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.

 

Psalm 33:12–22; Exodus 12:21–51; Matthew 21:33–46

Originally published 3/5/2016. Revised and updated 3/6/2018

Psalm 33:12–22: This psalm’s third section celebrates the gratitude of Israel for being chosen as the people of God:
Happy the nation whose god is the LORD,
the people He chose as estate for Him. (12)

The point of view shifts to heaven as we read how God surveys all— every person and all human activity on earth:

From the heavens the Lord looked down,
and saw all human creatures.
From His firm throne He surveyed
all who dwell on the earth.” (13, 14)

But God is not just a national abstraction “out there.”  Israel—and we— rejoice because God knows each person as a distinct individual:
He fashions their heart one and all.
He understands all their doings. (15)

That’s an interesting concept: God fashioning our heart.  We are not only created, but our personalities are also shaped by God, and because God “understands all [our] doings” there’s a relationship between God and every person whether we acknowledge it or not.  Even those who reject the very idea of God’s existence are nevertheless understood by God.  How greatly we miss out on this deep and rich relationship when we behave that it is us who are at the center of the universe. God knows us more than we know ourselves. And what happens, what we accomplish is not solely our doing.

God not only observes our outward behavior, his omniscience penetrates our every thought and motivation.
He fashions their heart one and all.
He understands their doings. (15)

Moreover, what we think of as our wisdom and strength actually comes from God:
The king is not rescued through surfeit of might,
the warrior is not saved through surfeit of power. (16)

Should an outside agency come to our rescue it is not that agency that appears to rescue us; rather, it is God alone:
The horse is a lie for rescue,
and in his [the horse’s] surfeit of might he helps none escape.(17)

Our escape comes only through God. Men and governments may appear to be the source of well-being and rescue, but that is an illusion. It is God who provides all.
Look, the Lord’s eye is on those who fear Him,
on those who yearn for His kindness
to save their lives from death
and in famine to keep them alive.” (18, 19)

And what should be our response to God’s strength and benevolence?
We urgently wait for the LORD.
Our help and our shield is He.
For in Him our heart rejoices,
for in His holy name do we trust. (20, 21)

There you have it: we wait; we rejoice (and worship); we trust.  Notice the “urgently.”   We must understand that without God our lives are in deep trouble.  God’s faithfulness is never in question, but our relationship with God is never casual or relaxed.  As the last verse notes, “we have yearned for You,”  And we yearn urgently.

In short, faith in God is the source of life. These verses have been directly fulfilled for us in the person of Jesus Christ, who is indeed our source of life and sustenance in times of trouble.

Exodus 12:21–51: Moses gets the word out regarding the rather specific instruction of how to survive this tenth plague. Particularly crucial is that everyone must (to use the current term of art) shelter in place: “None of you shall go outside the door of your house until morning.” (12:22) Moses also emphasizes how this will become a “a perpetual ordinance for you and your children.” (12:24) [I doubt he actually said these word. Instead, I think they are a clever editorial insertion into the story by the editors writing centuries later. ] Once again we see the emphasis on the importance of progeny and successive generations: “And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this observance?’  you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord,” (26, 27) The generation enduring the actual Passover will be remembered down through the ages, as indeed it is to our own time.

What is remarkable is that there is no doubt about what God will do among the Israelites” “The Israelites went and did just as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron.” (28) They have certainly come to realize it is their God who is the force behind the preceding nine plagues and how they have been spared what the Egyptians have endured on behalf of their stubborn Pharaoh.

What is the Passover for the Hebrews is a plague of agony and death for the Egyptians and no family is spared: “At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon” (29) We get a hint that the Egyptians feared that even worse was to come:  “The Egyptians urged the people to hasten their departure from the land, for they said, “We shall all be dead.” (33) It was clear they believed that the Israelites were the source of their woes—and of course they were right.

Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron and gives permission for the Israelites to depart and then he says something completely unexpected (for me, anyway): “And bring a blessing on me too!” (32) Has Pharaoh become a God believer now that he has witnessed God’s power? Or is it more a temporary emotional reaction to the trauma he has just endured? 

