Psalm 38:10–16; Exodus 29:1–30; Matthew 26:1–13

Originally published 3/23/2016. Revised and updated 3/23/2018

Psalm 38:10–16: Our psalmist describes how David lies ill on his bed and he can think only on the one who can hear him: “O Master, before You is all  my desire/ and my sighs are not hidden from You.” (10) He captures beautifully the hopelessness and death-like fatigue that accompanies illness:
My heart spins around, my strength forsakes me,
and the light of my eyes, too, is done from me.
 (11)

Unlike today, where friends and family are often by our side as we suffer, the depth of David’s suffering intensified because he has been abandoned in his sickness—not least because illness was associated with contagion but it also connoted a deep moral failing:
My friends and companions stand far off from my plight
and my kinsmen stand far away. 
(12)

Even worse, they take advantage of his weakness to plot to undermine him. If we assume the subject of this psalm is David, it is certainly his story:
They lay snares, who seek my life and want my harm.
They speak lies, deceit utter all day long
. (13)

But the intensity of his physical suffering leaves David beyond the ability to do anything about the conspiracy—and perhaps even beyond caring:
But like the deaf I do not hear,
and like the mute whose mouth will not open.
And I become like a man who does not hear
and has no rebuke in his mouth.
 (14, 15)

This must be what the dark night of the soul feels like.  Physically suffering, emotionally empty, abandoned by everyone, oppressed by those seeking only his destruction.  I’m relieved to write, “this must be what it feels like,” since I have never experienced so deep a darkness or intense enmity.

David has reached the bottom of the pit of suffering and despair. There is only one who still cares for him; only one in whom he can find a glimmer of hope; only one in whom he still has assurance:
For in You, O Lord, I have hoped.
You will answer, O Master, my God. 
 (16).

So when all seems lost in the depths of suffering and abandonment, this psalm offers hope. We  are reminded that we are never completely lost when we recall that God, however silent he may be, is still very close at hand.

Exodus 29:1–30: Now that the tabernacle has been erected; the altar has been built; and the vestments and priestly garments are ready, it is time to ordain Aaron and his sons. The physical requirements for sacrifice are “one young bull and two rams without blemish, and unleavened bread, unleavened cakes mixed with oil, and unleavened wafers spread with oil.” (1,2) As we saw in the detailed instructions for the tabernacle and the priestly vestments, God requires the very best they—and we—have to offer. 

In a foretaste of baptism, “You shall bring Aaron and his sons to the entrance of the tent of meeting, and wash them with water.” (4) Then Moses dresses Aaron in his priestly robes and “take[s] the anointing oil, and pour it on his head and anoint him.” (7) Aaron’s sons are also dressed and God reminds us that for the Aaronic line, “the priesthood shall be theirs by a perpetual ordinance.” (9)

Careful instructions follow as to how the bull is to be sacrificed sacrificing and where its blood is to be placed on the altar. The ceremony begins with Aaron and his sons laying their hands on the bull—a sign of connection to a life that is about to be given. The bull is “slaughter[ed] before the Lord, at the entrance of the tent of meeting (11)  Its entrails are burned, but “the flesh of the bull, and its skin, and its dung, you shall burn with fire outside the camp; it is a sin offering.” (14) Similar instructions regarding the two rams follows. There is the fairly gruesome (to me, anyway) instruction to take various body parts of the ram, along with the bread, place it in the palms of the priests, who raise their hands to God before burning those items.

This carefully composed liturgy of sacrifice is what God demands going forward: “These things shall be a perpetual ordinance for Aaron and his sons from the Israelites, for this is an offering; and it shall be an offering by the Israelites from their sacrifice of offerings of well-being, their offering to the Lord.” (28)

So, why is this liturgy recorded in such grotesque detail? There’s an obvious answer that when it comes to worship, God requires strict order. God defines worship; not us. And even though our worship today is free of sacrifice—Jesus having accomplished that once and for all—we still owe God respectful order in how we worship. Worship is not informal; it is not casual or ad hoc. Qualities that go missing in too many churches today, IMHO.

I think the other reason is that the authors of this book, while writing in Babylonian exile some hundreds of years after the fact, want to make sure that the temple sacrifices are seen to be well grounded in the very first events of the Covenant. Are they describing an actual historical event that occurred exactly this way? Who knows? But these details are essential to the myth (the word in the sense of a founding story of a nation, not a fiction) that grounds a dispersed Israel in the sacrifices made by its ancestors as it awaits its return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the temple.

Matthew 26:1–13: Jesus’ Olivet discourse has ended. Matthew now picks up the narrative of the events of the Passion. [I’m pretty sure the Moravians are happy that the readings of the Passion occur this year during the calendrical Passion leading up to Easter. We’ll see how closely the readings track.]

The first thing Matthew relates is that Jesus is fully aware of what is about to occur: “he said to his disciples, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.” (2). The gospel writer knows it is crucial that even though Jesus is the center of a plot to kill him, that he willingly goes along. Were that not so, Jesus would be seen for all time as innocent victim rather than the innocent lamb of God.

The plotters, led by Caiaphas, “conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.” (4) But they also know Jesus’ popularity among the hoi polloi: “But they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.” (5) The wheels are set in inexorable motion. 

Meanwhile in Bethany… Jesus is at the house of Simon the leper. [Other gospels have him at the house of Mary and Martha. Perhaps everyone is related…] The woman, whom Matthew does not identify, but we presume to be a wealthy prostitute, pours very expensive lotion on Jesus’ feet. A group of unidentified disciples complain loudly, “Why this waste?” [Other gospels identify the complainer as Judas, but Matthew has his reasons for not exposing Judas just yet.]

Jesus counters the complaint, observing “She has performed a good service for me.” (10) and then in a reference that must have seemed puzzling, he says, “By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial.” (12) I suspect that even though Jesus has repeatedly announced he will die, denial remains very strong among his disciples. After all, he’s just concluded a very successful speaking tour with the crowds in Jerusalem. He is popular. In some minds he is about to take over politically. What could possibly go wrong?

But we need to be careful not to be too hard on the disciples. I’m pretty sure were I there, I would have complained about the same things and I would have been in total denial that anything bad was about to happen. And we have been plotting ever since.  Which is why we should not be surprised when we witness efforts worldwide to suppress Jesus’ message.  ANd more than ever in an American culture that is careening off its moral rails.

Matthew reminds us that by her act this unnamed woman becomes famous indeed, as Jesus says, “I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” (13). Which indeed is true whenever we read this. As always, there’s a teachable moment: Jesus is telling his disciples—and us—once again, just as he has finished saying in the preceding sermon about the sheep and goats that it is our sacrifices by which we will be remembered.

Today’s Exodus and Matthew readings enjoy an almost eerie parallel: they are both preparations for a sacrifice that is God-ordained.

Psalm 38:1–9; Exodus 28:15–43; Matthew 25:31–46

Originally published 3/22/2016. Revised and updated 3/22/2018

Psalm 38:1–9: In a radical change of tone and theme, the almost smug assurance found in the preceding psalm that God will always bless the righteous is blown away here by desperate supplication. The opening line, “Lord, do not rebuke me in Your fury/ nor chastise me in Your wrath,” is a plea to escape God’s anger at some unspecified sin the psalmist has committed. Whatever he may have done, he believes he has provoked God to the point where, “Your arrows have come down upon me,/ and upon me has come down Your hand.” (3).

We assume that both the arrows and the right hand are metaphorical, but there’s little question the psalmist believes he is experiencing pretty dreadful consequences of whatever sin he has committed that has come to him in the form af some all-consuming disease:
There is no whole place in my flesh through Your rage,
no soundness in my limbs through my offense.
” (4)

As we know, in this pre-medicine age, the only explanation for illness was the belief that it had a direct correlation to sin, or in the case of pagan societies, that one had offended the gods. This was certainly the case in Jesus’ time and even today, there are people who believe that illness arises from God’s anger at one’s sinfulness. I will never forget the ostensible Christians, who in 1980 accused my friend Steve, who contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion that he must have sinned greatly to be so cruelly punished by God.

