Archives for July 2016

Psalm 90; Joshua 8:1–29; Luke 12:35–48

Psalm 90: This is the only psalm attributed as a “prayer of Moses, man of God.” It is a reflection on the eternity of God—”For a thousand years in Your eyes/ are like yesterday gone” (4)—as over against the brief lifespan of us humans, who are like the grass that “In the morning it sprouts and passes,/ by evening it withers and dies.” (6)

As far as the poet is concerned, our relationship with God is fraught: “For we are consumed in Your wrath,/ and in Your fury we are dismayed.” (7) We can hide nothing about ourselves, our thoughts, or our actions from God, who exposes everything about us to the light: “You have set our transgressions before You,/ our hidden faults in the light of Your face.” (8)

For me, the centerpiece of the psalm is its most famous lines: “The days of our years are but seventy years,/ and if in great strength, eighty years.”  (10a) As I live now in my 70th year here on earth, this line has special resonance, just as it did for my friend, Verl, who made it to 81 years. I will never again read these lines without thinking of him.

As anyone who has reached this age knows, we cannot but agree with the poet’s almost existential observation that through these years, “their pride is trouble and grief,/ for swiftly cut down, we fly off.” (10b)

But are all our years really nothing more than “trouble and grief?” For the poet they have been because he has been out of relationship with an angry God—”Who can know the strength of your wrath?/ As the fear of You is Your anger.” (11) For him, God is not only angry but absent: “Come back, O Lord! How long?—/ and have pity on Your servants.” (13)

The poem concludes with supplication, asking God to return and to “Sate us in the morn with Your kindness,/ let us sing and rejoice all our days.” (14) The desperate wish is for God’s anger to subside, “And may the sweetness of the Master our God be upon/ and the work of our hands firmly found for us.” (17)

How grateful I am to know that through Jesus Christ we are firmly in God’s love. Our years may be long and our sufferings many, but unlike the psalmist we do not have to plead to an angry God to remember us—evanescent humans that we are.

Joshua 8:1–29: Having learned its collective lesson about the consequences wrought upon an entire nation by the disobedient actions of a single man, Joshua and his army return to Ai. God is playing the role of general as he pronounces the exact strategy Joshua is to use: “Set an ambush against the city, behind it.” (2) Joshua expands on this by the ruse of having the people who are with him march toward Ai and then, “When they come out against us, as before, we shall flee from them.” (6) As far as the men of Ai are concerned, this is simply another Israelite annoyance that as before will be easily defeated. However, when all the warriors are out of the city, “you shall rise up from the ambush and seize the city; for the Lord your God will give it into your hand.” (7)

The ruse works perfectly: “When the king of Ai saw this, he and all his people, the inhabitants of the city, hurried out early in the morning to the meeting place facing the Arabah to meet Israel in battle; but he did not know that there was an ambush against him behind the city.” (14)

As far as our authors are concerned, God is fully engaged in this battle and is giving the detailed orders to Joshua: “the Lord said to Joshua, “Stretch out the sword that is in your hand toward Ai; for I will give it into your hand.”” (18) Joshua does so and Ai is invaded and set afire. The men of Ai look back and realize they “had no power to flee this way or that,” (20) Joshua continues to hold his sword aloft until “he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai.” (26) Only the king remains alive and is brought to Joshua and promptly hanged. Ai and its 12,000 inhabitants are utterly destroyed and is reduced to “a great heap of stones, which stands there to this day.” (29)

So, what do we make of this militaristic God who commands the death of thousands besides squirm uncomfortably? My own take on these battles is that they are doubtless based on some historical oral tradition, but that writing hundreds of years later, the authors have firmly inserted God into the story to become part of the national myth that God was on Israel’s side—as long as it obeyed him. Which seems to be the overarching of this book.

Luke 12:35–48: Jesus tells the rather puzzling parable of the faithful slaves, noting, “Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes.” (37) He then states that “if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.” (39) This is obviously self-referential as he concludes, “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (40) In short, Israel’s messiah will come from a completely unexpected direction and as events will demonstrate, it is completely unprepared for the manner in which the messiah—the Son of Man—arrives and his nature as suffering servant.

Peter understandably asks if this parable is meant for Jesus’ inner circle or the public. Jesus’ answer is, as usual, ambiguous as he asks, “Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves?” To me, he seems to be referring to the church—or at least communities of the faithful, such as the one Luke is writing to—after Jesus has gone from them. As always, it’s about working in the Kingdom, “Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives.” (43) Which I will take here as the implied command for all of us who claim to be in the church. We are not just hangers-on; we are workers.

Jesus seems to anticipate that some of the “slaves” will take advantage of the master’s absence: “if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk,…[the master] will cut him in pieces, and put him with the unfaithful.” (46) Is this an explicit warning to someone in Luke’s community that is creating dissention?

There’s no question that intentionality and responsibility play a role here. If a slave has been misled inadvertently by his leaders, his punishment will be light. But the “slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating.” (47) This seems to be a clear indication that those in leadership positions within the Kingdom—the church—bear a greater responsibility. As Jesus famously puts it, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” (48)

So, when someone takes on a leadership the in the church such as pastor, he or she bears a greater responsibility to work in the kingdom and to treat those who are led fairly and responsibly.

Psalm 89:47–53; Joshua 7; Luke 12:22–34

Psalm 89:47–53: Having angrily described God’s revocation of the promised covenant with David and his descendants, our psalmist asks, “How long, Lord, will, You hide forever,/Your wrath burn like fire?” (47) As he wonders he becomes philosophical, reflecting on the evanescence of human life: “Recall how fleeting I am,” (48a) But unlike other psalms where we see encounter this reflection, here our poet blames God for our fate: “how futile You made all humankind.” (48b)  Life’s reality is stark: “What man alive will never see death,/ will save his life from the grip of Sheol?” (49)

The psalm’s coda returns to the breaking of the Davidic covenant and God’s apparent abandonment in their present plight: “Where are Your former kindnesses, Master,/ that You vowed to David in Your faithfulness?” (50) Not only should God remember the covenant, but also his people: “Recall, O Master, your servants’ disgrace.” (51a)

This dark psalm reminds us that we are free to shake our fists at God when it seems he has not only abandoned us, but when he seems to have allowed our enemies to vanquish us. Sometimes it seems that all hope is irretrievably lost.