So, with the gold and all the other possessions, which the authors tell us “they plundered [from] the Egyptians” (36), 600,000 Israelites “and livestock in great numbers, both flocks and herds” (38) set out for Succoth, having lived in Egypt for 430 years. Which when one thinks about it, is a very long time. If the Israelites had departed this year, 2016, Jacob and his clan would have arrived in 1586.

from 2014: Our narrator recaps the numbers.  600,000 men (12:37), which would have meant about 2 million people, which seems like an awfully big number.  And they are leaving Egypt after being there 430 years.  When you consider that the US is only about 240 years old, one gets an appreciation of not only how long they were in Egypt, but that God’s timing (thousand years as a day, etc.) is definitely not our timing.

But perhaps the most striking thing about this story is that the Israelites obeyed God’s instruction to the letter: “All the Israelites did just as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron.” (50) I’m pretty sure that had I been an Israelite I would have seen the whole Passover thing as quite strange if not ludicrous. But on the other hand, I had not witnessed the mighty acts of God which preceded that final night.

Matthew 21:33–46: Sitting in the temple courtyard, Jesus is in full parable-telling mode. This one is about the tenants who tend the vineyard while the owner is absent. The owner sends slaves to check things out, which the tenants, feeling that the owner will never find out, promptly beat, stone and kill three slaves in succession. Finally, the master sends his own son, who the tenants also kill. Jesus asks the question: “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” (40) The answer is altogether obvious.

The vineyard is God’s kingdom, the slaves are the prophets; the son is the Messiah, The wicked tenants are Israel, which is about to dramatically reject the Son of God. As Jesus observes by quoting Psalm 118, that rejection will spell Israel’s doom, as the Messiah becomes the salvation of the Gentiles—the “other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” (41)

While this parable may have been lost on the crowd, it was not lost on the chief priests and Pharisees, who would like to arrest Jesus right then and there, “but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.” (46)

In light of what happened in Israel in AD70, it’s impossible to hear Jesus’ warning, “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls,” (44) without thinking of the destruction of Jerusalem and the ultimate decimation of Israel.

And it’s equally worth reflecting on the fate of those who consciously reject the Cornerstone even today.

 

 

Psalm 33:6–11; Exodus 11:1–12:20; Matthew 21:23–32

Originally published 3/4/2016. Revised and updated 3/5/2018

Psalm 33:6–11: Our psalmist recounts the Genesis creation story in flowing verse:
By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
and by the breath of His mouth all their array.
He gathers like a mound the sea’s waters.
puts in treasure houses the deeps.” (6,7)

I’m particularly drawn to the idea of great wealth “in the deeps” being stored in “treasure houses” because it suggests that the material of creation is of great value. Which of course it is. Humankind has been drawing on these treasure houses for millennia, but now we are drawing on those reserves at an increasing pace.

While God’s mercy and love is inexhaustible, the contents of these treasure houses are not.One imagines that the psalmist had no idea that humans would one day exploit those “treasure houses” in the sea with offshore drilling rigs and their concomitant risks. Will our exploitation of our earth continue unabated or will we realize that what God has given us in his glorious creation is finite and we desecrate  those treasure housesit to the point of self-destruction?

The verse that follows speaks of a condition that seems particularly elusive today:
All the earth fears the Lord,
all the world’s dwellers dread him. (8)

The western world seems overcome by either indifference to God or outright rejection of his existence. On the other side are the religious fanatics that destroy creation and their neighbors in a wrongheaded conception of what “fearing God” means. We humans seem capable of almost infinite misunderstanding as we attempt to recreate God in our own image.

But we need to remember that in the end, it is God who is the ultimate Creator, bringing the universe and all that is in it into being ex nihilo:
He did speak and it came to be,
He commanded, and it stood, (9)

The psalmist reminds us that despite everything humans do and despite our attempts to ignore, reject or even forget him, God will have the final word. In the end, God will triumph over all our human endeavors:
The Lord thwarted the counsel of nations,
overturned the devisings of peoples. (10)

All our efforts to see ourselves as small-g gods will come to naught.

At the end of history it is only “The Lord’s counsel [that] will stand forever.” (11a) Humankind will finally look back at its works and see them for the empty idols they are. Only God’s work in creation and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts will matter: “His heart’s devisings [are] for all generations.” (11b) The question becomes, why do we refuse to accept the superiority of God’s devisings over our own? Alas, we know the answer: our human pride.

