaiah.

Then we encounter some of the most disheartening words in this gospel: “Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.” (56b). Which is pretty much what I would have done as well. Think about it: three years with Jesus; a clear message that he is the Messiah; the most intimate gatherings and conversations. But when facing danger, they flee immediately. This is one of those places where we know that the Gospels are indeed true. Were the Gospel of Matthew a fictional account at least one disciple would have stood at his side.  As it is, only Peter “was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest; and going inside, he sat with the guards in order to see how this would end.” (58). Matthew reminds us that even though Jesus has told them repeatedly that he would die, Peter still holds out hope that this betrayal and arrest was all a big mistake.

Psalm 39:7-14; Exodus 31:12-32:29; Matthew 26:36-46

Originally published 3/26/2016. Revised and updated 3/27/2018

Psalm 39:7-14: Our philosophical poet continues to echo his despair at the brevity of life, similar to Qoheleth, the author of Ecclesiastes:
In but a shadow a man goes about.
Mere breath he murmurs—he stores
and knows not who will gather
.” (7)

Nevertheless, he is not so resigned as to abandon his desire for God to rescue from the derision of his enemies:
And now, what I expect, O Master,
my hope is in You.
From all my sins save me.
Make me not the scoundrel’s scorn.
” (8, 9)

The theological crux of this section of the psalm is here:
I was mute, my mouth did not open,
for it is You who acted. (10)

It is God who acts. The psalmist knows that he has far less control over his fate, and above all, he knows that he cannot force God to act. God will determine where and when he will act in response to our fevered prayers.

Even though God as acted on his behalf, our poet does not take a very optimistic view of God’s benevolence. Rather, he envisions a punishing God:
Take away from me Your scourge,
from the blow of Your hand I perish.
” (11)

In fact, we see the arbitrary and even destructive God such as the God that Job encountered—a God, who from our earthbound point of view possesses the means to punish rather than rescue. God is eternal; it is we who are unworthy and ephemeral:
In rebuke for a crime You chastise a man,
melt like the moth his treasure.
Mere breath all humankind.” (12)

But under these existential cries there lives the man of faith, who despite his manifold sins still wants to believe God will still hear his weeping cries:
Hear my prayer, O Lord,
to my cry hearken,
to my tears be not deaf.
” (13a)

Like the psalmist we want nothing more that to walk alongside God through life’s journey:
For I am a sojourner with Your,
a new settle like all my fathers
. (13b)

But then we hear his final, closing sigh. God is far too great for him—and for us. God extracts too much from us and we can only cry in exhaustion,
Look away from me, that I may catch my breath
before I depart and am not.
” (14).

This is a man who honestly admits that a relationship with God is a fraught thing. To which I can only write, Amen.

This psalm is a long distance from the peaceful assurance of the 23rd Psalm. One wonders if this psalm is a reflection on Job—or perhaps it is the launching point for the poet who wrote the book of Job. The God of this psalm is neither our lover nor our “daddy.” This God is distant, aloof, unhearing even to those who believe deeply. In the face of all that is awry in the world, he seems to be a God perfect for the existential angst of the 21st century. A

Exodus 31:12-32:29: Moses’ has been up on the mountain for forty days, listening patiently to God as he received instruction after instruction regarding laws, sacrifices, design and construction of the Tabernacle and the priestly vestments, anointing and consecrating priests, and hearing which men will be in charge of building and assembling all this. God arrives at the end of this 40-day seminar by enunciating the law of the Sabbath: “You shall keep the sabbath, because it is holy for you; everyone who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people.” (31:14) Inasmuch as this is the last instruction given to Moses, we naturally conclude that the issue of worshipping God is the most important responsibility of all.

One hopes that Moses took good notes about all these instructions because now that God has completed these complicated instructions, he hands Moses the “two tablets of the covenant, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.” (31:18), which we believe to be only the Decalogue.

For Moses, this mountaintop experience alone with God has doubtless been awe-inspiring, invigorating, and a wonderful time alone away from all those Israelites who were constantly bothering him.