Joshua 7: God’s instruction regarding the spoils collected from the fall of Jericho were crystal clear: all the treasure was to be deposited at the house of the Lord, i.e., within the tabernacle. However, one man, Achan, “took some of the devoted things.” (1a). As he had promised again and again, disobedience—even on the part of one man—means consequence: “the anger of the Lord burned against the Israelites.” (1b).

Unaware of this transgression, Joshua sends spies to check out Ai. Their report is encouraging:“Not all the people need go up; about two or three thousand men should go up and attack Ai. Since they are so few, do not make the whole people toil up there.” (3) Joshua accepts this overconfident advice and sends just 3000 men to Ai, where they are promptly repulsed and the Israelites lose their courage: “The hearts of the people melted and turned to water.” (5)

Clearly, Joshua has witnessed Moses’ many efforts to deflect God’s anger and he does what Moses often did: “he tore his clothes, and fell to the ground on his face before the ark of the Lord until the evening.” (7)  He rightly fears that this single defeat will be heard by the Canaanites, who will “surround us, and cut off our name from the earth.” (9a) But Joshua does not know what God knows, who explains that Israel has sinned because, “They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have acted deceitfully, and they have put them among their own belongings.” (11) As God has threatened so often, the consequences of disobedience are severe, “I will be with you no more, unless you destroy the devoted things from among you.” (12)

God commands Joshua to examine each tribe individually, clan by clan to discover the culprit, who “shall be burned with fire, together with all that he has, for having transgressed the covenant of the Lord, and for having done an outrageous thing in Israel.’” (15).

The examination process eventually uncovers Achan, who confesses he took “a beautiful mantle from Shinar, and two hundred shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels” (21a) which “now lie hidden in the ground inside my tent, with the silver underneath.” (21b)

We can hear Joshua’s frustration and anger, but also his sadness as he confronts Achan, and pronounces the sentence of death: “Why did you bring trouble on us? The Lord is bringing trouble on you today.” (25) His fate is executed swiftly as, “all Israel stoned him to death; they burned them with fire, cast stones on them, and raised over him a great heap of stones that remains to this day.” (25, 26)

So, why is Achan’s sin a capital offense? It’s clear in his confession that he deeply regrets what he did? Why no mercy? Obviously, it’s because God commanded that no one steal the spoils.

But the underlying psychological reason is to make Achan an example to all Israel. Had Joshua shown mercy, others would have done the same as Achan. Organizational chaos would have ensued shortly. Of course this raises the question in our own time: is capital punishment a deterrent to others? I suggest that it isn’t because our culture has become so complex and fragmented. Notice that all Israel participated in Achan’s punishment by stoning him. Now we hide capital punishment from public view where it seems more like revenge than deterrence.

Luke 12:22–3: Jesus’ parable about the futility of wealth has doubtless had a freak-out effect on his disciples. So, we see his kinder side as he attempts to reassure them, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.” (22, 23) He reminds them of the birds and lilies and the splendor of God’s good creation that does not require human effort. [Alas, it is human effort that has proven so effective at despoiling the splendor of God’s good creation.]

In the end, it’s all about priorities and faith. If we focus first on striving for the Kingdom of God, then all physical needs will follow: “and these things will be given to you as well.” (31) Jesus then pronounces one of his two great sayings about money [the other being about rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s] and priorities: “Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (33,34)

For me this raises the question of church finances. Yes, we are to be good stewards, but do we lack faith as we fret over financial shortfalls and send out pleading letters asking for higher pledges? Jesus seems clear her: if our priorities are indeed on the Kingdom, physical resources will follow. Perhaps churches in financial straits are evidence of places where the priority is not on the Kingdom but on our own efforts and priorities.

Psalm 89:30–45; Joshua 5,6; Luke 12:13–21

Psalm 89:30–45: One suspects this psalm was written long after the reign of King David as our poet recalls God’s promise to David, “And I shall make his seed for all time/ and his throne as the days of heavens.” (30) While he is writing prospectively as if David had not yet ascended to the throne, we get the sense that the psalmist has already experienced the corruption of the subsequent kings of the Davidic dynasty. He reminds himself of the terms of God’s Covenant with David, again written as if God were speaking:
If his sons forsake my teaching
      and do not go in My  law,
      if the profane My statutes
      and do not keep My commands,” (31, 32)

The consequences of not keeping those commands are severe indeed: “I will requite their crime with the rod,/ and with plagues, their wrongdoing,” (33) which I assume our psalmist has indeed witnessed. But above all, God remains loyal to David, “Yet My steadfast kindness I will not revoke for him,/ and I will not betray My faithfulness.” (34)

The psalmist continues to write in God’s voice, reassuring us of his faithfulness to all things David: “I will not profane My pact…One thing I have sworn by my holiness—/that David I will not deceive./ His seed shall be forever…” (35, 36, 37a)

But suddenly our poet changes directions returns to his own voice and hurls imprecations to this God who seems to have betrayed his everlasting covenant. “And You [i.e. God], abandoned and spurned,/ You were furious with Your anointed./ You canceled the pact of Your servant,/ You profaned his crown on the ground.” (39, 40)

Worse, the entire nation of Israel has been defeated in battle and has become a laughingstock to its neighbors: “You [i.e. God] turned his forts into rubble./ All passers-by plundered him,/ he became a disgrace to his neighbors.” (41, 42) David’s throne, i.e, his dynastic successors, is ended for all time: “You put an end to his splendor,/ and his throne You hurled to the ground.” (45)

We hear the psalmist’s deep bitterness at God’s apparent betrayal of an eternal contract with Israel through David. But so far he is only bemoaning God’s seeming abandonment as he shakes his poetic fist at a God. The trajectory of this psalm beautifully encapsulates the sense of betrayal that we all feel when it seems God, who has promised to always be with us, has somehow turned the tables and abandoned us—or worse. But like the psalmist here, we do not explore the root causes for that seeming abandonment. We only shake our fist in desperation.

Joshua 5,6: Having crossed over the Jordan, word has spread to the inhabitants of Canaan that Israel comes with a special power and they “heard that the Lord had dried up the waters of the Jordan for the Israelites until they had crossed over, their hearts melted, and there was no longer any spirit in them.”  (5:1) It would appear that they surrendered to Israel without a battle. Suddenly, God interrupts the action, demanding that every male in Israel be circumcised because the generation born on the road in the wilderness had not been circumcised. Joshua and we presume, the Levites carry out this activity, rendering the entire army of Israel inactive as “they remained in their places in the camp until they were healed.” (5:8) Ouch.  They then celebrate Passover in Canaan and “The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.” (5:12)

The mass circumcision and the Passover in Canaan is the clear bookend marking the end of the journey out of  Egypt. Israel is now a nation and no longer a wondering people.

