Archives for April 2015

Psalm 56:1–8; Job 36:1–26; 1 Corinthians 9:1–12a

Psalm 56:1–8: The psalmist attributes (or dedicates) the psalm to David “when the Philistines seized him in Gath,” so we know this will be a psalm of supplication. Which is immediately clear in the first line, “Grant me grace, O God,/ for a man tramples me/ all day long the assailant does press me.” (2) The verb set trample/ assail is repeated immediately in the next verse, “My attackers trample me all day long, for many assail me.”

‘Trample’ and ‘assail’ are highly physical words, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that David is being assaulted not only verbally and psychologically, but that me is undergoing physical distress, as well. Thus, these verses are a highly appropriate prayer for some one experiencing physical illness or recovering from serious injury.

There’s an important lesson for those of us who would feel sorry for ourselves here. The psalmist does not linger on his woes, turning immediately to the solid rock of his faith in God with a very neat envelope structure of ‘praise’ being surrounded on both sides by fear and trust: “When I fear, I trust in You,/ in God, Whose word I praise, / in God I trust, I shall not fear.” (5) The meaning cannot be simpler–or more powerful: when we are in fearful circumstances, we recall our trust in God, which leads immediately to praise. And it is praise that again reminds us of our trust in God which in turn casts out fear. The image is that our ability and desire to praise God is cocooned in trust, which in turn wards off fear.

It is that security and trust that allows the psalmist–and us–to remember, “what can flesh do to me?” Be it ‘flesh’ in the sense of other people, or as I prefer it, our own flesh. This makes the prayer perfect for those with cancer, which is a disease of one’s own flesh rebelling against itself.

Job 36:1–26: Elihu continues his enormously long sermon, turning his attention away from Job, “multiplies words without knowledge.” (35:16) to one of the most complete and compelling descriptions of God’s qualities that we find in the bible, as he opens, “I have yet something to say on God’s behalf.” (2)

At first glance, his opening lines seem to be just a bit too self-aggrandizing: “For truly my words are not false;/ one who is perfect in knowledge is with you.” Really, Elihu? But if we reflect a moment, Elihu is claiming to be in a right relationship with God and then can essentially speak on God’s behalf. (Ironically, it was Job who was once in a right relationship with God–a relationship that was snatched away from him.)

One of Elihu’s key insights, I think, is that God operates through our conscience, which we then of our free will can choose to act on or ignore. First, those who are doing evil become aware of their sins via God, who “declares to them their work/ and their transgressions, that they are behaving arrogantly.” (9) And then, God strikes our conscience with a clear call to cease the sin: “He opens their ears to instruction,/and commands that they return from iniquity.” (10)

Then comes our choice (with the usual deuteronomic consequences):

11 If they listen, and serve him,
    they complete their days in prosperity,
    and their years in pleasantness.
12 But if they do not listen, they shall perish by the sword,
    and die without knowledge.

I can certainly agree, though, that if we ignore God’s often still small voice and choose not to listen, we are basically doomed to die without knowledge. Not just knowledge of God, but knowledge of the true qualities of our own being and of the larger universe that God has created.

I see disbelief in God as pure hubris; that people are working so hard on not believing in God that they miss the mystery and majesty of something and Someone much greater than themselves. A life of disbelief leads to death without, as Elihu says here, having gained true knowledge–a potential richness and meaning squandered in ignorance. When we are on our deathbeds, all that we have accomplished on our own turns to meaningless dust–and then there is nothing. Which to me is what hell is all about.

1 Corinthians 9:1–12a: Clearly, someone at Corinth has leveled against Paul that seems to transform him from confident leader to an unusual defensiveness: “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? If I am not an apostle to others, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.” (1,2). Paul is up front: “This is my defense to those who would examine me.” (3)

And then we learn the backstory. It appears that Paul (and Barnabas) have been criticized for wanting to be paid for their services and associated expenses. He points out that other apostles and missionaries “have the right to food and drink,” including the fascinating fact that “the brothers of the Lord and Cephas (Peter)” were married. (5)  Every worker is paid for his (or her) services: “Who plants a vineyard and does not eat any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not get any of its milk?” (7) So, Paul is arguing, why shouldn’t he and Barnabas be paid?

I’m guessing it was some of the Jewish Christians who were criticizing Paul because he appeals to Scripture: “ For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” (9) Which, as Paul explains, is not about oxen  but that “whoever plows should plow in hope and whoever threshes should thresh in hope of a share in the crop.” (10) And finally right to the point: “ If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits?” (11)

The attitude at Corinth has certainly carried through to the present day where many churches (not all of them: I suspect Saint Matthew is an exception here) are overly parsimonious in what they pay their pastors,  assuming that the psychic rewards of ministry (irony intended) will somehow put food on the table.

Psalm 55:20–23; Job 34:29–35:16; 1 Corinthians 8

Psalm 55:20–23: Continuing to describe his enemy, our psalmist relates how be betrayed even his supposed friends: “He reached out his hand against his allies/ profaned his own pact.” (21). From our Christian perspective we think immediately of Judas, although the psalmist certainly wasn’t thinking about future events.

