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.

Psalm 35:11–18; Exodus 18:7–19:9; Matthew 23:13–22

Originally published 3/12/2016. Revised and updated 3/12/2018

Psalm 35:11–18: Our psalmist now deals with disloyalty, particularly the disloyalty of supposed friends who fail to reciprocate the good he did for them. As we saw in the earlier verses, David (or our psalmist) is beset by woes brought on by the evil acts of people he once trusted.David’s agonized prayer continues as he recounts his afflictions at the hands of his enemies.  Now, he appears to be on trial for some crime he didn’t commit.I’m struck by how the torture he feels arises from the words rather than the actions of his enemies:
Outrageous witnesses rose,
of things I knew not thy asked me. (11)

I don’t think there is a more hopeless feeling than to have been betrayed by the people you once trusted, and then to have them act against you:
They paid back [with] evil for good—
bereavement for my very self. (12)

This is even worse than mere betrayal as he then recounts how he was there for them in their own times of trial:
And I, when they were ill, my garment was sackcloth,
I afflicted myself with fasting. (13)

He was a mourner when a friend who was as close as his brother experienced loss:
As for a friend, for a brother,
I went about as though mourning a mother,
in gloom I was bent. (14)

Yet, his friendship and his kind acts have come only to naught as they now repay kindness with derision:
Yet when I limped, they rejoiced, and they gathered,
they gathered against me,
like strangers, and I did not know.
Their mouths gaped and they were not still. (15)

Can there be anything more hurtful than “with contemptuous mocking chatter/ they gnashed their teeth against me?” (16)  In the case of children, we call this bullying.  For grown men, it is an affliction we must generally bear in silence.

The abandonment and suffering created by his friend’s betrayal is palpable. In this utter desolation and loneliness, there remains but one hop. There is one who will never abandon him, who will never betray him as he turns in desperate appeal to God, who up to now has remained silent:
O Master, how long will You see it?
Bring back my life from their violence,
from the lions, my very being. (17)

But underneath David’s agony remains a firm foundation of faith in God.  Unlike so many of us, David does not blame God for his woes.  Instead, in what seems to be a quid pro quo if God comes to his rescue, he promises to make public proclamation of God’s benevolence,
I shall acclaim You in a great assembly,
in a vast crowd I shall praise you. (18).

But will God answer?

Exodus 18:7–19:9: Moses’ father-in-law arrives along with, we presume, Zipporah and his two sons. Moses recounts events to date and “Jethro rejoiced for all the good that the Lord had done to Israel, in delivering them from the Egyptians.” (18:9) Jethro makes a sacrifice “and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God.” (18:12)

The next day Jethro remains at his son-in-law’s side as Moses deals with both the administrative and judicial problems that inevitably arise from a mob of 600,000. If we needed a model of an Old Testament figure who had managerial experience and probably an MBA in administration, it is Jethro, who’s obviously been very successful over in Midian. He asks Moses, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, while all the people stand around you from morning until evening?” (1814). Moses replies that it’s his job, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make known to them the statutes and instructions of God.” (18:16). 

Jethro tells Moses he will wear himself out because “the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.” (18) Jethro is my idea of the perfect consultant, because rather than just pointing out the problem, he offers a solution. He advises that Moses should continue to be the intermediary to God, and continue as chief teacher, but that “You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain.” (18:21) He proposes an administrative hierarchy where these trustworthy men “bring every important case to you, but decide every minor case themselves.” (18:22)

Happily, Moses takes Jethro’s advice and there is now a management structure for the Israelites. Many woes and trials for Israel and Moses are yet to come, but Jethro’s advice was doubtless crucial to the Israelite’s survival as a cohesive people for the upcoming forty years. For me, this is a statement that God prefers good order to randomness. Not just in creation but in conducting human affairs—and certainly in the church. In short, the Moses-Jethro story tells us that delegation is key to community. Unfortunately, there are far too many one man shows in the church where the senior pastor tries to be like Moses, fails to delegate, and burns himself out.

Jethro’s consulting gig ends as “Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went off to his own country.” (18:27)

The Israelites arrive at the foot of Sinai and “Moses went up to God,” who always has a the covenantal message for Moses to tell the people: “If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” (19:5, 6) For the first time there is a more specific promise describing Israel as God’s chosen people: they are to become “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.”  The people respond to God’s message delivered by Moses quite positively, “answering as one, “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.” (19:8).  Things are looking up for Israel, just as they tend to do at mountaintop experiences.