Unfortunately, things down on at the foot of Sinai have not been going all that well. The people have grown restless and impatient. Poor Aaron is now the object of their complaining as they conclude, “as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” (32:1) Aaron, lacking the fortitude of his brother to stand against the mob, tells the people to bring him all the “gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” (32:2)

The infamous golden calf is constructed, which mainly serves as an excuse for the entire nation to have a bacchanal. God instructs Moses to “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely.” (32:7) We get a clear glimpse of the anger of the OT God, who much more like the God of the Psalm above—definitely not the loving God we prefer to imagine: I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.” (9). Moses implores God to relent, asking God  to remember his original promise, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” (13)

And then in one of the more remarkable passages about God, “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.” (14) We don’t often think about God ‘changing his mind,’ what with our idea that an omnipotent God would always make the correct decision. 

Having persuaded God to change his mind, Moses comes down off the mountain, stone tablets in hand, and witnesses the chaos. He throws the tablets down, breaking them, which is certainly a dramatic symbol of how Israel has broken its side of the Covenant. Confronting Aaron, Moses asks, ““What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?” (21) Aaron proceeds to give perhaps the lamest excuse in the Bible, telling Moses that the people gave him the gold and “I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” (32:24). I only wish the authors had recorded Moses’ reaction to this absurdity.

Moses asks for volunteers to bring order out of chaos and we can hear him shouting,“Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me!” The sons of Levi answer Moses’ call for “each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.’” (32:27) and promptly slay 3000 of their brothers, friends, and neighbors. For their efforts, Moses tells them,“Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of a son or a brother, and so have brought a blessing on yourselves this day.” (29) Which seems almost like a priestly consecration itself.

This is simply one of those places where all I can do is shake my head in puzzlement as to the nature of this seemingly immature God who flares up in anger but whose mind can be swayed by a smooth-talking Moses. But one thing is for sure: It’s the Levites who wrote this history. Our authors uses this story to establish the claim for the priesthood. Not only are they religious, they also cast out the apostate and restore order—which we see rear its head in Jesus’ time as the Levitical religious leaders conspire to kill Jesus.

Matthew 26:36-46: Is this another Moravian coincidence or did they plan it this way? We read of Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane. And there is no doubt in my mind that he would have been much more likely to pray in the rather bleak, almost doubting tone of Psalm 39, which he surely knew as well as Psalm 23.

I think it is in Gethsemane where we see Jesus at his most human and vulnerable: “and began to be grieved and agitated,” (26:37b).  In this state there is only one thing—and one thing only—that Jesus can do: pray.  He prays with the same desperation we read in today’s psalm, asking God to relent from the punishment about to be meted out—the punishment we each deserve.  

While he is never in doubt as to God’s nature or the fact that God is listening to him, he nevertheless prays in what I believe to be honest desperation, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” (39). Here, only in this Gospel, Jesus prays them returns to find the disciples sleeping. He does not seem disturbed by their slumber, but goes back two more times to pray exactly the same prayer.

I’m struck that Jesus prays the same prayer three times. Is it an echo of the three temptations of Satan at the beginning of his ministry? Is it a signal to us that when we are in desperate straits we can pray the same prayer over and over?

If nothing else, it is a clear sign that Jesus was fully human and that he fully comprehended the dark and painful road he was about to follow. In this way, the prayer is a form of preparation, which is exactly the point he makes as he wakes his slumbering disciples, “See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going.” (45, 46) We have heard only Jesus’ side of his prayer. Did God answer him? We’ll never know. But this we do know: having prayed he is ready to face the trials of the darkest day in history. Even unanswered prayer is essential preparation for the journey to come.

Psalm 39:1-6; Exodus 30:17-31:11; Matthew 26:31-35

Originally published 3/25/2016. Revised and updated 3/26/2018

Psalm 39:1-6: This David psalm opens with the the usual phrases associated with a psalm of supplication. Our psalmist informs us,
I thought, ‘Let me keep my ways from offending my my tongue.
Let me keep a muzzle on my mouth
as long as the wicked is before me.
 (2).

David is wise not say say things to his enemies that he might regret. There are many times I certainly wish I had put a muzzle on my mouth before saying hurtful things, especially to Susan.

But there’s a twist. This psalm is not a cri de coeur to God, but a reflective meditation. The next verse makes it clear that words are not being spoken but rather they are interior thoughts—which remain just as passionate as any words uttered aloud:
I was mute—in silence.
I keep still deprived of good and my pain was grievous.
 (3)

In other words, he has elected to suffer in silence in front of his enemies—and we assume—his friends. Despite his vow of silence, his feelings are still strong and passionate and he cannot help speaking:
My heart was hot within me.
In my thoughts a fire burned
I spoke with my tongue:” (4).