Once again, smooth beguiling speech is the means of betrayal: “His mouth was smoother than butter–/and battle in his heart./ His words were softer than oil,/ yet they were drawn swords.” (22) The metaphors of butter, oil juxtaposed against battles and swords perfectly describes a betrayer who seduces and then goes in for the kill. Although the psalmist certainly wasn’t thinking about it, the seduction of women by evil men using smooth talk certainly comes to mind here.

The poet presents his enemy (and us, I think) with a choice. We can retain our evil ways or we can “Cast [our] lot on the Lord,/ and He will support you./ He will never let the righteous stumble.” (23). We can decide for God, or we can be left to our grim fate, which the psalmist acknowledges that God (not he) “will bring them down/ to the pit of destruction.” (24a). These “men of bloodshed and deceit/ Will not finish half their days.” (24b) Unlike Job, the psalmist is confident that evil doers will get their just desserts in the end. Personally, I’m torn between Job and our psalmist.

Job 34:29–35:16: Elihu relentlessly continues his theological discourse and delivers perhaps the harshest condemnation against Job that we’ve encountered so far:

34 Those who have sense will say to me,
    and the wise who hear me will say,
35 ‘Job speaks without knowledge,
    his words are without insight.’
36 Would that Job were tried to the limit,
    because his answers are those of the wicked.
37 For he adds rebellion to his sin;
    he claps his hands among us,
    and multiplies his words against God.”

Elihu’s sermon continues on into the next chapter as he basically accuses Job of terminal self-righteousness; that shaking your fist at God is a pointless exercise: “If you have sinned, what do you accomplish against him?/ And if your transgressions are multiplied, what do you do to him?” (35:6). But along the way, Elihu makes an important point about human relationships: “Your wickedness affects others like you,/ and your righteousness, other human beings.” (35:8). 

But in the end, Elihu asserts that Job’s railing against God is pointless: “Job opens his mouth in empty talk,/ he multiplies words without knowledge.” (35:16) 

Really, Elihu? You say that Job has not been tried to the limit? That he’s just being rebellious against God? That his woes are just empty talk? This seems to be a classic case of preaching to someone in whose shoes we have never walked. Elihu has not gone through what Job has experienced; he is looking on from the sidelines.

I think about people who are sop much more skilled at philosophical discourse and giving advice rather than they are at listening. These are the people that are working so hard on what they’re going to say next that they’ve not even heard the person talking to them. Elihu has been silent through 31 chapters, but I’m left with the impression he hasn’t heard a word Job has said.

1 Corinthians 8: Paul takes up a social issue that on its surface is foreign to us: should Christians consume food offered to idols?  Speaking, I think, to mature Christians, Paul points out that ““no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one” (4) so the question is basically moot.

But. “It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.” (7) In other words, habits acquired in one pre-believer state are difficult to break.

Which brings us to the key point of the chapter, which is still enormously relevant to us today in the church: “take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” (9) It is better to forego our correct belief and rationalized theology than to inadvertently lead someone else astray. In short, we are to teach and lead by example.

While Paul’s admonition applies to every Christian, I think this raises particularly thorny questions for those in leadership roles to whom others naturally look to as examples of how to lead the Christian life. For example, this is why pastors who engage in legal but questionable financial behavior, or “upstanding Christians” who bring barely-justified lawsuits against others in or out of the church are so injurious to the church at large–and only provide meaty (pun intended) ammunition for the charge of hypocrisy.


Psalm 55:16–19; Job 34:1–28; 1 Corinthians 7:25–40

Psalm 55:16–19: This passage (among others elsewhere in Psalms) disturbs many Christians because it wishes the very worst on the psalmist’s enemies: “May death come upon them./ May they go down to Sheol alive.” (16) And there’s no ambiguity that this is something other than a prayer to God: “For in their homes, in their midst, are evils./ But I call to God.” (16b, 17a).

So what are we to do with this (as the theologians call it) imprecatory psalm?  After all, Jesus told us to turn the other cheek and to love our enemies. Surely, the psalmist can’t be serious here? Do we just feel uncomfortable and move on?

I think the psalmist himself gives us a clue as to the nature of these curses wished upon his enemies when he says, “Evening and morning and noon/ I complain and moan, and He hears my voice.” (18) The psalmist knows that vengeance is God’s and not his, but that does not prevent him from “complaining and moaning” to God in prayer. These imprecations are the psalmist’s deepest emotions and there is no one other than God at whom he can shout and shake his fist. He knows that God can take it, and that whatever happens to his enemies is solely God’s affair. The lesson to us is clear: we can shout all we want to God, but when it comes to human relationships it is Jesus’ words that we must follow.

Job 34:1–28: Elihu lays out Job’s case before God, saying, “Let us choose what is right;/ let us determine among ourselves what is good.” (4) First, he neatly summarizes Job’s position: “For Job has said, ‘I am innocent,/and God has taken away my right;/ in spite of being right I am counted a liar;/ my wound is incurable, though I am without transgression.’” (5,6)

Then he summarizes God’s position: “far be it from God that he should do wickedness,” (10) and then, “Of a truth, God will not do wickedly,/ and the Almighty will not pervert justice.” (12) Therefore, Elihu argues, it’s logically impossible for God to be unjust: “Shall one who hates justice govern?/ Will you condemn one who is righteous and mighty,…who shows no partiality to nobles,/ nor regards the rich more than the poor,” (17, 19a) for the very simple reason that “they are all the work of his hands.” (19b)

As for the wicked, Elihu argues, “He shatters the mighty without investigation,/ and sets others in their place.” (24) and “He strikes them for their wickedness/ while others look on, /because they turned aside from following him,” (26), which seems a clear reference to Job and his friends. To use the modern idiom, Elihu is saying to Job, “God is punishing you, Job, for your wickedness; get over it.” 

