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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and trust in the LORD. (4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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