He breaks his silence speaks to the only one who can help him in his desperate straits: God. But the prayer is far more philosophical than we might expect from a man in desperate circumstances:
Let me know, O Lord, my end
and what is the measure of my days.
” (5)

Is his situation so desperate that he is asking God how much longer he must suffer? Or is there something deeper going on here?

Verse 6 reveals the philosophical depth of the poem as the the poet’s David makes a statement we would be much more likely to read in Ecclesiastes:
Look, mere handspans You made my days,
and my lot is nothing before You
.
Mere breath is each man standing.

This verse reveals his deep existential angst. What is the point of suffering, anyway, our poet seems to be asking. God is remote, silent, and benignly indifferent to this man, whose being is mere ephemerality, anyway.

That life is fleeting and ultimately pointless before an indifferent God is a feeling any person who honestly asks these profound questions must confront. And any of us who have asked the same question of God should be grateful to find the same question here in Psalms. And as we have experienced ourselves, there is only silence from heaven. Jesus must have felt this same abandonment in his mortality on the cross. At some point in his suffering he must have felt that his life was pointless and as his famous cry from Psalm 22 reminds us, that he had been abandoned altogether: “My God, why have you forsaken me?

Exodus 30:17-31:11: Since the Tabernacle is a holy place, it is crucial that any priest coming to offer obeisance to God must be both ritually and physically clean. This is the purpose of the “bronze basin with a bronze stand for washing.” (30:18) Washing is not just a casual act: “they shall wash with water, so that they may not die.” (30:20). And to make sure everyone gets the point, God repeats himself in the next verse in exactly the same phrase: “They shall wash their hands and their feet, so that they may not die.” (20: 21)

This proto-baptism at the Tabernacle is a stark reminder to us that we have been washed by God through Jesus Christ once and for all. This is what our baptism represents, and just like the instructions here it is a profoundly serious act. Which is doubtless why some Christian denominations believe that baptism must be a conscious decision on the part of the individual and that infants cannot make that decision, thuis delaying baptism to the “age of accountability.”

God—as cosmic chemist—now reveals the formula for the anointing oils consisting of precise measures of myrrh [Aha! we’ll encounter myrrh later.], cinnamon, aromatic cane, cassia—all mixed together with olive oil. Again, God reminds Moses that this is no ordinary oil, “This shall be my holy anointing oil throughout your generations.” (30:31) It is forbidden for the oil to be made or used for any other purpose. Once again we are reminded that “holy” means set apart for God.

The oil used by the pastor at baptism, which seals us with the cross of Christ forever,” has direct roots back through the oil that the woman anointed Jesus’ feet back through to this oil prepared at the foot of Mount Sinai.  Oil that sets us apart from the rest of the world; oil that reminds all of us that we are God’s, and through baptism have been made holy.  The church I grew up focused only on the water, never on oil.  Yet, it’s clear here in Exodus 30 that to be consecrated before God both water and oil are required.  First we are made clean in the water and then consecrated by the oil; set apart to do God’s work in the Kingdom.  A heavy and serious responsibility indeed.

So, too, the incense consisting of “sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense…an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy.” (30:35). I’m struck by the salt that seasons the incense. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is the one who reminds us that we are to be the salt of the earth, and here we see that salt seasons the incense as we are to season the world. And we see that salt is holy and set apart. So, too, are we.

With all these plans and precise instructions in hand, God announces that he has chosen specific people to do the actual work of creation, who he has “filled him with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft.” (31:3) So when we speak of a God-given talent, we have biblical confirmation right here!  To supervise the “artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft.” (4,5), God has chosen a certain Bezalel. To lead the construction of the Tabernacle and its furnishings, including the Ark, he has chosen Oholiab.

Here in Exodus, we see that God imbues each of us with certain talents, which like the Parable of the Talents that Jesus tells, means we are to put them to work for God, not hide them in the ground. This passage also reminds us that the ability to create and craft handiwork is a reflection of God’s own magnificent acts of creation. In short we are to reflect the fact that we are created imago deo with our own creative gifts and talents.

Matthew 26:31-35: I think the Moravian editors kept today’s Gospel reading intentionally brief because they want us to focus and reflect on what Jesus has to say about  the Disciples’ response to the catastrophe about to overtake them. Then, Jesus announces to his disciples, who believe they will always be loyal no matter what happens, “You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written,

‘I will strike the shepherd,
    and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ (31)

Jesus has just quoted Zechariah 13:7 and the disciples finally get it: they know something bad is about to happen to Jesus, although it’s not clear yet exactly what that will be.