So while Elihu has spoken more clearly and forthrightly than the three friends–and even Job–t=it’s still very much deuteronomic theology: Your punishment is a consequence of your sins. Sigh.

1 Corinthians 7:25–40: This passage gives us a sense of the urgency with which Paul preached. Urgency because I think he felt Christ’s return was imminent as he advises virgins and those contemplating marriage, “in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are.” (26) Then, Paul follows with his low view of marriage: “Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that.” (28b) in the name of sparing people “from distress.”

Why does Paul so dislike marriage? Because it is distracting form our focus on Christ: “The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord;but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife.” (32b, 33). Well, yes, that’s true. And this is certainly a proof text for the Catholic Church’s position on celibate priests and unmarried religious. Nevertheless, I think Paul is underestimating the drive of human nature (“let the two become as one”) and/or overestimating the reality that not everyone is blessed with his own superlative willpower.

Paul does eventually bow to reality, recognizing human nature will out, as long as self-control is involved (which is good advice): “if someone stands firm in his resolve, being under no necessity but having his own desire under control, and has determined in his own mind to keep her as his fiancée, he will do well. But he nevertheless sees marriage as a lower estate than singleness (which of course to him meant celibacy): “ So then, he who marries his fiancée does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.” (38). 

However, at the end of this passage I detect just a hint of defensiveness: “I think that I too have the Spirit of God.” (40). Paul is trying to say this advice is coming from the Holy Spirit, but there’s just that tiny note of uncertainty in “I think.”

Psalm 55:9–15; Job 32,33; 1 Corinthians 7:17–24

Psalm 55:9–15: Once again we come to the theme of speech, only this time as a prayer request to sew confusion among the psalmist’s enemies: “O Master, confound, split their tongue, / for I have seen outrage and strife in the town.” (10) [Which sounds a lot like Washington DC and its polarized politics…]

In this case it appears that a band of outlaws have taken over and destroyed the peace of the city for “day and night they go round it on its walls,/ and mischief and misdeeds within it,/ disaster within it guile and deceit never part from its square.” (11, 12) There’s a very contemporary feel to the idea that miscreants have usurped what formerly was peaceful. Many American Christians feel that secularism has usurped the public square and that they are being denigrated, if not excluded from the culture. Some want to just give up and cease speaking out.

But our psalmist is a man of courage, unafraid of these enemies: “No enemy insults me, that I might bear it,/ no foe boasts against me, that I might hide from him.” (13). Alas, however, it appears he’s been betrayed by a close colleague: “But you–a man to my measure,/ my companion and my familiar,/ with whom together we shared sweet counsel,/ in the house of our God in elation we walked.” (14,15)  In short, regardless of what his enemies say or do, the far greater pain is to have been betrayed by someone close.  Happily, that has not happened to me.

Job 32,33: After 31 chapters we hear a new voice: Elihu, who brings a new viewpoint to this story: everyone who has spoken, including Job, is wrong: “[Elihu] was angry at Job because he justified himself rather than God; he was angry also at Job’s three friends because they had found no answer, though they had declared Job to be in the wrong.” (32:2,3)  Elihu has held back because he was younger than the three friends, but now he lets loose.

First, he gives no credence to the idea that older people are wiser: “I said, ‘Let days speak,/  and many years teach wisdom.’” (32:7). But Elihu understands something that neither Job nor the friends seemed to have grasped: “But truly it is the spirit in a mortal,/ the breath of the Almighty, that makes for understanding.” (32:8) I am certainly reading this from my New Covenant context, but to me it seems clear that Elihu is saying that wisdom comes from the Holy Spirit dwelling within us.

Elihu has stood back, but now, “I am full of words…I must speak, so that I may find relief;/ I must open my lips and answer./ I will not show partiality to any person/ or use flattery toward anyone.” (32:20, 21)

And speak he does… First to Job: “You say, ‘I am clean, without transgression;/  I am pure, and there is no iniquity in me” and that Job has accused God for his woes when he says, “he counts me as his enemy;/ he puts my feet in the stocks,” (33:10,11) and that God has refused to answer him.

But Elihu asserts, “ in this you are not right. I will answer you:/God is greater than any mortal.” (33:12). And then in a brilliant discourse, the young man states that God speaks in many ways: 

14 For God speaks in one way,
    and in two, though people do not perceive it.
15 In a dream, in a vision of the night,
    when deep sleep falls on mortals,
    while they slumber on their beds,
16 then he opens their ears,
    and terrifies them with warnings,

In short, if we are listening, we will hear God. Elihu is basically telling Job that he must have missed God’s warnings. That if he had heard God speaking in a dream and heeds those warnings, then “he prays to God, and is accepted by him,/ he comes into his presence with joy.” (33:26) So, confession is the way to God, “and God[c] repays him for his righteousness.” (33:27)  Moreover, Elihu asserts, “God indeed does all these things,/ twice, three times, with mortals,/ to bring back their souls from the Pit,/ so that they may see the light of life.” (33:29. 30)

But is it really as simple as Job failing to have perceived the voice of God in his dreams, then failing to heed God’s warnings and the confessed?  At one level Elihu is absolutely right. That is how we understand confession. But like the friends, I don’t think Elihu has not perceived the real situation here.

