Archives for June 2016

Psalm 80:9–12; Deuteronomy 8:1–9:6; Luke 6:12–26

Psalm 80:8–12: Our psalmist turns to an agricultural metaphor to review Israel’s history fromEgypt to Canaan as he addresses God: “You carried a vine out of Egypt,/ You drove away nations and planted it.” (9) As he extends the metaphor of Israel as a vine, we understand that it is God who facilitated their settling in Canaan. And as we read in Deuteronomy, it is God who allowed them prosper because at first, anyway, Israel obeyed God and kept his commandments: “You cleared space before it/ and struck its roots down,/ and it filled the land.” (10)

We can see the poet’s fond memories of a time long past in a place long distant as he writes, “The mountains were covered by its shade,/ and by its branches the mighty cedars.” (11) The vine of Israel grew and as vines do, it covered a broad kingdom from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River: “You sent forth its boughs to the sea/ and to the River its shoots.” (12)

These nostalgic verses anticipate Jesus’ metaphor of the vine and branches in John 15. In that sense when Jesus says, “I am the vine and you are the branches,” he is telling us that in the context of the vine metaphor here in the psalm, it is Jesus who has become the new Israel—and it is in Jesus where we grow and prosper.

Deuteronomy 8:1–9:6: As his long second sermon continues, Moses elucidates the fundamental rationale for the 40 years in the wilderness: “your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments.” (8:2)

We encounter a verse that Jesus quoted word for word at the Sermon on the Mount as Moses reminds the people that God has done all these things “in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (8:3) And it is those words by which they—and we—grow and thrive as Moses tells them that “as a parent disciplines a child so the Lord your God disciplines you.” (8:5)

So, Israel’s response once again must be to keep God’s commandments and in doing so, they will reap enormous benefits because “the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey.” (7,8)

But once again, Moses reminds them of the consequences of “failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today.” (11) The problem is pride. It is forgetting that what they are enjoying is a gift from God and come to believe that prosperity is the result of their own skills and work: “when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (13, 14) Instead, Israel—and we—must “remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth.” (18)

Which is exactly our problem today. We believe that what has been created around us, our possessions, our technologies are entirely our creation when in actuality is is God who has given us physical and mental resources to create a prosperous society. But as we look around it’s easy to see that our prosperity and our freedom will all come to naught as we continue as a nation to chip away at God’s moral bedrock.

To drive that point home, Moses reminds them (once again!) that it is God who is going to bring their victory over the Canaanites: “Know then today that the Lord your God is the one who crosses over before you as a devouring fire; he will defeat them and subdue them before you, so that you may dispossess and destroy them quickly, as the Lord has promised you.” (9:3) And when God does that, Moses warns, “do not say to yourself, “It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to occupy this land”; it is rather because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is dispossessing them before you.” (9:4) Right here is the moral justification for Israel’s invasion of Canaan: the people who are there are wicked who among other things, sacrifice their children to small-g gods.

But that victory will be God’s alone and again, Moses warns them not to allow pride to turn their heads because “the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to occupy because of your righteousness; for you are a stubborn people.” (9:6) The Israelites are God’s means of accomplishing his larger purpose. This casts a new light on God’s ultimate purpose: to wipe out an evil people and simultaneously “to fulfill the promise that the Lord made on oath to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” (9:5)

Is this rationale—that the annihilation of people is because they are evil in God’s sight—justified? That will remain one of the great unanswered questions of a God we will never fully comprehend.

Luke 6:12–26 : Luke, ever the detailed historian, provides us the roster of Jesus’ 12 Apostles. What’s worth noting is that Jesus’ choices came only after “he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God.” (12) This also tells us there is nothing random about Jesus’ choice; it is the result of long and probably agonized prayer. In his list, bring up the rear, Luke tells us that “Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor” (16) was also a conscious choice, not an error on Jesus’ part. The question hangs in the air, did Jesus know at that early point that Judas would one day betray him?

His fame continues to spread as Jesus continues his preaching and healing ministry: “with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.” (17)

Luke, as doctor, goes farther than the other gospel writers in describing how Jesus healed people, He states that “power came out from him and healed all of them.” (19) Having just read that Jesus engaged in frequent and lengthy prayer, it’s not an unfair conclusion to think that it is praying to his father which is the ultimate source of this healing and preaching power.

We come to Luke’s shortened version of the Sermon on the Mount. Luke;s focus is on Jesus as bringer of social justice and personal joy:

Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,

    for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.” (20, 21)

Those who suffer will one day find true everlasting joy: “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.” (22) However, this joy may not actually come in our lifetime: “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.” (23)

As in the OT scriptures, it is the poor and hungry and who are God’s—and now Jesus’—primary concern. And there is the promise that all who weep now will laugh later.

In a beautiful symmetry, Luke’s Jesus then gives what we could call the “anti-Beatitudes,”—the same three qualities of wealth, hunger and weeping but as a mirror image:
But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now,
    for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
    for you will mourn and weep.” (24, 25)

If we ever needed a clear message about what our Christian duties are, it is right here. But in addition, it is Jesus’ statement that in the Kingdom of God everything is turned upside down and inside out compared to the state of things here on earth.

Finally, if we think that by preaching and practicing Jesus’ message everybody will be overjoyed at our arrival, Jesus is saying, think again:  Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” (26) So, all the current nonsense about the US being a “Christian country” or trying to bring Jesus into politics is, by Jesus’ own words, doomed to failure. If someone in power speaks well of us or our message, we know their words hide contempt. Evangelical leaders endorsing Donal Trump would do well to reflect on this passage.

Psalm 80:1–7; Deuteronomy 7; Luke 6:1–11

Psalm 80:1–7: This supplication psalm comes from the northern kingdom of Israel. Alter suggests that it may have been written at the time Israel (i.e. the northern kingdom) was under threat by Assyria, which eventually conquered it: “Shepherd of Israel, hearken,/ He who drives Joseph like sheep,/ enthroned on the cherubim, shine forth./ Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh/ rouse Your might/ and come to the rescue for us.” (2, 3)  All the tribes mentioned were in the northern kingdom.

Our psalmist asks God to “bring us back,/ and light up Your face that we might be rescued.” (4) suggesting that God has been absent from their lives for some time. Of course as we know, it is the other way round: the northern kingdom which had long abandoned God in favor of small-g gods and idols. The psalmist wonders how long God will be angry at their apostasy: “Lord, God of armies,/ how long will You smolder against Your people’s prayer?” (5)

In fact, our poet pretty much blames God for their woes: “You fed them brad of tears/ and made them drink triple measure of tears./ You have put us in strife with our neighbors,/ and our enemies mock us.” (7, 8) Really? God did all those things? Or did the people of Israel themselves have something to do with their present plight?.

This psalm reflects a psychological truth that is true today. When we’re in trouble we tend not to examine how our own decisions and actions may have contributed. Rather we blame others, or as the case here, blame God himself.

But as these verses demonstrate, that does not prevent us from praying to God for rescue: “God of armies, bring us back,/ and light up Your face that we may be rescued.” (8) In the end, if we’re honest and realize that things are pretty hopeless, we really have no other choice than to finally turn to God. Even when we think God has left the building.

