Psalm 81:12–17; Deuteronomy 13:1–14:21; Luke 7:18–30

Psalm 81:12–17: Writing in God’s voice, our poet continues to speak of the ‘what ifs’ of Israel’s history, “But My people did not heed My voice/ and Israel wanted nothing of me.” (12) This is one of the saddest lines in the Psalms, and it resonates deeply today. Where once a belief in God was foundational in society, today people truly “want nothing” of God, having not only rejected what God wants to give us, but even rejecting the very idea that God even exists at all.

Of course God has given Israel—and us—free will and we are free to ignore him: “And I let them follow their heart’s willfulness,/ they went by their own counsels.” (13) God has given us freedom: freedom to follow him or freedom to follow “our own counsels,” which, as a casual reading of history reveals, leads inevitably to bad outcomes. And which is where we seem to be headed as a culture at this moment.

The tragic irony is that there is a clear and simple way out of the mess Israel created for itself: “If My people would but heed Me,/ If Israel would go in My ways.” (14) As far as our poet is concerned, if the nation would simply follow God, he would reward them mightily: “in a moment I would humble their enemies,/ and against their foes I would turn My hand.” (15) Personally, now that we live under the terms of the New Covenant, I do not accept this simple quid pro quo formulation, but under the Law, there’s no question that this is exactly what God, speaking through Moses, has been promising Israel in the book of Deuteronomy.

God would not only humble Israel’s enemies, but there would be recompense as well: “Those who hate the Lord would cringe before Him,/ and their time of doom would be everlasting.” (16) While on the other hand, Israel would be greatly rewarded: “And I would feed him [Israel] the finest wheat,/ and from the rock I would sate him with honey.” (17) Notice that while Israel’s history is about water coming out of a rock, here even greater riches are promised in the symbol of honey emerging from a rock.

If only they would follow God. But alas, we know Israel’s history—and we are witnessing ours follow the same depressing path, knowing that rescue is so close at hand.

Deuteronomy 13:1–14:21: Moses’ disquisition on the perils of following small-g gods continues as he warns against the temptations of false prophets, whose predictions of “omens or the portents declared by them take place, and they say, “Let us follow other gods” (whom you have not known) “and let us serve them,you must not heed the words of those prophets or those who divine by dreams.” (13:2, 3a) Interestingly, Moses frames these temptations as  “the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul.” (3b) In the theocracy that was Israel, false prophecy is treason and the punishment of any Israelite speaking practicing it is death. We begin to understand why the great prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah and colleagues—were despised in their time even though they were trying to bring the people back to God, not to lead them to small-g gods.

Not only death, but this crime of tempting others to abandon God is so horrific that the people are to “Show them no pity or compassion and do not shield them. But you shall surely kill them” (8, 9a) by stoning. Which of course was Stephen’s fate for speaking of Jesus Christ. To the people of Israel, Jesus was simply another failed false prophet who was now dead and for Stephen to speak of Jesus being alive was anathema.

Moses in not just speaking academically here. It appears that he is dealing with a problem that has already surfaced before Israel even enters Canaan. Apparently there have already been “scoundrels from among you [i.e. Israelites, who] have gone out and led the inhabitants of the town astray, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods,”(13) If the investigation finds that this has indeed occurred, the crime is so abhorrent that not only is the false prophet to be killed, but “ you shall put the inhabitants of that town to the sword, utterly destroying it and everything in it—even putting its livestock to the sword.” (15) What are we to make of this? In the context of Israel being ruled by God—a theocracy— it is eminently logical if harsh. But without this threat hanging over the people’s heads, God seems to know that they would succumb to the attractiveness of idols. But as we know, even with these laws, many of the Jews did eventually did turn away from God.

Now that Moses has put, we presume, the fear of God into the people, he turns to more mundane issues, such as what the people can and cannot eat. This section forms the basis of what today we define as kosher. The basic bifold rule about livestock is simple: “Any animal that divides the hoof and has the hoof cleft in two, and chews the cud, among the animals, you may eat.” (14:6) He then gives examples of cloven hoof animals but that don’t chew the cud that must be avoided, most notably the pig. Likewise, finned fish are OK, but shell fish are banned. A long list of forbidden birds follows and eating insects is also (thank goodness!) forbidden. Finally,  “You shall not eat anything that dies of itself,” (21a) although it can be given “to aliens residing in your towns for them to eat, or you may sell it to a foreigner.” (21b)

The list of clean and unclean makes real sense when examine it from a health and environmental perspective. The most famous example is of course the problem of undercooked pork (trichinosis), and it seems that God definitely has a heart for the great birds such as eagles and ospreys (and less appealingly, vultures and buzzards).

Luke 7:18–30: Jesus’ fame is now so widespread that the most renowned prophet in Judea, John the Baptist, sends a delegation north to Jesus with instructions to ask, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” (20) Jesus summarizes his deeds to date: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” (22) Then, Luke makes it clear that Jesus does not intend to belittle John’s message or activities by offering him an olive branch, “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (23)

Is this the same John, who back in chapter 3 said, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (3:16)? Why is he so unsure now about who Jesus is? However, when we read that baptism passage carefully we see that John never actually addresses Jesus face-to-face, nor does John say anything specific about Jesus being the fulfillment of his prophecy. Luke’s baptism passage is ambiguous. John may not have even seen the dove descend form heaven or heard God’s voice.In this context, the visit from John’s emissaries makes sense.

Here in Luke 7, Jesus himself gives the highest possible encomium as he endorses John and his ministry: “What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” (26) And then, Jesus quotes the same passage from Isaiah that John had used to describe himself: “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,/ who will prepare your way before you.’” (27) Then, in an indirect reference to his own birth, he asserts, “ I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (28)

So, what’s Luke’s point here? My guess is that Luke’s community included a group of passionate John followers. Perhaps a conflict had arisen between them and those who rejected John as being relevant now that Jesus had come. So Luke walks the knife edge, asserting through the words of Jesus that John was the greatest prophet of the time, and indeed, “more than a prophet” because he has coming just ahead of the Messiah’s appearance on the scene. But in the end, there’s no confusion of hierarchy. John may have been the greatest prophet of all, but he was still only the messenger to someone greater than he. And even more surprisingly, Luke asserts that anyone in the Kingdom of God is greater than John.

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