In an eerie replay of Moses’ burning bush experience, Joshua “looked up and saw a man standing before him with a drawn sword in his hand.” (13) Joshua asks if he’s friend or foe, but the person announces himself as “as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” At which point “Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped, and he said to him, “What do you command your servant, my lord?” (5:14). Once again sandals are removed because Joshua is standing on holy ground. The authors of the book of Joshua are making it clear here that we understand how Joshua has been fully commissioned by God himself and that his subsequent actions are authoritative and indeed those willed by God.

The first action is the unique “battle of Jericho,” of Sunday School fame as the army of Israel marches around the city walls. For the first six days it’s just one circumnavigation with just trumpets. As for the inhabitants of Jericho, I’m guessing there was probably first puzzlement then derision as they laughed at this apparently pointless activity. Lulled into ignoring what was happening outside their walls, they were surely surprised on the seventh day when Israel marches around seven times and then all hell breaks loose as all Israel shouts and the walls collapse.

Only Rahab and her family are rescued as every inhabitant and animal is put to the sword.

So, is the battle of Jericho history or myth or both? That there was a battle is doubtless historical. That it happened exactly this way is more problematic. But regardless, the psychological impact on all Canaan was profound: “So the Lord was with Joshua; and his fame was in all the land.” (6:27) The stage has been fully set for the subjugation of Canaan by Israel.

Luke 12:13–21: Someone asks Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” (13) Jesus refuses the request but takes the opportunity to speak to the issue of greed and wealth. Jesus words had resonance in his day—and even greater resonance now: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (15)

While many of Jesus’ parables are symbolic and puzzling, there’s not much ambiguity surrounding this story of the wealthy man.  His crops produce so abundantly that he decides to “pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.” (18) But it is not his wealth that leads to the man’s downfall. It is prideful hubris: “And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” (19)

But God has other plans in mind, and Jesus makes the point of the story: “‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ (20)  Jesus’ moral is simple: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” (21)

We are exactly the same as this man. We store up earthly wealth with the plan of retiring to a comfortable life. But when we think we’ve done it all on our own and just as we pridefully review our brilliant investment strategies, life intervenes. Perhaps it’s an illness or some other unforeseen circumstance that puts paid to our brilliance. We ignore our spiritual investments at our own peril.

Psalm 89:19–29; Joshua 1,2; Luke 11:37–54

Psalm 89:19–29: In this encomium, our psalmist gives God all the credit in causing the people to choose David as Israel’s king: “Then did You speak in a vision/to Your faithful.‘ (20) With this introduction, the poet writes in God’s voice: “I set a crown upon the warrior,/ I raised up one chosen from the people.” (21)

There’s no question in the psalmist’s mind that David had been chosen by God, as God now announces how he will protect David from all comers: “No enemy shall cause him grief/ and no vile person afflict him.” (23) Moreover, God says, “I will grind down his foes before him/ and defeat those who hate him.” (24)

Our psalmist, probably writing retrospectively, causes God to observe the intimacy of his relationship with David, and effectively bestowing God-like qualities on his chosen king: “My faithfulness and my kindness are with him,/ and in My name his horn will be lifted.” (25).

David’s kingdom will be extensive: “And I shall put his hand to the sea/ and his right hand to the rivers.” (26). But perhaps most importantly, David reciprocates God’s faithfulness to him: “He will call me: ‘My father You are,/ my God and the rock of my rescue.’” (27)  And it is this faithfulness lies at the root of David becoming Israel’s greatest king, and in fact, the greatest king on the earth: “I, too, shall make him My firstborn,/ most high among kings of the earth.” (28)

It almost seems that the Covenant between God and Israel has been transmogrified into a personal covenant between God and David: “Forever I shall keep my kindness for him/ and my pact will be faithful to him.” (29) This verse creates the clear sense that it is the righteousness and faithfulness of Israel’s king will in large part determine how faithful God will be to Israel. And as we know from Israel’s history, it is unrighteous kings that hasten Israel’s demise.

Joshua 1,2: Upon the death of Moses,  God commissions Joshua as undisputed leader of Israel, promising, “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you.” (1:5) In return, God tells Joshua (three times): “Be strong and courageous” (6) but always with the caveat: “being careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go.” (7) As long as Joshua is “strong and courageous” and obeys the law, “the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (9)

Preparations for battle commence, beginning with the reminder that the tribes that remained on the east side of the Jordan that “all the warriors among you shall cross over armed before your kindred and shall help them.” (14) The Reubenites and others tell Joshua they will be faithful and in a promise that resonates down through the ages, they respond, “All that you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go.” (16). This is also our command. The question is are we as faithful as these warriors?

Josuha is no dummy. He requires intelligence before planning and commencing battle and sends two spies to reconnoiter the land, “especially Jericho.” They enter Jericho on the pretense of seeking sexual satisfaction, and “entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab” (2:1). Somehow the king of Jericho finds out they’re there and demands that Rahab turn them over. Rahab has hidden them and concocts a story that they have already departed.

Rahab tells the men that fear has overcome Jericho since the fierce reputation of the Israelites has preceded them. She tells them that since “I have dealt kindly with you, swear to me by the Lord that you in turn will deal kindly with my family.” (2:12) The spies agree, telling her that if she stays quiet, “then we will deal kindly and faithfully with you when the Lord gives us the land.” (2:14). The spies tell her that she must hang a red cord out her window when they invade as a signal to spare her and her family or the deal is off.

Rahab lets the spies out by a back window and they escape Jericho. After hiding from the pursuers for 3 days, they return to Joshua bringing the good news that “Truly the Lord has given all the land into our hands; moreover all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before us.” (2:24)

What’s fascinating about this classic story is that God uses not only a female, but a prostitute as the means of both providing information as well as escape. The lesson for us is of course that God does not work only through the mighty, but the very least of people. Which of course was exactly Jesus’ method as well, especially as we reflect on the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

Luke 11:37–54: Jesus was always willing to dine with anyone who invited him, and in this case, he sups with a Pharisee and his lawyer friends. Things start out badly as Jesus neglects to wash his hands. When this is called to his attention, he lectures them on their hypocrisy,  “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.” (39). Things go downhill from there and a lawyer responds, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us too.” (45) Far from being sympathetic or apologizing, Jesus excoriates them further: “from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation.” (51)

Not surprisingly, following this rather disastrous dinner, “the scribes and the Pharisees began to be very hostile toward him…lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say.” (53)

We can only conclude that Jesus intentionally created this hostile atmosphere, knowing where it would eventually lead. Obviously, everything he said about these folks was true, but he did nothing to sugar-coat it. The lesson here for us is that while the yoke may be easy, Jesus’ message is hard.

