Psalm 82:1–4; Deuteronomy 14:22–15:18; Luke 7:31–38

Originally published 7/6/2016. Revised and updated 7/6/2018

Psalm 82:1–4: This psalm focuses on the root causes of injustice in the world. It is strikingly different from other psalms in that it uses the device of God judging mythological small-g gods, who God is now calling to account. The scene is set in a mythical courtroom as God speaks as Judge from the bench, sentencing these lesser gods for their crimes:
God takes His stand in the divine assembly,
in the midst of the gods He renders judgement. 
(1)

It appears that it is the small-g gods have abandoned their duty of seeing justice carried out and are now the ones responsible for what has gone wrong in the world. It is they who have motivated the wicked to carry out their cruel deeds as the psalm shifts to God’s voice:
How long will you [the small-g gods] judge dishonestly,
and show favor to the wicked?” (2)

In the next verses God outlines the duties not only of the small-gods, but of those humans that have abandoned their duties to those less wealthy and powerful than they:
Do justice to the poor and the orphan.
Vindicate the lowly and the wretched.
 (3)

Once again, we encounter that relentless underlying theme of the OT: God’s insistence on bringing justice to those who cannot obtain it for themselves. God’s priority is always for the poor, widows and orphans among us.

God instructs these mythological creatures to get with the program and cause their human agents to act and follow God’s will:
Free the poor and the needy,
from the hand of the wicked save them
. (4)

Evangelicals may be uncomfortable with the idea of a biblical author suggesting the existence of many small-g gods, who God calls on to bring justice to the earth. But they are metaphors.  It’s worth noting that the rich and powerful too often set themselves up as small-g gods over others, especially the destitute and suffering. It is they who God is calling to account.

Deuteronomy 14:22–15:18: Our authors are now into full-bore law-giving although they continue to do so in Moses’ voice as if he were giving history’s longest sermon. Today, it is the touchy topic of finances. Giving a tithe of one’s wealth—almost always crops and livestock—back to God is not a matter of free will; it is mandatory. Here, it even deals with the problem of transporting the offering to the place of worship. If “the distance is so great that you are unable to transport it, …then you may turn it into money. With the money secure in hand, go to the place that the Lord your God will choose.” (14:24, 25)

But what’s really great here is that the tithe also becomes the occasion for a party: “spend the money for whatever you wish—oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your household rejoicing together.” (14:26). That’s certainly a better motivation to give happily than many of the dour and pointed stewardship sermons I’ve heard through the years!

Nevertheless, there are still rules. Every third year, the tithe is to be stored in the town center, so “the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.” (14:29) After God’s demand that the people worship him and no other small-g gods, the priority is to carry out God’s command to take care the poor, the widows and the orphan—and here, significantly, the resident alien. But the overall context of giving is clear: We are to give both dutifully and joyfully.

Chapter 15 deals with the remission of debts that is to occur every seventh year. Although its perfectly OK to exact debts from a foreigner, “you must remit your claim on whatever any member of your community owes you.” (15:3) This can be done because “There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy.” (15:4) In other words, there will be so much bounty that even after giving there still will be plenty left over.

But as always, this occurs “only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today.” (15:5) Moses expands on the duties to the poor and needy: “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community …do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor.” (7) Rather, “open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.” (8)

Here’s the command not only for Israel but for all of us who follow God: “Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake.” (10) But we must do it with a clean heart without an ulterior motive. Unfortunately, this verse has been ripped out of its context by those who hawk the prosperity gospel. They prefer that the poor and needy give to them so they can enjoy their ostentatious lifestyles.

The every-seven-years remission includes freeing any Hebrew slaves, And when they are freed, “you shall not send him out empty-handed. Provide liberally out of your flock, your threshing floor, and your wine press, thus giving to him some of the bounty with which the Lord your God has blessed you.” (15:14) It’s interesting that slave-holding in the antebellum South was frequently justified by the fact that slaves existed in biblical times. But they seem to have ignored the 7-year rule that frees slaves here in Deuteronomy. As for us, although we do not have slaves to free, the rule remains the same: we are to give to liberally to those in need.

Luke 7:31–38: Luke memorably records Jesus’ frustration not only with the Pharisees, but with everyone to whom he ministers. They keep missing his larger point, preferring to focus on the miracles he performs: “They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another,

‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
    we wailed, and you did not weep.’ (32)

In other words, most people have missed the real reason Jesus has come among them: to establish the Kingdom of God. Jesus is especially frustrated with their logical inconsistency and haughty theology. They accuse abstemious John the Baptist of being demon-possessed, while they accuse Jesus, who dines with social outcasts, as being “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (34) Of course we are being just as inconstant and yes, hypocritical, when we accuse others of bad theology or taking a point of view that does not completely align with ours. Worse, we behave like those people who accused John and Jesus of seeing only the negatives.

Interestingly, not every Pharisee has rejected Jesus’ message and actions. One even invites Jesus to dinner. [I wonder if it’s the same Nicodemus, who in John’s gospel, comes to Jesus in the night.] A certain “woman in the city, who was a sinner,” (37)—a prostitute we presume, comes to Jesus and “stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair.” (38) This poignant scene stands in stark contrast to the hypocrites that have frustrated Jesus just a few verses before this.

The lesson is clear by juxtaposition: it is better to come to Jesus in tears and weeping than in self-righteous theological judgement. There is no more efficient way to miss Jesus’ point about the Kingdom of God than to have Jesus play the flute for us and for us not to dance, focusing only on what we don’t like or what seems hard in following Jesus. This weeping woman is the only one (including the disciples) in this reading who truly understands what Jesus has so willingly and beautifully brought to all of us.

Psalm 81:12–17; Deuteronomy 13:1–14:21; Luke 7:18–30

Originally published 7/5/2016. Revised and updated 7/5/2018

Psalm 81:12–17: Still writing in God’s voice, our poet pens one of the saddest lines in the Psalms, and it resonates deeply today:
But My people did not heed My voice
and Israel wanted nothing of me
. (12)

Where once a belief in God was foundational in society, today people truly “want nothing” of God, having not only rejected what God wants to give us, but even rejecting the very idea that God even exists at all.

The “problem” of course is that God has given Israel—and us—free will and we are free to ignore him:
And I let them follow their heart’s willfulness,
they went by their own counsels.
 (13)

God has given us freedom: freedom to follow him or freedom to follow “our own counsels,” which, as a casual reading of history reveals, as it did for Israel itself, leads inevitably to bad outcomes. And is where we seem to be headed as a culture at this moment.

The tragic irony is that there is a clear and simple way out of the mess Israel created for itself:
If My people would but heed Me,
If Israel would go in My ways.
 (14)

As far as our poet is concerned, if the nation would simply follow God, he would reward them mightily:
…in a moment I would humble their enemies,
and against their foes I would turn My hand.
 (15)

Personally, now that we live under the terms of the New Covenant, I cannot accept this simple quid pro quo formulation, but under the Law, there’s no question that this is exactly what God, speaking through Moses, has been promising Israel throughout the book of Deuteronomy.

God would not only humble Israel’s enemies, but God’s enemies would meet their deserved reward as well:
Those who hate the Lord would cringe before Him,
and their time of doom would be everlasting.
 (16)

While on the other hand, Israel would be greatly rewarded:
And I would feed him [Israel] the finest wheat,
and from the rock I would sate him with honey.
” (17)

Notice that while Israel’s history is about water coming out of a rock, here even greater riches are promised in the symbol of honey emerging from a rock.  If only they would follow God. But alas, we know Israel’s history—and we are witnessing ours follow the same depressing path, knowing that rescue could be so close at hand.

