Archives for February 2016

Psalm 31:11–21; Exodus 6:13–7:24; Matthew 20:1–16

Psalm 31:11–21: I am writing from Monterey with the surf as background; a beautiful sunny morning.

Our psalmist is feeling less optimistic: “For my life is exhausted in sorrow/ and my years in sighing.” (11) Apparently he has committed a major wrongdoing and is now reaping the consequences: “Through my crime my strength stumbles/ and my limbs are worn out.” (12) Even the poet’s enemies have joined his friends in withdrawing from his presence: “For all my enemies I become a disgrace,/ just as much to my neighbors, and fear to my friends.” (13) Social rejection leads to a sense that he has died already: “Forgotten from the heart like the dead,/ I become like a vessel lost.” (14)

If ever we needed a dramatic description of what true depression feels like from the point of view of the person experiencing it, it is right here in this psalm, which we presume describes David when Saul was attempting to kill him. The sense of abandonment—to be isolated and then forgotten—is palpable here.  That this abandonment comes as the result of a conspiracy makes it even worse: “For I heard the slander of many,/ terror all round,/ when they conspired against me,/ when they plotted to take my life.” (14)

At the bottom of this dark abyss of the soul there is only one hope for rescue and David remembers, “As for me, O Lord,/ I say ‘You are my God./ My times are in Your —O save me/ from the hands of my enemies, my pursuers.” (15, 16) Rejected by humans, only one agent of rescue remains and David knows who it is: “Shine Your face on Your servant,/ Rescue me in Your kindness.” (17) Only one person can remove his shame: “Lord, let me not be shamed, for I call You.” (18a). And while God is effecting David’s rescue, it would be OK by him if his enemies experienced what he is experiencing: “Let the wicked know shame,/ and be stilled in Sheol.” (18b)

I often wonder that in light of Jesus’ command to love our enemies whether we can pray for bad things to befall our enemies. But here David is not really asking for revenge, he is simply praying that his enemies cease their persecution: “Let lying lips be silent,/ that speak haughty against the just/ in arrogance and contempt.” In this political season where arrogant speech seems to be the currency d’jour, I believe this is an entirely reasonable and proper prayer.

Exodus 6:13–7:24: As is the case so frequently in the OT, it is ancestry that establishes a person’s bonafides, and our authors interrupt the action to provide a detailed list of Moses’ and Aaron’s forebears. This makes them legitimate players in the eyes of our authors to have carried out the greatest exodus in history.

Even more important than ancestry is the fact that his protestations of inadequacy notwithstanding, Moses is obedient even though he once again reminds God of his weakness in speech and argument: “But Moses said in the Lord’s presence, “Since I am a poor speaker, why would Pharaoh listen to me?”” (6:30). Clearly Moses was no lawyer, but he was lucky to have an articulate brother.

Then in a remarkable statement, God informs Moses that he has it all set up to make sure Moses will be able to carry off this enormous task of persuading Pharaoh to release the Israelites: “The Lord said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet.” (7:1)  In order to make sure Pharaoh ultimately accepts that Moses is like a god, it will not be an easy task. God informs Moses, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and I will multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt.” (7:4)God’s logic seems to be that only after a series of showy miracles will Pharaoh truly be convinced of Moses’ god-like status. The brothers accept their roles and “Moses and Aaron did so; they did just as the Lord commanded them.” (7:6)

The authors reminds us that by the time these events are to occur, both Moses and Aaron are relatively advanced in age: “ Moses was eighty years old and Aaron eighty-three when they spoke to Pharaoh.” (7:7)

The first demonstration to Pharaoh is Aaron’s magic staff, which turns into a snake and then back again, followed by the portentous announcement, “See, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall be turned to blood.” (7:17) Which of course he proceeds to do. Unfortunately, the Egyptian magicians are able to perform the same trick, so Pharaoh remains unpersuaded.

So, what is God’s point here? Dueling magic tricks between Moses and the court magicians that leave the inhabitants of Egypt—both Egyptian and Israelite— in desperate straits unable to drink water seems somehow petty. Of course we know how the story turns out, but at this point we can only sympathize with the frustration that Moses felt. After all, Aaron and he were faithfully following God, but God seems to be turning the tables on them. I know I have prayed for an outcome and been obedient but the result has not been the way I had imagined or hoped. At that point it’s difficult not to think of God as cruel trickster.

Matthew 20:1–16: Jesus continues his disquisition on the nature of the Kingdom of heaven. And it’s clear that the kingdom is not a haven of relaxation. There is labor. Worse, the wages of the laborer are not proportionate to the amount of labor expended. Those annoying latecomers that show up at 4:45 receive the same wages as the diligent workers who reported at 8 a.m.

I view this parable as Matthew making the same kind of point that Luke made in the parable of the Prodigal SOn with regard to the relationship between the prodigal and his brother. The brother had done everything according to what he saw as his father’s plan: being the good son and working diligently. He has followed the law religiously. The prodigal in effect shows up at the last moment, yet he has enjoyed—and squandered—the same amount the brother will receive as his inheritance.

What’s clear in both parables is that when we hew strictly to the law we have no concept of what grace and mercy really are: a gift it is the father’s (and God’s) right to give without further explanation. We law-followers live by the quid pro quo. But life’s not fair. Even God behaves this way.

Our culture wishes everything to be equal and “fair.” But to confuse equity—that we have the potential to receive the same inheritance, the same opportunity— and equality—that we have exactly the same outcomes—are not the same thing. To confuse them, as the laborers in the vineyard did, leads only to hard feelings.

God provides equity. We all get to work in the vineyard. What we do with our opportunity is up to us. We may arrive early or late, but God’s grace falls equally on all of us.




Psalm 31:7–10; Exodus 5:10–6:12; Matthew 19:23–30

Psalm 31:6–9: In a line appropriate for this rapidly worsening political season, our psalmist asserts, “I hate those who look to vaporous lies.” (7a) “Vaporous lies” surround us on every front: whether it’s advertising or the empty rhetoric of politicians pandering to our worst instincts. Once again, there is nothing new or unique about today’s human nature. Vaporous lies have always been part of the cultural landscape.

Our psalmist recognizes and rejects these lies, looking to God instead :”As for me, I trust in the Lord.” (7b). This is a good reminder . When the very structure of society seems under attack it is God in whom we must trust. And not just trust. With the psalmist we can “exult and rejoice in Your kindness, / that You saw in my affliction.” (8a)

We trust, exult, and rejoice in God for the simple reason that “You knew the straits of my life.” (8b) God “gets us.” And no matter the circumstances, he protects us, “and You did not yield me to my enemy’s hand.” (9a). Rather than having to cower in fear, we know that God brings us true freedom: “You set my feet in a wide-open place.” (9b)

When the ever-degrading culture that surrounds us seems to be forcing us to yield “to the enemy’s hand,” we know that looking to God will allow us to see the wide-open spaces of joy and purity within the Kingdom of God. No matter how dark things seem, God’s light still shines.