People aren’t going to like hearing their faults quite as explicitly as Jesus put it to these guys. Like them, we will respond defensively just as the lawyer did. We do a disservice to the church when we fail to speak about our intrinsic sinfulness (or perform the rite of confession at worship), creating the impression that Jesus is sort of this nice guy but kind of wimpy (which is what I hear in much praise music). And it is just one more reason why I dislike the song, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus so intensely.

Psalm 87; Deuteronomy 28:58–29:21; Luke 10:1–16

Written from that unholiest of mountains: Las Vegas.

Psalm 87: This psalm celebrates the permanence of the temple at Jerusalem compared to all God’s dwellings that have preceded it: “His foundation on the holy mountains—/The Lord loves the gates of Zion/ more than all the dwellings of Jacob.” (1b, 2) In fact, one begins to suspect this psalm was written by a poet employed by the Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce:  “Splendid things are spoken of you,/ O town of God.” (3)

He reenforces this pride of being a native-born Jerusalemite by listing the other nations who weren’t: “Look, Philistia and Tyre together with Cush,/—this one was born there.” (4) We’ll take “this one” as self-referential. He goes on to make his point about the overall superiority of Jerusalem (called Zion in the psalm) by suggesting that every person is somehow a native son: “And of Zion it shall be said:/ every man is born in it,/ and He, the most High makes it firm-founded.” (5) Perhaps this is the source of the famous Jewish saying, “Next year in Jerusalem!”

But in the next verse, the poet positions God as record keeper, making it clear again that it is better to have been born in Jerusalem than anywhere else: “The Lord inscribes in the record of peoples:/ this one was born there.” (6)

And at Jerusalem, “singers and dancers alike:/ [will say] ‘All my wellsprings are in you.‘” (7) Here, “you” is not God, but Jerusalem. In short, the psalm is celebratory, but given the current situation in Jerusalem we are less enthusiastic than the psalmist.

Deuteronomy 28:58–29:21: Moses’ warnings of the consequences of disobedience by Israel continue apace. And the consequences are dire: “Although once you were as numerous as the stars in heaven, you shall be left few in number, because you did not obey the Lord your God.” (28:62) The consequences will not only be decline, but dissolution of the nation itself: “The Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other;” (28:64). And at an individual level, “Your life shall hang in doubt before you; night and day you shall be in dread, with no assurance of your life.” (66) And then the final humiliation: they will attempt to return to slavery but because they have become worthless human beings,”you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer.” (28:68)

The precision of these imprecations once again strongly suggests to me that this book was written centuries afterwards at a time when Israel had indeed been diminished and scattered by Assyria in the north and later by Babylon in the south.

Apparently there is a brief respite from the curses of the previous chapter as Moses once again, “Summoned all Israel.” (29:1) Once again he reviews all that Israel has experienced over the past 40 years, asking the people to consider how close God has been and how God has protected and sustained them: “The clothes on your back have not worn out, and the sandals on your feet have not worn out; you have not eaten bread, and you have not drunk wine or strong drink—so that you may know that I am the Lord your God.” (29:6,7)

Now, following all this, the time has come for Israel to take a formal oath of obedience “to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, sworn by an oath, which the Lord your God is making with you today.” (29:12)

But the oath must be sincere and from the heart; otherwise it is worthless. And woe betide “All who hear the words of this oath and bless themselves, thinking in their hearts, “We are safe even though we go our own stubborn ways.” (29:19) Insincerity results in disaster: “All the curses written in this book will descend on them, and the Lord will blot out their names from under heaven.” (20)

This of course is a good reminder that grace was not part of the Old Covenant and how grateful I am to be under the terms of New Covenant through Jesus Christ. However, it is also a reminder that we must turn over our entire heart to him. Like ancient Israel, we cannot think pridefully, “We are safe even though we go our own stubborn ways.”

Luke 10:1–16: Here we learn that in addition to the “inner circle” of 12 disciples, Jesus has plenty of other dedicated followers. He commissions 70 to go out in pairs and do the prep work needed before Jesus arrives at a new town. But it’s an inherently dangerous task: “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” (3)

Interestingly, the emissaries are to go only to one house in the village and announce themselves by saying “‘Peace to this house!’” And if the homeowner responds in kind, that’s where they are to remain. If they are welcomed, “eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” (8, 9)

The other key part of the mission is not to waste time in places where the message is rejected. In fact, Jesus makes it clear that these places where the Kingdom of God is rejected “it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town” (12) when the day of judgement arrives.

The Jewish towns of Chorazin and Bethsaida have apparently rejected Jesus’ message, as Jesus points out that had he taken his message to the Gentile towns of Tyre and Sidon, “they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes.” (13) And perhaps most startlingly of all, even Capernaum, Jesus’ headquarters, is cursed: “will you be exalted to heaven?/ No, you will be brought down to Hades.” (15)

The reason for the curse—apparently a long tradition, tracing its way back to Moses in Deuteronomy(!)—is simple as Jesus lays it out in a logic chain: “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” (16) Rejecting the word of Jesus’ missionaries is the same as rejecting jesus and in turn rejecting God himself.

Luke’s intent here, I think, is to demonstrate how those in his community who want to the news about the Kingdom are to be properly commissioned, and then providing precise instructions on how to carry out their missionary activities. I think we can argue that Paul and his associates (Silas, Barnabas, etc.) executed these instructions fairly well. Unfortunately, missionaries down through history have not always complied with Jesus’ instructions all that well.