Deuteronomy 13:1–14:21: Moses’ disquisition on the perils of following small-g gods continues as he warns against the temptations of false prophets, whose predictions of “omens or the portents declared by them take place, and they say, “Let us follow other gods” (whom you have not known) “and let us serve them,you must not heed the words of those prophets or those who divine by dreams.” (13:2, 3a) Interestingly, Moses frames these temptations as  “the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul.” (3b) In the theocracy that was Israel, false prophecy is treason and the punishment of any Israelite practicing it is death. We begin to understand why the great prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah and colleagues—were despised in their time even though they were trying to bring the people back to God, not to lead them to small-g gods.

Not only death, but this crime of tempting others to abandon God is so horrific that the people are to “Show them no pity or compassion and do not shield them. But you shall surely kill them” (8, 9a) by stoning. Which of course was Stephen’s fate for speaking of Jesus Christ. To the people of Israel, Jesus was simply another failed false prophet who was now dead and for Stephen to speak of Jesus being alive was anathema.

Moses in not just speaking academically here. It appears that he is dealing with a problem that has already surfaced before Israel even enters Canaan. Apparently there have already been “scoundrels from among you [i.e. Israelites, who] have gone out and led the inhabitants of the town astray, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods,”(13) If the investigation finds that this has indeed occurred, the crime is so abhorrent that not only is the false prophet to be killed, but “you shall put the inhabitants of that town to the sword, utterly destroying it and everything in it—even putting its livestock to the sword.” (15) What are we to make of this? In the context of Israel being ruled by God—a theocracy— it is eminently logical if harsh. But without this threat hanging over the people’s heads, God seems to know that they would succumb to the attractiveness of idols. As we know, even with these laws, many of the Jews did eventually did turn away from God.

Now that Moses has put, so to speak, the fear of God into the people, he turns to more mundane issues, such as what the Israelites can and cannot eat. This section forms the basis of what today we define as kosher. The basic rule about livestock is simple: “Any animal that divides the hoof and has the hoof cleft in two, and chews the cud, among the animals, you may eat.” (14:6) He then gives examples of cloven hoof animals but that don’t chew the cud that must be avoided, most notably the pig. Likewise, finned fish are OK, but shell fish are banned. A long list of forbidden birds follows and eating insects is also (thank goodness!) forbidden. Finally,  “You shall not eat anything that dies of itself,” (21a) although it can be given “to aliens residing in your towns for them to eat, or you may sell it to a foreigner.” (21b)

The list of clean and unclean makes real sense when examine it from a health and environmental perspective. The most famous example is of course the problem of undercooked pork (trichinosis), and it seems that God definitely has a heart for the great birds such as eagles and ospreys (and less appealingly, vultures and buzzards).

Luke 7:18–30: Jesus’ fame is now so widespread that the most renowned prophet in Judea, John the Baptist, sends a delegation north to Jesus. John has given his delegation instructions to ask, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” (20) Jesus summarizes his deeds to date: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” (22) Then, Luke makes it clear that Jesus does not intend to belittle John’s message or activities by offering him an olive branch, “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (23)

Is this the same John, who back in chapter 3 said, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Luke 3:16)? Why is he so unsure now about who Jesus is? However, when we read that baptism passage carefully we see that John never actually addresses Jesus face-to-face, nor does John say anything specific about Jesus being the fulfillment of his prophecy. Luke’s baptism passage is ambiguous. John may not have even seen the dove descend form heaven or heard God’s voice. In this context, the visit from John’s emissaries makes more sense.

Here in Luke 7, Jesus himself gives the highest possible encomium as he endorses John and his ministry: “What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” (26) And then, Jesus quotes the same passage from Isaiah that John had used to describe himself:
See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’ (27)

Then, in an indirect reference to his own birth, he asserts, “I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (28)

So, what’s Luke’s point here? My guess is that Luke’s community included a group of passionate John followers. Perhaps a conflict had arisen between them and those who rejected John as being relevant now that Jesus had come. So Luke walks the knife edge, asserting through the words of Jesus that John was the greatest prophet of the time, and indeed, “more than a prophet” because he has coming just ahead of the Messiah’s appearance on the scene. But in the end, there’s no confusion of hierarchy. John may have been the greatest prophet of all, but he was still only the messenger to someone greater than he. And even more surprisingly, Luke asserts that anyone in the Kingdom of God is greater than John. This may have been a rhetorical device to lesson the celebrity-worship of John within Luke’s own community.

Psalm 81:7–11; Deuteronomy 12; Luke 7:1–17

Originally published 7/4/2016. Revised and updated 7/4/2018

Psalm 81:7–11: As the psalmist recounts Israel’s history in this psalm of praise, he reminds us that it is God who has effected their rescue, not human effort. God “sallied forth against Egypt’s land.” At this point the poet shifts to writing in God’s voice, as if he were speaking to all Israel. God reminds them of the great deeds he has done, first as the release from slavery:
I delivered his [Israel’s] shoulder from the burden
his palms were loosed from the hod
. (7)

Appropriately, as we read this passage on July 4th, God has heard their cries and brought freedom to the people:
From the straits you called and I set you free.
I answered you from thunder’s hiding place.
 (8a) [What a great description of heaven: “thunder’s hiding place.”]

God also recounts how he tested the Israelites along the journey in the wilderness:
I tested you at the waters of Meribah. (8b)

And now, centuries later, God speaks again to a people who haven’t been listening:
Hear, O my people, that I may adjure you.
Israel, if You would but hear me
. (9)

This is a challenge not only to Israel but to us right here and now. God is speaking to us; are we listening? Can we hear God above the noise and tumult of this world, this too noisy culture in which we live?

God once again voices his great commandment—the same one Moses repeats again and again in Deuteronomy—once again:
There shall be among you no foreign god
and you shall not bow to an alien god. 
(10).

Which was exactly the problem in Israel as people intermarried, absorbed those alien cultures, and found the small-g gods to be more attractive than the mysterious monotheistic God of Israel. God’s words of course are a stark warning to us today, who are awash in small-g gods. Not just possessions, but the very fabric of our “tolerant” culture that abides no deviation from the mores that it sees as paramount—one of them being its rejection of God as the foundation of a moral culture— have become our own small-g gods.

And it’s too easy to simply turn away from God, just as the northern kingdom of Israel had done, having forgotten these powerful words:
I am the Lord your God
Who brings you up from the land of Egypt.
Open your mouth wide that I may fill it.
 (11)

Our forgetfulness too easily becomes our downfall even when God promises great things as he does here.

Deuteronomy 12: This chapter focuses on the key actions and rules to be undertaken once Israel enters Canaan. First, and above all, “You must demolish completely all the places where the nations whom you are about to dispossess served their gods, on the mountain heights, on the hills, and under every leafy tree.” (2)  This must be complete and utter destruction: “Break down their altars, smash their pillars, burn their sacred poles with fire, and hew down the idols of their gods, and thus blot out their name from their places.” (3)  As he speaks, Moses gives advice we all would do well to follow: “You shall not act as we are acting here today, all of us according to our own desires,’ (8) In other words, God’s commands always trump our wishes.

While the pagan Canaanites apparently set up idols and altars about every six feet all over the land, Moses is quite specific that God—appropriate to his monotheistic nature— will be worshipped in one place—and one place only. Moses warns, “Take care that you do not offer your burnt offerings at any place you happen to see.But only at the place that the Lord will choose in one of your tribes—there you shall offer your burnt offerings and there you shall do everything I command you.” (13, 14) As to where that is, it has not yet been revealed.