Deuteronomy 7: Moses now turns to the task at hand: Conquering Canaan, specifically, “the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you.” (1)  And he gives the command that is so difficult for our modern ears to hear. “when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.” (3). He warns the people not to intermarry because that is the fastest way to “turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods.” (4)

Moses points out that “the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.” (6) not because they’re were more numerous than those already occupying the land. God will keep his side of the promise, but the people must keep theirs: “Therefore, observe diligently the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that I am commanding you today.” (11).

Obedience to God means “the Lord your God will maintain with you the covenant loyalty that he swore to your ancestors” (12) and God will bring them enormous blessings. God will “love you, bless you, and multiply you; he will bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your wine and your oil, the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock.” (13) But it comes at a high price: “You shall devour all the peoples that the Lord your God is giving over to you, showing them no pity; you shall not serve their gods, for that would be a snare to you.” (16) It always comes back to worshipping the small-g gods that justifies their worshippers’ destruction.

It’s this simple quid pro quo that bothers me because it appears that God’s love—never mind his blessings—is conditional. It is also what convinces me that this book is being written retrospectively long after Moses; that the people have indeed disobeyed God and he has punished them with defeat and exile. The authors are writing almost nostalgically of what could have been had the people truly destroyed all the inhabitants of Canaan.

In any event, Moses turns to his final pep talk to encourage the Israelites to undertake the task ahead of them: “do not be afraid of them. Just remember what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt. ” (18) and then again, “Have no dread of them, for the Lord your God, who is present with you, is a great and awesome God.” (21) He tells them that God will participate in their efforts: “the Lord your God will give them over to you, and throw them into great panic, until they are destroyed.” (23) And the people must destroy everything—even the gold and silver that encrusts the heathen gods.

What do we make of this disturbing chapter? There’s a growing consensus that none of these events actually happened. Nevertheless, Scripture as written is still clear: God commanded utter destruction of entire peoples because they worshipped other gods. We can only realize that one of God’s qualities that makes him God is his inscrutability. We can also be thankful that through Jesus we encounter a God who loves us and has no wish to destroy us.

Luke 6:1–11: Luke continues to intertwine theology and healing. Jesus and his disciples are walking through a field on the Sabbath, and “his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them.”  (1) The ever-vigilant Pharisees see this and ask peevishly, “Why are you doing what is not lawful[c] on the sabbath?” (2) Jesus responds that David entered the house of God, took bread of the Presence and not only ate it but gave some to his companions. Before the Pharisees could answer, Jesus adds  the highly provocative statement, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.” (5) which I’m sure was heard by the Pharisees as bordering on, of not outright, blasphemy.

Luke continues this theme of Jesus being lord of the Sabbath by his healing a man with a “withered hand.” The scribes and Pharisees lying in wait, “watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him.” (7) Well aware of what they were thinking, Jesus asks the man to stand, turns to the leaders, and poses the question at the center of the debate, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” (9). Then, in one of those wonderful Lukan details, Jesus looks “around at all of them” (10) in what I can only take to be a stare that says, “stop me if you dare!” and promptly heals the man.

The underlying theme here is that religiosity becomes rule-bound. In those rules the relationship with God becomes lost and above all, the love of God is papered over with man-made encrustations. We see this all around us in organized religion today: from the insistence on the inerrancy of scripture to the rules that keep women out of pulpits in churches. Yes, rules are needed for good order and God knows, the Torah is the ultimate rule book. But what Jesus shows us is that human needs and healing trump the rules. But it renders the rule makers deeply unhappy: “they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.” (11)


Psalm 79:9–13; Deuteronomy 5:22–6:25; Luke 5:27–39

Psalm 79:9–13: After describing the awful events and consequences of the capture of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple, our psalmist turns to supplication, for even in this darkest hour, faith remains: “Help us, our rescuing God/ For Your name’s glory,” (9a) Moreover, he knows that salvation comes only from God: “and save us and atone for our sins/ for the sake of Your name.” (9b)

This theological approach is accompanied by practical logic. Judah should not be shamed because one reason is that it makes God look bad: “Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’” (10a) In fact, not only should God appear, but our poet asks for God’s vengeance on those who conquered them. But it seems to be mostly for PR reasons that God should dramatically demonstrate his true power and not look weak compared to the small-g gods of the enemy: “Let it be known among the nations before our eyes—/ the vengeance for Your servants’ spilled blood.” (10b)

He begs God to listen and respond to their plight as captives of the Babylonians, as many face certain death: “Let the captive’s groan come before You,/ by Your arm’s greatness unbind those marked for death.” (11) Again, human rescue is intertwined with the idea that God should display his true power: “And give back to our neighbors sevenfold to their bosom/ their insults that they heaped upon You, Master.” (12)

The psalm ends with the plea that God remembers that these captives are his chosen people, who have not abandoned their faith and that they will always worship God: “But we are Your people and the flock that You tend./ We acclaim You forever./ From generation to generation, we recount Your praise.” (13)

Once again, we recoil somewhat when we read a psalm that seeks vengeance on enemies, although it’s worth noting that it would be God’s, not man’s, vengeance. Should we pray for our enemies to be destroyed? No. Jesus is quite clear on that point. But once again, we need to remember that the psalms expose the deepest emotions of hurt, shame, and anger as the poets write. It is by writing that emotions are articulated rather than bottled up. An articulated emotion is one that is confronted. And just as the emotion is expressed in these verses, the anger slowly dissipates as the psalmist comes to the end, realizing that it if faith in God that is the most powerful force of all.

Deuteronomy 5:22–6:25: Moses recounts the incident at the foot of Sinai where all the people could hear God’s voice out of the clouds and darkness. But this created enormous fear: “For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any longer, we shall die.” (5:25) Instead they invite Moses to do the listening, as they beg their leader to “Go near, you yourself, and hear all that the Lord our God will say. Then tell us everything that theLord our God tells you, and we will listen and do it.” (27)

Moses observes that “The Lord heard your words when you spoke to me” (28a) and that God actually appreciates their worshipful response. We can almost hear wistfulness in God’s voice as he says, “If only they had such a mind as this, to fear me and to keep all my commandments always, so that it might go well with them and with their children forever!” (29) Of course, our authors writing hundreds of years later write this with no little irony. If only…

Moses returns to his discourse on the law, telling the people that “ the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe …so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear theLord your God all the days of your life.” (6:1,2) Something I’d not noticed before is the great promise of earthly success that will occur if the people but only obey: “observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.” (6:3)

We arrive at the words that Jesus quoted when he was asked which was the greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (6:5) Interestingly, the part about loving one’s neighbor as oneself is not here.

Moses limns how the law is the absolute centrality of every aspect their existence. His list—almost humorous in its extent— covers everything:  “Keep these words in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem  on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (6:7, 8, 9) In other words: the law is everywhere and everything.

Having stated this key aspect of the law, Moses goes on to remind the people of the high price of disobedience, especially in the matter of worshipping small-g gods: “The anger of the Lord your God would be kindled against you and he would destroy you from the face of the earth.” (15)

Intertwined with the law is Israel’s national story, which is to be passed down through the generations. When their children ask about the law, the parents are to tell the whole story, beginning with “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.” (6:22) and ending with the moral admonition: “ If we diligently observe this entire commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, we will be in the right.” (6:25).