Here, our poet is convinced that his disease is so dire because “my crimes have welled over my head,/ like a heavy burden, too heavy for me.” (5) Of course while sin may not cause disease, there is no question that sin can “well over our head,” driving us to the same desperation that he describes here. If we do not turn to Jesus’ saving grace then surely we, too, will be overwhelmed.

We can hear the pathos in his voice as he describes the gruesome details of his illness, but always freighted with self-blame:
My sores make a stench, have festered
through my folly
I am twisted, I am all bent
.” (6,7)

Disease accompanied by guilt result in deep depression as his entire being is consumed by intense suffering:
All day long I go about gloomy.
For my innards are filled with burning
and there is no whole place in my flesh.
” (8)

If ever we needed a vivid description of the pain that accompanies a death by cancer, it is right here. I well remember the unbearable pain of my friend Bill experienced as he died of advanced prostate cancer in 2011. I’m pretty sure it’s the pain of some cancer as we hear the poet cry out in agony:
I grow numb and am utterly crushed.
I roar from my heart’s churning.
(9)

Exodus 28:15–43: The specifics of the priestly breastplate made “in the style of the ephod; of gold, of blue and purple and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen” (15) are indeed impressive. Like the ephod, it has “twelve stones with names corresponding to the names of the sons of Israel; they shall be like signets, each engraved with its name, for the twelve tribes.” (21)

Along with the usual gold decoration, there is the mysterious Urim and the Thummim, whose physical nature is not described. However, we can guess their purpose since the function of the breastplate is judgement. The Urim and Thummin “shall be on Aaron’s heart when he goes in before the Lord; thus Aaron shall bear the judgment of the Israelites on his heart before the Lord continually.” (30). This suggests they may have been used for divination as a means to ascertain God’s will.

Much has been made through the years of their mystical nature, but they may have been as simple as a couple of engraved rocks thrown down like dice by the priest with their resulting position indicating God’s will. God’s dice? Perhaps they were meant as some sort of “Divine Assist” to aid the priest when he could not form a clear judgement. In any event it seems odd that God would speak through some sort of ancient game of chance.  But there they are. Frankly, I’m glad that in the later history of Israel, prophets appeared on the scene to speak God’s word clearly rather than trying to determine God’s will through some mysterious objects. I’m also reminded of the famous aphorism ascribed to Einstein: “God does not play dice with the universe.”

The other priestly vestments are equally impressive. I’m intrigued that the blue “robe of the ephod: has “an opening for the head in the middle of it, with a woven binding around the opening, like the opening in a coat of mail, so that it may not be torn.” In other words it went on over the head of the priest. But that it resembled a “coat of mail” suggests that there are other, more military, garments on which it was based. Was it some sort of protection from enrgaed supplicants? God makes one last thing extremely clear: “Aaron and his sons shall wear them when they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister in the holy place; or they will bring guilt on themselves and die.” (43)

I come away from these descriptions somewhat awestruck not only by the beauty of these objects but with an increased respect for the technologies—some probably lost today—as well as the skill of the craftspeople that existed so many years ago. We may have different technology today, but I question whether it’s superior and I wonder what knowledge has been lost.

Matthew 25:31–46: We come at last to what I think are Jesus’ most powerful and clear words about our obligations for working in the Kingdom, which actually involves working in the world. Several things are clear.

There will be a day of judgement at the end of history. And things will be very black and white. There is no neutral middle ground. Every person of every nation—not just the Jews—which I presume means every person who has ever lived, “will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,” (32) The sheep are the ones to whom “the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (34)

What’s crucial here is that this is not just some arbitrary act because God likes their looks. Their blessing is a direct result of their actions while on earth. We come to the heart of what has unfortunately come to be called “the social gospel,” but is in fact a description of our basic duties as human beings in society: “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (35, 36) In other words, it is relationships, particularly our care for others that determines, I believe, the extent of our heavenly reward. It’s worth remembering that Jesus’ speech has been preceded by the parable of the talents where different servants receive different rewards.

Both the righteous sheep and the neglectful goats ask exactly the same question: “‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?” (37). The simple differentiation is that the righteous cared “for the least of these” and the unrighteous did not.

It is in these verses where we see the culmination of God’s priority that has been a theme running through the Scripture: we who are able, bear personal responsibility for those who are unable. We cannot leave the fate of the poor, the naked, the hungry, the ill and dying to some faceless bureaucracy and say we’ve done our duty because we’ve paid our taxes. We are solely accountable for our individual actions. God will judge us by what we do—not by what we think we should do or what we intend to do or what we expect others to do—for the lot of those less fortunate, who we see everyday around us. Jesus’ speech is at the center of what it means to take personal responsibility.

And as I look at my life, I see all too clearly where I have failed in that responsibility for individual action.

Psalm 37:34–40; Exodus 27:1–28:14; Matthew 25:14–30

Originally published 3/21/2016. Revised and updated 3/21/2018

Psalm 37:34–40: Our psalmist arrives (at last!) at his concluding lines which summarize the key points he’s made earlier. The core promise of the psalm is straightforward: Stick with God and the seeming success of the wicked will eventually be reversed and the just will finally win out in the end:
Hope for the Lord and keep His way
and He will exalt you to inherit the earth;
you will see the wicked cut off.
” (34)

Harking back to the opening verses where our poet likens the wicked to green grass that withers, he returns to the vegetation metaphor, reminding us,
I have seen an arrogant wicked man
taking root like a flourishing plant.
He passes on, and, look, he is gone.
 (35, 36a)

In an echo of our celebrity culture, those who do not follow God wicked look healthy and beautiful—but in the end they are not only withered and dried up, but are gone altogether: “I seek him [the wicked man], and he is not found.” (36b)

Instead of focusing on the supposed accomplishments of the wicked, we are advised to turn our attention elsewhere: specifically to the righteous man as our example to follow:
Watch the blameless,
look to the upright,
for the man of peace has a future.
 (37)

This is certainly excellent advice for us in the current state of the world. Not that we can ignore evil—or even ignore the follies of the neverending antics of politicians—but our gaze must be on what is good and blameless. And for us Christians, that is certainly just one person: Jesus Christ.

Just in case we missed his point our psalmist reminds us once again,
And transgressors one and all are destroyed,
the future of the wicked cut off. 
(38)

This psalm talks about the future.  The man of peace has a future, while “the future of the wicked [is] cut off.”  As with Jesus’ Olivet Discourse and the apocalyptic books, Daniel, Ezekiel (to a certain extent), and Revelation there’s much about the future in the Bible.  History moves forward in a straight line and one day it will all come to an end. But like the foolish bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable, we tend to live strictly in the present. As the psalmist implies here, the future is all about hope and many good things are yet to come to pass. The promise always remains: “And the Lord will help them and free them.” (39)

Those who have centered their live and actions exclusively on their own self-centered gain will come to the gnashing teeth featured at the end of history. And the worst fate of all: they will be ‘cut off” from God. For me (and I suspect others) hell is not fire and brimstone but cold, dark isolation from God and therefore from all that is good and just.

Those who have followed God are rescued, and God is “their stronghold in time of distress.” (39b). But God is more than shelter, God is active in the lives of the righteous even when we are in turmoil and danger:
And the Lord will help them and free them,
He will free them from the wicked and rescue them,
for they have sheltered in Him.
 (40)

This promise may seem far off and abstract, but I contend that f we look back on our own lives we can see many times where God has indeed sheltered us and rescued us from the wiles of those who would do us harm. Does that make our lives free and easy? No. But absent God’s shelter I know the storms that have come into my life would have been far more difficult to endure.