Psalm 86:1–10; Deuteronomy 27:11–28:24; Luke 9:37–50

Psalm 86:1–10: It has been a while since we encountered a David psalm, and here the poet reveals him not as powerful warrior or king but as humble supplicant: “Incline You ear, Lord, answer me,/ for lowly and needy am I.” (1) He reminds God of his faithfulness and is seeking rescue from a dire situation, “Guard my life, for I am faithful./ Rescue Your servant who trusts in You/—You my God.” (2) The remaining verses in this stanza are a beautiful opening to prayer that at once praises God’s wonderful qualities and the supplicant’s humility:
For You, O Master, a good and forgiving
      abounding in kindness to all who call to You.
      Hearken, O Lord, to my prayer,
      and listen well to the sound of my pleas.” (4, 5)

In these days of tragedy piled upon tragedy, the psalmist’s words, spoken in David’s voice, are a respite and a wonderful reminder that despite humankind’s ability to foment evil everywhere, God is still with us. It is in desperate times like these where these words become far greater than a a lovely hymn sung thousands of years ago. It is a cry  to God for today—and it is my prayer for today:
When I am straits I call to You,
      for You will answer me.
      There is none like You among the gods, O Master
      and nothing like Your acts.

Our world is just as cluttered with small-g gods as David’s. Yet we continue to pin our hopes on their ultimate futility. That we humans can somehow become gods ourselves and create peace through bellicose words and pointless actions. With David we pray for the day when:
All the nations You made
      will come and bow before You, O Master
      and will honor Your name.” (9)

For only in God alone does hope reside:
For You are great and work wonders.
       You alone are God.” (10)

Without God there is only an emptiness into which evil can ascend. Alas, that is what seems to surround us these days.

Deuteronomy 27:11–28:24: Moses’ sermon ends with his call with a dramatic gesture involving all the people—a kind of sealing of the pact between God, who has spoken through Moses, and all the people of Israel. This action will include both blessings and a curses—with an ephasis on curses. The tribes of Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin are to gather on MT. Gerizim for the blessing. The tribes of Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali are to gather on Mount Ebal for the curse. The Levites are to be the pronouncers—obviously a strong voice was a Levitical requirement.

One wonders how the authors decided to spilt up the tribes in this manner. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin are on the “blessing mountain,” and these are the tribes that ultimately the southern Kingdom of Judah, which is captured by Babylon, which is probably where this book’s authors came from.

What follows is a remarkable litany of curses that recapitulate the key laws and rules that Moses has spoken through this book and has demanded to be written down. The Levites speak the curse or blessing aloud and “All the people shall respond, saying, “Amen!” (27:15) Twelve curses—”Cursed be anyone…”—follow, ranging from pieces of the Decalogue to sexual behavior to one that I think Israel—and we— tend to ignore all too easily: “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.” (27:19)

In a marvelous display of psychological insight, blessings follow the curses. But these blessing will only occur if “you will only obey the Lord your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today.” (28:1). And just to make sure the people get the point, Moses repeats himself in the next verse: “all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the Lord your God:” (28:2). If the people but obey, they will prosper: “Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your livestock, both the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock.” (28:4)

One of the blessings appears in many benedictions today: “Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out.” (28:6)

More curses follow, reminding the people of the price of disobeying God: “But if you will not obey the Lord your God by diligently observing all his commandments and decrees,” (28:15) there will be dire consequences: “The Lord will send upon you disaster, panic, and frustration in everything you attempt to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly, on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken me.” (28:20)

It is in this spoken ritual where we see the “deutero” in Deuteronomy. The Covenant between God and Israel is ultimately a simple black and white contract. Obedience to God results in blessing; disobedience results in curses.

So if all these laws have been written down on stones, why go through this spoken ritual? The reason seems clear to me. It is exactly the same reason that oaths are spoken aloud in courtrooms today: Once we have uttered something in public we are bound far more tightly by the spoken word than simply reading something silently. It also why we speak liturgies in worship. The spoken word is simply more powerful and binding than the thoughts.

Luke 9:37–50: Children appear in Luke more than any other gospel. Here, a boy has been possessed by a demon, although the symptoms—”It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him” (39)—sound more like epilepsy. Jesus heals the boy in the midst of a seizure and “all were astounded at the greatness of God.” (43) What’s interesting here is that people aren’t astounded at Jesus’ healing prowess, but at “the greatness of God.” Which is Luke’s message to all of us: Jesus is acting in his Father’s name. We cannot forget God in the midst of our amazement at Jesus.

Luke interrupts his disquisition on children and returns again to a key underlying theme of his gospel: Jesus will die. This time, he reveals that “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” (44) People, especially the disciples, remain firmly in denial. It’s almost as if Luke’s Jesus is telling everyone that they won’t be able to complain they weren’t warned. It’s easy for us: we know how the story turns out. But it’s far more difficult for the disciples to even contemplate the possibility of losing their charismatic and popular leader. I’m sure they enjoyed basking in Jesus’ reflected glory. And in another example of just how human they were (and how authentic it makes this gospel), the disciples “were afraid to ask him about this saying.” (45) Which is exactly how I behave when I won’t pursue an unpleasant subject because I’m pretty sure I really don’t want to hear the answer.

Immediately following this, Luke returns to Jesus’ attitude toward children, and verses I remember from Sunday School as a young child at Lake Avenue Congregational Church in Pasadena: “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.” (48). But as an adult I cling to my cynicism, afraid to lower my defenses and come to Jesus as a child would, as a tabula rasa to engage fully with him.

Psalm 85:9–14; Deuteronomy 26:1–27:13; Luke 9:28–36

Psalm 85:9–14: The supplication of the first half of this psalm evolves to a bold imagining of what Israel will become when God responds to the psalmist’s prayers. First of all, God speaks and the psalmist listens: “Let me hear what the Lord God would speak/ when He speaks peace to His people and to his faithful.” (a) And that having heard God speak in peace, the people will respond in turn and “that they turn not back to folly.” (9b)

Having heard God speak, there is a new confidence that he will return and rescue: “Yes, His rescue is near for those who fear Him,/ that His glory dwell in our land.” (10) In a display of the psalmist’s literary boldness, he creates one of the more arresting metaphors in the Psalms by personifying the qualities that God brings in his rescue: “Kindness and truth have met,/ justice and peace have kissed.” (11) This is wonderful description of what peace on earth might look like.

Our poet extends this metaphor by imagining heaven and earth meeting: “Truth from the earth will spring up,/ as justice from the heavens looks down.” (12) For me this means that truth is like a plant, springing to life as God’s justice rains don on the earth. The agricultural metaphor continues but the harvest is far greater than mere wheat or grapes: “The Lord indeed will grant bounty/ and our land will grant its yield.” (13) Truth and justice are now regnant in the land as God’s return is actuality and  “Justice before Him goes,/ that He set His footsteps on the way.” (14)

O, Lord, in this era where truth and justice seem so far away and evils stalks the land, we pray with the psalmist for you to again cause justice and peace to kiss. For there cannot be peace without justice.