Moses now turns to the very practical problem of eating meat, reminding them, “whenever you desire you may slaughter and eat meat within any of your towns, according to the blessing that the Lord your God has given you; the unclean and the clean may eat of it, as they would of gazelle or deer.” (15) There’s the usual prohibition against eating or drinking blood, “Only be sure that you do not eat the blood; for the blood is the life.” (22)  As well, a reminder that eating that which is to be offered to God is prohibited, i.e., “the tithe of your grain, your wine, and your oil, the firstlings of your herds and your flocks, any of your votive gifts that you vow, your freewill offerings, or your donations, these you shall eat in the presence of theLord your God at the place that the Lord your God will choose.” (18) This is a reminder to us today that the gifts we give to God come right off the top—not from what’s left over after we’ve taken our fill.

The chapter concludes with yet another warning against idolatry: “take care that you are not snared into imitating them, after they have been destroyed before you: do not inquire concerning their gods, saying, “How did these nations worship their gods? I also want to do the same.” (30) The underlying theme here is that Israel must above all else maintain its distinctiveness—a “nation apart”—when it comes into Canaan. God is not a god of the melting pot; there is to be no cultural absorption. Even though most of cause of Israel’s ultimate downfall was its disobedience of this specific command, here we are some 3000 years later and Israel’s heirs continue to maintain their Jewish identity. Even now, they have not been completely absorbed into the cultural collective.

Luke 7:1–17: Never forgetting that he is writing to Gentile Christians, Luke relates the interaction between Jesus and the Roman centurion in great detail. The centurion at Capernaum has heard about Jesus and “he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave.” (3) The question hangs in the air: will Jesus the Jewish rabbi have anything to do with these Gentiles? The Jews around him tell Jesus that the Centurion is a friend to them: He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” (4,5) This statement provides a context and reminds us that not all relations between Jews and Gentiles were hostile. 

Thus persuaded, Jesus decides to go to the centurion’s house, but before he gets there, friends convey the soldier’s message, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof,” (6) saying that Jesus need “only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.” (7) Luke gives us a little discourse on hierarchy as the centurion is  “set above” others and he believes Jesus is the same: set above others. Jesus has never heard this from anyone before and “he was amazed at him,” and most significantly, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” (9)

Luke’s message to his Gentile community is crystalline: Jesus may not be physically in our presence, but through faith we can enjoy exactly the same benefits and relationship with Jesus as the centurion did. Jesus never actually comes to the centurion’s house and yet healing took place. The issue here that faith is as strong—perhaps stronger, as Jesus avers—than physical presence. This is the same point that the post-resurrection Jesus makes later when Thomas asks for proof of who he is.

If the centurion’s story is about faith, the story of the widow of Nain is about grace and mercy. Already a widow, a mother’s only son dies, which in that society will leave her destitute. Jesus shows up outside the town gates and sees the funeral procession. “ When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.'” (13). And without being asked for anything by anyone, Jesus comes to the bier and speaks authoritatively, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” (14) Which the man promptly does. Here’s proof that sometimes, through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus will intervene in our lives and heal us without even being asked, be it physically, emotionally, spiritually or relationally. This is pure grace in action. Nothing the widow did “earned” this healing.

This resuscitation has a significant impact on the people who witnessed it: “Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” (16) Luke is telling us that some Jews are recognizing Jesus for who he might be: the long-awaited prophet come to restore Israel to its former glory. But as we know, even greater things are in store and the scenario that unfolds is beyond any human’s imagination.

Psalm 81:1–6; Deuteronomy 11; Luke 6:39–49

Originally published 7/2/2016. Revised and updated 7/3/2018

Psalm 81:1–6: This psalm celebrates a festival with great musicality—including both orchestra and choir:
Sing gladly to God our strength,
  shout out to the God of Jacob.
Lift your voices in song and beat the drum,
   the lyre is sweet with the lute.” (2,3)

Rather oddly, it turns out that the occasion being celebrated is a festival about the moon:
Blast the ram’s horn on the new moon,
when the moon starts to wax, for our festival day.
 (4).

This party seems rather pagan compared to the other very specific festivals (Passover, tabernacles, etc.) described in such detail in the Torah. Nevertheless, at some post-Torah point in Israel’s history, it became an official holiday—fully decreed and approved by God himself:
For it is an ordinance in Israel,
a rule of the God of Jacob.
A decree He [God] declared it for Israel.
 (5, 6a)

Perhaps this holiday evolved from some other ordained festival. In any event, the psalm gives us no clue as to when in the calendar year it was celebrated. However, since there’s a new moon every 28 days, it seems unlikely it was a monthly holiday.

At least the festival is connected to Israel’s history, hearkening back to the time God saw the misery of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt:
…when He sallied forth against Egypt’s land—
a language I knew not I heard.
 (6b)

I presume our speaker is referring to the language spoken by the Egyptians , which of course would have been forgotten by anyone living in Israel centuries later.

Deuteronomy 11: Moses continues to reprise Israelite history from Egypt to the banks of the Jordan, this time in the context of “You shall love the Lord your God, therefore, and keep his charge, his decrees, his ordinances, and his commandments always.” (1) He is speaking to the generation that was born and became adults during the 40-year wilderness trek: “Remember today that it was not your children …, but it is you who must acknowledge his greatness, his mighty hand and his outstretched arm.” (2)

Moses’ rhetorical tack is that having been witnesses to all the great acts of God, keeping the commandment to love God is the key “that I am commanding you today, so that you may have strength to go in and occupy the land that you are crossing over to occupy,.” (8)

[All this is somewhat puzzling. Weren’t the people who actually participated in the Exodus all now dead? I assume these are the children of the Exodus, so how did they witness all these events Moses is recounting. Obviously, the authors of Deuteronomy are less bothered by a timeline than I am.]

Moses also provides a brief lesson in agriculture, comparing how they grew food in Egypt to the abundance that they are about to enjoy in Canaan: “For the land that you are about to enter to occupy is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sow your seed and irrigate by foot like a vegetable garden.  But the land that you are crossing over to occupy is a land of hills and valleys, watered by rain from the sky.” (11) Most important though, is that it is “a land that the Lord your God looks after.” (12)

There’s only one condition they must fulfill. Only if  they “heed his every commandment that I am commanding you today—loving the Lord your God, and serving him with all your heart and with all your soul—then he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil.” (14) This is the covenantal quid pro quo that predates the grace that Jesus has brought to us.

Moses reiterates that since these commandments must be obeyed without fail, the people would do well to “bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead.” (18) as well as teaching these precepts to their children and reflecting on them before going to sleep at night and before getting up in the morning. There is a clear command to parents that their children must be raised in the Jewish faith: “Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.” (19)

And for safe measure, “Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates,” (20) We may chuckle at the extent to which Moses went to get the people to remember, but all of these (well, maybe not writing on my forehead) are a key to a close relationship with God. It’s about more than just obeying commandments, it’s writing them on our heart and soul, which implies clearly that obedience comes because we want to be obedient.

Finally, Moses reminds them, “I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: ” (26) A blessing when the commandments are kept; a curse “if you do not obey the commandments of theLord your God, but turn from the way that I am commanding you today, to follow other gods that you have not known.” (28) Once again, the specificity about the main commandment—to avoid idol worship— gives me the sense this sermon is being written retrospectively long after Israel has succumbed to the very activity Moses warns against.