Exodus 27:1–28:14: The seemingly endless detail in the construction and furnishing of God’s tent—the Tabernacle—continues apace and now focuses on the central furnishing of the Tabernacle: the altar. Employing the usual structural material, acacia wood, Moses is commanded to build an altar, 7 1/2 feet on a side, that includes horns, bronze rings and a metal grating on which sacrifices are to be burned. More poles for portability, as well. What’s intriguing is that God has apparently given a demonstration to Moses about how to build it while he was up on Sinai for that 40-day encounter with God: “They shall be made just as you were shown on the mountain.” (27:8)

Attention now turns to the outer perimeter—the courtyard—and the hangings which define it. It is a sizable structure 150 feet of hangings and three bronze pillars with silver hooks and bands on the north and south sides, 75 feet of the same construction on the east and west sides.

What’s impressive here is the sheer logistics involved in construction here in the middle of the desert. Gold, silver, bronze all requires furnaces for refining and casting. Giant looms to handle weaving of these huge curtains are also required. Not to mention store yards for inventory. We have to assume that they brought all this material with them after plundering Egypt. My image of Israel in the desert has always been of this transient people on a giant camping trip. But the reality must have been far more complex.

There would also have to be extensive workrooms for the fabrication of the priestly vestments. God instructs Moses to “bring near to you your brother Aaron, and his sons with him, from among the Israelites, to serve me as priests—Aaron and Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar.” (28:1) Then Moses must round up the right people to make “sacred vestments for the glorious adornment of your brother Aaron.” (2), which requires the efforts of “all who have ability, whom I have endowed with skill.” (3) These artisans “shall use gold, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine linen” to make “sacred vestments for your brother Aaron and his sons to serve me as priests.” (4,5)

The most impressive garment is the Ephod, whose traces we see today as the stoles of ordained pastors. The Ephod is made of “of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen, skillfully worked.” (6) The skills of stone carvers and jewelers are also required to “engrave the two stones with the names of the sons of Israel,” (11) not to mention gold workers for “two chains of pure gold, twisted like cords.” (14)

So why all this magnificent construction and priestly finery? The reason seems simple to me: God deserves the very best we can fashion and construct—the best materials and the best workmanship. The details in these chapters are an example to all who follow that what we do for God, we do soli deo gloria—to the glory of God alone. As his highest creation, we humans must to return to God our very best dedication and skill. There is no shortcut, no cheap imitation, no skimping, when it comes to working for God.

Matthew 25:14–30: The underlying theme of preparation and alertness that Jesus has already made in the parables of the wicked and dedicated slaves and of the careless bridesmaids come to their climax in the justly famous parable of the talents. Notice that each slave is given an amount of talents proportional to their ability (15) ‘Talents’ were basically gold bars in Jesus’ time, but the translation is a useful pun for the gifts—talents—which God has imbued us with. Or to quote God himself in the Exodus passage above: all who have ability, whom I have endowed with skill.

The slave with the most talents has invested well and doubled his money; so too the one with two talents. But the one-talent slave has famously buried his talent and made nothing of it. Perhaps the master would have taken mercy on him had he been merely cautious. But I think the slave seals his fate when he accuses the master, “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.” (24). In other words, he asserts the master is not only conducting business unfairly, but implying that he, the slave, knows better than the master what seed should be scattered where. It was his pride in thinking—his massive assumption of self-rightousness— that he knew better than the master combined with fear of punishment that paralyzed him into doing nothing. This makes his deliberate inaction far more egregious than mere laziness. Jesus sums it up well: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” (29) Following Jesus is not a spectator sport.

And yet, isn’t this exactly what we do ourselves when we assume we know God’s work better than God does? We make assumptions and pronouncements about what God has in mind rather than letting the Holy Spirit do its work. Or, if we are outside the church, we complain it is full of hypocrites and we stay away as a justification to pursue our own interests. All of these acts are arrogant and are exactly like burying the talents we could otherwise have invested in the work of the kingdom.

Psalm 37:27–33; Exodus 26; Matthew 25:1–13

Originally published 3/19/2016. Revised and updated 3/20/2018

The first day of spring, which has real meaning here in Wisconsin…

Psalm 37:27–33: Our psalmist now appeals to those who are either tempted to turn to wickedness, those he feels may be persuaded to change their ways: “Turn from evil and do good/ and abide forever” (27) Of course this is good advice even for those of us who presume we are already on the path of righteousness. As if we needed reminding at this point, the poet nonetheless makes the key point that to follow righteousness is to be aligned with an ever-faithful God:
For the Lord loves justice
and will not forsake His faithful
They are guarded forever.
 (28a).

And in this deuteronomic world, “the seed of the wicked is cut off.” (28b) As we’ve noted before, in the Jewish world where memory of a person is retained through one’s progeny, there is no greater curse than to be forgotten because our seed has been “cut off.”

In a pre-echo of Jesus’ words, “The just will inherit the earth/ and abide forever upon it.” (29). Only here our psalmist’s intent is more didactic than theological as he goes on to observe (once again)
The just man’s mouth utters wisdom
and his tongue speaks justice.
 (30)

Under the terms of the Old Covenant those living in that world had to rely on having taken God’s teachings—such as this psalm—sincerely to heart and then would have put into practice what they learned:
The just man’s mouth utters wisdom
     and his tongue speaks justice. 
      His God’s teaching in his heart—
      His steps will not stumble.” (30,31)

But this is wishful thinking on the psalmist’s part. Surely he knew—as we all do—that in the long run all of us are incapable of putting this instruction into unwavering practice. We will ultimately fail because are sinners. It is only through the terms of the New Covenant—grace through Jesus Christ— that we can be saved.

Nevertheless, regardless of which Covenant may apply here, our psalmist reminds us of one immutable constant about human nature:
The wicked spies out the just man
and seeks to put him to death
. (32)

But even then, even when we are judged by wicked men, we can rely fully on God’s promise:
The Lord will not forsake him in his hands
and will not condemn him when he is
[unjustly, I presume] judged.” (33)

Exodus 26: Writing in God’s voice, our author continues to give the highly detailed assembly instructions for the design, construction, and furnishing of the Tabernacle.

Somewhere in the desert they are supposed to find enough fabric to “make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twisted linen, and blue, purple, and crimson yarns; you shall make them with cherubim skillfully worked into them.” (1) Each curtain is a mere 42 feet in length and 6 feet wide. With a clever design of loops and clasps, the curtains are joined together on groups of five, “so that the tabernacle may be one whole.” (7).

You can’t hang curtains without a framework, which is now described in equal detail: “You shall make upright frames of acacia wood for the tabernacle.” (15) The frames are attached with pegs (quite useful for portability when it needs to be disassembled) and mounted into silver bases. Now that the frames and curtains are ready, “you shall erect the tabernacle according to the plan for it that you were shown on the mountain.” (30) One wonders if God sketched detailed construction and assembly drawings for Moses while he was up on the mountain.

A separate and even more beautiful curtain made of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen; it shall be made with cherubim skillfully worked into it (31) is made for the holy of holies, which is the separate closed-off space, where the Ark will reside. The table and lampstand are carefully placed as well. Finally, “You shall make a screen for the entrance of the tent, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen, embroidered with needlework.” (36) When one enters the Tabernacle we know immediately it is a separate place made of the finest materials to the glory of God.

So what do we take away theologically here? First, there’s no question that God is indeed concerned with details. If he cares this much about where he will reside among the Israelites, of how much greater value is his ultimate creation: we humans? Jesus said it well in Matthew (10:30): God knows the number of hairs on our head, so how could he not care even more deeply for our souls?

This attention to detail required of anything built to the glory of God and must have been in the minds and hearts of all who have undertaken great creative works–from the cathedrals of the 12th century to the frescoes of Renaissance Italy to the works of JS Bach.  I wonder what subsequent generations will look back on as the great creative works of our time?  