I really don’t think Moses could have made it any clearer than he does here. The law is not a theological or administrative abstraction. It is the driving force behind every person’s action and attitude. It truly is the focal point of Israel’s existence as a nation, for it is upon the law that God’s promise of favoring Israel is built.

Luke 5:27–39: Luke has already told us that Jesus is now the most famous person in northern Israel, so it’s really no surprise that when Jesus asks Levi the tax collector  to “Follow me” that he does exactly that. Levi knows that following Jesus promises a far better life than being the hated tax collector. Wealth cannot compensate for the loneliness and rejection he surely experienced on a daily basis.

So, Levi gives a party, and ever the judgmental prudes, the Pharisees ask Jesus why, as a respected and now famous rabbi, he would deign to sit among all those societal losers. Jesus’ famous answer—I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”(32)—quiets the Pharisees. But those words are also the distilled essence of the Good News, something that would not be missed among Luke’s community, which I presume included tax collectors and other social misfits. And of course it’s a trenchant reminder to those of us leading comfortable lives that we too are sinners and like Jesus, it’s our duty to reach out to those that society rejects.

Never ones to pass up an opportunity to point out another’s apparent departure from accepted practice, the Pharisees ask Jesus why they’re partying rather than being well behaved like John’s disciples, who “frequently fast and pray, [while] your disciples eat and drink.” (33) Jesus’ unexpected answer is that he is going to be around only for a short time and that they should feast while the bridegroom is present. There’ll be plenty of time for fasting after Jesus leaves them. Although I’m sure that  all listening did not grasp the full implication of Jesus’ words.

Perceiving this, Jesus takes a different tack and points out that he is completely new. Like patching on old garment or sewing new skin on old wineskins, the old cannot simply be attached to the new. This of course is Paul’s theme in Galatians and Romans. Followers of Christ do not have to attach themselves first to the Jewish culture and law in order to follow—and feast with—Christ.

I think that most of the time I fail to appreciate just how new and yes, radical, Jesus’ message really was—and is. Too bad that we tend to treat Jesus so often as “old hat.”

Psalm 79:1–8; Deuteronomy 4:32–5:21; Luke 5:12–26

Psalm 79:1–8: This psalm is a searing cry of anguish at the destruction of Jerusalem and the massacre of its people in the Babylonian invasion and conquest in 586BC. First, destruction of the temple: “God, nations have come into Your estate,/ they have defiled Your holy temple./ They have turned Jerusalem to ruins.” (1) Then, widespread death accompanies the destruction in a striking image of becoming fodder for birds and animals: “They have given Your servants corpses/ as food to the fowl of the heavens,/ the flesh of Your faithful to the beasts of the earth.” (2). The poet’s camera pulls back from the temple mount to reveal the gruesome sight surrounding it: “They have spilled blood like water/ all around Jerusalem,/ and there is none to bury them.” (3) As a result, Judah has “become a disgrace to our neighbors,/ scorn and contempt to all round us.” (4)

The psalmist turns his head upward, shaking his fist toward heaven as he asks the question on the heart of every faithful person who has experienced great tragedy: “How long, O Lord, will You rage forever,/ Your fury burn like fire?”  (5) He asks quite logically that God turn his attention to the ones who have caused all this, “Pour out Your wrath on the nations/ that did not know You/ and on the kingdoms/ that did not call on Your name.” (6) After all, they’re the ones who have brought death and destruction. They’re the ones who “have devoured Jacob/ and his habitation laid waste.” (7)

The psalmist cries that they are the ones being punished unfairly for the crimes of their ancestors as he pleads, “Do not call to mind against us our forebear’s crimes.” (8a)

But the anger and despair begin to melt as our poet moves from despair toward prayer. After all this, a scintilla of faith remains: “Quickly, may Your mercies overtake us,/ for we have sunk very low.” (8b)

This psalm is proof that anger toward God at the unfairness of life is ancient. These verses also remind us that it is permissible to shake our fist at God, to be angry and despairing at what has happened to us. Even though God did not necessarily cause these things to happen, God can take it.

But it’s also a reminder that as our anger expends itself, there is a solid foundation of faith in God and his love that lies underneath our despair. In tragedy there is really nothing or no one else to whom we can turn than to finally turn to God.

Deuteronomy 4:32–5:21: Moses reminds the people that what they have experienced these past forty years is unprecedented in human history: “has anything so great as this ever happened or has its like ever been heard of?” (4:32) Has any small-g god “ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by terrifying displays of power, as the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?” (34) Moreover, God has enable them to drive “out before you nations greater and mightier than yourselves, to bring you in, giving you their land for a possession, as it is still today.” (38)

Moses is sermonizing that God has done all these incredible and wonderful things, and that the least they can do in response is to “acknowledge today and take to heart that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other [and to] keep his statutes and his commandments.” (40a) After all, Moses concludes, these decrees are “for your own well-being and that of your descendants after you, so that you may long remain in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for all time.” (40b)

At this point our authors insert what seems to be a non sequitur: the definition of three cities of refuge east of the Jordan. My theory is that somebody found a scrap of scroll on the floor of the scriptorium and that it was supposed to be in Numbers when the cities of refuge west of the Jordan were defined. But it was too late to alter that scroll, so it was pasted it in here.

Next we encounter the device of Moses giving a second speech, which I’m sure the authors saw as investing greater authority in the laws and precepts they’re laying out than if they had just written them in the third person as in the other books of the Pentateuch.

This second speech opens with the version of the Decalogue that is most familiar to us—the one that tends to get inscribed in stone tablets and placed in front of courthouses in the Southern states of the US.

Unsurprisingly, the first three commandments have to do with human relationship with God and the fundamental rule that lies above all others: “you shall have no other gods before me.” (5:7) It’s almost as if God already knew thais would be the sin that ultimately brings Israel and then Judah crashing down some centuries hence. To make sure they get the message, Moses reminds the people that “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me.” (9) But that he will show “steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (10)

It all seems so simple, doesn’t it? Keep the law and God will love you. Well, today’s psalm demonstrates the consequences of disobedience. The Old Covenant sure looks great in principle, but practice turns out to be another thing.

Nevertheless, the seven last commandments that have to do with human-to-human relationships continue to form the basis of western civilization.

Luke 5:12–26: The healing of the leper includes a fascinating dialog we don’t see elsewhere. The leper says, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” (12), which to me means that he had absolute faith in Jesus’ ability to heal, but that Jesus could choose not to heal if he so chose. Happily for the leper, Jesus responds, “I do choose. Be made clean.” (13) This raises the issue for me that healing is not necessarily guaranteed or automatic, but that God has a choice in the matter. What we have no insight into, however, is what criteria, if any, does Jesus use to determine healing? What is necessary however, is that like the leper we must have faith that we can be healed.

Luke reminds us also, that Jesus was not in public ministry at all times, but that “he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.” (16) Jesus knew how to avoid burnout and that his number one priority was to remain connected to his Father.

Jesus is now more popular than ever and his fame has spread even to Jerusalem. “Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting near by (they had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem).” (17). Mostly, they were there to witness Jesus healing, including the case at hand, the paralytic lowered down from the ceiling of structure where Jesus was preaching by four faithful friends.