Luke 6:39–49: Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount continues as Jesus launches into several parables. While there is hierarchy—”A disciple is not above the teacher,” (40)—we disciples should still teach others. But we cannot teach others f we haven’t dealt with ourselves. Which brings Jesus to hypocrisy—famously explained in his famous aphorism, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (41) Only when we’ve removed the speck can we see clearly and only then can we be effective examples to others. So the question is, why are we such hypocrites? It’s certainly the primary manifestation of our fallen nature and our quest being always at the top of the social heap. As always, the root cause is pride.

Next, Jesus makes the simple observation that like trees, what we say—our fruit— is the product of the attitude of our heart: “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.” (45) I think this is exactly what Moses is getting at when he uses his rather disturbing metaphor of circumcising the foreskin of our heart—A circumcision which means we are a God-follower. Frankly, I prefer Jesus comparing the attitude of our hearts to fruit trees.

It all boils down to not only “being,” but also “doing.” Jesus asks rhetorically,  Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?” (46) It’s perhaps the most brutal truth of all: we can hear and speak all the “good things” we want. But speech without action is nothing more than empty rhetoric—”a house on the ground without a foundation.” (49a) Jesus asks us to do one simple thing—just as Moses asked Israel to do one simple thing. Let our deed correlate to your words. And we have to begin with ourselves, not judging other people for their failures.

Alas, in this era of social media and political spin we are so awash in empty words that it’s almost impossible to find actions that backs up those words. As a culture I think we are headed societally to the fate of the house build on sand: “When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.” (49b) But at the individual level, we can be good fruit. It’s a question of keeping our mouths shut and taking personal responsibility to remove the hypocritical logs out of our eyes before writing that snarky post on Facebook or tweeting something humorous but mean.

 

Psalm 80:13–20; Deuteronomy 9:7–10:22; Luke 6:27–38

Originally published 7/1/2016. Revised and updated 7/02/2018

Psalm 80:13–20: Following his review of Israel’s history using the metaphor of a growing vine, our psalmist accuses God,
Why did You break through its walls
so all passers-by could pluck it?
 (13)

Any vintner worth his salt would make sure that the vine he is growing remains protected from harm. Yet, as far as our psalmist is concerned, God has inexplicably allowed harm to come to the very vine he planted so many years ago. In a brilliant extension of the vine metaphor, Israel’s enemies are compared to a wild animal and marauding insects:
The boar form the forest has gnawed it,
and the swarm of the field fed upon it.
 (14)

We can hear the poet’s anguish as he pleads for God to remember his promise and return to Israel,
God of armies, pray, come back,
look down from the heavens and see,
and take note of this vine,
and the stock that Your right hand planted,
and the son You took to Yourself. 
 (15, 16)

Israel is more than it a metaphorical vine it is a metaphorical son adopted by God. The metaphors merge in the next line. Israel, the adopted son, has met the same fate as the destroyed vine:
…burnt in fire, chopped to bits,
from the blast of Your presence they perish.
 (17)

He pleads for God to restore Israel, relying fully on the adopted son metaphor:
May Your hand be over the man on Your right,
over the son of man You took to Yourself
. (18)

Of course for us Christians, we can read these verses as the son being Jesus, and the phrase, “son of man,” is certainly evocative. But I really think that’s reading too much in here.

Our poet promises that if God returns, the lost faithfulness of the people will return as well:
And we will not fall back from You.
Restore us to life and we shall call on Your name
. (19)

The psalm concludes with a repetition of verse 4:
Lord God of armies, bring us back.
Light up Your face, that we may be rescued
. (20)

But alas, as we know, the northern kingdom of Israel never came back. It was hopelessly intermarried with others and fated to become the despised Samaria of Jesus’ time. Sometimes even the most fervent, beautifully spoken and evocative prayers remain unanswered—or God’s answer is “No.”

Deuteronomy 9:7–10:22: This reading emphasizes how Moses continues to be Israel’s intercessor with God and how it was Moses alone who rescued them from God’s wrath again and again because of their constant sinfulness.  To drive his point home about the importance of obedience to God, Moses turns to a lengthy historical description of how Israel disobeyed God in the wilderness, reminding them, “at Horeb you provoked the Lord to wrath, and the Lord was so angry with you that he was ready to destroy you.” (9:8)

Moses casts himself in the role of protector of Israel against the wrath of God, reminding them that he was gone only 40 days and when he returned, “I saw that you had indeed sinned against the Lord your God, by casting for yourselves an image of a calf; you had been quick to turn from the way that the Lord had commanded you.” (16) Once again, he successfully intervened on their behalf, “I was afraid that the anger that the Lord bore against you was so fierce that he would destroy you. But the Lord listened to me that time also.” (19)

Moses’s catalog of Israel’s grievous sins continues, this time focusing on the incident of the spies sent to Canaan: “And when the Lord sent you from Kadesh-barnea, sayingGo up and occupy the land that I have given you,” you rebelled against the command of the Lord your God, neither trusting him nor obeying him.” (23) Moses’ anger at these stiff-necked people is palpable when he cries, “You have been rebellious against the Lord as long as he has known you.” (24) Once again, Moses intervened on their behalf, noting he “lay prostrate before the Lord when the Lord intended to destroy you” (25) for 40 days and nights.

Moses asserts that he persuaded God to relent because the Canaanites might scoff, “‘Because the Lord was not able to bring them into the land that he promised them, and because he hated them, he has brought them out to let them die in the wilderness.’” (28) This raises the intriguing question of whether God cared about what the Canaanites thought about him. I doubt it. But Moses’ argument worked.

Having destroyed the first set of tablets on which God had written the commandments, God tells Moses to make more tablets and the Ark in which they will be carried.   Moses relates how he journeyed back up the mountain and “ I stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights, as I had done the first time. And once again the Lord listened to me. The Lord was unwilling to destroy you.” (10:10)

Now 40 years later, Israel stands at the border of Canaan, ready to enter.  In this valedictory, Moses pleads with the people to obey the law, which is really quite simple: “O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God.” (12, 13)  He tells the people that God loves them and in a memorable metaphor, he begs them to “Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer.” (10:16)

These final words of Moses’ lengthy sermon are perhaps the finest summary we have about who God is and what he cares about, and how we must follow his example: “the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.” (10:17, 18)  As we see over and over in the OT the command to bring justice and compassion to the poor, the widows, the orphans is the commandment that is paramount just behind the command to worship and obey God.

Moses reminds them that God has now fulfilled his promise to Abraham: “Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in heaven.” (10:22)

Of course the the question is, will Israel take Moses’ words to heart? Will we?

Luke 6:27–38: In the context of today’s psalm and Moses’ long sermon, Jesus’ words in Luke’s rendition of the Sermon on the Mount are even more revolutionary, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (27, 28) Do not seek vengeance. Rather, do the total opposite: “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.” (29)  In fact, we should be willing to be lose all our worldly possessions, whether by giving them away or being robbed.

And then, perhaps Jesus most widely known moral assertion, although he is rarely credited by those who say it, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (31) Jesus makes it clear that all these things are easy to do when we love the person, “If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.” (33) But he’s asking us to do a hard thing, “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” (35a)  Jesus promises we’ll still be rewarded, but it will not be on the worldly terms we expect. Rather, it will be on the terms that operate in the Kingdom of God: “Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High.” (35a)

But then something even more revolutionary and contrary to everything the religious leaders of the time (and many today) believed and taught: God loves sinners: “he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” (35b) And our response must be the same as God’s: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (36) Wow. That is so difficult and ironically, perhaps most difficult to do with those with whom we are in a close relationship. There’s no question that as my Facebook newsfeed demonstrates so well, the world is short on mercy. Nevertheless, mercy must begin with us.

