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

Ash Wednesday.  The day in the church calendar when we are officially reminded of our mortality.  As I get older, I find that mortality is more often on my mind, anyway.  But that does not detract from the solemnity of this day.

In addition to the Daily Texts, there are Lectionary readings for this day, as well:

Joel 2:1-2,12-17; Psalm 51:1-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Psalm 33:6-11  The hymn turns to God as Creator, as the psalmist reminds us that God simply spoke creation into existence: “By the word of the LORD the heavens were made,” and again, “For He did speak and it came to be, He commanded, and it stood.”  I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that this passage (and others like it in the Psalms and elsewhere) were on his mind when John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  God and God’s Word are the one and the same thing.

Words and speech are what sets us humans apart from the rest of creation.  For me, the concept of imago deo centers around this gift, which God imbued in us.  Unlike God, we cannot speak things into existence, but the words we use are nevertheless powerful.  Either for good or for ill.  As the Bible makes clear in so many places, words are what we so often use to tear down and destroy.  The very opposite of how God’s voice creates and builds up.

Apropos our reading in Exodus of the standoff between Moses and Pharaoh, and what is about to happen, the psalmist notes, “The LORD thwarted the counsel of nations, overturned the devisings of peoples.”  Egypt was only the beginning.  The so-called wisdom of men that we see on display through history and up to the present time is ample proof of the verity of this verse.  Only “the LORD’s counsel will stand forever.”  All man’s works are like grass, and withers away, as we are so beautifully reminded today, Ash Wednesday.

 Exodus 11:1-12:20  God is now at the end game with Pharaoh: “Yet one more plague shall I bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt. Afterward he will send you off from here;” (11:1)

[Side note: Even though at the end of chapter 10 it seems clear that Moses and Pharaoh will never face each other again, they are apparently together once again.  After Moses makes his dreadful announcement of the final plague, “he went out from Pharaoh’s presence in a flare of anger.” (11:8).  There is something of narrative inconsistency here; one more reason why I believe that the Bible is inspired, but not inerrant. ]

God tells both Moses and Aaron what He is about to do, and issues very clear instructions of what is to be done if the household is to be spared the terrifying death that awaits all first-born.  Even today, there is no greater horror for a parent than to lose a child.  And American society does not freight the same significance of first-born sons as these ancient societies.  (Although speaking as a first born son, I wouldn’t mind a bit more awe and respect!)  To not have a first born son in the family was a mark of shame.  To have that first born son die was a clear sign that the family was cursed.

The instructions of Passover are chockablock with symbolic meaning.  Much has been made of the Christological significance of the lamb’s blood on the lintel and door posts (shape of a cross) and the fact that it is lamb’s blood, as in “the Lamb of God.”  Nor should we lose sight of the intersection of this very important sign of Old Covenant and the New Covenant in the reality Jesus’ Seder meal the night before he dies.  

In another nod to the Exodus story being the beginning of the national story of Israel, God makes it clear that “you shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD through your generations, an everlasting statute you shall celebrate it.” (12:17).  As indeed it is to this very day.  That Passover has been celebrated for thousands of years is not an accidental cultural artifact; it is because God commanded it.

Matthew 21:23-32   Awed by their own theological cleverness, the  priests and elders pose a trick question to Jesus: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (21:23b).  Jesus is well aware that if he said “God, my father” he would be carted off immediately as a blasphemous heretic.  So, Jesus turns the question on them, making it about John the Baptist and the priest’s clear rejection of him because John was outside the religious mainstream. They argue among themselves trying to come up with an answer, and in order to protect their own skins from either being exposed as hypocrites or from the wrath of the crowd, they dissemble:  “We don’t know.”  Which earns them Jesus’ rightly derisive answer, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” (21:27)

I know this dilemma too well: I don’t want to expose myself as a hypocrite and/or I’m cowardly and don’t want to upset other people with a true and honest answer.  So, hoisted on my own petard, I say and do nothing.

Jesus exposes their (and our) hypocrisy in the short parable of the two sons.  Saying we’ll work in the Kingdom and then not doing it is far worse that putting it off, but then getting out there eventually.  Playing at being religious without being serious or committed is far worse than coming late to the Kingdom.  A clear warning to all of us who claim to be working hard for Jesus but not really doing anything at all.

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