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.

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