1 Corinthians 7:17–24: We can tell by these verses that the Jewish faction at the Corinthian church was demanding that Gentile converts be circumcised. But for Paul makes the outward marks are not what matter; it’s the condition of the heart: “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything.” (19)  And just to be clear guys, “Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.” (20)

So, too, with slaves: “For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ.” (22) Paul commands, do your work for God in your present status: “In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God.” (24)

Easy for Paul to say, and I confess I’m reading this through the lens of my own culture where slavery is abhorrent. Nevertheless, I’m left with the uncomfortable feeling that it was easier for free men and women to accept Paul’s advice than it was for the slave.



Psalm 55:1–8; Job 31; 1 Corinthians 7:1–16

Psalm 55:1–8: As soon as we hear the opening line, “Hearken, O God, to my prayer,” we know this is a psalm of supplication. We also learn that it’s not impolite to ask God to “not [to] ignore my plea,/ Listen well to me and amswer me.” Sometimes, I think we are hesitant and afraid of offending God, but as the psalmists and certainly Job remind us, God the Creator cannot be offended by his creatures.

Our supplicant is in above his head: “In my complain I sway and moan./ From the sound of the enemy…when they bring mischief down upon me/ and in fury harass me.” (4) Unlike many of us who find ourselves in desperate circumstances, our psalmist is not afraid to admit his fear by using every verb he can think of to describe his terror: “my heart quails within me/ and death-terrors fall upon me,/ fear and trembling enter me/ and horror envelopes me.” (5,6)

There is only one thing he desires: to escape his present plight: “‘Would that I had wings like a dove./ I would fly off and find rest.” He speaks for all of us in fearful circumstances: let the enemy win; I don’t care; just get me out of here. Like him, I would “make haste to a refuge for me/ from the streaming wind and the storm.” (9)

For me, this means it’s OK to ask God for escape form our present difficulty. We do not have to tough it out. This is what those with newly-diagnosed diseases or stuck in abusive relationship need to hear. We/they don’t have to steel our courage and fight. It’s perfectly OK to ask God for escape. Sometimes escape is far preferable to courage.

Job 31: Job asks the question that we all ask when confronted with life’s unfairness: “Does not calamity befall the unrighteous,/ and disaster the workers of iniquity?” (3) Job again asserts his innocence, daring God to punish him if he’s been wicked: “let me be weighed in a just balance,/and let God know my integrity!” (6)

As if to remind God of his righteousness, Job catalogs his numerous righteous deeds. He has not committed adultery (7,8).  He has protected his wife form harm (10-12). He has been kind and just to his slaves (13-15). He has given to the poor, to the orphans (16-18). He has spurned the temptation of wealth (24-26). He has avoided self-aggrandizement and pride (26-28). He has not cursed others or “rejoiced at the ruin of those who hated me.” (29-32). He has been hospitable (32). He has been open and honest (33-34).

In the final paragraphs that Job speaks it seems he suddenly realizes what has happened in God’s silence. There is an “indictment written by [his] adversary” that he wishes he could see. Then he would know to whom to protest his innocence:

“36 I would carry it on my shoulder;
    I would bind it on me like a crown;
37 I would give him an account of all my steps;
    like a prince I would approach him.

If God has not done all these things to me, Job is saying, then allow me to appear before my accuser in God’s court and declare my innocence there. Exhausted, Job is silent and the poet tells us: “The words of Job are ended.” He can say no more as he throws himself on the mercy of God’s court.

1 Corinthians 7:1–16: Paul continues (and continues) about the problem of sexual morality and we encounter what modern culture views as one of Paul’s “difficult” passages: his definition of marriage: “each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” (2). However, and probably radically for his time, there is equality in the sexual relationship: “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.” (3) The man cannot have his way without the wife’s consent. In sexual union “he wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” (4)

Paul declares the superiority of being single over being married: “…I say by way of concession, not of command. I wish that all were as I myself am.” But at least he acknowledges that like celibacy, the desire for marriage is “a particular gift from God.” And it’s preferable to be married than to have extra-marital sex: “it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.” (9)

Then things get sticky. Neither husband nor wife should divorce each other. (11) Having written extensively about a pathological marriage, this is easier said than don–even by Paul.

We then encounter the infamous passage about believers being married to unbelievers. Paul seems optimistic here that “the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband.” (14) And if the unbeliever divorces, so be it. But what I don’t see here–although he may say it elsewhere–that a believer is forbidden to marry an unbeliever.

Nevertheless, I think this passage has ruined many relationships, especially when Christians fling the “unbeliever” epithet against other Christians, e.g. Protestants marrying Catholics. They have created a stumbling block where I honestly think Paul did not intend it to be one. If we look at this passage in the context of what has come before, Paul is attempting to tread carefully here about man-woman relationships. I don’t think he’s wholly successful, but I think he comes closer than those who see these issues in pure black and white terms and have torn these verses out of their context.