Nevertheless, we will continue to experience bouts of worry, fear, and depression. Like the psalmist, at those times we’ll turn to God and cry out, “Grant me grace, Lord, for I am distressed.” When we’re feeling oppressed and worried and we can still cry, “My eye is worn out in vexation,/ [as well as] my throat and my belly.” When worry and disappointment threaten to consume us, when we become worn out, there is always succor in God’s embrace if we but ask.

Exodus 5:10–6:12: Moses has done as he was commanded by God. He persuaded the Israelite leaders to stand with him as he goes to Pharaoh and demand release of the Israelite slaves, even if only for three days to go make sacrifices in the wilderness. Pharaoh’s reaction is predictable: not only no, but hell no as he commands the Israelites to find their own straw but still produce the same number of bricks per day. Pharaoh is the model of so many capitalist taskmasters through history, eager both to oppress and to show workers who’s boss.

Moses understandably questions God’s promise to deliver and cries, “O Lord, why have you mistreated this people? Why did you ever send me?” (5:22) Notice how he takes this very personally, still convinced God has made a mistake and sent the wrong guy. Moses’ evidence of God screwing up seems pretty convincing: “Since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people.” (5:23)

But God (rather predictably) reiterates the core promise to bring them back to Canaan, reassuring Moses that “ I have also heard the groaning of the Israelites whom the Egyptians are holding as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant.” (6:5) And he sends Moses back to reassure the Israelites that God will keep his promise and instructs Moses to tell them they will be freed and, “I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.’” (5:8). Unsurprisingly, Moses does not convince the Israelite leaders with whom he has completely lost credibility: “they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.” All Moses has brought them is an existence far worse than before.

With his relationship with the Israelites in shambles, God tells Moses to “Go and tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites go out of his land.” (11). But Moses is beyond discouragement and reminds God once again that he is a poor communicator: “The Israelites have not listened to me; how then shall Pharaoh listen to me, poor speaker that I am?” (12)

What began as a seemingly hopeless task in the first place has gone from bad to worse. Only God seems convinced that Moses is the right guy carrying the right message. This story is an archetype for those would believe they are following God’s call but wind up in a deeper mess than ever before. This story have really resonated with the prophets that came to Israel centuries later. Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah must have all felt exactly like Moses at some point in their ministry.

I know that if I were Moses I’d be saying the same thing and thinking that God is cruel prankster.  It would be difficult to say cheerily with our psalmist today, “As for me, I trust in the Lord.”

Matthew 19:23–30: Following the departure of the rich young ruler, Jesus observes, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (23) and adding his famous comparison, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (23). Speaking for all of us, the disciples “were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?”’ (25) Jesus has turned the Jewish world upside down since it was widely assumed that riches came as the reward for personal righteousness and that righteousness was the key to gaining entrance to heaven.

I think just as the disciples found his statement to be unbelievable, Jesus is still widely misunderstood today. Jesus is saying it is neither our efforts nor our possessions that save us. Instead, God is the key to salvation: “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” The issue is not wealth, but our wrongheaded belief that wealth somehow makes us better and more qualified for salvation.

Peter, being Peter, takes of the issue of the rewards of poverty as he asserts that “we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” (26) In other words, what will be our reward for the enormous sacrifice we’ve made by giving up our homes, families, and profession? Jesus makes a bold promise to his disciples: “at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (28). Moreover, it is those who have given up everything to follow Jesus who will be rewarded: “everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.” (29)

Above all, how God (and Jesus) operate is the reverse of our human expectations and position here on earth as he famously says, “but many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (303).

The unanswered question for still hanging in the air is, will we be willing to abandon what we have here on earth and indeed, as Oswald Chambers keeps reminding us, even to abandon our own selves, our egos, our sense of being in control, in order to follow Jesus? That is the Really Big Question each of us who professes to be a Jesus follower must not only answer but the act upon.

Psalm 31:1–6; Exodus 4:1–5:9; Matthew 19:13–22

Psalm 31:1–5: This psalm of supplication opens with a statement of the psalmist’s steadfast trust in God’s protection: “In You, O Lord, I shelter./ Let me never be shamed.” (2). In the anthropomorphic image of God bending down to listen, he asks, “In Your bounty free me./Incline Your ear to me.” (3a)

The verses here are short and clipped, almost telegraphic, which convey urgency. The military references enhance the feeling that God’s help needs to come sooner rather than later: “Quick, save me./ Be my stronghold of rock,/ a fort-house to rescue me.” (3b) Again, he expresses his trust in God: “For You are my crag and my bastion, / and for Your name’s sake guide me and lead me.” (4)

Having stated that trust in God’s protection, he comes to the point of his prayer. He has been trapped, surrounded by enemies: “Get me out of the net that they laid for me,/ for You are my stronghold.” (5) And he casts his situation completely on God and God’s response in almost a benediction: “In Your hand I commend my spirit. You redeemed me, O Lord, God of truth.” (6)

This is more than a foxhole prayer by someone who has forgotten about God until the moment of peril. Rather, it is a prayer by a man who knows God and trusts God. This is an ongoing relationship and it is out of that trusting relationship that he asks for God’s intervention. Unlike many psalms of supplication our psalmist knows that God is nearby; there is no sense that the supplicant has been abandoned by God. The entire prayer is built on a foundation of trust and awareness of God’s presence. I pray that in my present “desert time,” that I can affirm that God is indeed the rock, the crag, the bastion in whom I trust when I come to him in prayer.

Exodus 4:1–5:9: Even though Moses has had a direct and personal encounter with God, he still feels inadequate to the task he’s been assigned, asking plaintively, “But suppose they do not believe me or listen to me, but say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you.’” (4:1) God does a little show and tell with Moses staff becoming a snake and turning back to a staff again. Then a little more personally, God tells Moses to put his hand in his cloak and draw it back out, “and when he took it out, his hand was leprous, as white as snow.” (6) God quickly heals his hand telling Moses, ““If they will not believe you or heed the first sign, they may believe the second sign.” (8) And for good measure, God tells Moses he can also pour water from the Nile on the ground and it will turn to blood.  These are all a foretaste of the plagues soon to be visited in Egypt.

Even though Moses is probably now pretty convinced of God’s power, he asks to get out of the assignment by telling God, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (10) God will have nothing of this excuse, so Moses tries his last card: “O my Lord, please send someone else.” (13). God is pretty annoyed at this point and assigns Moses’ brother, Aaron, to be his mouthpiece.

The lesson here is obvious: no matter how many excuses we throw up about our weaknesses or our inability to work in the Kingdom, God has a way of overcoming them. And there is no new excuse we can present to God. It’s clear that Moses pretty much ran the table of excuses and God countered each one of them. The lesson for us is when we offer an excuse, we also need to be alert to see how God will negate the excuse and give us the fortitude to go forward.

