Archives for January 2018

Psalm 18:25–29; Genesis 30:25–31:21; Matthew 11:11–24

Originally posted 1/30/2016—revised and updated 1/30/2018

Psalm 18:25–29: Our poet emphasizes the nature of what we could call the deuteronomic or quid-pro-quo God. The formula is simple: Human behavior elicits a corresponding response from God. At a personal level, the poet observes,
And the Lord requited me for my merit,
for my cleanness of hands in His eyes.” (25)

The formula for proper behavior and following the law is simple. God’s reward is a direct correlation to how we approach God—or ignore God’s rules. Our poet points out that God responds to us exactly in the way we behave:
With the faithful You deal faithfully,
with a blameless man, act without blame.
With the pure one, You deal purely,
with the perverse man, deal in twists.” (26, 27).

In short, our behavior matters to God. Or put another way, “What you sow, you will reap.” We may think this is an oversimplified picture of human behavior and of how God deals with that behavior, but at its core this psalm is about consequences. Every action—whether good or bad—will create its consequence—perhaps not right away, but actions and consequences are as immutable as Newton’s Third Law. I take the “dealing in twists” to mean that if we deal with others in a convoluted fashion with a malevolent intent in mind, God will do the same to us, usually (to mix metaphors) hoisting us on our own petard.  Once again, it’s easy to see where the Pharisees were coming from when Jesus turns all of this “quid-pro-quoness” of our relationship to God inside out and upside down.

It continues to amaze me how many people believe they can undertake risky actions without a thought to the consequences those actions will engender. Perhaps the consequences may not become apparent for many years, but as out psalmist promises, they are certainly there eventually.

As in so many other psalms we read here how God is always looking out for the poor and lonely, but he also has his eyes on those who think they can get away with things outside of God’s sight:
For it is you who rescues the lowly folk
and haughty eyes You bring low.” (28)

Our poet goes on to observe that our relationship with God is much deeper than just being on our best behavior. God is our constant guide:
For You light up my lamp, O Lord,
my God illuminates my darkness.” (29)

God brings the illumination of insight, but he  also brings us strength:
For through You I rush at a barrier,
through my God I can vault a wall.” (30)

As fallen human beings we all walk in the darkness of sin. God shines right through our tendency to sin right into our hearts. And if we know God, we can overcome obstacles that lie before us. And of course we know how many years after this psalm was written exactly how God brought the Light into a darkened world.

Genesis 30:25–31:21: Jacob has had enough of working for his father in law and decides it’s time to leave Laban’s sheep, goat and cattle business and set up on his own. Laban realizes that Jacob has been instrumental in making him a rich man: “I have learned by divination that the Lord has blessed me because of you,” and tells Jacob to name his wages. Jacob refuses the wages, but sets up a deal here he will get all the striped(?), black, and spotted (hereafter, SB&S) sheep, while Laban will retain the pure white ones. Laban thinks he can trick Jacob  by separating out the existing SB&S sheep and sending them off in another direction three days away with his sons.

But Jacob is more clever than his father-in-law and has his own trick up his sleeve. Using a weird method of having sheep breed in front of striped tree branches he manages to breed very strong and healthy SB&S sheep. [One more good reason why we should not consider the Bible to be a scientific text!] Over a period of time, Jacob ends up a strong flock, while Laban is left with the feebler flock. In the agrarian economy of the time, Jacob “grew exceedingly rich, and had large flocks, and male and female slaves, and camels and donkeys.” (30:43).

Laban’s sons figure out what Jacob has done and he is now persona non grata in Laban’s household even though it was Laban who tried to cheat Jacob. Jacob tells Rachel and Leah, “You know that I have served your father with all my strength; yet your father has cheated me and changed my wages ten times, but God did not permit him to harm me.” (31:7-8) Jacob goes on to tell them that God has instructed him “leave this land at once and return to the land of your birth.” (31:13) Rachel and Leah observe that Laban has squandered their inheritance: “Are we not regarded by him as foreigners? For he has sold us, and he has been using up the money given for us.” (31:15).

So they conspire to escape Laban’s clutches: “Rachel stole her father’s household gods. And Jacob deceived Laban the Aramean, in that he did not tell him that he intended to flee.” (31:20) Jacob, his wives and children, and all his moveable four-footed wealth depart Haran and return to Canaan. Leaving, I presume, one very angry Laban.

The parallels of this story to Israel’s escape from Egypt some 400 years later are striking. It is the sojourner, Jacob, who creates the wealth of Laban, just as Egypt benefitted from Hebrew slave labor. And there is plotting and eventually escape. And Canaan is always the destination. Since we presume it is Jews in Babylonian captivity reading this story, they would have come away inspired by Jacob’s cleverness and his willingness to stand up to the man who was in essence his captor–and then to escape form him.