Could there be any more depressing announcement to men who had followed him loyally for three years? The disciples had to be thinking, does Jesus think so little of us that he predicts that we’ll desert him? Really! That’s impossible! It will never happen!

As usual, Peter expresses the emotion of both himself and the others as he exclaims,“Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.” (33). Jesus of course responds with his famous retort that Peter will deny him not once but three times. Peter objects even more vociferously, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” (35) And lest we be tempted to blame only Peter, Matthew makes it clear that “so said all the disciples.” (35b)

Which is exactly what we would say and do, too. Our high-falutin intentions are always so much grander than our cowardly actions. We feel we’ve been unjustly accused and immediately become defensive.  Unlike David in today’s psalm, neither the disciples nor us can keep silent.  Denial is our inbred skill and preferred way of dealing with bad news–all while ignoring the really good news that Jesus wants to meet us in Galilee.

But something I’d never noticed before is that  right in the middle of all this Jesus clearly states the coming reality of his resurrection: “But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.” (32).What’s really fascinating here is that even though Jesus could not be more direct about his resurrection that revolutionary statement apparently does not even make the slightest impression on them.  Instead, they can only focus on Jesus’ effrontery to suggest that after three years together they would actually desert him. It’s Friday and they—and we—don’t even hear that Sunday is coming.

Which of course is exactly like me. I am so offended at being told something that is true but I don’t like that I miss the greater, more important story: that Jesus loves me. We feel we’ve been unjustly accused and immediately become defensive. Denial is our inbred skill and preferred way of dealing with bad news–all while ignoring the really good news that Jesus wants to meet us in Galilee.

Psalm 38:19–23; Exodus 29:31–30:16; Matthew 26:14–30

Originally published 3/24/2016. Revised and updated 3/24/2018

Psalm 38:19–23: Our poet’s David ironically confesses his ‘crime’ as if in a kangaroo court. But even this ‘confession’ has not placated his foes:
For my crime I shall tell,
I dread my offense.

And my wanton enemies grow many,
my unprovoked foes abound.
 (19, 20)

He then expresses the understandable frustration that we all feel when we believe we are innocent and even our most benign actions are seen as malevolent:
And those who pay back good with evil
thwart me for pursuing good.
” (21)

Unable to find succor even among his erstwhile friends who have not only abandoned him but are now also undermining him, there is only one place remaining to whom he can turn—and we hear the desperation in his voice as this  psalm closes on his final plea:
Do not forsake me, Lord. My God,
do not stay far from me.
Hasten to my help,
O Master of my rescue.
” (22, 23)

The psalm ends abruptly, almost as if the music stops just before the final resolution of a V-I chord. I think this is a brilliant move on the part of the psalmist. This final plea leaves us hanging. Does God indeed rescue him? Or does his agony continue? I think our psalmist recognizes that God does not always answer immediately. Life is like that. We pray, but then just like the ambiguous conclusion of this psalm, there is only silence.

Exodus 29:31–30:16: Instructions regarding the consecration of Aaron and his sons continues apace with a meal consuming the ram flesh along with some bread. This is holy food and “no one else shall eat of them.” (29:33) The full-bore consecration takes seven days—one day longer than it took God to create the earth, reminding us that the number seven is symbolic of completeness. The consecration is an expensive process with one bull sacrificed each morning. Through this process the altar itself becomes holy, and “whatever touches the altar shall become holy.” (29:37)

Now that the altar is consecrated, it is commissioned for daily use: “you shall offer on the altar two lambs a year old regularly each day.” (29:38) In addition, “one-tenth of a measure of choice flour mixed with one-fourth of a hin of beaten oil, and one-fourth of a hin of wine for a drink offering” (29:40) is offered each day. The lamb, the bread and the winde are, of course, the precursor to the Eucharist, except that the Lamb was offered only once at Calvary and therefore is no longer required.

We finally arrive at God’s explanation for all this sacrificing and burning. It’s really quite simple. It’s that the sacrifices will be “a pleasing odor, an offering by fire to the Lord.” (29:41). God adds that it is also at “the tent of meeting before the Lord, where I will meet with you, to speak to you there. I will meet with the Israelites there, and it shall be sanctified by my glory.” (29:42, 43). And by doing so, “ I will dwell among the Israelites, and I will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them; I am the Lord their God.” (29:45, 46)

It seems that with this act, the Covenant that God promised Abraham is finally and quite formally established. God’s side of the promise has been fulfilled. Can the Israelites keep their side of the contract?