Finally, I think it is good and right that we encounter God and Jesus in a sacred space that has been set aside for the purpose of worship. There’s no question that the architects of the great cathedrals of Europe were well aware of these chapters in Exodus when they worked out their soaring designs. This sense of holy—of set apartness—impacts one viscerally when one walks into a cathedral. Admittedly, our more humble churches cannot replicate the grandeur of a cathedral, but I think we could do better in terms of treating a sanctuary as a place set apart from the ordinary. One easy change would be to return to calling it a “sanctuary” rather than a “worship center,” which sounds far too much like “shopping center.” In a world that has driven out the holy just about everywhere, we would do well to provide a place that is more clearly one of rest and reflection rather than socializing. We need more “thin spaces” in our world.

Matthew 25:1–13: To drive home his point about being alert, Jesus tells the story of the five wise and the five foolish bridesmaids. Thinking the bridegroom will arrive shortly, the foolish bridesmaids neglect to bring oil for their lamps. But the wise ones know that he may be delayed, so they have brought extra oil along with them. The bridegroom arrives at midnight and the foolish bridesmaids ask to borrow oil from the wise ones. But they demur saying, “‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’” (9). The foolish ones head off to buy oil (are there really oil dealers open at midnight?) and come back too late and are excluded from the festivities. Jesus’ point is clear: they are excluded from the Kingdom.

I think there is more to this story than simply the lesson to be prepared for the unexpected arrival of the Son of Man. The foolish bridesmaids are those who profess to be workers in the kingdom, but like the lazy slave in the previous story, do little to actually work in the kingdom. They talk a good game, but there’s no action on their part. They’d rather rely on the efforts of those who are actually working—to borrow the oil, if you will. Jesus demands actual effort not just good intentions.

But I also think we need to be careful and avoid over-interpreting here. I don’t think Jesus is telling us that foolishness leads to losing one’s salvation, but foolish unpreparedness certainly leads to suboptimal consequences.  For me, this is a parable about personal responsibility and using the resources God has given me as wisely as I can while working in the Kingdom.

Psalm 37:23–26; Exodus 25:10–40; Matthew 24:45–51

Originally published 3/18/2016. Revised and updated 3/19/2018

Psalm 37:23–26: The psalmist assures us that when the just man follows God, fundamentally only good things happen to him as he sallies forth in energetic confidence because God wants nothing more than for us to follow the path of righteousness:
By the Lord a man’s strides are made firm,
and his way He desires. (23).

Our psalmist is convinced that if we but remain righteous, nothing bad can really happen to us: Though he [or we] fall, he [or we] will not be flung down,
for the Lord sustains his [our] hand. (24)

I think it’s important to understand that our hand is “sustained” by God. He  is not leading us by the hand.  As we walk, we have a choice to follow a path of our own devising—or to follow God.  I hear a lot about “God’s plan for our lives,” but I think it’s too easy–and yes, intellectually lazy–to  assume that life is about following some divinely programmed course that’s been laid out for us–and that when we deviate from that plan, bad things will happen. God has given us free will and we can choose to follow od as our psalmist has, or we can choose to ignore what the relationship with God that our psalmist is describing here.

In perhaps the most extravagant, yet most beautiful verse in this psalm, the poet writes:
A lad I was, and now I am old,
and I never have seen a just man forsaken. (25a)

It is righteousness and the freedom from poverty and injustice that go with it can be passed down through the righteous man’s progeny: “and his seed seeking bread.” (25b) The psalmist goes on to assert that our righteous man’s progeny are generous and a blessing to others:
all day lending free of charge
and his seed for a blessing. (26)

Really? I too am now an old man and I have seen plenty of righteous people who are poor and have been dealt with unjustly.I, too, am old and have often seen a just person appear to be forsaken by others. I cannot imagine that our poet had not seen the same. It would be a wonderful world indeed if punishment were proportional to wickedness and blessing were equally proportional to righteousness. I think the real meaning here is that it is God who never forsakes us and our children who have been raised right and are not forsaken even when they have been unjustly accused.

In these verses we see the roots of the black/white philosophy that animated the Pharisees in Jesus’ time to believe that if something bad happened to someone or worse, if they were diseased, this was on account of their own sin, or as implied here, even the sin of their parents. This is the same deuteronomic philosophy that Job’s friends believed in so deeply: Job would not be suffering so greatly if he had not in fact sinned in some enormous manner.  In fact, I am grateful that Job is in the canon and perhaps was added by those who found the author of this psalm to be hopelessly optimistic.

Or does the psalmst perhaps have some other didactic purpose? The psalm is not over yet…

Exodus 25:10–40: One hopes Moses is taking good notes in order to communicate God’s highly detailed instructions for what will become the central totem of the Jewish faith: the Ark of the Covenant. God becomes architect and designer, laying out the precise dimensions of the Ark, e.g., “it shall be two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high.” (25:10) and its material (acacia wood).

One aspect of the construction of the Ark that I had not appreciated before is that all these materials are a voluntary offering: “…that they take Me a donation from every man, as his heart may urge…” (25:2)  The message is clear.  God deserves the very best that we have to offer, and whatever we offer to God, whether our treasure or our talents, must be our very best: Our “first fruits.”  But above all, it is offered willingly, joyfully “as our hearts may urge.

God is also now ready to put all the gold and jewels that the Israelites plundered in Egypt to use since basically every surface of the Ark is covered in gold, as well as the four gold rings attached to the sides, through which the poles will be placed so it can be carried by four men. The poles are a permanent feature and “shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it.” (15) Atop the Ark is the “mercy seat of pure gold; two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its width.” (17) bounded by two gold cherubim with outspread wings facing each other at each end of the mercy seat. “The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings.” (20)

The Ark is described with such detail and is to be as glorious as human hands can fashion it because it will be God’s residence for the duration of the journey—and as we will find our, also once the Israelites reach Canaan. The mercy seat serves the purpose of a kingly throne, where “I [God] will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the covenant,I will deliver to you all my commands for the Israelites.” (22)

God is quite serious about demonstrating his constant presence to all of Israel. This is also quite a different God than the one who seemed to be in hiding the entire four centuries the Hebrews were in Egypt. Has the supposedly immutable God changed? Or is he finally revealing another side of his being to the Israelites?

At this point we can detect an echo of Eden where God sought out Adam and Eve. Here, God is seeking out and abiding with the Israelites on a permanent basis. He is no longer just the occasional the visiting God of Abraham or the wrestling God that Jacob encountered. As far as God is concerned, the terms of the Covenant mean that he will always be with the people. The question of course is, will the people always be with God carrying out their side of this remarkable Covenant?

God is not finished with his instructions as he goes on to describe the precise size and construction of the other furniture that will occupy the soon-to-be-constructed Tabernacle: the table for the bread of the Presence, as well as the Lampstand. As Christians, these are highly symbolic for us. The Bread of the Presence becomes the body of Christ and the lampstand becomes the light of Christ.

Matthew 24:45–51: Jesus wraps up his discourse on the importance of being alert—not just for the end of history, but that alertness also requires faithfulness in our ongoing human relationships—with the story of the faithful and unfaithful slaves. There’s nothing subtle going on here. Jesus is making it clear that the slaves are all of us: first the disciples and then the church.

The faithful slave carries out the master’s instructions during the master’s absence. And therefore, “Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives.” (46). As we will see in the next chapter, Jesus shortly will be giving more precise instructions as to exactly how we are to go about this work.

The lazy slave—those in the church who abandon their calling to be in relationship with each other and for that matter, with the world at large, will meet a bad end indeed. At the end of history, when the master returns, there will be judgement. Those who have acted cruelly to others or ignored the needs of others will meet a particularly gruesome end: “He will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (51)

Is Jesus threatening us here? No. He is simply describing the reality of the consequences of our actions—or our inaction. As with the example of the slaves, the motivation for how we act is strictly our own responsibility. Jesus is not forcing us to do anything we do not wish to do.