Moses asks his father-in-law, Jethro, for permission to move his household back to Egypt to which Jethro quickly agrees. The deal is sealed rather bizarrely sealed in blood by Moses’ wife circumcising their son and touched Moses feet with the foreskin. (Ugh.) Aaron comes to Moses and they meet with the Israeli leaders, with Aaron speaking and Moses performing the signs God had demonstrated to him. In one of the truly uplifting verses in this book, “The people believed; and when they heard that the Lord had given heed to the Israelites and that he had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped.” (31)

With the Israelites now united behind their new leader, Moses appears before Pharaoh and announces that God demands that the king let the Israelites go. Unsurprisingly, Pharaoh refuses, claiming to know nothing of this God character. Aaron and Moses try another gambit, asking for a three-day holiday for Israel “to sacrifice to the Lord our God, or he will fall upon us with pestilence or sword.” (5:3) This request seems outrageous to Pharaoh and he turns the screws on Israel, famously telling them to make bricks without straw. He accuses the hardworking Israelites of being lazy and commands, “Let heavier work be laid on them; then they will labor at it and pay no attention to deceptive words.” (9)

This story reminds us that oppressors are always the same: they see the oppressed as lazy and unworthy of mercy and double down in their cruelty. I’m pretty sure this story resonated strongly among the American slaves in the 19th century. And it resonates strongly with us as we see oppressed people all around the world today.

Matthew 19:13–22: Jesus once again provides his disciples—and us—with an object lesson when people bring little kids to be blessed and the disciples try to shoo them away. Jesus responds, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” (14) The message is clear: everyone, no matter their age, is eligible for the kingdom. Jesus is also telling them that as a matter of fact, guys, the kingdom is much different than you think. In fact, it’s pretty much the opposite of what you (and we) are expecting. This “upside downness” will be borne out with increasing drama as the story proceeds.

As usual, Matthew makes an important point with the juxtaposition of his stories. Just after Jesus blesses the children, telling us we need to be like them, the rich young ruler (RYR) comes up to Jesus and asks the all-important question, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Unsurprisingly, Jesus does not directly answer the question, but asks if the RYR has obeyed all the commandments. The RYR responds that he has and then Jesus tells him that is insufficient. He must go and sell everything and give it all to the poor.

Unwilling to do so, the RYR walks away sadly, foregoing the opportunity of a lifetime. The RYR’s adult hesitation is contrasted with the innocence of little children. If we cannot lose our “adultness” and our all-consuming need to remain in control; if we are not willing to abandon everything to Jesus, we cannot be like innocent children eager to enter the Kingdom.

Alas, I am far more like the RYR wishing to retain control of my life and my possessions, unwilling to forego everything. I suspect I am not alone.

Psalm 30:6–12; Exodus 2:11–3:22; Matthew 19:1–12

Psalm 30:6–12: One of the greatest gifts form God that every creature enjoys is the diurnal rhythm of life. No matter what happens in a given day, the day comes to an end and we begin afresh in the morning with a fresh day and a fresh perspective: Our psalmist puts it beautifully: “At evening one beds down weeping,/ and in morning, glad song.” (6b) We may not always wake up in “glad song,” but as we awaken it’s worth reflecting on the new day’s opportunities rather than yesterday’s trials.

There is another underlying rhythm here: the seeming presence and absence of God. When we feel God’s presence, we sing with the poet’s confidence in God’s sustaining power: “Lord, in Your pleasure You made me stand mountain-strong.” (8a) But if we feel abandoned by God, then, “—When You hid Your face, I was stricken.” (8b)

But the psalmist has a good lesson here for us. Even when he felt abandoned, he continued to pray: “To You, O lord, I call,/ and to the Master I plead.” (9) I know this is where I go astray. When I feel I’m in a spiritual desert and God is nowhere to be seen, I tend to stop praying. Which only makes me feel more abandoned.

But our psalmist is prayerfully persistent and asks God the same question that is asked in many psalms of supplication: “What profit in my blood,/ in my going down deathward? [Great word!]/ Will dust acclaim You, / will it tell Your truth?” (9) In other words, what’s your logic, God, in allowing us to die, or even feel abandoned? Dead people do not worship or acclaim God.

This raises the eternal question, if God loves us, why does he allow bad things to happen to us? So we ask with the psalmist, “Hear Lord, and grant me grace. / Lord become a helper to me.” (11) I don’t think of God this way very often, but God is indeed the powerful help at the center of our lives, especially when we realize that God expresses his love through the kind actions of other people.

We come to realize that even if God does not answer this question, we are nevertheless each new morning we can reflect on the question. Which means we’re still alive! And if we are alive in God, we rejoice at his transformative power: “You have turned my dirge into a dance for me/ undine my sackcloth and bound me for joy.” (12) And with the psalmist, we rise and dance and sing: “O, let my heart hymn You and not be still.” (13a) May each new day be a dance rather than a dirge.

Exodus 2:11–3:22: This reading covers a lot of territory. We encounter the troubling passage where Moses, angered by the harsh beating of a fellow Hebrew, kills the Egyptian and hides the body thinking no one has seen his act. But the next day, he’s found out, not by an Egyptian but a fellow Hebrew and he flees to Midian, where he helps the daughters of the priest of Midian scare off marauding shepherds at the water trough. He’s invited to dinner, takes up residence, and shortly marries the priest’s daughter Zipporah, who bears him a son. I’m sure he intended to live out his days in Midian.

Moses is living proof that you cannot escape God. Conditions in Egypt have gone from bad to worse for the Hebrews, and “Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God.” (2:23), whom they had obviously forgotten about since the time of Joseph. God, who has apparently been pretty silent for the past 400 years, “heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” (24). Really? Did God forget about the Israelites all this time? Or had the ISraelites forgotten about him until their circumstances were so desperate that “their cry for help rose up to God?” I suspect the latter, since we tend to come to God only in dark times. But God is loving and “God took notice of them.” (2:24b)

As usual, God has an improbable rescue plan and he chooses an equally improbable a leader to help carry it off: this murdering shepherd who’s been hiding for some years off in Midian. God makes himself known in the form of a burning bush and identifies himself: ““I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” (3:6). Moses, aware he is experiencing a theophany hides his face in terror “for he was afraid to look at God.”

Moses’s terror does not faze God in the least, who proceeds to tell him that he’s God’s chosen leaderm who will lead the Israelites out of Egypt “to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (8) Moses, having overcome his initial fear, understandably asks why God chose him to go to Pharaoh. God speaks the words all of us facing a difficult or impossible situation wish to hear: “I will be with you.” (12)

This comforting answer seems to reassure him because Moses asks a question that no one has thus far asked: “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (13). God answers in what I have always felt is pretty cryptic: “I am who I am.” Nevertheless, this seems to satisfy Moses since he continues to listen as God gives him instructions of what to do.

I’m sure God’s plan all felt quite impossible to Moses: he’s to suddenly reappear, convince the Hebrew leaders that he’s not the escaped murdered they think he is, but has come directly from God and they had better listen to him. Even worse, he has to go to Pharaoh and demand that he allow Egyptian society to be ripped apart by freeing its slaves. Here, however, God promises to help him, telling Moses, “I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all my wonders that I will perform in it; after that he will let you go.” (20) God is with us when he asks us to do the impossible. The question of course, is are we willing to take a risk to carry out God’s work?

