Psalm 37:23–26; Exodus 25:10–40; Matthew 24:45–51

Psalm 37:23–26: The psalmist assures us that when the just man follows God, fundamentally only good things happen to him as he sallies forth in energetic confidence, “By the Lord a man’s strides are made firm,” (23a) because God wants nothing more than for us to follow the path of righteousness: “and his way He desires.” (23b).

Our psalmist is convinced that if we are righteous, nothing bad can really happen to us: “Though he [or we] fall, he [or we] will not be flung down,/ for the Lord sustains his [our] hand.” (24) In perhaps the most extravagant, yet beautiful verse in this psalm, the poet writes, A lad I was, and now I am old,/ and I never have seen a just man forsaken.” (25a) Moreover, this righteousness and the freedom from poverty and injustice that go with it can be passed down through the righteous man’s progeny: “and his seed seeking bread.” (25b) Rather, our hero’s progeny are generous and a blessing to others, “all day lending free of charge/ and his seed for a blessing.” (26)

Really? I too am now an old man and I have seen plenty of righteous people who are poor and have been dealt with unjustly. I cannot imagine that our poet had not seen the same. It would be a wonderful world indeed if punishment were proportional to wickedness and blessing were equally proportional to righteousness.

In these verses we see the roots of the black/white philosophy that animated the Pharisees in Jesus’ time to believe that if something bad happened to someone or worse, if they were diseased, this was on account of their own sin, or as implied here, even the sin of their parents. This is the same deuteronomic philosophy that Job’s friends believed in so deeply: Job would not be suffering so greatly if he had not in fact sinned in some enormous manner.  In fact, I am grateful that Job is in the canon and perhaps was added by those who found the author of this psalm to be hopelessly optimistic.

Life is far more complicated than the elegant but, IMHO, ultimately misleading model our psalmist lays out here. Or does he perhaps have some other didactic purpose? The psalm is not over yet…

Exodus 25:10–40: One hopes Moses is taking good notes in order to communicate God’s highly detailed instructions for what will become the central totem of the Jewish faith: the Ark of the Covenant. God becomes architect and designer, laying out the precise dimensions of the Ark, “it shall be two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high.” (10) and its material (acacia wood).

God is also now ready to put all the gold and jewels that the Israelites plundered in Egypt to use since basically every surface of the Ark plus the four gold rings attached to the sides, through which the poles will be placed so it can be carried by four men. The poles are a permanent feature and “shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it. ” (15) Atop the Ark is the “mercy seat of pure gold; two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its width.” (17) bounded by two gold cherubim with outspread wings facing each other at each end of the mercy seat. “The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings.” (20)

The Ark is described with such detail and is to be as glorious as human hands can fashion it because it will be God’s residence for the duration of the journey. The mercy seat is fundamentally a portable throne, where “I [God] will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the covenant,I will deliver to you all my commands for the Israelites.” (22)

God is quite serious about demonstrating his constant presence to all of Israel. This is also quite a different God who seemed to be in hiding the entire time the Hebrews were in Egypt. Has the supposedly immutable God changed? Or is he finally revealing another side of his being to the Israelites?

At this point we can detect an echo of Eden where God sought out Adam and Eve. Here, God is seeking out and abiding with the Israelites on a permanent basis. He is no longer just the occasional the visiting God of Abraham or the wrestling God that Jacob encountered. As far as God is concerned, the terms of the Covenant mean that he will always be with the people. The question of course is, will the people always be with God carrying out their side of this remarkable Covenant?

God is not finished with his instructions as he goes on to describe the precise size and construction of the other furniture that will occupy the soon-to-be-constricted Tabernacle: the table for the bread of the Presence, as well as the Lampstand. As Christians, these are highly symbolic for us. The Bread of the Presence becomes the body of Christ and the lampstand becomes the light of Christ.

Matthew 24:45–51: Jesus wraps up his discourse on the importance of being alert—not just for the end of history, but that alertness also requires faithfulness in our relationships—with the story of the faithful and unfaithful slaves. There’s nothing subtle going on here. Jesus is making it clear that the slaves are all of us: first the disciples and then the church.

The faithful slave carries out the master’s instructions during the master’s absence. And therefore, “Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives.” (46). As we will see, Jesus shortly will be giving more precise instructions as to exactly how we are to go about this work.

The lazy slave—those in the church who abandon their calling to be in relationship with each other and for that matter, with the world at large, will meet a bad end indeed. At the end of history, when the master returns, there will be judgement. Those who have acted cruelly to others or ignored the needs of others will meet a particularly gruesome end: “He will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (51)

Is Jesus threatening us here? No. He is simply describing the reality of the consequences of our actions—or our inaction. As with the example of the slaves, the motivation for how we act is strictly our own responsibility. Jesus is not forcing us to do anything we do not wish to do.

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