The real test is yet to come. Something we need to remember when we’re all fired up for God and have promised enthusiastically to always do his will.

Matthew 23:13–22: Jesus, knowing what is coming, and I think to a certain extent, to make sure the conspiracy moves into action, continues his disquisition (harangue?) before the scribes and Pharisees, “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven.” (23:13)  If you’re a religious leader, those are fighting words!

But wait, there’s more.  Jesus tells them, even if these guys make a single convert by crossing the sea, “you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (23:15).  And then, frosting on the rhetorical cake: “Woe to you, blind guides.” (23:16).  Imagine the impact on us if Jesus has told us that our religiosity in raising our child had resulted only in creating a “child of hell.” And don’t forget, Jesus speaks these words not in private ut in front of the crowd for all to hear.  Even though Jesus has spoken the truth, the religious leaders are publicly humiliated and inwardly seething.  There’s little question now that they’ll hesitate to take Jesus out any way they can.

Jesus accuses the scribes and Pharisees of putting their trust in the practice of religion rather than trusting God: “And you say, ‘Whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gift that is on the altar is bound by the oath.'” (18) But Jesus points out, “whoever swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by the one who is seated upon it.” (22). But we do exactly the same thing as the Pharisees. We put our trust in the form of religion rather than in the reality of God. As we know too well, the institution inevitably does a fine job of disappointing us.

Psalm 35:1–10; Exodus 17:1–18:6; Matthew 22:41–23:12

Originally published 3/10/2016. Revised and updated 3/10/2018

Psalm 35:1–10: We know from its first line that this is a psalm of supplication. But unlike many where despair at God’s absence is the theme, this somewhat disturbing one, written in David’s voice, begins with an aggressive desire for harm to come to the poet’s enemies:
Take my part, Lord, against my contesters,
fight those who fight against me. (1)

The military imagery in the first four verses add urgency to the prayer that God not merely intervene in this situation, but that God would use his power alongside David to crush the enemy:
Steady the shield and the buckler,
and rise up to my help.
Unsheathe the spear to the haft
against my pursuers. (2, 3)

However, even a psalm this aggressive does not condone the death of David’s enemies, but only for them to experience the defeat of humiliation as he himself has been humiliated. This is where we get the sense that David is praying out of deepest possible frustration. This is indeed the prayer of an angry man:
Let them be shamed and disgraced,
who seek my life.
Let them retreat, be abased,
who plot harm against me. (4)

The lesson here is that no matter how much we despise our enemies or how much harm they have done to us, we should not pray for therideath. But like David we can certainly mutter angrily to God as a form of psychological release.

There is still more despairing anger to process. Having prayed for their abasement, the poet now employs metaphors that evoke how he would like to see his enemies disgraced:
Let them be like chaff before the wind.
may their way be darkness and slippery paths,
with the Lord’s messenger chasing them. (6)

In other words, David is calling on God to employ supernatural forces—angels—to help carry out his desire to see his enemies leave him alone. Again, there is more hyperbole here than actual intent for God to carry out precisely what he is asking for.  We then learn that David was trapped unawares and has committed no crime. His sense of the injustice done to him comes to a boiling point:
For unprovoked they set their net-trap for me,
unprovoked they dug a pit for my life. (7).

And in the spirit of an eye for an eye, he wishes his enemies to be ensnared in exactly the same way:
Let disaster come on him unwitting
and the net that that he set trap him. (8)

So in light of Jesus’ words about loving our enemies, can we pray the same prayer today? I would say yes, but only as a means to process our anger and hurt before God. Jesus has set the standard about loving our enemies and frankly, I don’t see the harm in an innocent person saying what he’s feeling to God in the privacy of prayer and wishing that those who have done us wrong without provocation become ensnared by their own conspiracy. Better we work out our anger before God than on those around us—or even on ourselves.