Psalm 54; Job 30; 1 Corinthians 6:9–20

Psalm 54: This psalm is dedicated to David “when the Ziphites came and said to Saul, ‘Is not David hiding out among us?'” (2) so we know immediately it’s a psalm of supplication.  Alter points out that the line at verse 5, “For strangers have risen against me”does not exactly fit the incident described in 1 Samuel 23 since Saul was hardly a stranger to David. But then, inerrantists notwithstanding, total consistency is not always a Biblical trait.

Unlike many supplication psalms, the tone of the first few verses do not imply that God is absent, only that the present circumstances warrant God’s immediate intervention: “through Your name rescue me,/ and through Your might take up my cause./ God, O hear my prayer.” (3,4) And as usual, unlike the supplicant, the enemies are against God; “They did not set God before them.”  (5)

At verse 6 the tone changes from supplication to assurance: “Look, God is about to help me,/ my Master–among those who support me.” (6) [It’s interesting that God simply seems to join the ranks of those “who support me.”] And then suddenly we are left the impression that God responded as quickly as David wished: “Let me acclaim Your name, Lord, for it is good./ For from every strait he saved me.” (9)

This compact psalm gives us a real sense that in many situations God will respond quickly and effectively; that the answer to our prayers does not lie off in some hazy future, but can be immediate. Some have derisively called prayers like these “foxhole prayers,” but it seems if David can pray a “foxhole prayer,” so can we.

Job 30: The people, who in the previous chapter respected Job and hung onto his every word have turned decisively against him in his present circumstances: “But now they make sport of me,/ those who are younger than I.” What hurts even more is that his mockers were the scum of the earth: “…whose fathers I would have disdained/  to set with the dogs of my flock.” (1) These mockers are worthless, “They are driven out from society;/ people shout after them as after a thief.” (5) But now, “they mock me in song;…I am a byword to them./They abhor me, they keep aloof from me;/ they do not hesitate to spit at the sight of me.” (9,10)

Then, Job makes an acute, insightful observation: “Because God has loosed my bowstring and humbled me,/ they have cast off restraint in my presence.” (15) Simply because Job has been humbled by God, these people  “cast off restraint” and mock him with a fierceness he does not deserve. This is brilliant insight into human nature: how quick we are to mock and then abandon someone whom we once admired, never reflecting on our own inconsistent and evil behavior. Jesus on the cross certainly comes to mind here. 

Rather than showing mercy, never mind succor, to someone who has fallen from grace, we turn to mockery.  Job asks, “Surely one does not turn against the needy,/ when in disaster they cry for help.” (24) But that’s exactly what we too often do. We stand justly accused, for that is exactly what we do. We turn our backs and walk away from the cross. Or change the channel and move on.

1 Corinthians 6:9–20: Paul minces no words as he rolls out one of his famous lists: “Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. (9,10). But now that we are baptized we have been transformed, we have been “were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” (11) Paul doesn’t have to tell us what the implication of that transformation is. We should know and behave accordingly. 

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. (12) is one of Paul’s more famous lines. It is the essence of personal responsibility: we are to set our own boundaries. Simply because a behavior is not proscribed does not mean it is prescribed. Reminding us that we are part of the larger body of Christ, Paul uses the rather stark example of the implications of lying with a  prostitute–and how that brief and seemingly personal act contaminates the entire body. You cannot simultaneously lie with sin and unite with God.

I think Paul is directly addressing those who try to make belief in Jesus a purely spiritual matter, completely separated from the physical body, which can then be used as one pleases. But Paul is telling us that our body belongs to God just as much as our soul with the famous metaphor of the body as a temple in which the Holy Spirit resides. Our commitment to Jesus Christ involves our entire spiritual and physical being. Our duty is clear: “therefore glorify God in your body.” (20)


Psalm 53; Job 29; 1 Corinthians 5:9–6:8

Psalm 53: Alter notes that this psalm is essentially a duplication of Psalm 14 with only a few minor changes. But perhaps it’s in twice because its message needs to be heard often.

The opening lines pull no punches: “The scoundrel has said in his heart,/ ‘There is no God.'” (2) We certainly live in an age where Western culture believes it has outgrown its need for the “psychological crutch” called “God” and dismisses those who believe as weaklings and fools. Worse, it is accusing those who believe in God and the moral prescriptions of the Bible as being “intolerant”–the greatest sin of our age. But I digress…

As far as the psalmist is concerned, it is those who dismiss God that are the fools and scoundrels: “They corrupt and do loathsome misdeeds./ There is none who does good.” The formula here is very simple: disbelief equates to a corruption of the soul and consequently, actions.

In an evocation of the Noah story, “The Lord from the heavens looked down/ on the sons of humankind/ to see, is there someone discerning, someone seeking God.” (3) The evidence is not encouraging: There is none who does good./ There is not even one.” The psalmist links that ancient story directly to the people of Israel in his day: “They did not call on God.”

But even though the world seems to be populated by those who have rejected God, God never gives up.  There is always hope, as the psalmist concludes, “O, may from Zion come Israel’s rescue/ when God restores His people’s condition…May Israel rejoice.” (7) And for us who live in a world that has rejected God, hope nevertheless abounds.