Jesus speaks not to the paralytic, but to the friends and tells them, “your sins are forgiven you.” (20) The religious authorities are outraged at this apparent blasphemy. To which Jesus calmly responds, “Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’?” (23) He promptly heals the paralytic, who rolls up his bed and walks out, “glorifying God.“(25).

The crowd, including the Pharisees and teachers, is stunned into silence. There is no argumentation from the religious leaders; they are “filled with awe” and all they can say is, “We have seen strange things today.” (26)

The arguments with the Pharisees about blasphemy will come later, but there’s no question that from this point forward, Jesus will be seen as a dangerous vector by the religious establishment in Jerusalem. More dangerous than John the Baptist who preached, but did not heal. Jesus has truly done the more difficult and unexpected thing. That’s what makes him so dangerous then—and now.


Psalm 78:65–72; Deuteronomy 4:1–31; Luke 5:1–11

Psalm 78:65–72: Following God’s various punishments of Israel, our poet turns to the final section, which begins, “the Master awoke as one sleeping,/ like a warrior shaking off wine.” (65) I have to admit the image of of asleep like a drunken soldier is certainly original if running counter to one’s perception of omnipotent God.

Newly awakened, “He beat back His foes,/everlasting disgrace He gave them.” So who are these foes? Israel’s traditional enemies? The Philistines? The Amorites? No. It’s political rivals within Israel itself: “Yet He rejected the tent of Joseph,/ and the tribe of Ephraim He did not choose.” (67)

Instead, and as our poet recounts with no little smugness, “He chose the tribe of Judah,/ Mount Zion He loves.” (68) Mount Zion is of course Jerusalem, which is where the temple is: “He [God] built on the heights His sanctuary,/ like the earth He had founded forever.” (69) The subtext of course is that Jerusalem will always be the seat of power for Israel. There’s a great irony here: even without its temple “on the heights,” Jerusalem remains the ever-controversial center of three world religions. Our poet turns out to be less hyperbolic than we thought!

We finally come to the underlying point of this psalm: “And He chose David His servant/ and took him from the sheepfolds.” (70) This psalm turns out to be an endorsement and celebration of King David and of the Davidic dynasty that follows as being God-ordained. It must have been written after David has apparently overcome significant political infighting following the death of King Saul, who was himself a Benjaminite. In the end, it’s David and the tribe of Judah that has the power.

Our psalmist concludes with a paean to King David, noting that from shepherding sheep, he is now shepherding people: “From nursing ewes He [God] brought him/ to shepherd Jacob His people/ and Israel His estate.” In other words, David has been chosen by God himself. This gives him the authority to rule.

This lengthy psalm ends with praise for David’s leadership: “And with his heart’s innocence he shephered them,/ with skilled hands he guided them.” (72) Personally I buy the line about guiding with skilled hands. There’s no question David was Israel’s greatest leader after Moses. But an innocent heart? I think not. The story of Bathsheba suggests otherwise.

Deuteronomy 4:1–31: Moses’s great speech continues as he turns to instruction: “So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you.” (1) He’s explicit: “You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you.” (2) and notes that if they stray they have seen God’s power fully on display in the matter of the Baals of Peor.

Moses moves into full didactic mode, telling them, “You must observe them [the law] diligently.(6) Keeping the law requires awareness and self-examination: “take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life.” (9a). And they have a deep responsibility to train their children and grandchildren as well: “make them known to your children and your children’s children.‘” (9b) These two things—self-awareness and raising children in the same moral framework—undergirds civilization. Without these things, chaos ensues. Something I’m afraid we see increasingly today. For me, these words are part of the foundation of western civilization.

Moses goes on to warn the people of the consequences of worshipping small-g gods such as wooden idols and even the sun and moon—practices that were certainly widespread then. He reminds them, “For the Lord your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God.” (24)

He is especially concerned about the great danger of time passing and the commandments slipping into disuse: “When you have had children and children’s children, and become complacent in the land, if you act corruptly by making an idol in the form of anything, thus doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, and provoking him to anger.” (25) The consequences will be dire: “you will soon utterly perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to occupy; you will not live long on it, but will be utterly destroyed.” (26) Moreover, “The Lord will scatter you among the peoples;.” (27)

But amidst the warnings there is a beacon of hope: “ In your distress, when all these things have happened to you in time to come, you will return to the Lord your God and heed him.” (30) Because God is not only jealous and given to fiery anger, but he is also “the Lord your God is a merciful God, he will neither abandon you nor destroy you; he will not forget the covenant with your ancestors that he swore to them.” (31)

One has the feeling at this point that our authors are writing retrospectively. They have seen how Israel went astray and was scattered “among the peoples,” but in the end there is still hope.

This passage also sets out incredibly important qualities of God for Israel, as well as for us: God is indeed jealous, but even more so, God is merciful. All the people of Israel needed to do was to repent and return to God. And that is all we need to do as well. Repentance brings us the experience of God’s inexhaustible mercy.

Luke 5:1–11: Up to this point, Jesus has been preaching, exorcizing, and healing on his own. Now it’s time to build his team. Only in Luke do we have the story of Jesus seeing two boats, getting into one—apparently Simon’s—and preaching (from a sitting position!) to the crowds on the shore from it. Inasmuch as Jesus was already famous, Simon certainly offered no objection to Jesus’ presence. When he’s done he suggests to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” (4) Simon responds that they’ve been fishing all night without success. Nevertheless, he agrees saying, “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” (5) Unsurprisingly, it’s the most successful fishing expedition ever. But Simon Peter’s response is somewhat unexpected. Hw doesn’t say, “Wow, that’s cool, Jesus.” Instead he recognizes his own shortcomings and “he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (8).  Jesus’ reply is of course one for the ages,“Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” (10) Jesus’ presence and offer is so compelling that Simon Peter, James and John, sons of Zebedee, “left everything and followed him.” (11)

As usual, Luke is operating at two levels. There’s the story itself, but then there’s the metaphor that there are millions of people “under the sea,” waiting to be caught. Just as with the fruitless night the fishermen had spent, human effort alone is insufficient to “catch” people. Jesus alone has that power.

That’s why I’m generally repelled by people who buttonhole others, asking if they’re saved and telling them they’ll go to hell if they don’t “accept Jesus as their personal savior.” That’s the same as fishing all night and catching nothing. It is only through the power of Jesus Christ as it’s communicated by the Holy Spirit that has the capability to capture another’s heart. Like Peter, we realize we’re sinners, but then we turn and see Jesus beckoning us, telling us, as we hear so often, “don’t be afraid,” and we follow. Just as Jesus captured the heart of his first three disciples.

Psalm 78:56–64; Deuteronomy 3; Luke 4:31–44

Psalm 78:56–64: Our psalmist now turns to the behavior of the people following the wilderness years after their arrival in Canaan. Despite God arranging Israel’s miraculous escape from Egypt, and continually meeting their needs, and bringing them to the promised land, the people “tried God the most High and rebelled,/ and His precepts they did not keep.” (56) Their primary sin was breaking the first commandment and worshipping other small-g gods. Our poet holds nothing back: “They vexed Him with their high places,/ incensed Him with their idols.” (58) And once again, we read of God’s feelings in response to this blasphemy: “God heard and was angry,/ wholly rejected Israel.” (59)

In response to the people’s faithlessness, God “abandoned the sanctuary of Shiloh,/ the tent where He dwelled among men.” (60) Shiloh is where the Ark rested after entering Canaan but before the temple was built by Solomon.