Exodus 17:1–18:6: Life is hard for the wandering Israelites and while they are amply supplied with manna, once again they are thirsty and we hear the same complaint again: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (17:3) We can feel Moses’s frustration when he asks God, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” (4) God instructs Moses to use his magic staff and strike a rock, which he does “in the sight of the elders of Israel.” (6)

Moses names the place “Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”  (7) Proving of course that there is nothing new about human nature. We feel exactly the same way during difficult passages in life, wondering if God is with us or not. And like Moses striking the rock and bringing forth water, we eventually receive confirmation that he is indeed with us. But always on God’s own schedule, which tests our patience just as Israel’s patience was tested. But indeed, God always answers one way or the other.

Not only are they stuck in the desert, but they encounter Amalek, who doubtless is after the wealth that the Israelites are carrying with them. Moses appoints Joshua as commander to fight, which he does. There’s a direct correlation between Moses’ famous arm and Joshua’s success: “Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed.” (11) In almost humorous scene, the exhausted Moses (what about Joshua?!?) Aaron and a guy named Hur stand on each side of Moses holding up his arms until “Joshua defeated Amalek and his people with the sword.” (13)

Amusing as the scene of two men holding up Moses’ arms all day is, it conveys an important lesson: we cannot accomplish great things on our own; but always in fellowship and community. When I was being treated for cancer, it was the caring people—the Aarons and Hurs— around me who held up my arms. I could never have done it on my own.

All of a sudden Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law appears on the scene. We learn that Moses had sent his wife, Zipporah, and his sons, Gershom and Eliezer, back to Midian. But now, Jethro had heard what happened, and he joins up with Moses and the gang in the wilderness, binging Zipporah and the kids out to join Moses. If Moses was 83 years old when all this was happening, Jethro must have been over 100. Yet here he is, ready to go. Proof that we’re never too old to be in community and that family ties are immensely strong.

Matthew 22:41–23:12: Now it’s Jesus’ turn to ask a trick question of the Pharisees: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” (22:42). They respond with what they learned in Pharisee Sabbath School: “The son of David,” But Jesus then quotes a line from Psalm 110, asking, “ If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” (45). The logical conundrum is too much for even these most skilled of theological lawyers to deal with: “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.” (22:46).

The dialog with the scribes and Pharisees ends on a bitter note as Jesus tell the crowd that they do a great job of preaching, but are far less great at practicing what they preach: “Therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” (23:3) Jesus goes on to  accuse them more specifically. They “tie up heavy burdens”—both real and metaphorical, I presume—”hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” (23:4).  This is an obvious reference to religious leader’s tendency to make people feel guilty but not to bring succor to those who suffer. Something still practiced in many churches today.

Moreover, they are publicity hounds, the celebrities of their time and place: “They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.” (23:6,7)

But then Jesus says something that I think he does on purpose to make sure the religious officials finally act against him. He strips them of their haughty titles: “Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.” (10) And then is what in retrospect is an obvious self-reference he says, “The greatest among you will be your servant.” (11) as he concludes with the immortal saying: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (12)

Jesus is indeed about to turn the world upside down in what will become the hinge point of western history. He is speaking for himself for he is about to endure the greatest possible humiliation—the cross— followed by the greatest possible exaltation—his resurrection.

Psalm 34:19–23; Exodus 15:22–16:36; Matthew 22:23–40

Originally published 3/9/2016. Revised and updated 3/9/2018

Psalm 34:19–23: No matter how desperate our situation, there is always hope—a hope that arises from God being close by. Few verses better express this hope in God’s succor and rescue:
Near is the Lord to the broken-hearted,
and the crushed in spirit he rescues. (19)

Our psalmist articulates one of the fundamental realities of life: it is hard and many times we will indeed be broken-hearted during our life’s journey. It may be loss of a loved one, divorce, a child who has become an addict. The list is truly endless. And we can be crushed in spirit by disease, a toxic relationship, even the discouragement of a failed project.

But as our psalmist observes,
Many the evils of the righteous man,
yet from all of them the Lord will save him. (20)

No matter our circumstances, there is always hope for those who trust God and that God is listening. God is near. He listens and he acts.

There is also a beautiful symmetry here as our psalmist observes about the fate of the unrighteous:
Evil will kill the wicked,
and the righteous man’s foes will bear guilt. (22)

This theme that evil becomes its own destruction runs through many psalms. There is no need for outside agencies to exact punishment; evil people will find and experience their own downfall. It just tends not to happen as quickly as we might prefer. But the “chickens eventually come home to roost.” We have witnessed this is full flower as powerful men like Harvey Weinstein have finally been brought down by their evil acts upon women.