As creatures of the New Covenant, God is no longer asking us for ritual sacrifice, since that work has been accomplished once and for all.  But as history so amply demonstrates, we humans require ritual: not just to remember but to know our place in the universe.  The question occurs: how much ritual is too much? Or too little?  Too much and ritual becomes an end in itself, off-putting to those to whom we seek to invite.  Too little and we forget why we are there.  But above all, if this chapter demonstrates nothing else, it is that ritual is not the end in itself; it is the means of remembering who we are, who God is and what he has done for us.

What’s also remarkable to me here is just how local God is. He makes it clear that he is dwelling right there, apparently only in this one place: the Tabernacle. There is no hint here of what later will become the omnipresent God, simultaneously everywhere. At this point, God seems to be in relationship with only one people, and that is the people of Israel. Does this mean he’s unavailable to other tribes and nations at this point? Has he not revealed himself to others? Given what the author of Hebrews says about the high Melchizedek to whom Abraham went, I can only conclude that the authors of Exodus are ignoring that deeper part of their history.

The priestly authors continue by describing the altar of incense, which at one square cubit is quite a bit smaller than the big time sacrificial altar. This, too, is a full-time offering, always burning, “a regular incense offering before the Lord throughout your generations.” (30:8) Catholics (and high church Episcopalians) have preserved the incense offering in  the Mass. There is no question that odor and smoke of incense further heightens the sense that one is in a holy space. And that is certainly the purpose here, as well.

Of course it takes funding to run this elaborate Tabernacle operation, and this detail is not forgotten. The entire population of Israel must contribute: “each one who is registered shall give: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), half a shekel as an offering to the Lord.” (30:13).  It is a flat tax and makes no distinction between the rich and poor. All pay exactly the same amount. This certainly suggests that before God we are all equal regardless of our wealth—or lack thereof. This idea has pretty much been lost by the time Jesus appeared, and he had to remind people that the widow who gave her two mites was giving more sacrificially than wealthy Pharisees.  And of course today, we tend to respect the wealthy givers more than the poor. But in the eyes of God, all are equal.

Matthew 26:14–30: This passage is certainly a happy coincidence in terms of its timing as we enter Holy Week tomorrow as we read of the last Passover meal of Jesus with his disciples. Not unlike having his disciples borrow the donkey for his entry into Jerusalem, Jesus sends his disciples on ahead to “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’” (18)

It’s clear that Jesus had at least one loyal friend in Jerusalem, willing to lend (or perhaps rent) out his house for this itinerant band from the countryside and their rabbi to have Passover.  One has to imagine that by this time, word of Jesus’ activities at the Temple had spread around the city and that housing him–even for Passover–would be viewed quite dimly by the Temple authorities.  So, to my mind, the man with the Upper Room is one of the many unnamed heroes of Jesus’ time, willing to take a risk for the man who was about to turn the world upside down.

Or perhaps there’s a simpler explanation. Did the man simply agree because he knew Jesus’ reputation and was honored that a celebrity wanted to have a Passover Seder at his house? Be that as it may, “the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal.” (19)

Jesus shocks them all with his announcement as the meal is underway: “while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” (21) In this dramatic scene of incipient betrayal the disciples react exactly as we would in the same circumstances: disbelief and denial: “And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?” (22) This denial reminds us not only that the disciples are very human and human nature has not changed a whit in 2000 years. The disciples are stand-ins for all of us.

Matthew finally reveals who will betray Jesus, having told us a few verses earlier that Judas has been paid the infamous 30 pieces of silver.  Jesus doesn’t make it easy on him, telling the group, “woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.” (24) But in Matthew’s telling it is not Jesus who incriminates him, but Judas himself, who does that in his own words with what is surely the most ironic question in the gospels, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” Just as when we betray Jesus in our seemingly innocent denials, but always well aware when we have sinned.

Jesus bless the food and institutes the words of the Eucharist but with the dire reminder at the end of what is about to come later that evening, “I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (29)

Did the disciples get it even now? Or did they think their Rabbi was just being obscure and discursive? We know how the story comes out. But for them, it was just another Passover. Never mind the odd exchange between Judas and Jesus. Which I’m pretty sure is what I would have thought were I there in the Upper Room. We humans can be awfully clueless a lot of the time.