From the poet’s point of view writing centuries after the event, it appears clear that God not only abandoned Israel because of its treachery, but he also went over to the other side: “He gave over His people to the sword,/ against His estate He was enraged.” (62)  And the various rebellious incidents we read pre- and post-Canaan are recounted here not only as God wreaking punishment on those who sinned but also its effects on innocent bystanders: “His young men the fire consumed/ and His virgins no wedding song knew.” (63) And then the horrific sight of priests being killed, possibly a reference to one of the numerous battles with the Philistines: “His priests fell to the sword,/ and His widows did not keen.” (64) [‘Keen’ here means ‘being aware of.’]

Can things get any worse as the poet continues his bleak history? These verses certainly bring home the impact of what it would be like not only to be abandoned by God but to become God’s enemy. Of course the question remains, is God still this angry, vengeance-seeking being? Or has God himself revealed himself in other, kinder ways since these events occurred in history?

Deuteronomy 3: Speaking as usual in the voice of Moses, our authors give a detailed account of the battle with Bashan and the death of King Og. These events took place on the east side of the Jordan River and Moses observes that the territory they conquered has been allocated to the two and one half tribes that elected not to enter Canaan: “As for the land that we took possession of at that time, I gave to the Reubenites and Gadites the territory north of Aroer,. …as well as half the hill country of Gilead with its towns, and I gave to the half-tribe of Manasseh the rest of Gilead and all of Bashan, Og’s kingdom.” (12, 13)

We also read of the deal that was worked out between Moses and the Reubenites, Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh in exchange for letting them settle outside Canaan: “all your troops shall cross over [the Jordan] armed as the vanguard of your Israelite kin.” (18).  Only this time it sounds like it was Moses’ idea, while the Numbers account makes it clear it was the idea of the tribal leaders.

Continuing to speak retrospectively in the first person, Moses recounts how “I charged Joshua as well at that time, saying: “Your own eyes have seen everything that the Lord your God has done to these two kings; so the Lord will do to all the kingdoms into which you are about to cross. Do not fear them, for it is the Lord your God who fights for you.” (21, 22) This is God’s central promise to Israel. The defeat of Og on the east side of the Jordon is a preview of coming attractions once the rest of Israel crosses over into Canaan.

Along with Joshua, I think I’d feel pretty encouraged too, knowing that God was not only on my side, but was actively fighting for us. That’s something I really haven’t thought about before: that God is fighting on my side in my own battles, as he surely has done in my experience with cancer.

Finally, Moses comes to his greatest wish: “Let me cross over to see the good land beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and the Lebanon.” (25) But it has been denied to him by God. Moses essentially blames Israel for this: “But the Lord was angry with me on your account and would not heed me.” (26). Instead, Moses is relegated by God to simply viewing the land form atop Mount Pisgah.

Frankly, I think for all that Moses has done as the intermediary between stubborn Israel and a frequently angry God, this is unfair punishment. But as we know too well, life is unfair. And God knows this, too. Does God intervene in ways that contribute to our sense of unfairness? I’d like to think he doesn’t —just as he doesn’t plan out the details of our lives. As Moses learned, we decide, we act, and then we enjoy the consequences.

Luke 4:31–44: Jesus, having barely escaped the enraged Nazareth crowd, is back at Capernaum, “teaching them on the sabbath.” (31) And as at Nazareth, “They were astounded at his teaching, because he spoke with authority.” (32).

The first miracle recorded by Luke is Jesus casting out a demon. I’m not sure this is actually a miracle, because as we read elsewhere in the gospels, the demons know full well who Jesus is, as this one does—”I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” (34)— and they know that he has authority over them. As such, they are compelled to obey when Jesus says, “Be silent, and come out of him!” (35) This further amazes the crowd, which exclaims, “What kind of utterance is this? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and out they come!” (36).

A medical miracle follows almost immediately when Jesus comes to “Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever.” (38). Having just witnessed the exorcism, those around Jesus wonder if he can heal her. In exactly the same manner as he cast out the demon, “he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her.” (39) I’ve not noticed before that Jesus seems to address and “rebuke” the fever, rather than addressing the woman herself. This makes sense since I’m sure that many of that time saw illness in the same light as demon possession—something which has taken over the entire person, which is exactly what fevers do.

Healing and exorcisms now come hot and heavy. “Demons also came out of many, shouting, “You are the Son of God!” (41) Jesus rebukes them, quite understandably telling them to be quiet, lest he be seen by the crowds as somehow connected to their evil rather than to God’s good.

Things blossom quickly from here. Jesus attempts to escape to a “quiet place,” but he is invariably found. The population of Capernaum wants him to stay right there so they can keep him as their own. But Jesus insists, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.” (43) This is Jesus’ example to us: too often, we’d like to stay in place and bask in the joy of Jesus, but our duty is greater. As Matthew’s gospel tells us, we are to go into all the world, following Jesus’ example, and proclaim the Good News. Luke’s clear message is that Jesus couldn’t find a “quiet place” to relax. And neither should we.

Psalm 78:40–55; Deuteronomy 2; Luke 4:22–30

Psalm 78:40–55: Our poet continues his reflection on Israel’s rebelliousness despite all the great things God has done and provided: “How much they rebelled against Him in the wilderness,/ caused Him pain in the waste land!” (40). We don’t often think about causing God pain when we turn away from him, but as the story of the Exodus demonstrates so forcefully, the God of Israel had fierce emotions, whether it’s burning anger underlying his frequent desire to annihilate the entire lot of them, or in this case that their turning away causes great hurt. Our God far more than an impassive supreme being.

To illustrate his point, our poet circles back around the Exodus story by recapitulating the plagues that God brought to Egypt, beginning with how “He turned their rivers to blood,/ their currents they could not drink.” (44). He then recounts the invasion of the frogs (45); the locusts (46); the hail (47);  the pestilence afflicting their animals. The psalmist captures God’s feelings beautifully with the various synonyms for anger: “He sent against them His smoldering fury,/ anger, indignation, and distress,/ a cohort of evil messengers.” (49)

As far as our poet is concerned, the plagues of Egypt are the direct outpouring of God’s anger: “He blazed a path for His fury,/ He could not keep them from death,/ and to the pestilence He gave their life.” (50) This anger culminates in the Passover, “And He struck down each firstborn in Egypt,/ first fruit of manhood in the tents of Ham.” (51)

Attention now turns to Israel, his metaphorical sheep: “He led His people forward like sheep,/ drove them like sheep in the wilderness.” (52) Notice that God both “leads” and “drives froward,” which is a pretty good description of how God works in our own lives. We want to be led by God, but sometimes when we resist doing something hard or unpleasant God “drives us forward.”