Exodus 11:1–12:20: God comes to Moses and tells him to prepare the people for one final plague. God promises that Pharaoh “will let you go from here; indeed, when he lets you go, he will drive you away.” (11:1). One suspects that even Moses was pretty doubtful at this point. After all, even God couldn’t get Pharaoh to change his mind ten previous times.

This time, though, God adds an instruction that at the time probably seemed puzzling, but will have great value later on: Moses is to “Tell the people that every man is to ask his neighbor and every woman is to ask her neighbor for objects of silver and gold.” (11:2) This will be feasible because the “Lord gave the people [Israelites] favor in the sight of the Egyptians.” (11:3) Nevertheless, I suspect there was a lot of skepticism on the part of the Israelites at this point.

Moses then describes God’s plan to kill every firstborn in Egypt but that there will be a crucial distinction as the angel of death passes over Egypt. A loud cry will arise in Egypt but “not a dog shall growl at any of the Israelites—not at people, not at animals—so that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.” (11:7)

Needless to say, Pharaoh won’t buy any of this—and God knows it: “The Lord said to Moses, “Pharaoh will not listen to you, in order that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt.” (11:9)

Something I had not noticed before is that the passover event is so central to the history of Israel that the calendar for Israel is set from this point forward: “This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.” (12:2) This calendar continues today in 2018 as the Jewish Calendar and we now are in year 5778.

The instructions for what will become the Passover are detailed and complex. In anticipation of the instruction to depart quickly, it becomes “dinner on the run,” with “your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly.” (12:11)

I think a crucial aspect of the Passover is that it requires participation by every household and careful preparation. The first nine plagues were basically a battle between competing gods: the gods and magicians of Egypt and the God of Israel. Now with this event, Israel’s God will make it eternally clear which God is greater: “I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord.” (12:12) Which of course he does.

One of the clues that suggests this story was written much later in Israel’s history is the detailed instructions about how Passover “shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.” (12:14). Given the urgency surrounding the actual passover, one suspects Moses would not have paused the story to explain how Passover was to become a central festival of Jewish life. with all the detailed instructions about leavened and unleavened bread.

But at this point the doorposts and lintels are smudged with blood, the lamb stew is ready to be eaten and with the Israelites, we wait in anticipation for God’s most fearsome plague.

Matthew 21:23–32: Having had no figs for breakfast, Jesus returns to the temple where things seem to have calmed down a bit. The chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and asked, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (23). As usual Jesus declines to answer the question, telling the priests they must answer his question first:  “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” (25)

This is a brilliant yet unanswerable question because “from heaven” indicts the religious leaders for not believing John. At the same time, the “human origin” answer will inflame the crowd “for all regard John as a prophet.” (26) Of course, standing right in front of the religious leaders is the one person in history who really could answer the question. Jesus is “both heaven and human,” as Jesus is from heaven but comes from a human mother. Here is where we see the roots of the doctrine that Jesus is simultaneously 100% God and 100% human.

Jesus then tells the parable of the two sons asked by their father to work in the vineyard. The first refuses to go but then changes his mind and goes anyway. The other tells his father that he will go but then fails to do so.  Jesus asks the crowd “Which of the two did the will of his father?” (31) The crowd correctly answers that the one who refused but then changed his mind was the obedient one.

His message is clear here: the sinners who have rejected God initially but then repent are the ones who enter the kingdom. The religious hypocrites may profess to love God, but in reality they follow their own hearts rather than God and therefore are in effect refusing to enter the kingdom.

At a higher level of abstraction this parable is also about the Jews who professed to worship God but rejected Jesus as over against the Gentiles who had no idea who God was, but came to accept Jesus enthusiastically—whence the roots and growth of the Christian church.

Psalm 33:1–5; Exodus 10; Matthew 21:12–22

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

Psalm 33:1–5: The sheer exuberance of these five verses is palpable as the psalmist directs this choir  to “Sing gladly, O righteous, to the Lord.” (1a) The choir can do so because it is comprised of righteous people: “for the upright, praise is befitting.” (1b). So, too, for the members of the orchestra:
Acclaim the Lord with the lyre,
with the ten-stringed instrument hymn to him. (2)

This kind of joyous worship occurs only when we are right before God.

And being right before God we, “Sing Him a new song,/ play deftly with joyous shout.” (3) This reminds those of us who dislike changes in liturgy (i.e., me) that God welcomes new songs and yes, even the occasional shout—and I suppose hand-raising as well. This is definitely something for me to remember when I am being a curmudgeon about the empty theology of many praise songs.