For Jesus, it’s all about reciprocity: Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.” (37, 38a) Even if people do not accept that Christ has saved them, they (we!) would do well to at least practice these virtues. It is only by this reciprocity that society can hang together, much less flourish. But alas, understanding and forgiveness seem to be in short supply in our morally disintegrating culture.

Psalm 80:9–12; Deuteronomy 8:1–9:6; Luke 6:12–26

Originally published 6/30/2016. Revised and updated 6/30/2018

Psalm 80:9–12: Our psalmist turns to an agricultural metaphor to review Israel’s escape from Egypt to Canaan as he addresses God:
You carried a vine out of Egypt,
You drove away nations and planted it
. (9)

As he extends the metaphor of Israel as a growing vine, we understand that it is God who facilitated their settling in Canaan. And as we read in Deuteronomy, it is God who allowed them prosper because at first, anyway, Israel obeyed God and kept his commandments:
You cleared space before it
and struck its roots down,
and it filled the land.
” (10)

We can see the poet’s nostalgic memories of a time long past in a place long distant as he writes,
The mountains were covered by its shade,
and by its branches the mighty cedars
. (11)

The vine of Israel grew and as vines do, Israel covered a broad kingdom from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River:
You sent forth its boughs to the sea
and to the River its shoots.
” (12)

This remarkable metaphor anticipates Jesus’ metaphor of the vine and branches in John 15. In that sense when Jesus says, “I am the vine and you are the branches,” he is telling us that in the context of the vine metaphor here in the psalm—that would be familiar to every jew, I suspect— it is Jesus who has become the new Israel—and it is in Jesus where we grow and prosper.

Deuteronomy 8:1–9:6: As his long second sermon continues, Moses elucidates a philosophical rationale for the 40 years in the wilderness: “your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments.” (8:2)

We encounter a verse that Jesus quoted word for word at the Sermon on the Mount as Moses reminds the people that God has done all these things “in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (8:3) And it is those words by which they—and we—grow and thrive as Moses tells them that “as a parent disciplines a child so the Lord your God disciplines you.” (8:5)

So, Israel’s response once again must be to keep God’s commandments and in doing so, they will reap enormous benefits in almost an echo of today’s psalm, “the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey.” (7,8)

But once again, Moses reminds them of the consequences of “failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today.” (11) The problem is pride. It is forgetting that what they are enjoying is a gift from God and coming to believe that prosperity is the result of their own skills and labor: “when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (13, 14) Instead, Israel—and we—must “remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth.” (18)

Which is exactly our problem today. We believe that what has been created around us, our possessions, our technologies are entirely our creation when in actuality is is God who has given us physical and mental resources to create a prosperous society. But also as we look around it’s easy to see that our prosperity and our freedom will all come to naught as we continue as a nation to become prideful in our individual achievements and the cult of individual rights continues to chip away at God’s moral bedrock.

To drive that point home, Moses reminds them (once again!) that it is God who is going to bring their victory over the Canaanites: “Know then today that the Lord your God is the one who crosses over before you as a devouring fire; he will defeat them and subdue them before you, so that you may dispossess and destroy them quickly, as the Lord has promised you.” (9:3) And when God does that, Moses warns, “do not say to yourself, “It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to occupy this land”; it is rather because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is dispossessing them before you.” (9:4) Right here is the moral justification for Israel’s invasion of Canaan: the people who are there are wicked who among other things, sacrifice their children to small-g gods.

But that victory will be God’s alone and again, Moses warns them not to allow pride to turn their heads because “the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to occupy because of your righteousness; for you are a stubborn people.” (9:6) The Israelite conquest of Canaan is God’s means of accomplishing his larger purpose. This casts a new light on God’s ultimate purpose: to wipe out an evil people and simultaneously “to fulfill the promise that the Lord made on oath to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” (9:5)

Is this rationale—that the annihilation of people is because they are evil in God’s sight—justified? That will remain one of the great unanswered questions of a God we will never fully comprehend.

Luke 6:12–26 : Luke, ever the detailed historian, provides us the complete roster of Jesus’ twelve Apostles. What’s worth noting is that Jesus’ choices came only after “he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God.” (12) This also tells us there is nothing random about Jesus’ choice; it is the result of long and probably agonized prayer. In his list, bringing up the rear, Luke tells us that “Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor” (16) was also a conscious choice, not an error on Jesus’ part. The question hangs in the air, did Jesus know at that early point that Judas would one day betray him? My guess is yes because Jesus knew what the end game would be.

Jesus’ fame continues to spread as he continues his preaching and healing ministry: “with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.” (17)

Luke, as doctor, goes farther than the other gospel writers in describing how Jesus healed people, He states that “power came out from him and healed all of them.” (19) Having just read that Jesus engaged in frequent and lengthy prayer, I don’t think it’s an unfair conclusion to think that it is praying to his father which is the ultimate source of this healing and preaching power.

We come to Luke’s compact version of the Beatitudes given at Sermon on the Mount. His focus is on Jesus as bringer of social justice and personal joy:

Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,

    for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.” (20, 21)

Those who suffer will one day find true everlasting joy: “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.” (22) However, Luke seems to be careful in pointing out that this joy may not actually come in our lifetime: “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.” (23) One suspects he is writing to a community beginning to experience persecution.

As in the OT scriptures, it is the poor and hungry and who are God’s—and now Jesus’—primary concern. And there is the promise that all who weep now will laugh later.

In a beautiful symmetry, Luke’s Jesus then gives what we could call the “anti-Beatitudes,”—the same three qualities of wealth, hunger and weeping but as a mirror image:
But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now,
    for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
    for you will mourn and weep.” (24, 25)

If we ever needed a clear message about what our Christian duties are, it is right here. But in addition, it is Jesus’ statement that in the Kingdom of God everything is turned upside down and inside out compared to the state of things here on earth.

Finally, if we think that by preaching and practicing Jesus’ message everybody will be overjoyed at our arrival, Jesus is telling his listeners—and us—to think again:  Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” (26) So, all the nonsense about the US being a “Christian country” or trying to bring Jesus into politics is, by Jesus’ own words, doomed to failure. If someone in power speaks well of us or our message, we know their words hide contempt. Evangelical leaders continuing to endorse Donal Trump would do well to reflect on this passage.

Psalm 80:1–7; Deuteronomy 7; Luke 6:1–11

Originally published 6/29/2016. Revised and updated 6/29/2018

Psalm 80:1–7: This supplication psalm comes from the northern kingdom of Israel. Alter suggests that it may have been written at the time Israel (i.e. the northern kingdom) was under threat by Assyria, which eventually conquered it. (All the tribes mentioned were in the northern kingdom.):
Shepherd of Israel, hearken,
He who drives Joseph like sheep,
enthroned on the cherubim, shine forth.
Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh
rouse Your might
and come to the rescue for us.
” (2, 3)

Our psalmist continues his pleading:
O God, bring us back,
and light up Your face that we might be rescued.
 (4)

This certainly underscores the idea that God has been absent from their lives for some time. As we know, the northern kingdom had long ago abandoned God in favor of small-g gods and idols. The psalmist wonders how long God will be angry at their apostasy:
Lord, God of armies,
how long will You smolder against Your people’s prayer?
 (5)

Nevertheless, our poet pretty much blames God for their woes:
You fed them bread of tears
and made them drink triple measure of tears.
You have put us in strife with our neighbors,
and our enemies mock us.
(6,7)

Really? God did all those things? Or did the people of Israel themselves have something to do with their present plight?. This psalm reflects a psychological truth that is true today. When we’re in trouble we tend not to examine how our own decisions and actions may have contributed to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Rather we blame others, or as the case here, blame God himself.