 Job 29: Job resumes his defense, in one of the most intensely nostalgic chapters in the Bible. We can hear the regret as Job remembers how things once were: “O that I were as in the months of old,/ as in the days when God watched over me;” (2) Those were the days, he recalls, “when I was in my prime,/ when the friendship of God was upon my tent.” (4) Are there sadder words than these: “when the Almighty was still with me,/ when my children were around me?” (5). Job once commanded respect at every stratum of society, even “the voices of princes were hushed,/ and their tongues stuck to the roof of their mouths.” (10)

Moreover, Job had earned this respect because he served God and every part of society: “…I delivered the poor who cried,/ and the orphan who had no helper. /… and I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy.” (12, 13) In a wonderful metaphor, Job recalls “I put on righteousness, and it clothed me;/ my justice was like a robe and a turban.” (14) 

But perhaps worst of all is that Job has lost the respect of those who once “listened to me, and waited,/ and kept silence for my counsel./After I spoke they did not speak again,/ and my word dropped upon them like dew.” (21, 22) He recalls these times almost as if he had taken on the qualities of God himself: “I smiled on them when they had no confidence;/ and the light of my countenance they did not extinguish.” (24)

It seems to me that if we ever needed proof that good works and respect can be fleeting; that we can crash into the depths of despair from the heights of joy, we need only look here. But then we need also to ask, are we hearing pride in Job’s voice? Are these memories too self-centered? Was Job really this person? Or has the contrast with his present sufferings created a sense that things were better than they actually were? That of course is the danger of nostalgia.

1 Corinthians 5:9–6:8: Even though we would doubtless prefer greater ambiguity, Paul is extremely clear here regarding sexual immorality: “I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber.”  (5:11) Sexual immorality is at the top of the list and we are uncomfortable. I will note in passing that Paul is not specific as to what type of sexual immorality, but there’s still the question: where’s the grace here? Paul is pretty clear. Expel these evildoers: “Drive out the wicked person from among you.” (5:13)

On the other hand, when it comes to internal disputes within the community, keep them internal:”When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints? ” (6:1) But it sounds like the matter taken to court was pretty trivial as Paul asks somewhat sarcastically, “…are you incompetent to try trivial cases?”  Of course in our own litigious age, we see that as far as disputes and lawsuits are concerned, very little has changed in two millennia.

We can see Paul shaking his head in disbelief about this issue: “In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—and believers at that.” (6:8) Would that we Christians took that advice more to heart. I remember my lawyer father shaking his head in disbelief at what upstanding churchgoers would do to each other when it came to lawsuits–and not paying their bills…

As happens again and again as we read this letter, we sure wish we knew the backstory. Paul must have received a letter from somebody at the church that listed each of these issues, as Paul seems to be working off a checklist here as he moves form topic to topic.  And he’s pretty p.o.ed.


Psalm 52; Job 28; 1 Corinthians 4:16–5:8

Psalm 52: The psalmist connects the psalm to a specific event in David’s life: “when Doeg the Edomite came and told Saul and said to him, ‘David has come to the house of Achimelech.'” (2) and then casts the psalm as an address to the evil Doeg–or to any wicked person. The poet begins on a remarkably sarcastic note: “Why boast of evil, O hero?” making it clear that the man he addresses is far from heroic.

As usual, the the core sin of the evil man is rooted in speech: “Disasters your tongue devises,/ like a well-honed razor, doing deceit.” (4) The evil tongue is the manifestation of an evil heart: “You love evil better than good, / a lie more than speaking justice.” (5) We need to remember that in this world, the primary form of communication was speech and the psalmist reminds us that speech has a direct link to a man’s character as he accuses the evildoer, that “You love all destructive words, / the tongue of deceit.” (6) Even though we have multiple forms of communication today that does not mask the fact that in the end, it all comes down to what we say and write.

As a person who writes and speaks a lot, this accusation hits home: that what I say aloud is–as the psalmist has it here–a direct reflection of the attitudes of my heart and of my basic character–and how people will judge me. Sarcasm has been a big defense mechanism for me and I have been working to eliminate it in what I say. Words used with evil intent can destroy; even words used carelessly can inflict great harm.

God’s intent for the man who speaks evil is hardly benevolent: “God surely will smash you forevet,/ sweep you up and tear you from the tent,/ root you out of the land of the living.” (7)  This is the grim fate of “the man who does not make/ God his stronghold.” (9)

Job 28: We suddenly encounter this beautiful poem that reflects on the nature of wisdom. Unlike many other speeches here, the author does not credit either Job or any of his friends. It is a peaceful intermezzo in the sturm und drang of the dueling speeches that comprise this remarkable book.

The poem describes a hidden but beautiful part of God’s creation: “Its stones are the place of sapphires,/ and its dust contains gold.” (6) But neither animals know where it is nor miners who “put their hand to the flinty rock,/  and overturn mountains by the roots.” (9). So what is to be found there in this mysterious place? The poet answers with a rhetorical question: “But where shall wisdom be found?/ And where is the place of understanding?” (12)

We humans will not stumble across it because it is not to be found within the creation  we inhabit: “Mortals do not know the way to it,/ and it is not found in the land of the living.” (13). Wisdom cannot be purchased: “It cannot be gotten for gold,/ and silver cannot be weighed out as its price.” (15)

Again, the poet asks, “Where then does wisdom come from?/ And where is the place of understanding?” (20). This time there’s an answer: “God understands the way to it,/ and he knows its place.” (23) It turns out in the last verse that God has actually already told us where wisdom can be found:

And he said to humankind,
‘Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom;
    and to depart from evil is understanding.’” (28)

So, the question becomes, why is God the last place we humans actually look? Why do we look first for human wisdom, which as Paul has told is is mere foolishness? We are so unwilling to abandon ourselves, who we as the center of the universe, even when God is basically standing before us with the answer.