God leads and drives; he also guides: “And He guided them safely—they feared not,/ and their enemies the sea covered.” (53) God brings Israel to Sinai: “He brought them to His holy realm,/ the mount His right hand had acquired.” (54) Rescued Israel is safe—”He drove out the nations before them/ and set them down on a plot of estate,/ and made Israel’s tribes dwell in their tents.” (55) With the drama of the plagues, escaping the terror of the the final plague, and then the incredible rescue through the sea, we would think Israel would be eternally grateful to God. As we know too well, more trouble is brewing with this restive mob.

Deuteronomy 2: In parallel with the psalm, the writers of Deuteronomy, using the device of Moses speaking to Israel, also recapitulate Israel’s history in the wilderness. Moses focuses on Israel’s rebelliousness and lack of faith. In this chapter, we get an interesting review of the places through which Israel passed. We tend to think of the wilderness wanderings as being in empty space, devoid of other people. But this chapter makes it clear that Israel encountered many other tribes and nations during their sojourn.

Moses, speaking for God, had warned the Israelites not to engage in battle with the descendants of Esau, noting that God “will not give you even so much as a foot’s length of their land, since I have given Mount Seir to Esau as a possession.” (5) In this case, Israel obeys.

Then, the Israelites are warned not to engage in battle with the Moabites, again because, it is not to be Israel’s land: “I will not give you any of its land as a possession, since I have given Ar as a possession to the descendants of Lot.” (9)  The same instructions are given about the Ammonites, “do not harass them or engage them in battle, for I will not give the land of the Ammonites to you as a possession, because I have given it to the descendants of Lot.” (19)

What’s fascinating here is that the battles of these other tribes also appear to be done under God’s willful guidance, as e.g., “Rephaim formerly inhabited it, …a strong and numerous people, as tall as the Anakim. But the Lord destroyed them from before the Ammonites so that they could dispossess them and settle in their place.” (20) While Israel may be God’s chosen people, it is apparnetly not the only nation whose history God has impacted.

After these successful encounters as Israel passes through without incident, Moses tells how he attempted to ask King Sihon of Heshbon permission to pass through, promising “will travel only along the road; I will turn aside neither to the right nor to the left.” (27) But unlike the others, “King Sihon of Heshbon was not willing to let us pass through, for the Lord your God had hardened his spirit and made his heart defiant” (30). God tells Moses to engage Sihon and “the Lord our God gave him over to us; and we struck him down, along with his offspring and all his people…We left not a single survivor.” (33, 34)

In addition to giving an even more detailed history of the geography and encounters of the wilderness years, we learn that as far as the historians writing this letter were concerned, every event and every non-event as well has been directed by God. The question arises, does God guide our own lives and the events which impact us as clearly as he did Israel’s? Many Christians today speak of “God’s plan for my life.” But my own sense is that God does not create such detailed plans for us.

Luke 4:22–30: Jesus has finished reading Isaiah’s messianic prophecy and boldly announces to the congregation at Nazareth, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The immediate reaction is surprisingly calm, almost as if they didn’t actually hear what Jesus said, much less understand. Instead, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” (22a) And, with no little incredulity, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” (22b)

Jesus, apparently recognizing their incomprehension, tells them the next thing they’re about to ask is for him to do the miracles he’s famous for at Capernaum right here in his hometown. But he makes it clear,“Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” (24) His message being, “Forget it, people, even if I did them right here you’d still think of me only as Joseph’s son, not the Messiah.”

Then only here in Luke, Jesus tells the congregation that “there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah,” (25) when famine struck Israel. But that “Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.” (26) And to drive his point home, another example: “There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” (27)

The clear message here is that Jesus’ larger native hometown, Israel, will not listen to him, i.e., the Jews ultimately will reject him as their Messiah. But just as the Gentiles of old—the widow in Sidon and Nathan—were ministered to by Jewish prophets, so too, Jesus will minister the Gentiles of Luke’s time. This also suggests that Luke was written at a time when it was becoming clear that the Gentile Christians were becoming more numerous than the Jewish Christians.

Unsurprisingly, Jesus’ words did not sit well in Nazareth and “all in the synagogue were filled with rage” (28) as they literally chase Jesus out of town and “they might hurl him off the cliff.” (29) But Jesus ignores them and “went on his way.

I’m pretty sure that Luke’s Gentile readers and listeners felt that Jesus had specifically chosen them instead of the Jews. And that they would see everything Jesus subsequently does and say in the light of the rejection in Nazareth.

Psalm 78:32–39; Deuteronomy 1:19–46; Luke 4:14–21

Psalm 78:32–39: In his poem about Israel in the wilderness, our poet observes that even after God brings death to the Israelite rebels, the people have not learned their lesson: “Even so, they offended still/ and had no faith in His wonders.” (32) Rather than turning back to God, “they wasted their days in mere vapor/ and their years in dismay.” (33) Wow. “days in mere vapor” is a terrific description of how we can so easily squander the days of our lives when we do not look to God as our guide. And if we ever needed a an accurate description of the tone of our present culture and the anger and outrage that seems to surface everywhere we turn, it is this: we as a society are spending our precious time on earth “in dismay.”

But at some point, Israel returned to God: and “they sought Him out,/ and came back and looked for God.” (34) Eventually things were so awful, that people realized that God would give them a better life and “they recalled that God was their rock/ and the Most High God their redeemer.” (35) The issue is simple realization. God has never left us and when we have tried everything else, we finally turn to God.

But even then, they—and we—drifted away, and “they beguiled Him with their lips,/ and with their tongue they lied to Him.” (36) And “their heart was not firm with Him/ and they were not faithful to His pact.” (37) This is a good description of me: faithful one day and full of doubt the next.

God, on the other hand is always faithful. “He is compassionate…/and abundantly takes back His wrath/ and does not arouse all His fury.” (38) Finally, our poet provides us deep insight about ourselves: God “recalls that they [we] are flesh,/ a spirit that goes off and does not come back.” (39) At the core of our human nature, we are changeable, inconstant creatures. This evocative concluding line is a perfect summary of our time. We certainly seem to be in the midst of a society that is abandoning not only God, but all of our Judeo-Christian foundation. We are a spirit that goes off and does not come back. The question hangs in the air, will things become so bad that like Israel, we will recall that God is our rock?

Deuteronomy 1:19–46: In this lengthy retrospective speech, Moses recalls the tragedy how Israel came to the border of Canaan. God’s instructions were crystalline: “take possession, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you; do not fear or be dismayed.” (21) Moses recalls that “all of you came to me and said, “Let us send men ahead of us to explore the land for us and bring back a report to us regarding the route by which we should go up and the cities we will come to.” (22) He details how twelve were chosen and sent.

What is fascinating here is that Moses does not talk about the ten spies who brought back the news that giants and powerful military foes occupied Canaan, but he mentions only the good news that Joshua and Caleb brought: “They brought back a report to us, and said, “It is a good land that the Lord our God is giving us.” (25) This selective recall allows him to place the blame on Israel as a whole: “But you were unwilling to go up. You rebelled against the command of the Lord your God.” (26) Instead, Israel “grumble in your tents.” Moses chastises them for their unwillingness, even though Moses had given them ample proof that God would watch over them: “The Lord your God, who goes before you, is the one who will fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your very eyes,” (30)

And then Moses’s harshest condemnation of all: “But in spite of this, you have no trust in the Lord your God,” (32) He recounts God’s anger at this refusal and the sentence that the present generation would not enter Canaan, but only “your children, who today do not yet know right from wrong, they shall enter there;” (39)

Moses recalls how Israel suddenly got the message and tries to change its collective mind by sending a battalion to do battle in Canaan. But as Moses reminds them, “‘Do not go up and do not fight, for I am not in the midst of you; otherwise you will be defeated by your enemies.’” (42) which is exactly what happened. At this, Israel turns away and heads back across the desert, wandering for an entire generation.