But as these verses demonstrate, that does not prevent us from praying to God for rescue:
God of armies, bring us back,
and light up Your face that we may be rescued
. (8) I

n the end, if we’re honest and realize that things are pretty hopeless, we really have no other choice than to finally turn to God. Even when we think God has abandoned us.

Deuteronomy 7: Moses now turns to the immediate task at hand: Conquering Canaan, specifically, “the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you.” (1)  And he gives the command that is so difficult for our modern ears to hear. “when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.” (3). He warns the people not to intermarry because that is the fastest way to “turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods.” (4)

Moses points out that “the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.” (6) This is the core of the Covenant. The people have not chosen God; God chose them. Accordingly, God will keep his side of the promise, but the people must keep theirs: “Therefore, observe diligently the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that I am commanding you today.” (11).

Obedience to God means “the Lord your God will maintain with you the covenant loyalty that he swore to your ancestors” (12) and God will bring them enormous blessings. God will “love you, bless you, and multiply you; he will bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your wine and your oil, the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock.” (13) But this blessing comes at a high price: “You shall devour all the peoples that the Lord your God is giving over to you, showing them no pity; you shall not serve their gods, for that would be a snare to you.” (16) It always comes back to worshipping the small-g gods that justifies their worshippers’ destruction.

It’s this simple quid pro quo that bothers me because it appears that God’s love—never mind his blessings—is conditional. It is also what convinces me that this book is being written retrospectively long after Moses; that the people have indeed disobeyed God and he has punished them with defeat and exile. The authors are writing almost nostalgically of what could have been had the people truly destroyed all the inhabitants of Canaan.

In any event, Moses turns to his final pep talk to encourage the Israelites to undertake the task ahead of them: “do not be afraid of them. Just remember what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt. ” (18) and then again, “Have no dread of them, for the Lord your God, who is present with you, is a great and awesome God.” (21) He tells them that God will participate in their efforts: “the Lord your God will give them over to you, and throw them into great panic, until they are destroyed.” (23) And the people must destroy everything—even the gold and silver that encrusts the heathen gods.

What do we make of this disturbing chapter? There’s a growing consensus among scholars that none of these events actually happened. Nevertheless, Scripture as written is still clear: God commanded utter destruction of entire peoples because they worshipped other gods. We can only realize that one of God’s qualities that makes him God is his inscrutability. We can also be thankful that through Jesus we encounter a God who loves us and has no wish to destroy us.

Luke 6:1–11: Luke continues to intertwine theology and healing. Jesus and his disciples are walking through a field on the Sabbath, and “his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them.”  (1) The ever-vigilant Pharisees see this and ask peevishly, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” (2) Jesus responds that David entered the house of God, took bread of the Presence and not only ate it but gave some to his companions. Before the Pharisees could answer, Jesus adds  the highly provocative statement, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.” (5) which I’m sure was heard by the Pharisees as bordering on, of not outright, blasphemy.

Luke continues this theme of Jesus being lord of the Sabbath by his healing a man with a “withered hand.” The scribes and Pharisees lying in wait, “watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him.” (7) Well aware of what they were thinking, Jesus asks the man to stand, turns to the leaders, and poses the question at the center of the debate, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” (9). Then, in one of those wonderful Lukan details, Jesus looks “around at all of them” (10) in what I can only take to be a stare that says, “stop me if you dare!” and he promptly heals the man.

The underlying theme here is that religiosity becomes rule-bound. In those rules the relationship with God becomes lost and above all, the love of God is papered over with man-made encrustations. We see this all around us in organized religion today: from the insistence on the inerrancy of scripture to the rules that keep women out of pulpits in churches. Yes, rules are needed for good order and goodness knows, the Torah is the ultimate rule book. But what Jesus shows us is that human needs and healing trump the rules. But it renders the rule makers deeply unhappy: “they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.” (11)

 

Psalm 79:9–13; Deuteronomy 5:22–6:25; Luke 5:27–39

Originally published 6/28/2016. Revised and updated 6/28/2018

Psalm 79:9–13: After describing the awful events and consequences of the Babylonian capture of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple, our psalmist turns to supplication. He reminds us that even in this darkest hour, faith remains and he knows that salvation comes only from God:
Help us, our rescuing God
For Your name’s glory
and save us and atone for our sins
for the sake of Your name.
 (9)

This theological approach to prayer is accompanied by practical logic. Judah should not be shamed because one logical reason is that it makes God look bad to surrounding nations with their own gods:
Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’
(10a)

In fact, our poet continues, not only should God appear, but God should take vengeance on those who conquered Israel. But it seems to be mostly for PR reasons that God should dramatically demonstrate his true power and not look weak compared to the small-g gods of the enemy:
Let it be known among the nations before our eyes—
the vengeance for Your servants’ spilled blood.
 (10b)

He begs God to listen and respond to their plight as captives of the Babylonians, as many face certain death:
Let the captive’s groan come before You,
by Your arm’s greatness unbind those marked for death
. (11)

The prayer for rescue is intertwined with the idea that God should display his true power in both deeds and especially words:
And give back to our neighbors sevenfold to their bosom
their insults that they heaped upon You, Master.
 (12)

The psalm ends with the plea that God remembers that these captives are his chosen people, who have not abandoned their faith and that despite everything they will always be faithful and worship God:
But we are Your people and the flock that You tend.
We acclaim You forever.
From generation to generation, we recount Your praise.
” (13)

Once again, we tend to recoil when we read a psalm that seeks vengeance on enemies, although it’s worth noting that it would be God’s, not man’s, vengeance. Should we pray for our enemies to be destroyed? No. Jesus is quite clear on that point. But we need to remember that the psalms expose the deepest emotions of hurt, shame, and anger as the psalmists write. It is by writing that emotions are articulated rather than bottled up. An articulated emotion is one that is confronted. And just as the emotion is expressed in these verses, the anger slowly dissipates as the psalmist comes to the end, realizing that it is his faith in God that is the most powerful force of all.

Deuteronomy 5:22–6:25: Moses recounts the incident at the foot of Sinai where all the people could hear God’s voice out of the clouds and darkness. But God’s voice created well-placed fear among the people: “For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any longer, we shall die.” (5:25) Instead they invite Moses to do the listening, as they beg their leader to “Go near, you yourself, and hear all that the Lord our God will say. Then tell us everything that theLord our God tells you, and we will listen and do it.” (27)

Moses observes that “The Lord heard your words when you spoke to me” (28a) and that God actually appreciates their worshipful response. We can almost hear wistfulness in God’s voice as he says, “If only they had such a mind as this, to fear me and to keep all my commandments always, so that it might go well with them and with their children forever!” (29) Of course, our authors writing hundreds of years later write this with no little irony. If only…

Moses returns to his discourse on the law, telling the people that “ the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe …so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear theLord your God all the days of your life.” (6:1,2) Something I’d not noticed before is the great promise of earthly success that will occur if the people but only obey: “observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.” (6:3) Perhaps this is meant more as encouragement than theology.

We arrive at the words that Jesus quoted when he was asked which was the greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (6:5) Interestingly, the part about loving one’s neighbor as oneself is not here.

Moses outlines how the law is the absolute centrality of every aspect their existence. His list—almost humorous in its extent— covers everything:  “Keep these words in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem  on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (6:7, 8, 9) In other words: the law is everywhere and everything. Use every mnemonic device possible. Do not forget!!.