The psalm ends with a beautiful summary of how God acts for those who fear him, those whom the psalmist calls ‘righteous:’
The Lord ransoms His servants’ lives,
they will bear no guilt, all who shelter in Him. (23)

And we know it was Jesus Christ who came and made this reality permanent for anyone who believes on him.

Exodus 15:22–16:36: Although they have been rescued from the Egyptians and have finally come to realize and then worship God as their rescuer, the journey through the desert is not an easy one. Three days in they arrive at the oasis of Marah, the people are thirsty, “they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter.” (15:23). The people cry to Moses and he in turn cries to God, who promptly shows him a piece of wood lying on the ground. He tosses the wood into the water and it becomes potable.

But it’s not going to be all hunky dory going forward. In what seems to be a narrative anomaly, God himself speaks, outlining the “statute and ordinance” that he has set up for the Israelites: “He said, “If you will listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God, and do what is right in his sight, and give heed to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians.” (15:26) In other words, ‘Obey me, and I will protect you.’

This is exactly the point today’s psalm makes: if we are righteous and trust God, he will rescue and protect you. I’m sure the people thought that this would be easy to do and God would indeed bless them for their righteousness. But good intentions are insufficient. Just as we often do. But as we know too well, life tends to be complicated and the unending conflict between our own will and God’s purpose for our life means this compact is much more difficult for us to carry out than it may first appear.

About 45 days into their journey, the Israelites arrive in the aptly named “wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai,” (16:1). The joy of the rescue from the Egyptians and the cool water of Elim has long faded. The Israelites are hungry and they are in a foul mood, and they raise their usual complaint: “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread.” (16:3)

One of the reasons I accept the historical authenticity of this story is that it relates again and again the reality of human nature, which has not changed in more than 3000 years. We’re satisfied for a while and we love God during that time. But when things get tough, we turn on God and complain bitterly. We are just like the Israelites.

Moses has Aaron announce, “‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’” (16:9) Quails arrive in the evening and fresh manna is like the morning dew.

What’s interesting here is that some gathered more and others gathered less, but “when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed.”  (16: 18) This is a picture of the ideal society, where everyone receives or gathers exactly what they need: no more, no less—and they are satisfied. But notice that it took God’s direct intervention to make this happen. Given the ongoing complaints, it is clear that even God cannot satisfy everyone all the time. Goodness knows humans are even less capable at creating a society where equality and satisfaction live in harmony. American history is scattered with supposed utopias that simply died out because human nature is never satisfied by its own actions—and relational peace is always elusive.

Matthew 22:23–40: This time the Sadducees come to Jesus with their own trick question: the seven brothers who die in succession as the next brother marries the widow. This continues seven times and they ask, “In the resurrection, then, whose wife of the seven will she be? For all of them had married her.” (28).

Jesus flat out tells them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God.” (29), as he points out that marriage happens only on earth and “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” (30) Moreover, Jesus asserts, “He is God not of the dead, but of the living.” (32)

This is basically all Jesus has to say about human relationships in heaven. It’s clear that it is the relationships on earth that matter more. Which is probably why Matthew places the next question immediately following.

The Pharisees scoffed at the Sadducees for asking such a dumb question and “one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him” (35) with a serious and important question: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” (36)

Jesus’ famous answer silences his critics. First, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (37). Notice that Jesus is very specific here. It’s not just the abstract “love God” that we so often hear, but that we love God with all three elements of our being: heart, soul, mind. This is the definition of complete love of God: it is not just the emotions of the heart nor the intellect of the mind, but true love of God is (as Sara Wolbrecht once preached) being “all in” for God with our entire physical, spiritual, and emotional being..

And if we are ‘all in’ for God then it is far easier to carry out the second—and in many ways more challenging and difficult—part of Jesus’ greatest commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ (39). Jesus is clearly telling us that without loving God, we can neither love ourselves nor our neighbor. And in our present culture of individual self-fulfillment being more important than our relationship with our neighbor—even our spouses!—there is more than ample evidence of just how poorly we actually carry out these commandments.