The clear message of this passage is that failing to trust in God or outright rejection of what God asks and promises, leads to dire consequences. Yes, unlike Israel, we live in a state of grace through Jesus Christ, but as those folks learned at a cost of 40 years, our actions and attitudes have consequences, often severe. Just as with Israel, God wants the best for us, but that requires us to respond in trust, not fear. We must never forget that whatever we do or say, there will be consequences, and like Israel, these outcomes can make it too late to change our minds.  And, as the psalmist puts it, we end up wasting our “years in dismay.”

Luke 4:14–21: Jesus returns from the wilderness temptation and begins his public ministry in Galilee and “began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.” (15)

Except for one place.

Jesus returns to Nazareth where he is a familiar face, the proverbial “carpenter’s son.” It was his turn to read the lectionary and he proceeds to read the appointed passage from Isaiah, which clearly describes the role of the davidic messiah: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,/ because he has anointed me/ to bring good news to the poor.” (18a) The passage goes on to tell how the messiah will release the captives, give sight to the blind, and “let the oppressed go free.”  

I’m sure everyone in the synagogue was intimately familiar with this reading and in light of relentless oppression by the Romans, they treasured these verses as God’s longstanding promise that they wished to see fulfilled in their lifetimes.This passage has been written in the first person as it would be spoken by the Messiah and Jesus tells them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (21) There is no getting around it: Jesus is saying clearly is is the davidic Messiah for whom they have been waiting these many centuries.

We’ll get to the crowd’s reaction tomorrow, but for Luke’s community, this is where Luke makes the direct, impossible-to-miss connection between Jesus and Isaiah’s clear prophecy. Regardless, of what happens next in Nazareth after Jesus utters this infamous sentence, Luke cannot make the connection any stronger than this: Jesus is indeed the long-promised, long-awaited Messiah. But what will the Jews do with this news? And what will we do?

Psalm 78:17–31; Numbers 35:31–Deuteronomy 1:18; Luke 4:1–13

Psalm 78:17–31: The recounting of Israel’s history in the wilderness continues as our poet mostly emphasizes the people’s complaining and God’s inexhaustible patience: “And still they offended Him more,/ to rebel against the High One in the parched land.” (17) They are hungry and don’t see how they’ll be fed as they spoke querulously against God: “And they spoke against God./ They said “Can God set a table in the wilderness?” (18) This is a question we are likely to ask today when we see only hate and discord around us? And we know the answer: he has indeed set us a table in the person of Jesus Christ.

The psalmist points out that God has already given them water, and the psalmist quotes the people asking incredulously, “Can He also give bread?/ Will He ready flesh for His people?” (20) The poet then reminds us of God’s justifiable anger at the faithlessness of Israel: “Then the Lord heard and was angered,/…and wrath, too, went up against Israel./ For they had no faith in God/ and they did not trust in His rescue.” (21, 22) How often we find ourselves in exactly the same frame of mind, believing our straits are too dire for God’s intervention—and then we have the effrontery to complain that God is not acting or moving fast enough.

The psalmist describes the arrival of manna in a beautiful metaphor: “And He changed the skies above,/ and the doors of the heavens he opened/ and the grain of the heavens He gave to them.” (24) Our poet even explains how God moved nature to cause the manna to land square in the middle of the Israelite’s camp: “He moved the east wind across the heavens/ and drove the south wind with His might.” (26) and the compares the manna as a strange new rain: “And rained flesh upon them like dust.” (27)

God provided, “and they ate and were fully sated.” (29) The psalmist then describes the incident of the surfeit of quails described in Numbers 11 and how God put down the subsequent rebellion: “They were not revolted by their craving,/ their food was still in their mouths,/ when God’s wrath went up against them,/ and He killed their stoutest fellows.” (30, 31)

What we see in this condensed history is just how much God provided; how quickly he answered the pleas of Israel, but how he still meted out harsh punishment for Israel’s relentless complaining and faithlessness. I’m driven to ask myself, am I complaining against God in complaining about the church?

Numbers 35:31–Deuteronomy 1:18: Once again, the Moravians have us bridge the end of one book and the beginning of another in a single reading.

The book of numbers ends rather abruptly with a disquisition on the marriage of female heirs, as we read the Numbers version of the daughters of Zelophehad, who had no male heirs. Here the question focuses on what we could call “cross-tribal inheritance.” The daughters are indeed free to “marry whom they think best,” but “it must be into a clan of their father’s tribe that they are married,” (8) For the accountants writing Numbers it’s all about the inheritance not being able to cross a tribal boundary. This rule is more important than the potential romantic love that a daughter might find in a man from another tribe. The law is clear: “No inheritance shall be transferred from one tribe to another; for each of the tribes of the Israelites shall retain its own inheritance.’” (36:9) This sounds to me almost like a form of maintaining racial purity.

In the culture of that time, it was all about the inheritance and the dowry. And the authors are pleased to report that “Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah, the daughters of Zelophehad, married sons of their father’s brothers.” (11) which sounds to me like they married their cousins. But in the final point of this entire book, the all-important “inheritance remained in the tribe of their father’s clan.” (36:12)

Numbers closes appropriately enough, on a note of precision, this time, geographic: “These are the commandments and the ordinances that the Lord commanded through Moses to the Israelites in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho.” (36:13)

Deuteronomy opens with a lengthy speech by Moses, and unlike Numbers where the authors write about Moses only in the third person, here we read Moses speaking for himself in the first person as he reviews the many events that have occurred during the forty years wandering in the wilderness. First he observes that “God has multiplied you, so that today you are as numerous as the stars of heaven.” (1:10) and that remembers asking God, “how can I bear the heavy burden of your disputes all by myself?” (12)

Moses tells the people how God directed him to set up a governmental structure: “I took the leaders of your tribes, wise and reputable individuals, and installed them as leaders over you, commanders of thousands, commanders of hundreds, commanders of fifties, commanders of tens, and officials, throughout your tribes.” (15) And that justice must be carried out fairly: “ I charged your judges at that time: “Give the members of your community a fair hearing, and judge rightly between one person and another, whether citizen or resident alien…hear out the small and the great alike; you shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s.” (17)

In this opening chapter, we have a clear statement not only of the foundation of Judeo-Christian law, but of the basic organizational tenets of a nation. We owe an awful lot to God and Moses. Would that we can preserve fair rule of law and a coherent societal structure here in 21st century America.

Luke 4:1–13: Immediately following his baptism, Jesus “was led by the Spirit in the wilderness where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” (2) Unlike Mark who merely notes that Jesus was “in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan,” (Mark 1:13) Luke gives us virtually every detail of the interaction between Jesus and Satan.