The roots of this joyful worship are of course a natural response to our deep awareness of what God has done for us. Our response is grounded in the fact that we are his creatures and we know that “…the word of of the Lord is upright/ and all His doings in good faith.” (4) For us Christians, we know that the word of God is the Word of God: Jesus Christ, who has saved us and brings us to the joy of worship.

Our psalmist reminds us that God does indeed “love the right and the just.” (5) And it is only through the saving grace of Jesus Christ that we become so. Finally, “The Lord’s kindness fills the earth,” (5b) which again means that God’s greatest act of kindness, Jesus, has come for each one of us. Secure in his grace, and having confessed our sins and been forgiven, we worship with singing, and yes, even enthusiastic shouting.

Exodus 10: As we head into the eighth and ninth plagues, I begin to wonder why God takes credit for having hardened Pharaoh’s heart each time it looks like he’ll finally give into Moses’ demands. The answer is right here at the end of 10:1: “in order that I may show these signs of mine among them, and that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I have made fools of the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them—so that you may know that I am the Lord.” (1b, 2)

I confess to being somewhat disturbed that it seems like God is toying with people’s lives and creating great suffering just to make a point so Moses’ children and grandchildren can remember what fools the Egyptians were. It’s almost as if God is displaying some sort of adolescent pleasure just because he is God and can do so.

Moses comes before Pharaoh and promises to unleash the locusts on the land if Pharaoh does not relent.  Pharaoh’s advisors implore the king that his stubbornness has brought great damage and suffering, even to the point of disrespect: “Let the people go, so that they may worship the Lord their God; do you not yet understand that Egypt is ruined?” (7) [Pharaoh remimds me of the intransigence of the current occupant of the White House.]

Pharaoh asks who Moses wants to accompany him to go worship God. Notice he is not yet talking about an actual permanent exodus.  Moses replies every Israelite, young and old, male and female, should go. But Pharaoh restricts his permission to just the men, suspecting something is afoot and that if he lets them all go he is losing Egypt’s labor force: “The Lord indeed will be with you, if ever I let your little ones go with you! Plainly, you have some evil purpose in mind.” (10)

Moses stretches out his staff and the locusts arrive on cue. Pharaoh looks around the decimated land and realizes he has sinned against God. For the first time he admits, I have sinned against the Lord your God, and against you.” (16) And for the first time asks forgiveness: “Do forgive my sin just this once, and pray to the Lord your God that at the least he remove this deadly thing from me.” (17).

But these are empty words. it’s all play-acting and once again, “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go.” (20) I believe God keeps taking credit for Pharaoh’s refusal to make it clear that God remains in control of every event, every word. The plagues are clearly God’s work. Moses is simply God’s factotum.

The ninth plague is overwhelming darkness and once again, Pharaoh seems to relent, allowing all the people to go, but not the Israelites’ livestock. Moses demurs, insisting the livestock is essential for the sacrifices.

Pharaoh is now beyond mere anger and  we can easily visualize his reddened face as he screams, “Get away from me! Take care that you do not see my face again, for on the day you see my face you shall die.” (29). It has taken nine plagues to finally get him to the breaking point.

Moses agrees: “Just as you say! I will never see your face again.” (29). Something even darker than darkness awaits the Egyptians. And it will not require Moses to appear before Pharaoh to make his case.

Matthew 21:12–22: Jesus, now quite well known by the inhabitants of Jerusalem, arrives at the temple and famously “overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.” (12) He performs healings at the temple itself and the crowd grows even more enamored of him. But “when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry.” (15) They confront Jesus and ask,“Do you hear what these are saying?” making it clear Jesus is treading on the thin ice of blasphemy.

But the ardor of the crowd is such that if the religious officials simply throw Jesus out of  the temple fearing that a more stringent punishment would create a riot. So, Jesus calmly quotes some scripture, accusing them of self-aggrandizement: “Yes; have you never read,
‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies
    you have prepared praise for yourself’?” (16)

He then walks out of the temple, and spends the night in Bethany. We don’t read it here, but I’m sure this confrontation causes the officials to realize that whatever they do about ridding themselves of Jesus it will have to be done as a secret conspiracy.