Even Evangelicals who loudly profess how they love God have abandoned the second half of Jesus’ commandment as they enthusiastically follow politicians who foment divisiveness, if not actual hatred of our neighbor.

Psalm 34:8–18; Exodus 14:19–15:21; Matthew 22:15–22

Originally published 3/8/2016. Revised and updated 3/8/2018

Psalm 34:8–18:
Taste and see that the Lord is good,
happy the man who shelters in him. (9)

We’ve read the line so often that its “sensory concreteness” (as Alter puts it) no longer startles us: But what does it mean to “taste the Lord?” It connotes the intimacy of a French kiss, yet the image of kissing God is both startling and for me, anyway, somewhat off-putting. We’ll just take it that the poet is trying to express how it feels to be in such a close relationship with God and to experience God’s innate goodness so personally.

Absent this close relationship and experiencing God’s beneficence, even the king of beasts, “Lions are wretched, and hunger.” (11a) but “those who fear Him know no want.” (10b).

At this point, the thrust of the psalm shifts from awed worship to almost didactic instruction and advice—all of it good—as our poet advises,
Come sons, listen to me,
the Lord’s fear I will teach you. (12).

First, if you wish to experience a good long life, he advises,
keep your tongue from evil
and your lips from speaking deceit. (14).

As always, the number one sin to avoid is speaking (and texting or posting in our modern age) evil of others. In these days of degraded political speech, one could be inclined to attend a political rally with this verse printed on a large poster that could be seen by the candidate speaking ill of his or her rivals.

Second, if we’re inclined to execute bad deeds we need to catch ourselves before we act:
Swerve [great verb!] from evil and do good,
seek peace and pursue it.(15)

This implies that we make conscious decisions—our free will—in deciding what course to take. That is, we are responsible for our actions—what seems to be an increasingly rare quality in these days of victimhood and blaming others or circumstances created by forces outside our control for our own bad decisions.

If follow these precepts, the poet assures us that God is nearby and is both seeing and hearing us:
The Lord’s eyes are on the righteous
and His ears to their outcry. (16)

The evildoer, on the other hand will meet his or her inevitable bad end, abandoned by God:
The Lord’s face is against evildoers,
to cut off from the earth their name. (17)

As we’ve observed many times in the Psalms, there is no worse fate than being forgotten by one’s descendants.

This section ends on the optimistic note missing from most psalms of supplication that God does indeed both listen and act:
Cry out and the Lord hears,
and from all their straits He saves them. (18)

Exodus 14:19–15:21:

At this dramatic moment when the Egyptian pursuers are about to catch up with their former slaves, “the angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them.” (19). In other words, God’s power inserts itself between the Egyptians and Israelites, protecting them. Which is a nice image for all of us when we feel beset by enemies pursuing us to know that God has our back.

Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided.” (21) The Israelites walk across on dry ground while the horses and chariots of the pursuing Egyptians  become clogged in the mud, to which our authors give God all the credit. This is also a good example where advanced technology (the Egyptians’ chariots) becomes a hinderance rather than a help.

Cecil B DeMille has made it impossible for me to read the passage of crossing the sea on dry land and most memorably, of Moses raising his arm and the waters crashing back in over the Egyptians without running his movie in my mind’s eye.  But in the words here, there’s a definite tinge of God’s creative power that we see in Genesis 1 and also in the Psalms: “He made the sea dry ground, and the waters were split apart.” (14:22)

Arriving at the other side of this sea (which I agree with scholars who assert this is not the Red Sea, but the much shallower Sea of Reeds in the same area), Moses again stretches out the famous staff—”and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth” (27)—and probably still struggling to get their chariot wheels out of the mud, the Egyptians drown.

Here, God is in the process of creating a nation, of transforming a complaining, ragtag crowd [recall “Was it for lack of graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness?” (14:13)] into a God-fearing nation that finally “gets it” about what God has been doing through Moses. This dramatic act of God—to whom the authors are repeatedly careful to give all the credit— has a profound impact on the Israelites as they look across and see the bodies of their enemies: “So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.” (14:31). At last! At least for the moment, anyway, Moses has their complete attention and more important, their complete loyalty.