God certainly seems to have a sense of irony when he says “ I will bring this people into such favor with the Egyptians that, when you go, you will not go empty-handed.” (21) ‘Favor’ toward the Hebrews was not exactly what the Egyptians were feeling when they allowed the Hebrews to depart. But then again, God promises, they’ll be free to plunder the Egyptian as they leave.

Matthew 19:1–12: We come to one of Jesus’ truly hard sayings: the question of divorce, which arises, as usual, from the Pharisees, relentless in their quest to trip him up. Jesus refers them to Genesis, ““Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’” (4) and therefore, children leave their parents and marry because it is God’s will as Creator that the natural order of all living creation be observed: “they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (6).

The Pharisees counter that the Law allows a certificate of divorce, which allows an ‘out.’ Jesus retorts that “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives,” (8a) but he emphasizes that it violates God’s natural created order: “from the beginning it was not so.” (8b)

Then the hard part: “I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.” (9) The disciples probably know people who have divorced and they logically conclude, it is better not to marry in the first place. Jesus cuts them off by saying not everyone, e.g., eunuchs, can marry, and that his words apply only to those who can.

The Catholic church has remained steadfast on the issue of divorce and among the consequences of that steadfastness, the Anglican church came into being. Jesus knows divorce will happen, but he is also telling us that divorce corrupts the natural order. In his words about eunuchs [welcome to my world…] I think the underlying message is that divorce will always be part of a society of fallen humans, but that it always corrupts us further.

We have to ask ourselves what has been the consequence of divorce in American society. I think there is no question that widespread divorce has corrupted the definition of marriage itself. Just look at the growing rates of cohabitation without marriage—which in effect is exactly an answer to the disciples’ question— as well as the expanding definition of what marriage even means in terms of gender. No matter how we justify divorce, same sex marriage, and further redefinitions of marriage yet to come, there can be no argument that Jesus is right: divorce and its consequences have corrupted God’s natural created order. One more evidence of our fallenness as human beings. No matter its justification, as in cases of abuse, it goes against what God had in mind for us.

Psalm 30:1–5; Exodus 1:1–2:10; Matthew 18:15–35

Psalm 30:1–5: This psalm’s superscription is quite specific: “Psalm, song for the dedication of the house, for David.” (1) First, no surprise, it announces itself as a psalm. Second, it suggests it is used at the dedication of the temple [although the temple wasn’t around in David’s time], so perhaps it was the dedication f an altar or something the preceded the temple. Third, it’s “for David,” i.e., not written by David [as I suspect very few psalms were.]

Speaking in David’s voice the psalmist opens on a note of pure joy and thanksgiving for God’s rescue: “I shall exalt You, Lord, for You drew me up,/ and You gave no joy to my enemies.” (2) Alter informs us that the phrase “drew me up” is exactly drawing water up from a well. In short, David has been rescued from the pit of death because his enemies did not succeed in their plan to kill him.

It also acknowledges a supplication to God which was answered: “Lord, my God,/ I cried and You healed me.” (3) These are words that resonate strongly for me since I believe that God rescued me from an inevitable death from advanced cancer. I have been truly healed.

The idea of  a rescue from certain death is reiterated: Lord, You brought me up from Sheol, gave me life from those gone down to the Pit.” (4)  David was very near death and rescued just minutes before his death. The idea of going “down to the Pit,” reminds one of the Apostle Creed’s affirmation that after he died on the cross, Jesus descended into hell, or what in the OT is Sheol or the Pit. This psalm reflects that same descent and ascent.

For this rescue there can be only one response: worship, which is nicely summarized in verse 5: “Hymn to the Lord, O his faithful,/ acclaim his holy name.” This is one of those moments when we realize that “worship” and “thanksgiving” are essentially synonyms.

Exodus 1:1–2:10: Exodus opens by naming the 11 brothers and Joseph, who was already in Egypt,” what began as a large family (of 70!) has become in succeeding generations “fruitful and prolific” and “they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.” (7)

The pharaonic administration has changed and  “a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” (8). He looks out over his empire and is exceedingly nervous about holding his grip on power. The Israeli “guests” have multiplied to the point where the Pharaoh declares, ““Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we.” (9) His major concern is political as he tells his aides, “let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” (10). So they enslave them, and the “Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor.” (13, 14a). To make sure we get the point about the Egyptians becoming the oppressors, our authors repeat themselves: “They [the Egyptians] were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.” (14b) Given that this book was probably written during the Babylonian captivity, this story of Egyptian oppression certainly had resonance among the Jews of that time.

Even as slaves they continue to multiply and the Pharaoh decides things have gotten out of hand the Israelite fecundity must be stopped brutally in its tracks. he orders all the Egyptian midwives to kill any Israelite boy minutes after his birth. “But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.” (17)

When Pharaoh challenges them on this, they reply rather cleverly that “the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” (19). Our authors tell us, “because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.” (22). Realizing the midwife tactic won’t work, the Pharaoh issues an even harsher command: ““Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.” (22)

The scene shifts from the palace to the house of Levi and his wife, identified only as “a Levite woman.” [What is it with omitting the names of courageous women? Such is patriarchy, I guess.] We all know the story: the mother can no longer hide the child and builds a little ark and places it in the reedy part of the Nile. The boy’s sister watches; the Egyptian princess spots it, rescues the child and via the sister, winds up giving the child to its actual mother, who nurses and raises the child. “When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son.” (2:10) And what I had not realized before, it is the Pharaoh’s daughter who “named him Moses,“because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.” [Does this mean that the name ‘Moses’ is actually Egyptian in origin?]

The parallels between the Moses story and the Joseph story are striking. Both are taken from their families; both are rescued; both end up in the Pharaoh’s court. And we see echoes of Noah in the papyrus basket floating down the river toward rescue.

And in the Pharaoh’s act we see a foreshadowing of Matthew’s account of Herod demanding boy children to be killed after he hears about the nascent Messiah just born in Bethlehem. Matthew’s point being that just as Moses was rescued from certain death to save his people, so too Jesus is our rescuing Messiah.

Matthew 18:15–35: I’ve always been puzzled by this passage about the process of dealing with someone “who sins” in the church. It seems oddly out of context and much more like an insertion by Matthew, especially since the church of Jesus Christ did not exist when Jesus was on earth, and I suspect he was not talking about temple politics. Nevertheless, the process of meeting one-on-one to resolve and issue and if that doesn’t work then bringing a “two or three witnesses”  is a pretty effective one if handled in the name of Jesus and not as a method of vindictiveness.

Whether or not Jesus actually said these things is really not the issue, since this is a useful lesson in church polity. And this section concludes with the all-important reality that “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (20)

It is also a good opportunity for Jesus to make an equally all-important point about our obligation to forgive: “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” (22)

Jesus drives the point of forgiveness home with his memorable parable of the unforgiving servant. The slave grovels and is forgiven an enormous debt by his master. But he turns around and demands a comparatively trivial amount from a fellow slave. Other slaves complain to the master, who  demands,”‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ ” (32, 33) The unforgiving slave meets a bad end. Jesus’ point is terribly clear here. Through Jesus Christ, God has forgiven us our enormous sins and we are to pay that forgiveness forward by forgiving those who sin against us.