Deuteronomy 26:1–27:13: After traipsing through the long rhetorical desert of laws and prohibitions, we arrive at an oasis of joyful offering. Moses asks that when Israel arrives in the Promised Land that “you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.” (26:2) This is an offering of gratitude that becomes an occasion of worship.

Moses is asking that in this first fruits worship that Israel remember all that God has done for them since in Egypt in three distinct steps: “we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.” (26:7) And how along the way, “The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders;” (8) And finally, how God “brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (9) These verses are strikingly parallel to what the psalmist wrote above: that God hears the cries of the oppressed and responds with justice and peace.

Moreover, this first fruits offering has a wonderfully practical purpose by “giving it to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns,” (12)

At long last we come to Moses’ concluding words in what our authors have presented as a long,—very long—sermon. In an acknowledgement of what these priestly authors have accomplished, we hear Moses’ specific command that it all be written down: “You shall write on them all the words of this law when you have crossed over, to enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you.” (27:3)

God’s first location in the Promised Land will be atop Mount Ebal, where an altar of unhewn stone is to be built. The stones are to be covered in plaster and “You shall write on the stones all the words of this law very clearly.” (27:8) Just to make sure the people have gotten the message, Moses repeats himself once again: “This very day you have become the people of the Lord your God. Therefore obey the Lord your God, observing his commandments and his statutes that I am commanding you today.” (27:9, 10)

What’s intriguing here is that there is a clear implication that the act of crossing over into what was once Canaan transforms Israel to finally become “become the people of the Lord your God.” To me, this statement suggests that the escape from Egypt and the 40 subsequent years of wandering have represented the gestation of Israel, and it is only now that by actually returning to the Promised Land that they become born into the full-fledged people of God.

Luke 9:28–36: In what I consider one of the more mysterious but revealing events of Jesus’ life, Luke comes to the Transfiguration story. What Peter, John, and James—the same three who later become the titular leaders of the early church—witness is a true theophany. For a moment Jesus seems to strip off his humanity and the three disciples and we see the glory of God as manifested in Jesus Christ: “And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” (29)

Were we writing this story as science fiction, we could say that Jesus and the disciples entered into a different time-space dimension and that they are briefly glimpsing the never-ending conversation that goes on in heaven: “They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” (31) Luke adds the intriguing detail that even though “Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.” (32) I think Luke is reminding us that to witness the glory of God requires us to remain ever alert. This is also a theme Jesus returns to in his disquisition of end times on the Mount of Olives just before he enters Jerusalem for Passover. Being a Christian has a lot to do with staying awake and alert.

Finally, I think the Transfiguration has a lot to tell us about where heaven is located. As NT Wright has asserted, heaven is right here—not up above us in outer space somewhere. But heaven exists in a dimension we cannot ordinarily see in our mortal lives, although thin spaces give us some intriguing clues.


Psalm 85:1–8; Deuteronomy 24:14–25:19; Luke 9:12–27

Psalm 85:1–8: This psalm of supplication must have been written during a time of severe national trial, perhaps following the Babylonian conquest. The psalmist opens by remembering how God once blessed Israel and forgave its people: “You favored, O Lord, Your land,/ You restored the condition of Jacob,/ You forgave Your people’s crime,/ You covered all their offense, selah.” (2, 3) Our poet intensifies the contrast between then and now by reminding God, “You laid aside all Your wrath,/ You turned back from Your blazing fury.” (4) So there is clear precedent for God to do the same once again.

Now, once again in this moment of crisis, the psalmist implores God to relent, and “Turn back, pray, God of our rescue/ and undo Your anger against us.” (5) He asks the question that has been asked down through the ages when all seems at its darkest and God seems to be relentless in his punishment: “Will You forever be incensed with us,/ will You draw out Your fury through all generations?” (6) Will God once again be willing to be at the center of their lives, the object of the their worship? The psalmist seems to catch himself in mid question when he asks the most basic question of all: “Why, You—will again give us life,/ and Your people will rejoice in You.” (7)

These unanswered questions boil down to the simple plea for God to once again be a God of love, not a God of anger and save them all from their present plight: “Show us, O Lord, Your kindness/ and Your rescue grant to us.” (8) Even though God is there all the time that does not prevent our feeling  abandoned. And when that sense of ineffable loneliness overtakes us, this psalm is a beautiful expression of those feelings.

Deuteronomy 24:14–25:19: This seemingly endless catalog of laws became the basis of western civilization. Some of these laws still fail to be observed consistently. Perhaps most significantly in this time of political turmoil in America is how these Mosaic laws remember those people, including immigrants, who are on the bottom rungs of society:  “You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns.” (24:14) Nor shall “You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge.” (24:17)

There is even basic welfare for the poor in that olive trees are not to be fully stripped nor grapes fully harvested: “…do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.” (21)

And then a rule of justice that is so basic I had never thought of it before: individual responsibility for our actions, stated rather dramatically here, “Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their parents; only for their own crimes may persons be put to death.” (16) Only one man in history took on the punishment for us all: Jesus on the cross.

Punishment rendered against someone deemed to be guilty must fit the crime: “If the one in the wrong deserves to be flogged, the judge shall make that person lie down and be beaten in his presence with the number of lashes proportionate to the offense.” (25:2) This would be a good verse to bring forward when we learn of unreasonable sentences being given for seemingly petty crimes, such as the many years of imprisonment too often handed out for relatively minor drug offenses. On the other hand, the recent public outcry about the fairly lenient sentence given to wealthy student who raped a woman is a good example of the sense of proportionality in justice that we all expect. But was the public’s sense of proportionality correct in that case?

Then again, there are some laws that no longer apply, such as when brothers live together and refuses to marry the widow of a deceased brother. That person will be publicly shamed when “his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull his sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and declare, “This is what is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.” Throughout Israel his family shall be known as “the house of him whose sandal” (25: 9, 10) This law, which seems rather humorous on its face, but deadly serious nonetheless, gives us a picture of the priority of family over an individual’s feelings. Of course, in our society, it’s gone so hard over the other way such that it’s all about individual rights.

Finally, “If men get into a fight with one another, and the wife of one intervenes to rescue her husband from the grip of his opponent by reaching out and seizing his genitals, you shall cut off her hand; show no pity.” (11, 12) Ouch in every sense of the word. It also demonstrates a clear boundary between men and women and women dare not intervene in a man’s business—even in a fight where the woman fears for her husband’s well being.