As is so often the case, especially in the Psalms, the act that follows rescue is worship, and “Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord” (15:1). “This song” is what we know as the Song of Moses, and it is as beautiful and emotionally meaningful as any psalm as it praises God and recounts in verse what God has just done for them:
The Lord is my strength and my might,
       and he has become my salvation;
     this is my God, and I will praise him,
        my father’s God, and I will exalt him.” (15:2)

The same story we have just read in narrative is now retold in verse, ending on the glorious note: “The Lord will reign forever and ever.” (18)

The important reality here is that at long last, all Israel gives credit for its rescue to God. And just to make sure that we get the message, the authors again remind us, “When the horses of Pharaoh with his chariots and his chariot drivers went into the sea, the Lord brought back the waters of the sea upon them; but the Israelites walked through the sea on dry ground.” (15:19)

In a lovely coda to the song, we hear a short but beautiful precis’ from Miriam, Aaron’s sister (and therefore Moses’s sister, too) that sums up this famous story in just a few words:

Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” (21)

I presume this is the same Miriam who featured in Moses’s rescue as a baby so many years ago. In any event it is warmly satisfying that this story of war, blood and guts ends on a soft feminine note that gives God all the credit.

Matthew 22:15–22: The Pharisees accelerate their efforts to demonstrate to the crowds that Jesus is a fraud and therefore he can be taken and done away with. So they finally arrive at what I’m sure they thought was the perfect trap.

If they couldn’t get him on Jewish theology, then they would expose Jesus as a traitor to Rome. We can see the Cheshire cat smiles on their faces as the use false praise—“Teacher, we know that you are sincere…” (16) —the Pharisees smugly ask , “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (17)

Jesus has them figured out long before they even pose the question. He famously asks for a Roman coin, and asks the Pharisees whose head is on it. When they answer, “Caesar’s,” he responds with his famous dictum: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (21).

The Pharisees, for the moment, anyway, “When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.” (22)

The Bible is chockablock with warnings against the smooth words of those who would do evil, and we have no finer example than the Pharisee’s oily words we read here.  As Matthew makes clear,  Jesus, “aware of their malice,” is not fooled.  But how many people have been taken in by unctuous televangelists  pretending to speak for Jesus, but whose hearts have indeed already turned to deceit?

Also, what are we to do with Jesus famous aphorism? It’s been pulled and pushed to all kinds of dubious ends over the years. The problem seems to be that different people have different definitions of just who Caesar and God are. For me, though, it is the perfect definition of the boundary between this earth and the Kingdom of God. And I for one straddle that boundary in constant unresolved tension.

Psalm 34:1–7; Exodus 13:1–14:18; Matthew 22:1–14

Originally published 3/7/2016. Revised and updated 3/7/2018

Psalm 34:1–7: This psalm dedicated to David makes a clear connection to the story in I Samuel 21 of David acting the madman before the Philistine king (who, Alter informs us, was Achish, not Abimelech) in order to rescue his men from captivity: “For David, when he altered his good sense before Abimelech, who banished him, and he went away.” (1) [Proof, BTW, that the Bible is not error-free.]

The psalmist describes the immense relief that David must have felt when he and his men are able to escape the clutches of his captor:
Let me bless the Lord at all times
always His praise in my mouth. (2)

This is the opposite of a psalm of supplication, as the psalmist reminds us that God is worthy of praise no matter what the circumstances:
In the Lord do I glory.
Let the lowly hear and rejoice. (3).

Not only do others rejoice at David’s good news, but he invites all with him to join in joyful worship:
Extol the Lord with me,
let us exalt His name one and all. (4)

Once again we see that worship happens in community; it is not an individual act.

God’s generous rescue is the reason for rejoicing. There is no absent or non-listening God here. God not only heard but he acted:
I sought the Lord and He answered me,
and from all that I dreaded He saved me. (5).

David expands his praise as he remembers that God rescued not only him, but his companions as well, who now rejoice along with him:
They looked to Him and they beamed,
and their faces were no longer dark. (6)

This verse marvelously describes God’s transformative power when our prayers are answered—and that our only response can be joyful worship.

Our psalmist fairly bursts with assurance that “When the lowly [man] calls, God listens/ and from all straits rescues him.” (7). In fact, no matter how desperate our circumstances, we are surrounded by God’s ministering angels:
The Lord’s messenger encamps
round those who fear Him and sets them free. (8)

My prayer is for that kind of assurance in a listening God when it seems I have been abandoned—just as David surely felt abandoned by God when he was in captivity. This psalm reminds us that God is never far away and that he is indeed listening and protecting us—even when we think he’s nowhere to be found.