The Jesus-Satan dialog is socratic: a temptation is posed by Satan and Jesus replies, quoting Scripture to say why he won’t succumb. This is a form of back-and-forth argument that would be familiar to Luke’s community, doubtless aware of Plato, who had written almost 400 years before Jesus appears on the scene.

In this dialog, Luke lays out three themes of Jesus’ ministry about the Kingdom of God, which Luke will expand on in the course of his gospel:

First, there is more to life than its physicality: “One does not live by bread alone.” (4)

Second, there is more to life than acquiring—and worshipping—power: “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” (8)

Third, we are never alone, but are protected from Satan when we are in the Kingdom: “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’” (10)

At the end of this temptation, Satan “departed from him until an opportune time.” (13) We might wonder when this “opportune time” occurs. Frankly, it occurs every day—and will do so until the end of history. Unfortunately, we are far weaker than Jesus and succumb to Satan’s temptations all the time.

Psalm 78:9–16; Numbers 35:1–30; Luke 3:21–38

Psalm 78:9–16: Our psalmist now begins his lengthy recitation of Israel’s checkered history, opening with the rather stark description of the cowardice of the warriors in one of Israel’s tribes: “The Ephraimites, deft wielders of bows,/ turned tail on the day of battle,” (9). For the poet, there is a simple root cause: “they did not keep God’s pact,/ and His teaching refused to follow.” (10) Not only did their defeat arise because of being stubbornly faithless before God, but because “they forgot His acts/ and His wonders that He showed them.” (11)

The negative consequences of historical forgetfulness is one of the the thematic undercurrents throughout the Psalms. Recalling Israel’s storied history and its covenantal relationship with God becomes the overriding theme of the psalm at this point. Our poet begins in Egypt, starting with the plagues: “Before their fathers He did wonders,/ in the land of Egypt, in Zoan’s field.” (12) followed immediately by the miraculous crossing of the sea: “He split open the sea and let them pass through,/He made the water stand up like a heap.” (13). Then, how God led them through the wilderness: “And He led them with the cloud by day/ and all night long with the light of fire.” (14)

The poet’s description of the incident at Meribah has both literal and symbolic levels: “He split apart rocks in the wilderness/ and gave drink as from the great deep./ He brought forth streams from stone,/ and poured down water like rivers.” (15, 16) Literal water and then how God works miraculously overall: “He brought forth streams from stone.” This verse must have been on John’s mind when he records Jesus as saying, “I am the living water.”

The purpose of this psalm is to recall the history of how God once worked in Israel. It’s clear that the poet is working to overcome historical amnesia. Exactly the same amnesia that seems to afflict us here today.

Numbers 35:1–30: The Levites are the urban dwellers of Israel. Because of their priestly duties, they cannot farm and ranch the way the other tribes do. Accordingly, God, speaking as always through Moses, gives them six towns, 1000 cubits of close-in space for their cattle an d sheep and an additional and 2000 cubits of pasture land on all four sides of each town on which to graze their (sacrificial?) sheep and cattle.  48 towns in total are to be allocated.

Every other tribe contributes towns and surrounding land to the Levites. As usual, however, it is to be done fairly: “from the larger tribes you shall take many [towns], and from the smaller tribes you shall take few; each, in proportion to the inheritance that it obtains.” (8)

In a measure to prevent revenge and short-circuiting justice upon those who commit a crime, six of those towns are designated as “cities of refuge,” “so that a slayer who kills a person without intent may flee there.” (11) The reason is not to allow criminals to circumvent justice, but “so that the slayer may not die until there is a trial before the congregation.” (12) In every case, the process of justice must be observed. Otherwise, chaos ensues.

The cities of refuge discussion leads to the various definitions, circumstances, and punishments surrounding one person killing another, whether accidental of premeditated. The clear penalty for premeditated murder—”anyone who strikes another with an iron object, and death ensues” (16)— is simple and clear: death. Same goes for striking another wth a stone or a wooden club. These are the crimes that today we designate as 1st and 2nd degree murder.

What’s fascinating is that it is the avenger, a relative close to the victim, that carries out the sentence: “ The avenger of blood is the one who shall put the murderer to death; when they meet, the avenger of blood shall execute the sentence.” (19) This criminal justice system is simple and very personal.

Then, the cases of unintentional murder—what we today call manslaughter—involving “someone [who] pushes another suddenly without enmity, or hurls any object without lying in wait, or, while handling any stone that could cause death, unintentionally drops it on another and death ensues.” (22, 23a) The key point is, “they were not enemies, and no harm was intended,” (23b)

Even though the death was accidental, there still must be judgement, and “the congregation shall judge between the slayer and the avenger of blood, in accordance with these ordinances.” (24) In this situation, the precipitator of the death is sent by the congregation “back to the original city of refuge,” where he was hiding prior to the trial. The “slayer shall live in it until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil.” (25) Once that happens, the slayer can return home without consequence. However, while the high priest is alive, if the slayer goes outside the bounds of the city of refuge, he is fair game to the avenger, who may kill the slayer without “bloodguilt.” 

There is one final and crucial point: “If anyone kills another, the murderer shall be put to death on the evidence of witnesses; but no one shall be put to death on the testimony of a single witness.” (30)

The key concept here—and I suppose revolutionary in its time—is that justice must occur and that a process has been defined. All these rules clearly form the basis of the laws we still enforce today, albeit with vastly more complex rules and legal machinery.

Luke 3:21–38: Luke describes the baptism of Jesus in an almost matter-of-fact way. What’s interesting here is that Jesus was baptized along with “all the people,“—almost as if he were just one of the crowd. There is no recorded conversation between John and Jesus. Rather, while Jesus was praying, Luke tells us that “the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.” (22a) I think the dove gives a concreteness about the Holy Spirit to Luke’s Gentile audience, who grew up with gods represented in corporeal form. As the dove descends, “a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (22b)

The question hangs in the air: did Jesus alone hear the voice or did the crowd? If the voice was audible to others, I think Luke would have recorded the crowd’s reaction, or at least John’s. This leads me to believe the voice was heard by Jesus alone. In any event, it is the signal that Jesus’ public ministry is about to begin and that it has been sanctified by God himself.

Luke has one final detail to attend to. I’m sure his Gentile audience would really be wondering what this “Son of God” business was about. It would be extremely easy to spiritualize Jesus at this point, making him different from other men and best and non-human at worst. To make it completely clear that Jesus was fully human, Luke inserts the genealogy of Jesus here.

Matthew, writing to Jews, traces Jesus back to David, emphasizing Jesus’ claim to be the Davidic Messiah. Luke, on the other hand, writes out Jesus’ ancestry, ignoring David, tracing it not only back to Abraham but then back to Adam himself, who was also a small-s son of God. It’s another subtle reference that Jesus is the Son for all humans, not just Jews.

It’s also crucial, I think, that Luke traces Jesus back through the male side of his ancestors [Joseph finally gets some credit!] This makes it clear that Jesus was indeed the literal Son of God, although many other sons came between Adam and Jesus. Luke notes that “He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli,…” (23) so that we don’t forget that Jesus is the direct descendant of God through Mary. But the genealogy makes Jesus’ bona fides equally clear to an audience (including me) that might still be struggling with the concept of the virgin birth.