Psalm 37:16–22; Exodus 23:27–25:9; Matthew 24:36–44

Originally published 3/17/2016. Revised and updated 3/17/2018

Psalm 37:16–22: At this point our psalmist launches into full wisdom mode, sounding very much like the author of Proverbs:
Better a little for the just
than wicked men’s profusion,
For the wicked’s arms shall be broken,
but the Lord sustains the just. (16, 17)

He asserts that it is better to be poor and righteous than rich and wicked, which is certainly true, but it is still difficult to not feel envy—especially in this age of celebrity and disproportionate distribution of wealth. Yes, there is the promise that the wicked will eventually receive their comeuppance, but it always seems to be an awfully long time before they do.

Nevertheless, in spite of this seeming unfairness, the just man enjoys God’s protection and salvation:
The Lord embraces the fate of the blameless,
and their estate shall be forever. (18)

Our poet continues to stack up the promises made to the righteous. Under God’s beneficence, it is they who will survive in tough times:
They shall not be shamed in an evil time
and in days of famine they shall eat their fill. (19)

Once again —as if to even reassure himself and his own doubts—our poet again asserts that the wicked will get what’s coming to them in the best metaphor in this psalm:
For the wicked shall perish, and the foes of the Lord,
like the meadows’ green—gone, up in smoke, gone.” (20)

Our psalmist finally boils it all down to a very simple formula. and it seems Jesus may have had these verses in mind when he said the meek will inherit the earth:
For those He blesses inherit the earth
and those he curses are cut off.  (22)

But does this black and white deuteronomic thesis really hold up? Is it really as simple as all this? We’d really like to think it is, but as the book of Job makes dramatically clear, the issue of God’s moral justice seems much more ambiguous than the simple quid pro quo described in this psalm. The just do indeed suffer unjustly. And the wicked certainly seem to prosper all too often. But one thing remains true: It is better to fear God and follow the path of righteousness than to reject him.

Exodus 23:27–25:9: God’s angel has reassured Moses that all will go well with Israel if they follow God and not the idols of the small-g gods of the Canaanites. The angel describes God’s strategy for Israel to take over Canaan. It will not be one big battle driving the inhabitants into the sea because “the land would become desolate and the wild animals would multiply against you.” (23:30) Instead, it will take more than a year because, “Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land.” (23:31)

The angel concludes with the now-familiar warning: “You shall make no covenant with them and their gods. They shall not live in your land, or they will make you sin against me; for if you worship their gods, it will surely be a snare to you.” (32, 33).  Alas, we know all too well that Israel did indeed come to worship their small-g gods. And so too, we live in a society that has abandoned God for the small-g idols of wealth, celebrity, and above all, the cult of individual rights outranking everything else—all at the cost of truth.

It’s worth noting that at this point, Israel is headed directly to Canaan, (or, almost directly via Sinai, anyway), so the angel’s revelations have immediate currency. The 40-year curse is yet to come.

Moses and his leadership deliver this news to the people, who once again promise,“All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” (24:3) At this point Moses “wrote down all the words of the Lord,”  (23:4) ,which is of course what we have just read. But did Moses really write all this down or is this a literary device on the part of our authors writing hundreds of years later in order to imply Moses’ authorship of these lengthy instructions?

Contrary to popular image, Moses did not just wander up Mt. Sinai to meet God. Following an elaborate process of building altars, sacrifice and worship, “Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up” (23:9) toward the mountain and at last, all of them “saw the God of Israel” standing on “something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness.” (23:10). Happily, this theophany does not result in a bad end, as “God did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; also they beheld God,” (11) In fact, they had a party and “ate and drank.”

God instructs Moses to come further up the mountain, telling him to “wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” (23:12). Moses obeys and waits in the clouds for (symbolically enough) six days. This is a clear echo of the creation story as God is now going to in essence create the nation of Israel under the Law. “On the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud.” (24:16).

Down on the ground below, “the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.” (24:17) At this point every man, woman, and child of Israel should be sure that God is with them. Moses disappears into the cloud, “and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.” (24:18)

The conversation between Moses and God is quite a bit more complex than our popular image of God just handing over the stone tablets. God opens the discussion with an extremely detailed description of the offerings the people are to bring. Then, they are to “make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.” (25:8). At last, God is going to come off the mountain and join Israel on the ground. Which of course is the central point of the theocracy of Israel: God dwelt among them, first in the Ark in the Tabernacle, and later in the Temple itself.

As Christians, this idea of God coming down off the mountain to “dwell among” Israel is exactly the same pattern repeated when Jesus comes down off the “heavenly mountain” and came to dwell among us in the real world as a human being. As always, the OT gives us a hint of greater things to come.

Matthew 24:36–44: Jesus has described events surrounding the coming of the Son of Man, but he also informs us that their timing is unknown,“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (36)  I’ve always been intrigued that even the “Son” does not know when his own return is going to happen. I suppose the theological point here is to remind us that it is the Father in heaven who remains firmly in control of history.

Jesus uses the example of Noah to remind us that before that particular history-ending event, life went on blissfully unaware of what was to come: “For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark,.” (38). In the same way the Noahic world was ignorant of the flood that would soon sweep them away,  “so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.” (39) Jesus describes how half the population simply vanishes: “two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left” (40, 41) This has become known as the “secret Rapture,” which remains an article of faith among Evangelicals and was the underlying thesis of the infamous “Left Behind” books.

But wait a minute. Didn’t Jesus just describe a very public return of the Son of Man a few verses back? He described how the Son of Man would come with a trumpet blast that could be heard by everyone on earth, all of who would witness his return. Now he’s talking about a quiet return where believers simply disappear quietly. Are they the same return? No wonder we can’t make complete sense of apocalyptic literature.

That leaves us only one very important option—the one Jesus instructs us to follow. Don’t speculate, wasting time trying to figure out exactly what will happen or trying to predict—as many still persist in doing—the exact time of this event. Even Jesus doesn’t know. Our duty is simply to keep working but always remaining on the alert. “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (44) Remaining alert rather than clueless is just plain excellent advice for living our quotidian lives regardless of whatever eschatological expectations we may have.

For me, the issue is not trying to parse the precise meaning of how the end of history will occur; only that it will occur. Above all, there is one major lesson: we are to remain alert, always looking outward.  Those of us in the Church are apt to focus inward on ourselves and or tasks, metaphorically grinding our meal.  Only by looking outward and upward can we hope to be prepared.

Psalm 37:7–15; Exodus 22:25–23:26; Matthew 24:26–35

Originally published 3/16/2016. Revised and updated 3/16/2018

Psalm 37:7–15: Our psalmist recognizes that we will become angry, which is a secondary emotion to envy, when we look at how the wicked seem to do so well:
Do not be incensed by him who prospers,
by the man who devises evil schemes. (7)

Instead, we are to “Let go of wrath and forsake rage.” (8a) And by all means, in your own anger do not pay back evil with evil: “Do not be incensed to do evil.” (8b). Alas, I have paid back my perception of being wronged with an evil word or act so often.

God will take care of the wicked in his own good time: “For evildoers will be cut off.” (9a). Even though this action on God’s part can take a frustratingly long time, our patience will be rewarded with more than merely seeing the evil cut off: “but those who hope in the Lord, they shall inherit the earth.” (9b)

Our psalmist paints a vivid picture of the fate of the wicked as simply vanishing from the face of the earth:
And very soon, the wicked will be no more.
You will look at his place—he’ll be gone. (10)

And once the wicked have disappeared, “the poor shall inherit the earth.” (11a)  Jesus, basically quoting this line in the Beatitudes, stopped there, but our psalmist goes on to observe in the second line of this verse that the poor “will take pleasure from great well-being.” (11b)

So despite the best efforts of the “wicked [who] “lays plots for the just/ and gnashes his teeth against him,” (12) God—and by implication, we—will have the last laugh as justice finally triumphs:
The master will laugh at him,
for he sees that his day will come. (13)

But in the meantime, the wicked will attempt to act evilly against the righteous and the poor, even trying to snuff them out:
A sword have the wicked unsheathed
and drawn taut their bow,
to take down the poor and needy
to slaughter those on the straight way. (14)

But once again, their evil will turn back against them becoming the cause of their own demise:
Their sword shall come home in their heart
and their bows shall be broken. (15)

Nevertheless it is very challenging to take this final promise to heart when we see so much horrific evil around us such as terrorism,  racism, and general hatred around us. Nevertheless, our psalmist pleads to us to be patient. God will win out in the end. But even with this assurance, it’s still difficult to wait patiently.