The next morning Jesus heads back to Jerusalem and not having had breakfast, stops at a fig tree, wishing to pick its fruit. The fig tree is barren and he curses it, which promptly dies. This seemingly peevish act provides one of Jesus’ greatest teachable moments about faith: Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done.”  (21) Then, in one of his most memorable statements, he tops it off with the astounding statement, “Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.” (22)

Really? Are prayers that we pray in all sincerity but yet—at least from our human perspective—remain unanswered simply a demonstration of insufficient faith? Is it wrong to doubt?  I confess to frequent doubts, which as I read this verse is probably why I haven’t moved any mountains. Can pure faith really exist absent even the occasional doubt? I have met people who at least appear to me to have no doubts. Are they “better Christians” than I? It seems to me that faith cannot really be faith without its mirror image of doubt.

Psalm 32; Exodus 9; Matthew 20:29–21:11

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

Psalm 32: This “maskil,” which scholars believe is a kind of song, opens in a mood of rejoicing that God has forgiven:
Happy, of sin forgiven,
absolved of offense. (1)

Forgiveness brings freedom from guilt:
Happy, the man to whom
the Lord reckons no crime,
in whose spirit is no deceit. (2)

In short, honest confession before God creates an inner happiness. The poet contrasts this happiness with the woes—both emotional and physical— of unconfessed sin:
When I was silent [before God], my limbs were worn out.
when I roared all day long (3)

The second line of this verse suggests that rather than opting for a quiet confession before God, the poet filled his days with mindless activities to keep the weight of his sin off his mind. That is certainly how I act when I’m trying to push a wrongdoing out of my conscience.

He goes on to describe this weight of guilt as relentless pressure:
For day and night
Your hand was heavy upon me.
My sap [inner strength, I believe] turned to dust. (4)

In short, holding onto the burden of an unconfessed sin is a weighty burden, which is an apt description for guilt.

Confession eliminates this burden:
My offense I made known to You
and my crime I did not cover. (5)

In point of fact, confession  is the simple process that John describes in his eponymous epistle: “If we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just will forgive…” (1 John 1:8). And here in the psalm we hear exactly the same transaction, clearly stated by our poet:
I said, ‘I shall confess my sins to the Lord,’
and You forgave my offending crime. (6)

Yet despite this simplicity, we are much more likely to hold on to sin than to confess it due, I suppose, to our inner sense of shame. This is why I believe corporate confession at worship is not an optional add-on to the liturgy. We cannot come before God with true hearts of worship without knowing we are forgiven.

Our psalmist, his sin confessed and forgiven, goes on to rejoice in the reality of God’s forgiveness for now he can worship with a clean heart, drawing a contrast between his happiness the sorry state of his enemies who have not recognized and confessed their crimes:
Many are the wicked’s pains,
but who trusts in the Lord kindness surrounds him. (10)

Rather than pain, the weight is lifted and rejoicing replaces guilt:
Rejoice in the Lord and exult, O you righteous,
sing gladly, all upright men! (11)

Exodus 9 Plague is heaped upon plague in the thus far futile effort to change Pharaoh’s mind. Moses declares that all the Egyptian livestock will become diseased and die, carefully listing the species that will be affected: “the horses, the donkeys, the camels, the herds, and the flocks” (3) and noting that the Israelites’ stock will remain unaffected? As always, “the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he would not let the people go.” (7)

Then, boils on animals and humans alike. There is the almost humorous observation that “The magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils, for the boils afflicted the magicians as well as all the Egyptians.” (11) But Pharaoh seems to have an inexhaustibly hard heart.

Then, Moses provides a one day warning that the weather will turn dreadfully bad. We now see that there are some Egyptians who finally believe that what Moses is saying will actually occur: “Those officials of Pharaoh who feared the word of the Lord hurried their slaves and livestock off to a secure place.” (20) The hail and fire comes to Egypt but God spares the Israelites.”Only in the land of Goshen, where the Israelites were, there was no hail.” (26) By this time I’m guessing that Moses’s credibility is growing among the Israelites.