Luke 9:12–27: The feeding of the 5000 and its fish and bread surplus is a story I first heard in Sunday School. But it has never lost its power as a metaphor for how Jesus blesses us with far more than we can ever consume. Even in dark times, such as those today’s psalm describes, when all seems lost, the blessings are there. They often come in a completely unexpected way, such as cancer. But the blessings overflow when we sit down with Jesus and listen.

Jesus asks his disciples two of the questions that sit at the cornerstone of the Christian faith. First, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” (18) And the disciples respond with the same list that Herod had a few verses back: “John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.” (19) But then Jesus asks those who have not only witnessed his public works, but also the private man, who clearly has told them far more: “But who do you say that I am?” (20a). It is Peter who answers in the barest most straightforward way—what Luke wants his readers to be sure they understand. Four simple words: “The Messiah of God.” (20b).

Unlike Matthew, Luke does not tell us what Jesus said in reply to Peter’s answer. Which, frankly, I think is better—at least for me. It means that each of us must reach our own conclusions without prompting. Wither Jesus is the Messiah or he is not.

Rather than answering Peter, Jesus orders the disciples to keep this new realization a secret. Once again and like the non-encounter with Herod, Luke is telling us, the time for all to be revealed to the world is not yet for this to be revealed.

Here, Jesus makes a direct prediction of exactly what will happen to him: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (22) And with this bold assertion that doubtless puzzled the disciples, who could not see in to the future, we hear one of the enormously “hard” sayings of Jesus: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (23) This is hard because it requires subsuming our ego, our agendas, our desires, and our very being to Jesus. For me, this is the very definition of taking up a cross and “crucifying” my own desires. Alas, it is infinitely easier said—even by Jesus—than done.

Psalm 84:9–13; Deuteronomy 23:1–24:13; Luke 9:1–11

Psalm 84:9–13: This psalm gives us  real feel for the pilgrimage journey as the poet anticipates his eventual arrival at the temple in Jerusalem. He prays for God’s protection as he journeys: “Lord, God of armies, hear my prayer./ Hearken, O God of Jacob. selah” (9) He also asks God to see how eager he is to worship at the temple: “Our shield, O God, see, /and regard Your anointed one’s face.” (10)

His enthusiasm and sheer joy overflow as he arrives at the temple entrance, singing, “For better one day in Your courts/ than a thousand I have chosen,/ standing on the threshold in the house of my God,/ than living in the tents of wickedness.” (11) This comparison is a dramatic assertion that true worship trumps everything else in life. The question becomes of course, would I prefer one day in worship to all the other distractions (“tents of wickedness”) that the world has to offer?

The remainder of this psalm is pure worship as our pilgrim is overcome with joy at being able to express pure worship of a generous God who especially loves righteousness:
For a sun and shield is the Lord,
    God is grace and glory.
    The Lord grants, He does not withhold
    bounty to those who go blameless. (12)

The last line says it all about our relationship with God: “happy the man who trusts in You.” (13) God is indeed the ultimate source of joy and like the pilgrim here, worship is our automatic response.

Deuteronomy 23:1–24:13: This endless lists of rules and proscriptions provides a fascinating picture of the practices and mores of Israel, as they had evolved to the time that Deuteronomy was actually written by the priests. We can also appreciate how the absence of these other rules in other societies made for chaotic and ultimately short-lived kingdoms.

Some of these laws are exceedingly uncomfortable, even cruel to our modern ears, especially the permanent enmity against Israel’s traditional enemies: “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation.” (23:3) The authors provide two reasons for this exclusion: “they did not meet you with food and water on your journey out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam son of Beor, from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you.” (4) This curse of course amplifies the irony of Ruth, the Moabite woman became the ancestor of David and the Davidic dynasty.

On the other hand, “ You shall not abhor any of the Edomites, for they are your kin.” (23:7) since they are the descendants of Esau. And perhaps most ironically of all, “You shall not abhor any of the Egyptians, because you were an alien residing in their land.” (23:7)

Mostly, though, this passage deals with sexual and hygienic matters, some of them squirmingly uncomfortable.

  • No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” (23:1)
  • Nocturnal emissions result in becoming unclean. (23:10)
  • Who knew that latrines were in the Bible? (23:12)
  • Guard against an outbreak of a leprous skin disease by being very careful.” (24:8)

In other prohibitions, we can see how Israel separated itself from the perverted practices of other nations: “None of the daughters of Israel shall be a temple prostitute; none of the sons of Israel shall be a temple prostitute.” (17) And Israel itself was a sanctuary for runaway slaves from other lands.

One Israelite could not charge another interest on loans of any kind, but “On loans to a foreigner you may charge interest,” (20) which of course is what Jews became infamous for down through the centuries right to the 20th century. Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venus provides us the most dramatic portrait of this.

On the other hand, someone could feel free to eat his neighbor’s grapes, as long as he did not put them in a container. The practical point being, sampling is not the same as theft.

Men are prevented from changing their minds in marriage. (24:1-4) If he divorces the first wife to marry the second and then divorces her, he cannot go back to the first wife. This certainly prevented men from sampling the sexual wares to find out who they liked best.

In short, these rules and laws were essential to the functioning of a coherent, God-fearing society. And many of them, such as the prohibition against kidnapping (24:7) and basic hygiene form the basis of our own society.

Luke 9:1–11: In the first missionary event in the Bible, Jesus “called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.” (1,2) He commands that they are to take no possessions with them on the journey and to move on quickly if their ministry is rejected.

There are crucial lessons here for missionary activities, whose unfortunate corruption we have witnessed down through the ages. One is the failure to move on with alacrity if not welcomed. One of the great tragedies is that missionaries would come into native lands and planted themselves, imposing religiosity and effectively erasing the culture that was already there. The Spanish conquest of Central and South America comes quickly to mind. As does Manifest Destiny in 19th century America. Christianity has too often been used as a cover for conquest.

Luke tells us that Jesus’ fame has spread to Herod himself “and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead.” (7) The prevailing theories was that John had been raised from the dead, or more likely, that Elijah or other ancient prophets had returned. [Elijah was always the first theory because he was taken into heaven without dying and therefore could logically return from heaven.]

Luke leaves us with the tantalizing phrase, “And he [Herod] tried to see him [Jesus].” (9) We assume the meeting never happened since that encounter at this point would probably have changed history. And not for the better.