Of course this behavior of forgiveness is enormously puzzling to those outside the church, as witness the forgiveness of the man who killed 9 people gathered for a Bible study in a church in Charleston SC. While the world beyond the church may find this behavior odd and even wrong-headed, there’s no question what our obligation as Christians is—just as it was obvious to those church members in Charleston.


Psalm 29; Genesis 50; Matthew 18:1–14

Psalm 29: This psalm sings to the power of almighty God. Alter notes that many have puzzled over its first line—”Grant to the Lord, O sons of God”—as to who these sons are. Apparently many scholars have suggested this psalm arises from an earlier Canaanite psalm and that the “sons of God” is “best thought of as a flickering literary afterlife of a polytheistic mythology—God’s royal entourage on high.”

Be that as it may, the thrust of the psalm is pure praise of God’s attributes, and especially his power over nature—which seems natural given that God is Creator. As we see so often in the Psalms, it is speech and voice that is the attribute of power—and no more so than here where “The God of glory thunders” (3) and “the Lord’s voice breaking cedars,/ the Lord shatters the Lebanon cedars.” (5) God’s voice is expressed in thunder and then as earthquake expressed with a remarkable simile of livestock prancing: “and He makes Lebanon dance like a calf,/ Sirion like a young wild ox.” (6).

Earthquake begets fire as “the Lord’s voice hews flames of fire” (7) and then still more earthquakes: “The Lord makes the wilderness shake,/ The Lord’s voice makes the Kadesh wilderness shake.” (8). God’s earthquake and thunder brings both birth and destruction: “The Lord’s voice brings on the birth-pangs of does/ and lays bare the forests.” (9). All of this is laid out as evidence of God’s unfathomable glory and power, “and the Lord is enthroned as king for all time.” (10b)

In the final verse we come to the raison d’etre for this psalm: “May the Lord give strength to His people/ May the Lord bless His people with peace.” (11) It is God’s almighty power that gives us God-followers our own strength—and peace. The poem begins with repetition of the phrase,”Grant to the Lord,” but there is reciprocity here: this all-powerful God that can shake the earth; this God we worship has given us strength and peace in return.

Genesis 50: Joseph weeps as his father dies. This being Egypt, Jacob then benefits from the remarkable embalming skills of the Egyptians, which was certainly necessary in those pre-refrigeration days to carry Jacob’s body back to Canaan. The return to Canaan to bury Jacob is no small affair and “ With him [Joseph] went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his household, and all the elders of the land of Egypt, as well as all the household of Joseph, his brothers, and his father’s household.” (7, 8) There are so many of them that “When the Canaanite inhabitants of the land saw the mourning on the threshing floor of Atad, they said, “This is a grievous mourning on the part of the Egyptians.” (11) But the crucial fact is that this is a final act of obedience to their father “his sons did for him as he had instructed them.” (12)—a message to every Jew of the respect due one’s father.

Upon their return to Egypt, Joseph’s brothers have the very real concern that with their father now dead, Joseph will finally take his revenge on them for what they did so many years ago: ““What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” (15) Even now there’s some deceit on their [art as they tell Joseph, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’” (16, 17). If Jacob said that, it has not been mentioned in the story. I have the feeling Joseph figured that this bit about his father’s instruction may have been made up, but he gracefully chooses to ignore that possibility and takes the brothers’ statement at face value.

Nevertheless, I’m sure the brothers’ next statement, “Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” (17b) was sincere. Joseph certainly accepts it as such as another scene of brotherly emotion erupts: “Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept.” (18) One has to think that the authors insert this scene as a reminder of the brotherly love that once existed among the tribes of Israel. As we know too well from Israel’s history, enmity replaced fraternal love.

The brothers offer to become Joseph’s slaves, but he once again repeats the underlying theme of this long story: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” (20) In some ways this is the overarching theme of the entire book of Genesis. No matter how far astray the many characters we’ve met may go—particularly the patriarchs—it is always part of God’s plan to bring good out of human fallenness. Joseph’s words to his brothers, “So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” (21) is a message to every Jew hearing this story: like Joseph, God will provide.

Finally, there is the key promise that while the family of Israel may be in Egypt for a while, there is the promise of eventual return to Canaan as Joseph, now on his deathbed, says, “God will surely come to you, and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” And on this note of eventual return, this book of beginnings ends with the death of Joseph.

Matthew 18:1–14: Jesus has just finished telling the disciple about his fate and three of them have had the mountaintop experience of the Transfiguration, which they surely shared among their fellows. Now they seem to be getting visions of great personal glory to come and they ask Jesus, ““Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (1) To which Jesus calls a child and tells them that “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (3). He tells them—and us—that humility, not religiosity, is the means to enter the Kingdom.

He then warns anyone who places ” a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (6). To be sure, it’s a warning to his disciples, but it is also a warning to us two millennia later. Be in the name of “good order” or over-interpreting theology, too many Christian churches have done exactly what Jesus warns about. Just as in Jesus’ day with the Jews, Christianity is too often about rules and restrictions rather than about grace. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be structure, but the human predilection to rules and bureaucracy has caused too many churches to become a millstone themselves.

Jesus’ warning is harsh: “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away…if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away” (8,9) As usual though, Matthew’s juxtaposition of little children and millstones is exactly right: it is humility, not religiosity that is the key to following Jesus. Religiosity only results in millstones that impede the journey.

In the story of the lost sheep I think that there is a certain universalism here: it is God’s desire that 100% of humanity comes to him. For like the shepherd, he loves each human intensely. It is not in God’s nature to reject anyone. Rather it is our nature to reject him. And we—both as individuals and as community—that too often take perverse pleasure in causing others to stumble.

Psalm 28; Genesis 49; Matthew 17:14–27

Psalm 28: This psalm of supplication understands that communication requires both hearing and speaking, and the poet prays that God will do neither as he cries in desperation, “My Rock, do not be deaf to me./ Lest You be mute to me/ and I be like those gone down to the pit.” (1) If God does not hear, he will not speak. For me, this is often my fear when I pray. Is God really there or is this an entirely pointless exercise?


As a child might do to a recalcitrant father, the psalmist repeats his cry. Perhaps God will really get the message if we keep saying it: “Hear the sound of my pleading/ when I cry out to You.” (2a). He notes to God that he is in the physical attitude for prayer—”I lift up my hands”—and in the right place: “to Your holy shrine.” (2).

What gives this pray added urgency is that the poet fears that God will do the opposite of hearing and speaking: he will consign his supplicant to be among evildoers: “Do not pull me down with the wicked,/ and with the wrongdoers.” (3a). Worse, they are hypocrites, “who speak peace to their fellows /with foulness in their heart.” (3b)

In fact, evildoers deserve appropriate recompense for their foul deeds: “Pay them back for their acts/ and for the evil of their schemings./ Their handiwork give them back in kind./ Pay back what is coming to them.” (4) The question arises, is it proper for us to pray to God for people who have done us wrong to receive punishment from God as our psalmist does here? With his command to love our enemies, Jesus seems to have canceled the the thrust of this prayer.