Having stated this key aspect of the law, Moses goes on to remind the people of the high price of disobedience, especially in the matter of worshipping small-g gods: “The anger of the Lord your God would be kindled against you and he would destroy you from the face of the earth.” (15)

Intertwined with the law is Israel’s national story, which is to be passed down through the generations. Moses tells them that when their children ask about the law, the parents are to tell the entire story, beginning with “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.” (6:22) and ending with the moral admonition: “ If we diligently observe this entire commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, we will be in the right.” (6:25).

I really don’t think Moses (or his amanuenses) could have made it any clearer than he does here. The law is not a theological or administrative abstraction. It is the driving force behind every person’s action and attitude. It truly is the focal point of Israel’s existence as a nation, for it is upon the law that God’s promise of favoring Israel is built. Moses’s admonition comes down to us today in the reality that without laws civilization descends into chaos.

Luke 5:27–39: Luke has already told us that Jesus is now the most famous person in northern Israel, so it’s really no surprise that when Jesus asks Levi the tax collector  to “Follow me” that he does exactly that. Levi knows that following Jesus promises a far better life than being the hated tax collector. Wealth cannot compensate for the loneliness and rejection he surely experienced on a daily basis.

So, Levi gives a party, and ever the judgmental prudes, the Pharisees ask Jesus why, as a respected and now famous rabbi, he would deign to sit among all those societal losers. Jesus’ famous answer—I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”(32)—quiets the Pharisees. But those words are also the distilled essence of the Good News, something that would not be missed among Luke’s community, which I presume included tax collectors and other social misfits. And of course it’s a trenchant reminder to those of us leading comfortable lives that we too are sinners and like Jesus, it’s our duty to reach out to those that society rejects.

Never ones to pass up an opportunity to point out any apparent departure from accepted practice, the Pharisees ask Jesus why they’re partying rather than being well behaved like John’s disciples, who “frequently fast and pray, [while] your disciples eat and drink.” (33) Jesus’ unexpected answer is that he is going to be around only for a short time and that they should feast while the bridegroom is present. There’ll be plenty of time for fasting after Jesus leaves them. Although I’m sure that  all those hearing them did not grasp the full implication of Jesus’ words.

Perceiving this, Jesus takes a different tack and points out that he is completely new. Like patching on old garment or sewing new skin on old wineskins, the new theology that Jesus has brought to the Jews—and to all of us— cannot simply be attached to the old law. This of course is Paul’s theme in Galatians and Romans. Followers of Christ do not have to attach themselves first to the Jewish culture and law in order to follow—and feast with—Christ.

I know that most of the time I fail to appreciate just how new and yes, radical, Jesus’ message really was—and remains. Too bad that we too easily tend to treat Jesus so often as “old hat.”

Psalm 79:1–8; Deuteronomy 4:32–5:21; Luke 5:12–26

Originally published 6/27/2016. Revised and updated 6/27/2018

Psalm 79:1–8: This psalm is a searing cry of anguish at the destruction of Jerusalem and the massacre of its people in the Babylonian invasion and conquest in 586BC. First, destruction of the temple:
God, nations have come into Your estate,
they have defiled Your holy temple.
They have turned Jerusalem to ruins
. (1)

Then, widespread death accompanies the destruction in a striking image of becoming fodder for birds and animals:
They have given Your servants corpses
as food to the fowl of the heavens,
the flesh of Your faithful to the beasts of the earth
. (2).

The poet’s camera slowly pulls back from the temple mount to a wider angle, revealing the gruesome sight surrounding it:
They have spilled blood like water
all around Jerusalem,
and there is none to bury them.
 (3)

As a result only shame and despair remains. Judah has
become a disgrace to our neighbors,
scorn and contempt to all round us.
 (4)

The psalmist turns his head upward, shaking his fist toward heaven as he asks the question on the heart of every faithful person who has experienced great tragedy:
How long, O Lord, will You rage forever,
Your fury burn like fire?
  (5)

He asks quite logically that God should turn his attention to the ones who have caused all this:
Pour out Your wrath on the nations
that did not know You/ and on the kingdoms
that did not call on Your name.
 (6) A

fter all, they’re the ones who have brought death and destruction. They’re the ones who “have devoured Jacob/ and his habitation laid waste.” (7)

The psalmist cries that those alive now are the ones being punished unfairly for the crimes of their ancestors as he pleads,
Do not call to mind against us our forebear’s crimes. (8a)

But the anger and despair begin to melt as our poet moves from despair toward prayer. After all this death and anguish, a scintilla of faith remains:
Quickly, may Your mercies overtake us,
for we have sunk very low
.” (8b)

This psalm is proof that anger toward God at the unfairness of life is ancient. These verses also remind us that it is permissible to shake our fist at God, to be angry and despair at what has happened to us. Even though God did not necessarily cause these things to happen, God can take our anger.

But it’s also a reminder that as our anger expends itself, there is a solid foundation of faith in God and his love that lies underneath our despair. In tragedy there is really nothing or no one else to whom we can turn than to finally turn to God.

Deuteronomy 4:32–5:21: Moses reminds the people that what they have experienced these past forty years is unprecedented in human history: “has anything so great as this ever happened or has its like ever been heard of?” (4:32) Has any small-g god “ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by terrifying displays of power, as the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?” (34) Moreover, God has enabled them to drive “out before you nations greater and mightier than yourselves, to bring you in, giving you their land for a possession, as it is still today.” (38)

Moses is sermonizing that God has done all these incredible and wonderful things, and that the least they can do in response is to “acknowledge today and take to heart that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other [and to] keep his statutes and his commandments.” (39) After all, Moses concludes, these decrees are “for your own well-being and that of your descendants after you, so that you may long remain in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for all time.” (40)

At this point our authors insert what seems to be a non sequitur: the definition of three cities of refuge east of the Jordan. My theory is that somebody found a scrap of scroll on the floor of the scriptorium and that it was supposed to be in Numbers when the cities of refuge west of the Jordan were defined. But it was too late to alter that scroll, so it was pasted in here.

Next we encounter the device of Moses giving a second speech, which I’m sure the authors saw as investing greater authority in the laws and precepts they’re laying out than if they had just written them in the third person as in the other books of the Pentateuch.

This second speech opens with the version of the Decalogue that is most familiar to us—the one that tends to get inscribed in stone tablets and placed in front of courthouses in the Southern states of the US.

Unsurprisingly, the first three commandments have to do with human relationship with God and the fundamental rule that lies above all others: “you shall have no other gods before me.” (5:7) It’s almost as if God already knew this would be the sin that ultimately brings Israel and then Judah crashing down some centuries hence. To make sure they get the message, Moses reminds the people that “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me.” (9) But that he will show “steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (10)

It all seems so simple, doesn’t it? Keep the law and God will love you. Well, today’s psalm demonstrates the consequences of disobedience. The Old Covenant sure looks great in principle, but in practice it turns out to be another thing. Israel’s—and our—inherent turning toward worshipping idols and disobedience of God is the consequence of our own pride and ego.

Nevertheless, the seven last commandments that have to do with human-to-human relationships continue to form the basis of western civilization.

Luke 5:12–26: The healing of the leper includes a fascinating dialog we don’t see elsewhere. The leper says, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” (12), which to me means that he had absolute faith in Jesus’ ability to heal, but that Jesus could forego healing him if he so chose. Happily for the leper, Jesus responds, “I do choose. Be made clean.” (13) This raises the issue for me that healing is not necessarily guaranteed or automatic, but that God has a choice in the matter. What we have no insight into, however, is exactly what criteria, if any, does Jesus use to determine healing? What is necessary however, is that like the leper we must have faith that we can be healed.