Exodus 13:1–14:18: Now that they have been rescued, God asks for all the firstborn to be dedicated to him: “Consecrate to me all the firstborn.” (2) Once again Moses reminds the people—and us—of the supreme importance of the feast of Passover. [One has the feeling these instruction keep getting repeated to make sure that the Jews reading this story in Babylon captivity truly get the message.] Here, we receive the famous instructions that “Unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days; no leavened bread shall be seen in your possession,” (13:7).

Once again highlighting the importance of ancestry, there is the instruction that Passover be handed down through successive generations: “You shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’” (13:8), which of course it has been to the present time. This generational aspect is amplified by the instructions to consecrate the firstborn male to God also as a remembrance of rescue: “When in the future your child asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall answer, ‘By strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery.” (13:14)

The authors then provide the rationale for why the Israelites did not simply walk straight back to Canaan. What God [and the writers] know is what Moses and the Israelites did not appreciate: Canaan had been taken over by other tribes during Israel’s 430 year absence, and as we will read in the book of Joshua, would be understandably reluctant to give it up easily: “God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, “If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.” (13:17).  Here is also where we learn of the pillars of cloud and fire that will serve as their GPS guide.

It has not taken long for the Egyptians to come to their senses and decide they want their slaves (and doubtless their gold and treasure) back. Now that the crisis has passed (so to speak), “the minds of Pharaoh and his officials were changed toward the people, and they said, “What have we done, letting Israel leave our service?”” (14:5) And they set off in hot pursuit. Once again, the authors are careful to note that “the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt and he pursued the Israelites, who were going out boldly.” (14:8)

The advancing Egyptians are visible to the Israelites and they (rather understandably, IMO) cry out in fear. But then, as is always the case, now convinced they are about to die in the wilderness at Pharaoh’s hand, they look for someone to blame. Moses is the obvious culprit and they express their dissatisfaction and fear in one of the most sarcastic verses in the Bible: “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?” (14:11)

Moses pleads for them not to be afraid, but to trust God—and to shut up: “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” (14:14)

Moses stands at the precipice both literally and figuratively as God instructs him to once again put his staff into action: “lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground.” (14:16)

We see so much human nature on display here. When things get tough, we cower in fear and look for someone to blame. All God wants us to do is to trust him. Alas, most of us (at least me, anyway) are pretty much like the Israelites: we’d rather tremble in fear on our own, feeling abandoned by God, rather than trusting in him.

Matthew 22:1–14: For Matthew, Jesus’ main occupation during that last week in Jerusalem is telling parables. This is the famous one where the invited guests demur attending the wedding feast, making all the usual excuses. The angry king retaliates and “sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.” (7). It’s probably obvious to at least the religious leaders that Jesus is once again referring to Israel, which is in the process not only of rejecting him, but shortly will be killing him.

Of course with the benefit of hindsight, Jesus’ parable comes literally true when Titus destroyed the temple and all of Jerusalem in AD70.

The wedding guests who do attend are obviously the Gentiles, “both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.” (10). But once invited to the wedding, the host issues a severe warning: we must wear the wedding garments. The one who failed to do this is “speechless” and is thrown out into the outer darkness: “Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” (22:13 Jesus is making it terribly clear that if one wishes to be in the Kingdom, one must do so under God’s terms and be obedient to its rules and realities.

To me, this is a clear sign that there is no such thing as “casual Christianity,” where we can pick and choose our doctrines and respond to Jesus’ call any way we like. We are in the Kingdom by invitation, but it is alway under Jesus’ terms. He makes this clear in John where he says ‘I am the way, the truth, the life.‘ (John 14:6) As much as we’d rather define our own Christianity—accepting the easy and rejecting the hard— it is not we who make up the rules. It is Jesus; only Jesus.

This is why I believe that religions such as the Mormons, who have added their own theology and sacred books, or prosperity Gospel preachers who have distorted Jesus’ words, are like the man without the wedding garment. What Jesus said still stands; we cannot add to it or take away from it—and do so at our own risk.