The psalmist finally realizes that God’s action is not required. Evildoers will come to a bad end all on their own because “they understand not the acts of the Lord/ and His handiwork they would destroy and not build.” (5) This verse reenforces the idea that those who follow God build up and are a positive influence in society while evildoers destroy what has been built. This is the essential dynamic of human affairs. This psalm sees culture in stark black and white terms; there is no room for ambiguity. Either we are building up under God’s leadership or we are tearing down without God.

This also accounts for the poet’s desperation. If God does not answer, he knows he will be cast among the destroyers. But happily—and as always the case—the poet realizes that “the Lord is my strength and my shield./ In Him my heart trusts.” (7) God has come to the rescue and “I was helped and my heart rejoiced/ and with my song I acclaim him.” As always, God comes through in the end.

Genesis 49: A dying Jacob call the brothers together so “that I may tell you what will happen to you in days to come.” (1) And as the psalmist tells us, the brothers who have done evil will receive their recompense. Reuben, “you shall no longer excel/because you went up onto your father’s bed;/ then you defiled it” (4) For their various murders and animal cruelty(!)—”and at their whim they hamstrung oxen”—Simeon and Levi receive a curse rather than a blessing: “Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce,/and their wrath, for it is cruel!” (7).

We can tell this is history written many years later by the men of the tribe of Judah, which brother is a central focus of Jacob’s blessing, telling him that his descendants will rule over all the others: “he scepter shall not depart from Judah,/ nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,/until tribute comes to him.” (10)

And appropriately, Joseph receives Jacob’s lengthy blessing, concluding with:
     The blessings of your father
        are stronger than the blessings of the eternal mountains,
         the bounties of the everlasting hills;
     may they be on the head of Joseph,
         on the brow of him who was set apart from his brothers.” (26)

But what’s interesting to me is that there was no tribe of Joseph; there was only the “half tribes” of his sons, Ephraim and Menasseh. Was it because he married an Egyptian wife? Or something else?

But perhaps most mysteriously, Benjamin is effectively cursed by his father:
Benjamin is a ravenous wolf,
    in the morning devouring the prey,
    and at evening dividing the spoil. (27)

I’m pretty sure the actual Jacob said none of this, but that the authors of Genesis writing centuries later have used this final statement as a rationale to summarize the various qualities of the twelve tribes of Israel. I’m pretty sure that the tribes that comprised the northern kingdom of Israel are among those receiving the curses, and perhaps this accounts for the odd statement about Benjamin.

Finally, the man who stole the blessing from his brother, committed numerous sins, and yet who was immeasurably blessed by God breathes his last, “When Jacob ended his charge to his sons, he drew up his feet into the bed, breathed his last, and was gathered to his people.” (33)

Matthew 17:14–27:  Jesus returns to his healing ministry. A father of an epileptic son tells Jesus that “I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.” (16) Jesus responds in what can only be 100% human frustration: “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” (17) So, who is the faithless generation? It is his disciples who continue to demonstrate inadequate faith. His frustration becomes a teachable moment: “I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” (20)

As we well know, once Jesus has departed earth, his disciples do indeed move mountains in the form of changing the world as Christianity ultimately takes over the Roman Empire. But I think we need to remember that faith of this power did not come to them until Jesus sent them the “comforter” in the form of the Holy Spirit after he left earth. As mere humans without the power of Holy Spirit, they—and we—can do little work in the Kingdom. But the mustard seed has been planted in their hearts.

Just in case they didn’t get the message the first time, Jesus repeats his announcement of his impending death and resurrection. Matthew tells us that upon hearing this again, “they [the disciples] were greatly distressed.” And I suspect in large part it wasn’t that they were afraid he would die on them, but that they had hitched their respective stars to an apparent lunatic.

We Americans find the idea of paying a tax to support a religious institution unconstitutional, but it has been common throughout history and irreligious Europe still pays for state-run churches today. So too in Capernaum: the temple tax is due. Jesus asks Peter, “From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” (25) Peter answers quite naturally that ‘others’ owe the tax. “Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free.'” (26), his point being that as children of the Kingdom they do not owe religious taxes.

Nevertheless “so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up” (27) wherein Peter will find a gold coin with which to pay the tax. Thus, Peter will have paid the tax “to them for you and me” without using his personal funds. Peter and especially Jesus are still free and not beholden to the temple authorities. Jesus seems to be making a strong point here about his independence from the religious system of the day. He is indeed coming to put something quite different in its place.

Psalm 27:7–14; Genesis 48; Matthew 17:1–13

Psalm 27:7–14: When we talk about the “face of God,” we tend to think of it as symbolic, that we are near or in the presence of God. But our psalmist makes it much more than that, “Of You, my heart said,/ “Seek My face.”/ Your face, Lord, I do seek./ Do not hide Your face from me,/ Do not turn Your servant away in wrath.” (8, 9a). The repeated word creates a strong anthropomorphic flavor here: the psalmist truly wishes to look for and then gaze on the face of God—something even Moses was not able to do. “Face” of course implies a strong and powerful relationship, as in ‘face to face.’ Truly, our psalmist wants to be a close to God as he can possibly get.

To intensify his point he shifts to the opposite tack as he pleads, “Abandon me not, nor forsake me, O God of my rescue,” (9b) which is a pretty standard trope in a psalm of supplication. But then, as if to prove his desire to be with and his loyalty to God above all else, he makes a shocking statement: “Though my father and mother forsook me,/ the Lord would gather me in.” (10) Shocking to us for sure, unimaginable in the psalmist’s culture. So, yes, there is hyperbole here, but it is a dramatic way to make it clear how deeply the psalmist wishes to be with God—and how deeply he trusts God even over the people who are his closest guardians on earth.

The psalm ends with a wonderful benediction as it summarizes the themes of this psalm, which began by asserting the psalmist’s confidence in God’s presence and ends with a declaration of trust that God is faithful and will spare him from the evil acts of his enemies and strengthen his courage:
Hope for the Lord!
Let your heart be firm and bold,
and hope for the Lord.

Hope and a firm and bold heart—the sure sign of courage. These are truly the gifts arising form a close face-to-face relationship with God.

Genesis 48: Now 147 years old, Jacob/ ISrael lies on his deathbed. Only Joseph seems to be present as Jacob tells him that God appeared to him at Luz and blessed him. Once more Jacob utters the covenantal promise from God: “‘I am going to make you fruitful and increase your numbers; I will make of you a company of peoples, and will give this land to your offspring after you for a perpetual holding.’ ” (4) As demonstration of that promise he brings Joseph’s sons officially into the family, “Therefore your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are now mine.” (5)

Joseph brings his sons into meet Jacob and all three kneel in front of their father and grandfather. Then Jacob blesses them, placing his official primogeniture hand of blessing on the younger son, Ephraim, crossing his arms, placing his left hand on the eldest son, Manasseh. But “when Joseph saw that his father laid his right hand on the head of Ephraim, it displeased him.” (17) and he tries to physically switch Jacob’s hands to put his right hand on the eldest son. But Jacob refuses, telling Jacob, ““I know, my son, I know; he also shall become a people, and he also shall be great. Nevertheless his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall become a multitude of nations.” (19)

Every time Jacob is involved in a blessing, there seems to be a departure form norm. That was certainly true when Jacob stole the blessing from Esau. And now, reflecting that event, the younger rather than the older son is given the blessing. Is Jacob just being contrary? Or is there something about the descendants of Ephraim that allow them the greater blessing? Or is it simply that the author here is out of the tribe of Ephraim and gets to write the history as he sees fit?