Pharaoh summons Moses and appears to have had a serious change of heart: “This time I have sinned; the Lord is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong. Pray to the Lord! Enough of God’s thunder and hail! I will let you go; you need stay no longer.” (27, 28). But once the crisis has passed, “the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he would not let the Israelites go.” (35)

We are all Pharaoh. Like him we are very slow learners when it comes to accepting reality and obeying God. We’re willing to pray for respite at the moment of crisis, even as Pharaoh appears to have finally done. Like him, we may even say the right words aloud. God rescues us, but unlike today’s psalmist who sincerely confesses and then rejoices and worships, our confessions are not always from deep in our hearts. We mouth the words and then we quickly return to our former ways.

Perhaps the most depressing, yet most human aspect of these short-lived foxhole conversions, is that just as God has told Moses that the pharaoh’s heart would be hardened. God knows us all too well: that rescue without confession and worship will not change our hearts. Externalities—even major crises—are not what cause us to change our ways. Only the redemption of Jesus Christ can do that.

Matthew 20:29–21:11: Jesus encounters the two blind men on the roadside, who interrupt the proceedings with their annoying cries. But their cries, “Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!” (31) have a new twist. What Jesus has sternly ordered his disciples to keep quiet about up to now is now very much out in the open. Word is spreading quickly that this healing rabbi wandering the countryside is indeed the promised Messiah.

Another new aspect in this healing story is that Jesus asks directly, even sounding a little annoyed, “What do you want me to do for you?” (32) He does not just reach over and touch them and they are healed. They must state what it is they desire, and the reply of these two blind me is fraught with significance: “They said to him,Lord, let our eyes be opened.” (33) They don’t hedge by beating around the bush like we do saying things like, “if it be your will” or “if it’s part of your plan for us.”  They just ask directly.  As should we.

 

The blind men are healed and they join his followers. Which is exactly the metaphor for us. Before, we were blinded by our sin and self-centeredness, but through Jesus we have come to see what the Kingdom is really all about.

The triumphal entry into Jerusalem follows immediately. As always, Matthew uses Scripture to prove Jesus is who he says he is. This time, Jesus’ sending a couple of disciples to fetch a donkey is a fulfillment Isaiah’s prophecy. [One must assume that Jesus knew this as well.]

Jesus enters Jerusalem to the crowd’s acknowledgement that he is indeed the Son of David. But when others in Jerusalem ask who he is, people in the crowd do not tell them he is the Son of David, but simply that “this is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” (21:11) Clearly, Matthew is reminding us that not everyone is quite ready to proclaim Jesus as Messiah. This is a  first hint of what is to come later in the week.

Is there a more ironic scene here at the beginning of the most important week in history, as joyful crowds welcome their apparent savior from the oppression of Rome?  The crowds shouting ‘Hosanna’ have no idea of Jesus’ real purpose, nor do they imagine that they will be the exactly the same crowd shouting “Crucify him!” in less than 6 days.  We are in that crowd, too.

As CS Lewis reminds us in his characterization of Aslan, the real Jesus is not the Jesus we imagine. He is far more radical, far more dangerous and not about to be domesticated by our idea of what he “should” do or be. But we’re far more comfortable with our own preconceived notions. We construct a Jesus to meet our own desires and purposes, having no idea of his real intention.  Like the crowd, we  have put Jesus into a box of our own imaginations.

 

Psalm 31:21–25; Exodus 8; Matthew 20:17–28

Originally posted 2/29/2016—revised and updated 3/1/2018

Psalm 31:21–24: Our psalmist, writing in David’s voice, reminds us once again that when we are threatened by evil, or even when we tire of the depredations of our corrupt culture, God is our reliable protector—the one place where we can hide:
Conceal them in the hiding-place of Your presence
from the crookedness of man.
hide them in Your shelter
from the quarrel of tongues.
Blessed is the Lord,
for he has done wondrous kindness 
in a town under siege. (21, 22)

In practical terms, the psalmist is reminding us that we can find respite from the cacophony and hypocrisy of our present age by retreating to meditation, prayer, and scripture.

This psalm’s concluding verses strike a very personal note: my impatience with God, who operates on a different timetable than we think he should:
And I had thought in my haste:
‘I am banished from before Your eyes.’
Yet You heard the sound of my pleading
when I cried out to you.” (23)

The psalmist gets it exactly right: we jump to conclusions in our haste, especially when God is silent for longer than we think he should be.We want God to respond quickly, especially when our need or situation is particularly urgent.  No question that impatience is hard-wired into all of us.