Luke reminds us also, that Jesus was not in public ministry at all times, but that “he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.” (16) Jesus knew how to avoid burnout and that his number one priority was to remain connected to his Father.

Jesus is now more popular than ever in the countryside and his fame has spread even to Jerusalem. “Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting near by (they had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem).” (17). Mostly, they were there to witness Jesus healing, including the case at hand, the paralytic lowered down from the ceiling of structure where Jesus was preaching by four faithful friends.

Jesus speaks not to the paralytic, but to the friends and tells them, “your sins are forgiven you.” (20) The religious authorities are outraged at this apparent blasphemy. To which Jesus calmly responds, “Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’?” (23) He promptly heals the paralytic, who rolls up his bed and walks out, “glorifying God.“(25).

The crowd, including the Pharisees and teachers, is stunned into silence. There is no argumentation from the religious leaders; they are “filled with awe” and all they can say is, “We have seen strange things today.” (26)

The arguments with the Pharisees about blasphemy will come later, but there’s no question that from this point forward, Jesus will be seen as a dangerous vector by the religious establishment in Jerusalem. More dangerous than John the Baptist who preached, but did not heal. Jesus has truly done the more difficult and unexpected thing. That’s what makes him so dangerous then—and today.

 

Psalm 78:65–72; Deuteronomy 4:1–31; Luke 5:1–11

Originally published 6/25/2016. Revised and updated 6/26/2018

Psalm 78:65–72: After describing God’s various punishments of a rebellious Israel, our poet turns to the final section, which begins as if in a dream:
And the Master awoke as one sleeping,
like a warrior shaking off wine.
 (65)

I have to admit the image of being in a deep sleep like a drunken soldier is certainly original if running counter to one’s perception of omnipotent God. Newly awakened, God finally acts:
He beat back His foes,
everlasting disgrace He gave them
. (66)

So who are these foes? Israel’s traditional Canaanite enemies? The Philistines? The Amorites? No. It’s political rivals within Israel itself:
Yet He rejected the tent of Joseph,
and the tribe of Ephraim He did not choose.
 (67)

Our poet continues with no little smugness:
He chose the tribe of Judah,
Mount Zion He loves.
 (68)

Mount Zion is of course Jerusalem, which is where the temple is located:
He [God] built on the heights His sanctuary,
like the earth He had founded forever.
” (69)

The subtext here is that Jerusalem will always be the seat of power for Israel because it is God-ordained. There’s a great irony here: even absent its temple “on the heights,” Jerusalem remains the ever-controversial center of three world religions—and where the United States has recently moved its embassy, implicitly acknowledging the longevity of this verse. Our poet turns out to be less hyperbolic than we thought!

We finally arrive at the underlying theme of this psalm:
And He chose David His servant
and took him from the sheepfolds.
” (70)

This psalm turns out to be an endorsement and celebration of King David and of the Davidic dynasty that follows as being God-ordained. It must have been written after David has apparently overcome significant political infighting following the death of King Saul, who was himself a Benjaminite. In the end, it’s David and the tribe of Judah that has—and retains—political power over all Israel.

Our psalmist concludes with a paean to King David, noting that David has come from shepherding sheep to now shepherding people:
From nursing ewes He [God] brought him
to shepherd Jacob His people
and Israel His estate. (71)

In other words, David has been chosen by God himself. This gives him the authority to rule. This lengthy psalm ends with praise for David’s leadership:
And with his heart’s innocence he shepherded them,
with skilled hands he guided them.
 (72)

Personally, I buy the line about guiding with skilled hands. There’s no question David was Israel’s greatest leader after Moses. But an innocent heart? I think not. The story of Bathsheba suggests otherwise.

Deuteronomy 4:1–31: Moses’s great speech continues as he turns to giving his instructions to Israel: “So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you.” (1) He’s quite explicit that his words define the totality of the precepts by which Israel must live: “You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you.” (2) and notes in passing that if they stray they have seen God’s power fully on display in the matter of the Baals of Peor and they can expect a similar fate.

Moses moves into full didactic mode, telling them, “You must observe them [the law] diligently.(6) Keeping the law requires awareness and self-examination: “take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life.” (9a). And they have a deep responsibility to train their children and grandchildren in these rules as well: “make them known to your children and your children’s children.‘” (9b) For me, these two aspects—self-awareness and raising children in the same moral framework—are the foundation of western civilization. Without these qualities, chaos ensues. Something I’m afraid we see increasingly today.

Moses goes on to warn the people of the consequences of worshipping small-g gods such as wooden idols and even the sun and moon—practices that were certainly widespread then. He reminds them, “For the Lord your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God.” (24)

He is especially concerned about the great danger of time passing and the commandments slipping into disuse: “When you have had children and children’s children, and become complacent in the land, if you act corruptly by making an idol in the form of anything, thus doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, and provoking him to anger.” (25) The consequences will be dire: “you will soon utterly perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to occupy; you will not live long on it, but will be utterly destroyed.” (26) Moreover, “The Lord will scatter you among the peoples;.” (27) Again, I think the consequences of losing our moral framework are increasingly on full display today.

But amidst the warnings there is a beacon of hope: “ In your distress, when all these things have happened to you in time to come, you will return to the Lord your God and heed him.” (30) Because God is not only jealous and given to fiery anger, but he is also “the Lord your God is a merciful God, he will neither abandon you nor destroy you; he will not forget the covenant with your ancestors that he swore to them.” (31)

One has the feeling at this point that our authors are writing retrospectively. They have seen how Israel went astray and was scattered “among the peoples,” but in the end there is always hope.

This passage also sets out the incredibly important qualities of God for Israel, as well as for us: God is indeed jealous, but even more so, God is merciful. All the people of Israel needed to do was to repent and return to God. And that is all we need to do as well. Repentance brings us the experience of God’s inexhaustible mercy.

Luke 5:1–11: Up to this point, Jesus has been preaching, exorcizing, and healing on his own. Now it’s time to build his team. Only in Luke do we have the story of Jesus seeing two boats, getting into one—apparently Simon’s—and preaching (from a sitting position!) to the crowds on the shore from it. Inasmuch as Jesus was already famous, Simon certainly offered no objection to Jesus’ presence. What we know of Peter’s personality that is subsequently revealed we know he enjoyed basking in Jesus’ reflected charisma. When Jesus is finished preaching he suggests to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” (4) Simon responds that they’ve been fishing all night without success. Nevertheless, he agrees saying, “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” (5) Unsurprisingly, it’s the most successful fishing expedition ever. But Simon Peter’s response is somewhat unexpected. Hw doesn’t say, “Wow, that’s cool, Jesus.” Instead he recognizes his own shortcomings and “he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (8).  Jesus’ reply is of course one for the ages,“Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” (10) Jesus’ presence and offer is so compelling that Simon Peter, James and John, sons of Zebedee, “left everything and followed him.” (11)

As usual, Luke is operating at two levels. There’s the narrative itself, but then there’s the metaphor that there are millions of people “in the sea,” waiting to be caught. Just as with the fruitless night the fishermen had spent, human effort alone is insufficient to “catch” people.

That’s why I’m generally repelled by people who buttonhole others, asking if they’re saved and telling them they’ll go to hell if they don’t “accept Jesus as their personal savior.” That’s the same as fishing all night and catching nothing. It is only through the power of Jesus Christ as it’s communicated through the Holy Spirit that has the capability to capture another’s person’s heart. As Peter did, we realize we’re sinners, but then we turn and see Jesus beckoning us, telling us, as we hear so often, “don’t be afraid,” and we follow. Our hearts are captured just as Jesus captured the heart of his first three disciples.