The chapter ends on what is the second core element of God’s covenant with the people of Israel—and surely resonated with the Jews in exile in Babylon, as well as giving us  a hint of events to come: “I am about to die, but God will be with you and will bring you again to the land of your ancestors.” (21) One story—that of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph—is coming to an end, but the next part of the story is a light on the far horizon.

Matthew 17:1–13: Jesus has spoken strange and disturbing words about what will happen to him, and Peter has articulated what I’m sure the other disciples must at last be thinking: Jesus is truly the Messiah Israel has been waiting for. So, six days later, Jesus takes Peter, James , and John up to have the ultimate mountaintop experience. Jesus is transfigured and “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” (2) Which we’ll interpret as his true God-like form that John (John 1) and Paul (Philippians 2) write about.

Then, to underscore his messianic bona fides to his Jewish disciples, the great prophets, Moses and Elijah appear in conversation. Finally, in a replay of the baptism scene, God himself speaks: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (5)

How do we parse these three elements of the Transfiguration? We witness the divinity of Jesus in his personal transformation as he strips away his humanness for a moment. In presenting Moses and Elijah, his disciples are shown that Jesus is indeed who he says he is: the Son of Man/ the Jewish Messiah. God’s audible voice makes it clear that when Jesus speaks of his true father, it is not Joseph of Nazareth.

The reaction of the disciples is altogether natural: terror. And as we hear so often in the Bible, they are told not to be afraid. Did Jesus’ words of comfort suffice? It would seem so since they are shortly walking back down the mountain in deep conversation.

As always, there are questions, the foremost being, “Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” (10) But as Jesus makes clear, Elijah had already come in the form of John the Baptist “and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased.” (12a) And Jesus reenforces his earlier predictive warning: “So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.” (12b)

I really wish Matthew had written what the response of the disciples was at that point. Were they convinced about who Jesus was? I suspect they were, but they happily followed Jesus’ command not to tell anyone because they knew they would be hauled off to the looney bin if they attempted to describe what happened.


Psalm 27:1–6; Genesis 46:28–47:31; Matthew 16:21–28

Psalm 27:1–6: Although this is a psalm of supplication, it rings with confidence in the salvific power of God, especially the famous opening verse:
The Lord is my light and my rescue.
Whom shall I fear?
The Lord is my life’s stronghold.
Of whom shall I be afraid? (1)

Notice that this psalm is not some theological abstraction; it is intensely personal: “my light;” “my rescue;” “my life’s stronghold;” “of whom shall be afraid?’ The poet’s confidence extends to the knowledge that his enemies cannot conquer him, but will “trip and fall.” (2)

God’s sheltering power is greater than any army, and we can easily imagine David murmuring these words as the sun rises on the day of battle: “Though a camp is marshalled against me,/ my heart shall not fear.” (3a) Even in the midst of the battle clash, his confidence in God allows him to say, “Though battle is roused against me,/ nonetheless do I trust.” (3b)

The natural question is, could we pray with the same trust and confidence as David even as we face challenges and trials that are nowhere near as great as those he faced on the battlefield?

We know this is a psalm of supplication at verse 4 as he asks, “it is this that I seek—/ that I dwell in the house of the Lord/ all the days of my life.” (4a) Yes, this is the temple of Jerusalem in the safety of sanctuary, but for us the “house” is assuredly the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. And it is not just temporary, but “all the days of my life.” (4b)

God’s protective power provides “shelter on the day of evil” (5a). Even though God “conceals me  in the recess of His tent,” (5b) we do not hide from the trials that surrounds us. Rather, the freedom from fear and the assurance of God’s protection brings courage. We can see David looking out over the field of battle as he stands up and looks out from behind the safety of God’s rock and sees the challenge ahead: “And now my head rises/ over my enemies around me.” (6a) I pray that I will be open to this same marvelous assurance that will hide me in God’s tent, yet give me the courage to look out at the and “sing and hymn to the Lord.” (6b)

Genesis 46:28–47:31: Joseph and his father meet at last and it is a sweet reunion as Joseph “presented himself to him [Jacob], fell on his neck, and wept on his neck a good while.” And Jacob says he can now die in peace. (46:29)

Now that Jacob’s family had arrived in Egypt there is the question of “what next?” But ever resourceful and clever, Joseph tells Jacob and his brothers that there is a significant industry that the Egyptians either abhor ar are not very good at: shepherding and ranching. And he has a particular part of Egypt in mind for them to settle in: Goshen. So, Joseph instructs the brothers that when Pharaoh asks, “What is your occupation,” they are to respond, “‘Your servants have been keepers of livestock from our youth even until now, both we and our ancestors.'” (46:34)

Joseph brings five brothers to Pharaoh, who generously offers, “The land of Egypt is before you; settle your father and your brothers in the best part of the land; let them live in the land of Goshen;” (47:6) Once again, Joseph’s plans are happily realized as Pharaoh even puts them in charge of his own livestock.

There is a poignant scene when Joseph brings his father to meet Pharaoh, who asks how old Jacob is.  Jacob tells him he’s 130 years old, but tells the king, “few and hard have been the years of my life. They do not compare with the years of the life of my ancestors during their long sojourn.” (47:9), which is certainly the case. In what appears to be an unprecedented act of diplomacy, Jacob then blesses Pharaoh.

Severe famine continues and Joseph, who has control over the entire grain inventory of Egypt, sells the grain to the hungry populace: “and Joseph gave them food in exchange for the horses, the flocks, the herds, and the donkeys.” (47:17. The following year, the situation is even more desperate and Joseph sells food in exchange for land, expanding Pharaoh’s landholdings to the point where only the Egyptian priests have any land left.

A new rule is established as well: “Joseph made it a statute concerning the land of Egypt, and it stands to this day, that Pharaoh should have the fifth.” (26) So, here is the root of tithing, only for the Egyptians, it was essentially a 20% tax. The famine became a great vehicle for Pharaoh to consolidate his power—all because he benefited from Joseph’s foresight and cleverness. And of course, Israel’s family benefits nicely, as well: “Thus Israel settled in the land of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; and they gained possessions in it, and were fruitful and multiplied exceedingly.” (27)

Jacob lives in Egypt for another 17 years. Jacob’s last request of Joseph is that he be buried in Canaan. Joseph responds, “I will do as you have said.” (30). This request to return to Canaan will be echoed in a far different way about 400 years later.