The lesson here is slow down and don’t fret while waiting: God is faithful beyond our feeble imaginations. God has surely heard us and his response will surely come. Our duty is to love God, not to be impatient with him:
“Love the Lord, all His faithful,
steadfastness in the Lord keeps
and pays back in good measure the haughty in acts. (24)

Or as my father used to say, “the chickens always come home to roost for those who are “haughty in acts.” In God’s silence, we must wait with a patient attitude of the heart as the psalmist advises in his concluding lines:
Be strong, and let your heart be firm,
all who hope in the Lord. (25)

Exodus 8:The thing I had not noticed before is that at this point in the story Moses has not asked Pharaoh to let the Israelites to leave Egypt altogether. His plea is much more modest: “‘Thus says the Lord: Let my people go, so that they may worship me.” (1) As I read this chapter it strikes me how Moses is really God’s mouthpiece. God is behind the scenes telling Moses exactly what to say to Pharaoh.

Moses may be God’s speaker, but Aaron is the guy who actually executes: “the Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your hand with your staff over the rivers, the canals, and the pools, and make frogs come up on the land of Egypt.’” (5).

I’m struck by the especially creepy warning,”The frogs shall come up on you and on your people and on all your officials.’” (4) My skin crawls to think of frogs crawling around on my body.

But the court magicians duplicate the frog trick. Pharaoh asks Moses to make the frogs go away and he will allow the Israelites to worship. But when Moses complies, Pharaoh goes back on his word. Then the gnats. This time the court magicians fail to duplicate the feat and they admit that God is behind it: “the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God!” (19a) Nevertheless, “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, just as the Lord had said.” (19b)

The  fourth plague—flies—finally persuade Pharaoh to tell Moses that he will let the Israelites worship, but then Moses adds the condition that in order not to offend the Egyptians, they must travel a 3-day journey in order to sacrifice unobserved. Pharaoh agrees, “I will let you go to sacrifice to the Lord your God in the wilderness, provided you do not go very far away. “ (28). He then adds, “Pray for me.”  Moses promises to banish the flies with the caveat, “only do not let Pharaoh again deal falsely by not letting the people go to sacrifice to the Lord.” (29) Unsurprisingly, Pharaoh reneges on his word.

So, what gives? Who is on trial here? Pharaoh or Moses? God certainly seems to be more intent on testing Moses’ patience and obedience by demonstrating who’s in charge rather than in actually letting the Israelites worship him?

Matthew 20:17–28: Jesus has apparently concluded that the disciples still don’t get it about what’s going to happen to him. So for a third time he tells them bluntly and in even greater detail that he will be crucified and will rise again: “the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.” (18, 19). Unfortunately, Matthew elects not to tell us what the disciples said in response. Perhaps they have not yet figured out that Jesus’ statement regarding the “Son of Man” is self-referential.

Which, frankly, makes me a bit suspicious. We know that Matthew is writing any years after the events he records. Did Jesus really say this, or is Matthew editorializing here because he knows how the story turned out? Nevertheless, if we’re willing to accept the gospels as the inspired word of God, then my suspicion notwithstanding, I think we must accept that Jesus actually said this.

In fact the very next incident underscores the authenticity of Jesus’ words. Not only do the disciples not get it about Jesus’ death and resurrection, but others as well. Thinking that Jesus was going to establish an earthly kingdom, the mother of James and John demands that Jesus, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” (21) [Of course we have to remember that she’s a Jewish mother, so her forwardness about what she wants for her sons seems perfectly appropriate.]

One even wonders if John and James put her up to it, since we hear them answer affirmatively when Jesus asks if they are “able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” James and John reply, “We are able.” (22)

Jesus then says something remarkable: he does not have the power to determine the order of seating in heaven: “but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” (23) In short, God determines the priority order of heaven. One wonders if at this point James, John, their mom, and the other disciples might at least have an uncomfortable inkling that Jesus is not actually talking about an earthly kingdom that will replace Roman oppression.

This attempted coup d’etat on the part of the Sons of Thunder does not sit well with the other disciples. As always, though, Jesus uses this as a teachable moment, telling them that leadership requires first being a servant: “but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave;” (26, 27)

And that is the lesson for any of us who claims to be a leader. Unless he or she has experienced what it is like to be led, preferably at the very lowest rung on the ladder (Jesus’ reference to a slave), they will be ineffective in the long run. Unfortunately, there are way too many examples of this failed leadership extant both inside and outside the church.