Exodus 22:25–23:26: The author’s exegesis on the Ten Commandments continues apace with further commands regarding social and religious behavior. Perhaps most famously, “If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.” (22:25) In fact, this command continues, don’t exploit your neighbor in any fashion whatsoever, “And if your neighbor cries out to me, I [God] will listen, for I am compassionate.” (22: 27).  Alas, based on the evidence in today’s psalm, this command was observed by many only in the breech. As it continues to be ignored today in our disregard for the poor.

In a reflection of the final plague of the Passover, the author, writing in God’s voice, commands, “The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me…seven days it shall remain with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to me..” (22: 29) [as well as the firstborn of livestock]. For Jewish sons, this eventually becomes the rite of circumcision—the bris—on the eighth day.

As we see again and again in the Psalms, God demands justice and so to are we commanded to be just and act righteously, especially with regard to our spoken words: “You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with the wicked to act as a malicious witness.” (23:1)

Just as God does not corrupt justice, neither are we to do so, even if it means standing up against the wishes of the crowd: “You shall not follow a majority in wrongdoing; when you bear witness in a lawsuit, you shall not side with the majority so as to pervert justice;” (23:2).  God understands human nature and our tendency to want to go along with the crowd and follow what is “popular.” This is certainly a behavior we see on full display in social media as thousands of people follow boldly-stated injustice like lemmings.

But interestingly, even though God is constantly sympathetic to the poor, that compassion does not trump justice as he commands, “nor shall you be partial to the poor in a lawsuit.” (23:3)

In a piece of excellent agricultural advice, “For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow” (23: 10, 11a) But this is more than merely good farming, it serves an important social purpose as well: “so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat.” (23: 11b)

Rest is always important to God and the command about the Sabbath is clarified here. It’s not just for us humans, “but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your homeborn slave and the resident alien may be refreshed.” (23: 12)  God never forgets those whom we tend to forget in the ever-fraught political battle over immigration.

After advice about various festivals, God reminds us of his core promise to the Israelites that they are to conquer Canaan, even though it is now fully populated by “the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites:” (23:23) God will send his angel to lead the people, but they must “Be attentive to him and listen to his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression; for my name is in him.” (23: 21)

I’m intrigued by the phrase, “for my name is in him.” Yes, this may be just a plain old angel like Gabriel. But perhaps this angel with “my name in him” is a foretaste of Jesu Christ, who, as John 1 and elsewhere tell us, has been there all along.

Matthew 24:26–35: Matthew gives us Jesus’ most detailed description of what the end of history will look like when the Son of Man arrives back on earth. It will certainly be dramatic as Immediately after the suffering of those days

the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from heaven,
    and the powers of heaven will be shaken.” (29)

Only when it’s too late will those who have ignored Jesus’ words come to realize what has happened and how they have missed out for all eternity: “all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory.” (30) But the “elect” —a word whose definition has been controversial among theologians down through history—will be gathered “from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” (31).

Many see these puzzling words as Jesus’ as a precise description of what has yet to occur in history, which they call the “Rapture,” where all Christians are gathered into heaven while those who are not “saved” remain stuck on earth awaiting the Tribulation.

I personally believe that Jesus’ words are a promise to the early church rather than a precise forecast of events that lie still in the future. Therefore, I think we need to be careful in how we interpret this prophecy, especially in light of what Jesus says next: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” (34).

For me, this is a clear sign of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD and that in the larger context of this chapter that focuses on suffering, Matthew is telling his readers—the “elect”— not to be discouraged as they face persecution. Yes, Jesus will come again, and he may come as dramatically as he seems to say, or as he hints elsewhere, he may come “like a thief in the night.” We simply cannot be sure. Nor should we spend a lot of time trying to figure out exactly what will happen at the end of history.

As today’s psalmist promises, God’s justice will triumph in the end. But it’s going to require basically infinite patience on our part. Meanwhile, Jesus has given us plenty to do via the Great Commission here on earth.

 

Psalm 37:1–6; Exodus 21:28–22:24; Matthew 24:1–25

Originally published 3/15/2016. Revised and updated 3/15/2018

Psalm 37:1–6: The editors who compiled the Psalms occasionally make their point via juxtaposition. Psalm 36 is a philosophical reflection on the nature of wickedness, while this psalm is one of encouragement to ignore the wicked and to follow God. It opens, appropriately enough, by advising us not to be upset by the wicked or envy their short term gains:
Do not be incensed by evildoers.
Do not envy those who do wrong. (1)

Their deserved end will come quickly enough as the famous verse tells us,
For like grass they will quickly wither
and like green grass they will fade. (2)

Instead of paying attention to them‚ we need to look to God and follow him instead:
Trust in the Lord and do good.
Dwell in the land and keep faith. (3)

This is particularly appropriate advice in the ongoing nonsense emanating from Washington DC. The antics and general perverseness of politicians, their tweets, and their inflammatory words happily will fade soon enough. We are to trust in God and keep faith in him rather than obsess over the latest outrageous post on our Facebook news feed.

The psalmist is telling us that rather than using our time to fret over wrongdoers as, e.g., watching cable TV news, we should instead,
Take pleasure in the Lord,
that He grant you your heart’s desire. (4)

We cannot stanch the tide of wickedness and perverseness that seems to surround us and is undermining our culture by ourselves. Rather, through prayer, worship, and Christian community, we are to “Direct your [our] way to the Lord.” (5a)

And, rather than trust in the efficacy of our own deeds, we are to
Trust Him and He will act,
and He will bring forth your cause like the light,
and your justice like high noon. (5b, 6)

I wish that Evangelicals and others who believe they will find justice or peace or power in supporting in the vacuous and ultimately wicked words of certain politicians would ponder these verses.  All our efforts trying to trust human agency rather than trusting God is a waste of time—time that is so much better spent following God and seeking justice through him.

Exodus 21:28–22:24: The authors’ long sermon continues, describing how the ethical and moral generalities of the Ten Commandments are to become specific practice and rules. These are the rules necessary to enable civilization to exist. Without them, all would be chaos.

First, the question of that which is potentially harmful to others. If an owner of an ox has been warned that his animal is dangerous and it subsequently kills an innocent bystander, including children, not only is the ox stoned and put to death, but its owner as well. Distressingly, however, because slaves are property, not persons, “If the ox gores a male or female slave, the owner shall pay to the slaveowner thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.” (21:32)

Ox owners are also warned to take care that other people’s animals do not fall into an uncovered pit they have dug to trap wild animals. Should that happen, “the owner of the pit shall make restitution, giving money to its owner.” (21:34) At least, though, he gets to keep the dead animal. These rules about property are the basis of our common law today. We are to be considerate of our neighbors and exercise common sense.

When one person violates the property rights of another, restitution is required. Thieves need to be careful, too. If they cannot make restitution for a stolen animal, the thief “shall be sold for the theft” (22:3) into slavery. While all the examples given about sheep, goats, donkeys, oxen and fields reflect the nature of that agrarian society, our rules of restitution for having caused harm are exactly based on these concepts of justice described more than three millennia ago here in Exodus. Although, perhaps we have taken things to far. Out of these rules lawyers and civil lawsuits proliferate everywhere. We may bemoan lawyers and lawsuits and rules, but without them, western society would be in an even greater shambles than it is, and actual justice would be an even rarer commodity.

