Psalm 37:1–6; Exodus 21:28–22:24; Matthew 24:1–25

Psalm 37:1–6: The editors who compiled the Psalms occasionally make their point via juxtaposition. Psalm 36 is a philosophical reflection on the nature of wickedness, while this psalm is one of encouragement to ignore the wicked and to follow God. It opens, appropriately enough, by telling us not to be upset by the wicked or envy their short term gains: “Do not be incensed by evildoers./ Do not envy those who do wrong.” (1) Their deserved end will come quickly enough as the famous verse tells us, “For like grass they will quickly wither/ and like green grass they will fade.” (2)

Instead of paying attention to them‚ look to God and follow him instead: “Trust in the Lord and do good. Dwell in the land and keep faith.” (3) This is particularly appropriate advice in this perverse political season. The antics and general perverseness of politicians, their acolytes, and their inflammatory words happily will fade soon enough. We are to trust in God and keep faith in him rather than obsess over the latest outrageous post on our Facebook news feed.

The psalmist is telling us that rather than using our time to fret over wrongdoers we should instead, “Take pleasure in the Lord,/ that He grant you your heart’s desire.” (4) We cannot stanch the tide of wickedness that seems to surround us on our own. Rather, through prayer, worship and Christian community, we are to “Direct your [our] way to the Lord.” (5a)

Rather than trust in the efficacy of our own deeds, we are to “Trust Him and He will act,/ and He will bring forth your cause like the light,/ and your justice like high noon.” (5b, 6) I wish that Evangelicals and others who believe they will find justice or peace or power in supporting in the vacuous and ultimately wicked words of certain candidates would ponder these verses. If we should understand nothing else at this point in history, placing our trust in some charismatic politician is a fool’s errand. All the time we spend trusting human agency rather than trusting God is a waste of time so much better spent following God and seeking justice through him.

Exodus 21:28–22:24: The authors’ long sermon continues about how the ethical and moral generalities of the Ten Commandments become specific practice and rules. These are the rules necessary to enable civilization  to exist. Without them, all would be chaos.

First, the question of that which is potentially harmful to others. If an owner of an ox has been warned that his animal is dangerous and it subsequently kills an innocent bystander, including children, not only is the ox stoned and put to death, but its owner as well. Distressingly, however, because slaves are property, not persons, “If the ox gores a male or female slave, the owner shall pay to the slaveowner thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.” (21:32)

Ox owners are also warned to take care that other people’s animals do not fall into an uncovered pit they have dug to trap wild animals. Should that happen, “the owner of the pit shall make restitution, giving money to its owner.” (21:34) Although at least he gets to keep the dead animal. These rules about property are the basis of our common law today. We are to be considerate of our neighbors and exercise common sense.

When one person violates the property rights of another, restitution is required. Thieves need to be careful, too. If they cannot make restitution for a stolen animal, the thief “shall be sold for the theft” into slavery.While all the examples given about sheep, goats, donkeys, oxen and fields reflect the nature of an agrarian society, our rules of restitution for having caused harm are based on these concepts of justice described more than three millennia ago here in Exodus. And out of these rules lawyers and civil lawsuits are now everywhere. We may bemoan lawyers and lawsuits and rules, but without them, western society would be in an even greater shambles than it is, and justice would be even rarer.

We then encounter what seems almost to be a miscellaneous list of wrongdoings. If a man has sex with an unmarried virgin, he is required to make her his wife. (22:16) But, what at first appears to be a bizarre rule to our culture, “if her father refuses to give her to him, he shall pay an amount equal to the bride-price for virgins.” (22:17) makes some sense. We can only assume that the bride price was sufficiently high to give a randy young man pause before seducing that virgin.

But there’s no getting around the fact that ancient Israel was a theocratic patriarchy. In another sign of the disparity between sexes, “You shall not permit a female sorcerer to live.” (18) But male sorcerers are OK?

This reading reminds us that “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (21) The wall now erected around the West Bank suggests that this verse has not found resonance in modern day Israel. One wonders what would be the situation there if mercy shown to Palestinians and Palestinians to Israelis trumped the very human desire for revenge or greater security.

Finally, in keeping with the theme we see throughout the OT, “You shall not abuse any widow or orphan.” (22) This seems to be the greatest crime of all because God intervenes directly with his own punishment: “If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry>” (24) And God himself, “will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.” (24) There is no greater societal sin than to oppress or abandon those who cannot help themselves.

Matthew 24:1–25: We arrive at what is known as the Olivet Discourse. The conversation begins after jesus announces the imminent doom of the temple and “the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (3) Jesus warns of false prophets, and that “you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet.” (6) Which seems to be exactly the situation today.

Jesus also warns that enemies “will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name.” (9). This will lead to chaos within the community of Jesus’ followers: “many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another.” (10). Paul certainly takes up these problems in his letters to Corinth and Philippi.

These issues did not take long to emerge in the church not long after Jesus left earth. I’m sure Matthew is telling his readers that what they are experiencing in terms of persecution outside the church and dissention within are to be expected because Jesus predicted them.

Regardless of what happens, persistence will be rewarded: “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (13). And those who persist will be what causes “the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations.” (13) That will happen before the end comes. Many people today believe that is exactly the period we are in. We are still proclaiming the Gospel and until all have heard, Jesus will (to use the old term of art) will tarry before returning again.

At this point Jesus goes into full eschatological mode, predicting that “when you see the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place, as was spoken of by the prophet Daniel (let the reader understand),” it’s time to flee to the mountains. Many people believe this event lies in the future. My own view is that Matthew is writing after the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem and that he is speaking retrospectively of Titus standing in the temple court commanding that it be destroyed as the Jews that remained fled to the mountains.

Jesus’ main point is that as Christians we must expect suffering: “For at that time there will be great suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.” (21) The world will be overrun with false prophets who “will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.” (24). Again, I believe these are things that happened during the formation of the early church rather than an as yet future event. Had Matthew not written of Jesus’ warnings it’s entirely possible the church may not have survived its early trials. This is not to say however, that the church does not continue to suffer as indeed we are witnessing that today in the chaos of Middle East.


Speak Your Mind