1 Corinthians 4:16–5:8:  Underneath Paul’s words, “ But some of you, thinking that I am not coming to you, have become arrogant.” (18) we can sense his controlled anger. And his rhetorical question certainly reveals his frustration with the wild talk and cliques that seem to characterize the church at Corinth: “What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” (4:21)

So, given his already bad mood, Paul lights right into them: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife.” (5:1) I guess we can be charitable and assume that “his father’s wife” is not actually his mother. But the church has erred by failing to remove him from the congregation.

Paul’s judgement may seem harsh given our preference for grace, tolerance, and all that. But he does not let them take the easy way out. He states that as founder of the church at Corinth he possess authority and, “as if present I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing.” (5:4). However, exactly how Paul’s instructions are to be carried out is less clear: “you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” (5:5) Does this mean something harsher than being thrown out of the congregation?  Again, I prefer the more charitable explanation.

Paul then turns to the problem of pride: “Your boasting is not a good thing. Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?” (5:6) And he makes the crucial psychological insight that like bad yeast, pride infects the entire body. We see that today in the behavior of mobs incited to outrageous acts by the behavior of just a few. Once this bad yeast is inside a church congregation, it generally rips the congregation apart. Despite Paul’s words, human nature remains unchanged, and we grieve at the terrible witness to the community when churches are torn asunder by envy, pride and dissension.

Psalm 51:13–19; Job 25–27; 1 Corinthians 4:1–15

Psalm 51:13–19: Where the NRSV has the psalmist pleading, “cast me not from Your presence,” Alter uses a more violent verb, “Do not fling me from Your presence.” (13). The mental state of the poet such that he sees himself as mere garbage that God would roughly toss to get the sinner out of his holy presence. Such is the magnitude of his–and our–sins.

And then an important Trinitarian clue: “and Your holy spirit take not from me.” (13b) We have to observe, however, that the poet sees this as an attribute of God, not as the capitalized third person of the Trinity.

But more than pleading for forgiveness and being able to remain in the presence of God, the psalmist now asks God to transform his life, first by restoring the “gladness of Your rescue/ and with a noble spirit sustain me.” (14) Notice that without first a restoration of a right relationship with God, nothing else can happen. But once that has been accomplished by God’s generous forgiveness, then we can act on God’s behalf in relation to those around us: “Let me teach transgressors Your ways.” (14a) And our teaching and example will have an impact on others: “…and offenders will come back to You.” (14b)

Perhaps the most radical part of this psalm –at least to the Jewish contemporaries of the psalmist–is the realization that God is not seeking blood sacrifice: “For You desire not that I should give sacrifice,/ burnt offering You greet not with pleasure.” (18) Rather, God desires a contrite heart: “A broken, crushed heart God spurns not.” (19) Notice how the nature of sacrifice has moved from external action to internal condition. In these few verses the psalmist has truly laid the groundwork for Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice and the consequent indwelling of the Holy spirit.

 Job 25–27: Bildad interrupts Job’s disquisition and asks a profound question: “How then can a mortal be righteous before God?/ How can one born of woman be pure?” (25:4) After all, he notes, before God we are mere maggots and worms. (25:6) (Now, there’s an image to describe our sinful natures!)

Job answers his friend generously: “How you have counseled one who has no wisdom,/ and given much good advice!” (26: 3) Bildad has caused Job to realize that God is all-powerful and therefore unknowable. After all, he suggests, this is the God who causes “The pillars of heaven [to] tremble,/ and are astounded at his rebuke.” (26:11)  And an all-powerful God is unknowable to mere mortals: “how small a whisper do we hear of him!/  But the thunder of his power who can understand?” (26:14).  These are crucial words to remember when we pretend to understand God, or even when we ask God, “Why?” when some disaster occurs. God is not going to tell us why, and even if he did, we would not comprehend his answer.

This insight is basically an intermezzo to Job’s long speech blaming God for his plight, “As God lives, who has taken away my right,/ and the Almighty, who has made my soul bitter,” (27:1) But Job than says something next that those who shake their fist at God often do not. He will not abandon his firm belief that despite his woes he has remained faithful–that what has happened to him has not been the result of any faithlessness or wickedness on his part: “I hold fast my righteousness, and will not let it go;/my heart does not reproach me for any of my days.” (27:6) 

Because of his unrelenting faithfulness to God, Job sees his situation, as hopeless as it seems, as superior to that of the wicked who live in apparent ease and prosperity. Job has the one thing that they do not: hope. He reminds his listeners, “For what is the hope of the godless when God cuts them off,/when God takes away their lives?” (27:8) Job remains convinced that in the end, despite all appearances to the contrary, the wicked will receive their just desserts: “Terrors overtake them like a flood;/ in the night a whirlwind carries them off./ The east wind lifts them up and they are gone;/ it sweeps them out of their place.” (27:20, 21). In short, it is far, far better to live in suffering with a firm faith in God than to live in abundance but in the emptiness of a life without God. Something for us to remember as we look around at a culture that increasingly abandons God and attempts to dismantle the moral system that 3000 years of Jewish and Christian belief have laid in place.