Luke doesn’t tell us how long the disciples were gone on their mission, but it may just have been a week or two. They have returned and  Jesus “took them with him and withdrew privately to a city called Bethsaida.” (10) That retreat probably lasted no more than a day or two, as the crowds quickly locate them. But as always, Jesus “welcomed them, and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed to be cured.” (11) Even when he was tired Jesus never failed to be welcoming, to communicate the good news, and to minister to the people’s needs. A good lesson for all of us who claim to be the church.


Psalm 84:1–8; Deuteronomy 22; Luke 8:40–56

Psalm 84:1–8: This beautiful psalm—and a welcome respite from the previous two wishing ill for Israel’s enemies—describes a pilgrim journeying toward the temple at Jerusalem. Even though he is still some distance away, he can already  see it in his mind’s eye as he describes his longing: “How lovely Your dwellings,/ O Lord of armies!/ My being longed, even languished,/ for the courts of the Lord.” (2, 3a) His eager anticipation is suffused with underlying joy: “My heart and my flesh/ sing gladness to the living God.” (3b)

He imagines birds that are already present at the temple, even a swallow which has managed to make a nest for itself in the  crevices between its mighty stone blocks (cf. the Western Wall today): “Even the bird has found a home and the swallow a nest for itself/ that puts its fledglings by Your altars...” (4) Eager to join them, our poet sings, “Happy are those who dwell in Your house,/ they will ever praise You.” (5) Of course it is not the temple itself which draws our poet closer, it is because that is where God is present. We children of the New Covenant can rejoice that God is everywhere wherever we are, not just at a temple in Jerusalem.

True joy arises from trusting God: “Happy the folk whose strength is in You,/ the highways in their heart.” (6) What a lovely, felicitous phrase—’the highways of the heart,’—as it evokes a never-ending journey of the love that comes from God.

This section of the psalm concludes with specific geographic references: “who pass through the Valley of Baca,/ they make it into a spring—/ yes, the early rain cloaks it with blessings.” (7a) Our mind’s eye can see the lush green landscape surrounding the spring, made all the more gorgeous by the rain. But the greater idea here is that like that gentle rain, we are showered with God’s blessings, if we give but a moment’s reflection.

Deuteronomy 22: The chapter begins with a set of miscellaneous laws, some which are crucial to the smooth functioning of society by reducing enmity among neighbors by returning what is theirs and helping them in times of need: “you shall do the same with anything else that your neighbor loses and you find. You may not withhold your help.” (3) These verses—and their transgression—must certainly have been on Jesus’ mind when he told the story of the Good Samaritan.

Another rule, which is now obeyed mostly in the breech in our culture, aimed at preserving an ordered society is “A woman shall not wear a man’s apparel, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whoever does such things is abhorrent to the Lord your God.” (5) Others, such as coming on a bird’s nest on the ground and taking only the fledglings and not the mother ring oddly to us. But basic safety measures—”When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof; otherwise you might have bloodguilt on your house, if anyone should fall from it.” (8)—make eminent sense. As does the rule “not [to] plow with an ox and a donkey yoked together.” (10)  Then, some rules are merely odd such as the prohibition of wearing clothes made of both wool and linen.

Things turn darker when we come to the laws regarding sexual behavior. If a man takes a wife, has sex with her and then dislikes her, he had better not claim she was not a virgin. His words will be put to the test in a bizarre public display by the wife’s parents to demonstrate that she was indeed a virgin. Should his accusation prove false he must give a mere 100 shekels to his father-in-law since “he has slandered a virgin of Israel. ” (19) Moreover, he is prevented from ever divorcing her, which is more likely the factor that would give men pause before laying out a false accusation. On the other hand, and in a dramatic display of gender inequality, if the wife was indeed not a virgin when she comes to her husband, she is to be stoned to death.

Adultery is punishable by death: “ If a man is caught lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman as well as the woman.” (22) Happily, our culture no longer enforces this law. On the other hand, rape remains indefensible today and if a man rapes an engaged woman in the country where no one can hear her cries for help, the male is to be stoned to death, but not the woman because “the engaged woman may have cried for help, but there was no one to rescue her.” (27)

But if a man “meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife.” (28, 29). Once married he may not divorce, which certainly would have given men pause before attempting to seduce another woman.

While we see most of the rules as entirely too harsh, there is little question in my mind that strict sexual morality was one of the keys in preserving the identity and coherence of Israel as compared to the corrupt nations that surrounded it.

Luke 8:40–56: Healing piles upon healing as Luke describes alternative means by which Jesus heals people. Jesus returns to Capernaum, where the crowd eagerly awaits his arrival. But before Jesus can begin preaching, “Jairus, a leader of the synagogue…fell at Jesus’ feet and begged him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter, about twelve years old, who was dying.” (41, 42) Jesus agrees and begins walking to Jairus’s house, which couldn’t have been all that far away.

The crowd is surrounding him on all sides when the hemorrhaging woman comes up behind and touches his robe. She is instantly healed. Jesus demands to know who touched him and “When the woman saw that she could not remain hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before him, she declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed.” (47) Not surprisingly, the woman’s first reaction is fear. I’m pretty sure that if Jesus turned around, looked me in the eye and demanded rather accusingly, “Who touched me?” I’d feel exactly as the woman did. But fear vanishes when Jesus speaks, telling her that “your faith has made you well; go in peace.” (48)

Once again, this story is greatly encouraging to Luke’s community, who feared that with Jesus long gone from their physical presence, they would be unable to experience his healing. But the means of healing that Jesus has given the woman is straightforward: faith.

Nevertheless, we are left with the conundrum that many of great faith, notably Paul, seek physical healing but are not healed. My own take is that the woman was healed because she reached out and touched Jesus. And so we too can touch Jesus by touching him by praying and having faith that his healing presence will come upon us. We may not receive the physical healing we desire, but in faith there will always be healing of one kind or another.

Jairus finds out that his daughter has died, and I can imagine he was angry that a mere woman had delayed Jesus and now it was too late. This is reminiscent of Martha’s anger when Jesus delays in coming to the dying Lazarus in John’s gospel. We are frustrated that the healing we’re supposed to be experiencing is impeded by other circumstances or worse, other people. We always want Jesus to act on our behalf right now. But the healing of Jairus’ daughter tells us that with Jesus, our patience is rewarded. We may not be healed right away or when we think healing must occur. But Jesus’ presence is independent of our preferred agenda. He will heal us in his own time and in his own way.