Matthew 16:21–28: Jesus begins to reveal what lies ahead: “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” What’s interesting is that in private, Jesus is very straightforward about what’s going to happen, including the rather unbelievable news of a bodily resurrection. Peter, understandably in my view, is in massive denial about this: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” (22) But rather than being sweetly therapeutic, Jesus retorts quite unsympathetically, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (23).

Yes, Jesus is correct theologically, but this is definitely one of those reminders why being Jesus’ disciple can be challenging at best and irritating at worst. Which I think applies to us as well as Peter.

After what must have seemed like a dark fairy tale to his disciples, Jesus continues in the same (from a human standpoint) negative vein: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (24,25) To accept these words requires a massive shift, not just in outlook, but in a total rearrangement of one’s life. As Oswald Chambers would have it, we are to abandon our own lives and any thought of control over our life to Jesus.

Finally, Jesus goes totally eschatological on his disciples, speaking of heavenly events to come:  “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.” (27). This is definitely an ‘end-times’ forecast, and a much more spectacular replay of how Jesus arrived on earth: not in visible glory, but as a tiny baby, nonetheless, as Luke has it, accompanied by a chorus of angels.

Well, that’s fine. Jesus will come someday in the far off future in a cloud of glory. But then he says something that has confused not only his disciples, but all of us in the centuries ever since: “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (28) Well, that seems to forecast a near-term return since he makes it clear that some of the folks he’s talking to will still be alive.  But I wonder if he’s actually referring to his Ascension where he returns into his kingdom rather than from his kingdom, which certainly occurred in the lifetime of his disciples? The participle “coming” is ambiguous enough to accommodate both directions, I think.  [This is one of those times when I wish I could read this in the original Koine Greek…]

One thing we know: After Jesus ascended he did not return in visible glory during the lifetime of his disciples, although that expectation is certainly what creates this sense of imminence in Paul’s letters and elsewhere. Instead, as Jesus promised in the Upper Room (John 16, 17), he sent the Holy Spirit instead. We still await Jesus’ return in glory. But as we know from the creeds, we can wait with expectation, but we will never know the timing of this wonderful event, so it’s best to be about Kingdom business in the meantime.




Psalm 26; Genesis 46:1–27; Matthew 16:5–20

Psalm 26: Like several of the preceding psalms, notably 23, the psalmist sees life as a walk through often treacherous territory. However, this psalm’s walk begins with a righteous walk with God: “Judge me, O Lord./ For I have walked in my whole wholeness,/ And the Lord I have trusted./ I shall not stumble.” (2) And he remains committed to following this path of righteousness: “For Your kindness is before my eyes/ and I shall walk in Your truth.” (3) This means he has avoided temptation by avoiding the company of the wrong sorts of people: “I have not sat with lying folk/ nor with furtive men have dealt./ I despised the assembly of evildoers,/ nor with the wicked have I sat.” (4,5)

His uprightness is proper preparation for him to worship, presumably at the temple in Jerusalem: “Let me wash my palms in cleanness/ and go round Your altar, Lord,/ to utter aloud a thanksgiving/ and to recount all Your wonders.” (6,7) This is where our poet wants to be: “Lord, I love the abode of Your house/ and the place where Your glory dwells.” (8) And because of how well he has followed God he asks that should he die it would be with God, not all those evil people: “Do not take my life’s breath with offenders/ nor with blood-guilty men my life.” (9) Especially conspirators, “in whose hands there are plots,/ their right hand full of bribes.” (10) Instead, he will “walk in my wholeness./ Redeem me, grant me grace.” (11) The psalm ends on with him having traced the path of righteousness where he can now worship, “My foot stands on level ground./ In the chorus I bless the Lord.” (12)

There is no question the psalmist is sincere that in having followed God’s path of righteousness he has earned the right to worship. But the phrase, “grant me grace” at verse 11 causes us to realize how much better we have it: we have received grace through the gift of Jesus Christ. Grace is something we have been given, not something we had to earn through our good works. And our expression of this gift is indeed to walk the same path of the poet avoiding evil, but happily we are free of the anxiety have not having done it well enough.

Genesis 46:1–27: Jacob takes up Joseph’s and the Pharaoh’s offer to emigrate to Egypt. The authors assure us that this move is the will of God by noting that “God spoke to Israel in visions of the night, and said, “Jacob, Jacob.” And he said, “Here I am.””[why does God call him Jacob instead of Israel?] God specifically points out that this he has approved this plan and that he will keep his promise of creating a great nation, only now down in Egypt, telling Jacob/Israel “I am God,  the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there.” (3)

So, Jacob and company pull up roots and take his family and all their possessions to Egypt. Because of the importance of genealogy to Israel, the author lists everyone of Jacob’s offspring, including his grandchildren. These are the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel.

For the readers of Genesis in Babylonian exile, this list is crucial: they can trace their lineage all the way back to Jacob and therefore to Abraham. It is also a reminder that the nation Israel came into being in what ultimately became exile in Egypt. So, too, they are assured that they have retained their identity as a nation while exiled in Babylon many centuries later.

The author is careful to note the legitimacy of every child who became the ancestors of the nation: “All the persons belonging to Jacob who came into Egypt, who were his own offspring, not including the wives of his sons, were sixty-six persons in all.” (26) The author then adds in Joseph, his wife, and his two Egyptian-born children arriving at the significant total of 70 , which represents completeness: “all the persons of the house of Jacob who came into Egypt were seventy.” (27) In short the migration of Israel starts out God-approved and with high hopes.

Matthew 16:5–20: Matthew’s almost obsessive focus on bread continues as Jesus says, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (6). The disciples take this literally, believing Jesus is warning them not to eat bread that may have been prepared or handled by these religious people. Jesus appears moderately annoyed that after the feeding of the 5000 and then the 4000, they do not yet understand that the yeast Jesus is speaking about is metaphorical.

He says there’s no problem with getting physical bread: “Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered?” (9, 10) The problem is the malign influence of the Pharisees and Saducees. We can almost hear Peter saying, “Oh, now I get it!” Matthew is more abstract, telling us that “they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

Now we come to what is at once one of the hinge points of the Gospel—and one of the most controversial. Jesus starts off by asking a fairly simple question, that on its face appears to be simply about Jewish history: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (13). The disciples ffer an array of candidates: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah. I suspect that among the twelve even some of the less well known prophets were mentioned. Haggai, perhaps?

But then Jesus spring the real question: “But who do you say that I am?” (15). Peter, being Peter, answers directly: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (16) Jesus is pleased and replies, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” (17) In short, Peter gets it not because of his native intelligence but because he is now guided by the Holy Spirit.

At this point Jesus gives what is the most profound blessing of his earthly ministry with a pun right in the middle of it: “And I tell you, you are Peter [Petros], and on this rock [petra] I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” (18) Debate has raged for centuries about just who is this “rock” on which the church is founded. The Catholic church reads it directly, and therefore Peter is the founder, the first pope since he has been given the “keys of the kingdom of heaven.” (19).

Protestants, on the other hand believe that Jesus is being self-referential and “this rock” is Jesus himself. The question then is, who is the “you” in the next verse, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (19) Is it Peter himself or is it the church at large?