1 Corinthians 4:1–15: Paul contrasts himself to those in the Corinthian church who have clearly come to various conclusions about Paul, Apollos and other leaders.  Paul notes that while “ I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It os the Lord who judges me.” (4)  Using himself as the example he states that we cannot judge others because we do not have all the facts in the case. Only God has all the facts: “Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.” (5) Like the Corinthians, we have been slow to take  Paul’s sound advice to heart.

Rather than complaining, Paul advises us to rejoice in all that we in the church already have: “Already you have become rich! Quite apart from us you have become kings!” (8) Almost inexplicably, he notes that those in the church are better off than the Apostles themselves: “We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute.” (10).

To me this means that our basic stance as Christians is one of thanksgiving for the riches we have received in Christ. That is why I rejoice in the theme at Saint Matthew to reflect on–and be thankful for–all that has come to pass here in the last 50 years. What was true in Corinth is true on Wiget Lane.


Psalm 51:7–12; Job 24; 1 Corinthians 3:12–23

Psalm 51:7–12: Verse 7–“Look, in transgression I was conceived,/ and in offense my mother spawned me.”– is often cited as one of the “proof verses” for the doctrine of original sin.  Which is one way of interpretation, but it seems to me that it could just as well be a historical fact for the psalmist alone: he may know that he was the product of a violent sexual act or even rape.

In any event, the psalmist sees himself as unclean and now in order to learn from God “in what is concealed make wisdom known to me” (8) he must be purified. Alter tells us that water shaken from hyssop leaves on to the penitent is a means of ritual washing. And here, the psalmist desires the purest purity in the famous line, “Was me, that I be white than snow.” (9)

For us Christians this is the transformation of baptism when we “hear gladness and joy” (10a). The body that was consumed by the agony of sin now rejoices: “…let the bones that You crushed exult.” (10b). The psalmist cannot accomplish this cleansing by himself. It is God who “all my misdeeds [must] wipe away.” (11b).

And then that powerful verse we sang for so many years every Sunday morning: “Create in me a clean heart, O God/ and renew a right spirit within me.” (12) Alter has it as “a firm spirit,” which for me conveys that sense of renewal and strength even more powerfully than “right spirit.” Confession leads to forgiveness, which leads to strength and new life. Which is exactly what Jesus Christ has accomplished for us. The only question is: in this culture of self-admiration will I be as honest as the psalmist and admit to my failings, confess them, and be restored?

Job 24: The chapter is a a marvelous evocation of all that is wrong in the fallen world, of its intrinsic unfairness. The wicked exploit the poor and helpless. The wicked “drive away the donkey of the orphan/ they take the widow’s ox for a pledge./They thrust the needy off the road” (4) while those who are exploited are “Like wild asses in the desert/ they go out to their toil,/scavenging in the wasteland/ food for their young.” (5)

Those who believe that humankind is somehow improving or becoming more beneficent to the oppressed would do well to reflect on this chapter that so beautifully weaves the apparent triumph of the wicked with the desperate plight of the poor and despised. While the wicked “snatch the orphan child from the breast,/ and take as a pledge the infant of the poor.” (9), in turn, the poor “go about naked, without clothing;” (10 a) while they do the work that brings the wicked their very food and wealth: “though hungry, they carry the sheaves;/between their terraces they press out oil;/ they tread the wine presses, but suffer thirst.” (11)

Job sees God as indifferent to all this suffering: “ the throat of the wounded cries for help;/ yet God pays no attention to their prayer.” (12) In fact, God is not merely indifferent, he seems to actively aid the wicked rather than the poor: “Yet God prolongs the life of the mighty by his power;” (22) and “He gives them security, and they are supported.” (23a).

And yet in the end, the wicked are like everyone else: “They are exalted a little while, and then are gone;/they wither and fade like the mallow.” (24) Job seems to be asking why the wicked get all the breaks even though their lives are as ephemeral as the righteous. A question that resonates today. Why is the broken world so damn unfair?

1 Corinthians 3:12–23: Paul tells us that the work of the builders will always be tested: “the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done.” (13).  At first, Paul seems to be talking about the individuals who founded the church–the builders– but then it suddenly becomes a strikingly personal metaphor. He’s talking about each one of us as individual corporeal persons: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person.” (16, 17a) 

Because of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, each of us has become a holy place: “For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” 917b). Accepting that simple reality should drive all our thoughts and actions. Yes, it certainly means lead a “clean life,” exercise, eat right and all that. That’s what I’ve heard since I was a kid. But in context here I don’t think that’s what Paul is getting at. It has far more to do with self-delusion: “Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.” (18) Which is Paul’s way of saying, “you know a lot less than you think you do, buddy.”

This “wisdom of the world is foolishness with God.” (19) And God does not cotton to fools. We will always be found out: “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” (19b) The truth of this has been proven again and again in the world at large and the church in particular. Paul gives really good advice: “So let no one boast about human leaders.” (21) –be that the pastor we love to hear preach or the charismatic founder of a megachurch. All will be tested by fire. As will each of us. We will survive, but will we learn what is God’s wisdom?