We then encounter what seems almost to be a miscellaneous list of wrongdoings. If a man has sex with an unmarried virgin, he is required to make her his wife. (22:16) But, what at first appears to be a bizarre rule to our culture, “if her father refuses to give her to him, he shall pay an amount equal to the bride-price for virgins.” (22:17) makes some sense. We can only assume that the bride price was sufficiently high to give a randy young man pause before seducing that virgin.

But there’s no getting around the fact that ancient Israel was a theocratic patriarchy. In another sign of the disparity between sexes, “You shall not permit a female sorcerer to live.” (22:18) But male sorcerers are OK?

This reading reminds us that “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (22:21) The wall now erected around the West Bank suggests that this verse has not found resonance in modern day Israel. One wonders what would be the situation there if mercy shown to Palestinians and Palestinians to Israelis finally overcame the very human desire for revenge or greater security.

Finally, in keeping with the theme we see throughout the OT, “You shall not abuse any widow or orphan.” (22:22) This seems to be the greatest crime of all because God intervenes directly with his own punishment: “If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry.” (22:24) And God himself, “will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.” (22:24) In short, there is no greater societal sin than to oppress or abandon those who cannot help themselves.

Matthew 24:1–25: We arrive at what is known as the Olivet Discourse. The conversation begins after Jesus announces the imminent doom of the temple and “the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (3) Jesus warns of false prophets, and that “you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet.” (6) Which seems to be exactly the situation today as well—and has doubtless been the situation down through history since Jesus spoke those words.

Jesus also warns that enemies “will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name.” (9). This will lead to chaos within the community of Jesus’ followers: “many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another.” (10). Paul certainly takes up these problems in his letters to Corinth and Philippi.

These issues did not take long to emerge in the church not long after Jesus left earth. I’m sure Matthew is informing his readers that what they are experiencing in terms of persecution outside the church and dissention within it are to be expected because Jesus predicted them.

Regardless of what happens, persistence will be rewarded: “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (13). And those who persist will be what causes “the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations.” (13) All this will happen before the end comes. Many people today believe that is exactly the period we are in. We are still proclaiming the Gospel and until all have heard, Jesus will (to use the old term of art) will tarry before returning again.

At this point Jesus goes into full eschatological mode, predicting that “when you see the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place, as was spoken of by the prophet Daniel (let the reader understand),” (15) it’s time to flee to the mountains. Many people believe this event lies in the future. My own view is that Matthew is writing after the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem and that he is speaking retrospectively of Titus standing in the temple court commanding that it be destroyed as the Jews that remained fled to the mountains and to Masada.

Jesus’ main point is that as Christians we must expect suffering. A sincere faith is not easy and will be tested in a multitude of ways. “For at that time there will be great suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.” (21) The world will be overrun with false prophets who “will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.” (24). Again, I believe these are things that happened during the formation of the early church rather than a future event. Had Matthew not written of Jesus’ warnings it’s entirely possible the church may not have survived its early trials. This is not to say however, that the church does not continue to suffer as indeed we are witnessing that today in the chaos of Middle East.

 

Psalm 36; Exodus 20:22–21:27; Matthew 23:33–39

Originally published 3/14/2016. Revised and updated 3/14/2018

Psalm 36: While this psalm centers around the basic theme of righteousness in conflict with wickedness usually found in a psalm of supplication, it is much more a philosophical reflection on the mechanism of wrongdoing within the human heart. The psalmist postulates a dark corner of the human psyche that he calls ‘Crime,’ which is speaking to the conscience:
Crime’s utterance to the wicked
within his heart:
‘There is no fear of God before my eyes.’ (2)

This assertion makes it clear that the person who does not fear God [in both the senses of ‘fear,’ I think] will listen to—and be influenced by—this darkness that resides in all of us.

The next verse is scarily anthropomorphic as is describes the seductive power of evil as it mines the hatred present in the wicked man:
For it [crime] caressed him with its eyes
to find his sin of hatred. (3)

And having found that well of hatred, Crime drives the wicked man’s actions, beginning as always with speech while wickedness overcomes the motivation to do good in what was once a righteous man:
The words of his mouth are mischief, deceit
he ceased to grasp things, to do good. (4)

Our psalmist displays amazing psychological insight into humankind’s fallen nature. This model of hatred driving wickedness and that its potentiality exists within every human being is certainly on full display in our present culture where hatred is being so freely expressed on all sides. Once wickedness has overtaken righteousness all manner of conspiracy and wrongdoing ensues: Mischief he plots in his bed,
takes his stand on a way of no good,
evil he does not despise. (5)

While everyone searches for psychological insight into the motivations of the murderer who recently killed 17 students in Parkland, Florida, our psalmist has identified the root cause right here. Without a moral foundation evil overtakes the conscience and inevitably drives to action.

As the epitome of justice and kindness, only God stands in the wicked man’s way. God is and the only place where the righteous can find shelter from evil:
How dear is is Your kindness, O God,
and the sons of men in Your wings’ shadow shelter. (8)

Eschewing wickedness and being God’s man results in being invited to God’s sumptuous and  endless party—a stark contrast from the wicked man lying in his bed plotting evil deeds. Rather than evil the righteous feast on God’s justice and kindness:
They take their fill from the fare of Your house
and from Your stream of delights You give them drink. (9).

But most important of all, it is in God where we turn toward light and life and away from the dank, dark corner in which Crime lurks:
For with You in the fountain of life.
In Your light we shall see light. (10)

Only when we turn toward God, his light—and for us, the light of Jesus Christ—removes us from the darkness of sin. We cannot overcome ‘Crime’ in any other way.

Exodus 20:22–21:27: The driving narrative of Exodus comes to an abrupt halt as our authors turn to the detailed exegesis of the Ten Commandments. I certainly question whether God actually went into this level of detail concerning the Law, but this pause in the action gives our authors in Babylon ample opportunity to provide detailed instructions about pressing religious and social issues.

First and foremost among God’s law is the very clear command, “You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold.” (20:23), which law, of course, will be broken imminently. We find that God, at this point anyway, prefers natural materials as he instructs that altars must be made of a pile of rocks: “But if you make for me an altar of stone, do not build it of hewn stones; for if you use a chisel upon it you profane it.” (20:25)

The next topic concerns the rules concerning slave ownership. While it is personally difficult for me to think that a nation of former slaves are indeed themselves slave owners, I have to remember that my cultural context is wildly different from that of the Israelites.

One major instruction that was lost on subsequent cultures of slave owners, especially those in the Antebellum South, is that a slave “shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt.” (21:2). This statement also suggests that slavery was more like indentured servanthood; that a loan and consequent debt were often involved with slavery being the means of repayment.

There are also clear rules about the marital status and families of slaves: “If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him.” (21:3) Then we encounter the very real issue of a master giving a slave a wife, which means the master owns any issue of that “marriage.” (21:4)  As a clear indication that the Law was given by God for our own well-being, it recognizes that strong emotional bonds between slave and master could evolve, giving the slave the right to declare,“I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out a free person,” (21:5) At which point the slave’s earlobe is pierced with an awl, indicating permanent slave status.

But perhaps most disturbing aspect here is the apparent fact that fathers could sell their daughters. Perhaps in memory of what Joseph’s brothers did to him, at least the master “shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt unfairly with her.” (21:8) And in a stark reminder that women were chattel—the same status as livestock, a father could even designate a daughter to be his son’s slave although in that case the father “shall deal with her as with a daughter” (9) not a slave.

Following the laws about slavery, instructions about the nature and consequences of violent acts ensues.  Assault and battery, if it does not result in the victim’s death, seems to be quite acceptable as long as the victim “recovers and walks around outside with the help of a staff, then the assailant shall be free of liability, except to pay for the loss of time, and to arrange for full recovery.” (21:19)

And distressingly, for me anyway, the reality that slaves were property arises when the slaveowner strikes a slave. If the slave dies, the master will be punished, but “if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property.” (21)

Despite our discomfort, the Law provides the main rule of justice is the foundation of all these laws: That punishment must be commensurate with the deed: “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,” (23, 24) —a rule that extends down to our day, although as as our overstuffed prisons suggest, it is certainly not as well followed as well it could be.

Matthew 23:33–39: Jesus’ pronounces a final coda on the religious leaders by bluntly accusing them of being murderers guilty as charged all the way back to Abel and effectively cursing them: “so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.” (35) His final statement to them is about their inevitable doom: “Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation.” (36) Which of course happens when Titus invades Jerusalem in CE 70.

Matthew’s unstated point at the apotheosis of Jesus’ accusations is that if there was any doubt among the religious leaders that this Jesus must be eliminated, those doubts have now been eliminated. The wheels heading toward Good Friday have been firmly set in motion by Jesus himself.

With this thought of inevitable destruction on his mind, Jesus broadens his scope from religious leaders to Jerusalem itself in his famous lament: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” (37) He finally acknowledges that his words will go unheeded and the city itself will come to a tragic end: “See, your house is left to you, desolate.” (38)

At a theological level, Matthew is telling his Jewish audience, who are probably reading this sometime after the destruction of the city and temple by Titus, that God is no longer “in residence” in the Temple at Jerusalem. The Old Covenant has served its purpose and has been supplanted by the New: the Messiah, Jesus Christ. The Kingdom of God has no need for a physical temple because through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the Holy Spirit now dwells within each of us.

Psalm 35:19–28; Exodus 19:10–20:21; Matthew 23:23–32

Originally published 3/13/2016. Revised and updated 3/13/2018

Psalm 35:19–28: Still in desperate straits, our psalmist pleads to God that he did not provoke the actions and words of his enemies and that their evildoing ways are a threat to all people of good will, not just him personally:
Let not my unprovoked enemies rejoice over me
let my wanton foes not leer.
For they do not speak peace
and against the the earth’s quiet ones plot words of deceit. (19, 20)

As always, it is what comes out of their mouths that is their most offensive sin. How true this is today. Offensive speech has become our national currency. In order to make sure God gets his point, our psalmist quotes exactly what they are saying against him, accusing him of crimes he did not commit:
They open their mouths wide against me.
They say ‘Hurrah! Hurrah! Our eyes have seen it! (21)

Again, this is exactly the situation today as our so-called political discourse consists of accusations being hurled against all manner of elected and appointed officials—or anyone the mob may not approve of.

Not only has our psalmist witnessed these depredation sand evil speech, but he asserts that God himself has seen his enemies evil deeds and that these acts should prod God to act [or at least speak] against them:
You, Lord, have seen, do not be mute.
My master, do not keep far from me.
Rouse Yourself, wake for my cause,
my God and my Master, for my quarrel. (22, 23).

Our psalmist believes he’s on the side of the angels and his enemies clearly are not—and he is willing to stand up and be judged for the accuracy of his assertions:
Judge me by Your justice, Lord, my God,
and let them not rejoice over me. (24)

He goes on even more specifically about what he wants God to do to them:
Let them not say in their heart,
‘Hurrah for ourselves.’
let them be shamed and abased one and all,
who rejoice in my harm.
Let them don shame and disgrace,
who vaunted over me. (25, 26)

On the other hand, our poet knows he still has a few friends on his side and he asks,
May they sing glad and rejoice,
who desire justice for me.
And may the always say,
‘Great is the Lord
who desires His servant’s well-being. (27)

So, the eternal question is can we pray for harm to our enemies? I think the answer even here is clearly ‘no.’ But can we pray for them to “don shame and disgrace?” In some cases I really think we can because we are praying for them to experience the humiliating consequences of their wrongful and hurtful words and deeds. One of the greatest frustrations of life is to see others commit injustice and, yes, for them to persecute us and God seems to let them get away with it. Our poet is praying for justice and  therefore I think he is on firm theological ground with this prayer.

Exodus 19:10–20:21: It is time for the Israelites to experience God up close and personal—or at least reasonably up close. God instructs Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes.” (19:10) Consecration, that is preparing ourselves to encounter the holy, is a prerequisite to worship and hearing God. This action is also a precursor to the sacred act of Baptism.

There is also a hint of a Resurrection to come many years down the road when God announces that all must “prepare for the third day, because on the third day the Lord will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.” (19:11) As indeed, Jesus appeared on the third day.

All of Mount Sinai becomes holy ground as God declares it to be off limits on pain of death. In preparation for worship the people must not only be clean but men are told to abstain from sex, “do not go near a woman.” (19:15) On the third day God speaks to Moses, apparently in the sight of the people. Like all theophanies, this one is quite dramatic: thunder, lightning and a trumpet blast whose origin is unclear. God? Angels perhaps? “As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder.” (19:19) God once again warns Moses, “Go down and warn the people not to break through to the Lord to look; otherwise many of them will perish.” (21)

Inasmuch as Exodus was probably written during the Babylonian captivity, I believe our priestly authors are recounting this scene at the foot of Sinai as a clear precedent to the nature and rules of worship in the Temple, where the Holy of Holies was set off and only the appointed high priest—a descendant of Moses and Aaron—could enter but once a year.

With this elaborate set-up for worship on the mountain, God speaks to Moses. And we know what he said: the Ten Commandments, beginning with the most important one, reminding the people exactly who he was and what his bona fides were: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before  me.” (20:2, 3)

I think it’s crucial to note that at this point in Israel’s history these commandments were spoken, not written. But what a speech it was—all lightning and crashing thunder— because “When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance,” (20:18) And they told Moses they would listen to him, but could he please make God stop speaking so loudly and frightenly. Moses replies,“Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” (20:20)

There we have a basic condition of the Old Covenant: “Fear God and you will be motivated not to sin because otherwise you will die.” And the Ten Commandments list the specific ways in which you are not to sin. But as the history of Israel amply demonstrates, they (and we) are unable to follow the law simply because we fear God (in every sense of that word). Our self-centeredness and desire to control our own wants and needs are simply too strong for us to consistently obey God.

Matthew 23:23–32:Matthew builds to the climax of what Jesus came to earth to tell us.  And it is not easy to hear as he continues his long discourse about the shortcomings of the religious leaders. In what can only be described as a longstanding human trait, the never-ending focus on the tangible trivial while ignoring less tangible but far more important spiritual matters. Jesus excoriates them, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” (23) This is a verse that should be read prior to every Church Council meeting in the land.

Then, Jesus hits on what I think is the defining quality of all good hypocrites: focusing solely on our appearance rather than the dirty reality of our character: “inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth” (27)  Church is an especially attractive place for this practice: This is where we publicly display our exterior selves in attractive physical and spiritual clothing.  We want nothing more than to appear whole and “with it” to those around us, even though we are broken inside.

Jesus continues relentlessly, giving us the best metaphor of all about the nature of hypocrisy: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.” (27).

He challenges their assertion that they would not have killed the prophets as their ancestors had. But Jesus points out their bad logic by observing, “Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets.” (31) This is Jesus’ most powerful accusation.Not only do the scribes and Pharisees claim they would not have killed the prophets had they been present back then, but Jesus knows they are about to kill the Prophet in their midst right now.

We, too, are guilty when claim we are better than our ancestors when in fact we are about to commit the same crime is perhaps the worst hypocrisy of all.  This is on display everywhere as our society today believes it is more “enlightened” and more “tolerant” than our benighted forebears. We are just like the scribes and Pharisees: ready to pounce and annihilate anyone who dares point out our societal failings in a way that does not comport with the accepted (and dare I say it: politically correct) “wisdom” of our self-appointed leaders in Hollywood and Washington DC.

I’m sure that Matthew has included these Jesus speeches, (that spoken by anyone else we might call a tirade), in his gospel to make sure that his primarily Jewish audience understood that the leaders of the Old Covenant were corrupt. The old order of religion is self-contradictory and it is finished. Jesus represents a revolutionary and brand new order.  And, as we are soon to see, this revolutionary new order, what we call the New Covenant, turns on the hinge of history: the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.