Matthew 11:11–24: As he continues to speak of John the Baptist and himself, he tells his listeners that “among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist;” (11a) but adds that “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (11b) He also points out that people have a habit of not really listening to any prophet. suggesting that the problem is them, not the prophet: “and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!” (14, 15)

Not heeding what prophets have to say is a deeply ingrained human habit: “It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;/ we wailed, and you did not mourn.’” (16b, 17)

Not listening and then making judgements about the prophet is even more egregious. We are too quick to draw the wrong conclusion. Jesus notes that the people didn’t like John because he was too ascetic: “John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’.” (18) On the other hand, they make the same poor judgement about Jesus because he behaves oppositely. They see him as too much the party animal: “the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (19).

In the hinge point of this reading, Jesus tells us that “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” But we are too hasty; we do not take the time to wait and assess someone’s actions because it easier–and lazier–just to spout our opinions. Which of course is what Facebook was really invented for.

This all too human failure to observe Jesus’ actions of healing and ministering seriously and then to realize via wise reflection that he has brought the Kingdom of Heaven to earth is a source of enormous frustration for Jesus: “He began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent.” (20)  Jesus observes that had he performed those same deeds in the most evil cities any Jew could think of—Tyre and Sidon—they would have repented. But Chorzin, Bethsaida, and even Capernaum have ignored his message and failed to repent. And as far as Jesus is concerned in this moment of anger and frustration, “I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.” (24) Which is not exactly the good news people wanted to hear. But nobody seemed to be listening anyway.

We do exactly the same thing as the Jews in Jesus’ day. We hear only what we want to hear and then we rush to judgement rather than observing, listening, reflecting, which are the paths to wisdom—and to repentance.

Psalm 18:16–24; Genesis 29:15–30:24; Matthew 11:1–10

Originally posted 1/29/2016—revised and updated 1/29/2018

Psalm 18:16–24: A flood follows the thunderstorm, but God’s arrival on earth was no ordinary storm as
the channels of water were exposed,
and the world’s foundations laid bare
from the Lord’s roaring,
from the blast of Your nostrils’ breath.” (16)

This is not the serene and quiet God we encounter in places like Psalm 23, but much more the sturm und drang God which the author of Revelation exploits to such great effect.

Following this description of God’s dramatic entrance, our poet turns to his primary theme: David’s rescue as he is apparently drowning in the flood, but this does not quench his imagination. Astride the angel, God swoops down and God rescues David from this metaphorical flood of a hopeless situation:
He reached from on high and took me,
pulled me out of the many waters.
He save me from my daunting enemy

and from my foes who were stronger than I.” (17, 18)

Even though David was hopelessly outnumbered,
and they came at me on my day of disaster,
the Lord became my support.” (19a).

In contrast to the tumult of thunder, lightning, and flood, David finds gentle peace as God “brought me out to a wide-open space,
set me free, for His pleasure I was.” (20)

This is exactly what God can do for us if, like David, we let him. So often, our lives have become a hopeless tangle and we feel surrounded by evil and relentless forces that will crush us. But instead of feeling helpless and hemmed-in, God will bring us to a “wide-open space” that is the natural metaphor for freedom. For us Christians, that is freedom in the saving grace of Jesus Christ.

But in the deuteronomic framework of the OT, David’s rescue comes because he has earned it by righteous living and hewing to the law and Covenant:
The Lord dealt with me by my merit,
for my cleanness of hands He requited me.
For I kept the ways of the Lord
and did no evil before my God.
For all His laws were before me.
From His statutes I did not swerve.
And I was blameless before Him,
and I kept myself from crime.” (24)

There’s a certain defensiveness in this repeated assertion of how well David followed God’s law. I am grateful that we live under the terms of the New Covenant of grace and forgiveness because of Jesus’ sacrifice. That’s not to say I don’t endeavor to “keep myself from crime,” but I know I will fail again and again. Jesus may not will swoop down and rescue with such a dramatic gesture as our poet describes, but I know that whether my circumstances are desperate or benign, I can confess and Jesus will forgive and rescue me.

Genesis 29:15–30:24: Jacob has fallen deeply in love with Rachel, and her father, Laban, extracts a promise from Jacob to work for him in order to win her hand. Finally, after seven years, Laban makes good on the deal. But on the night the marriage is  consummated, Laban tricks Jacob, sending in older daughter Leah, instead. Clearly these things happened in the dark because Jacob exclaims, “When morning came, it was Leah!” (29:25). Jacob is understandably angry at Laban, “Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” (29:26) Laban rather coyly explains that the older daughter has to be married off before the younger Rachael and extracts an agreement from Jacob that if he gets Rachel now, he is to work for yet another seven years. So deeply does Jacob love the younger daughter that he agrees to do this and loses no time in consummating the marriage: “Jacob went in to Rachel also.” (29:30)

In one of those grand ironies that abound in life, “When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren.” (29:31) Laban bears Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. Since a woman’s worth was defined by her ability to bear children, Rachel is deeply unhappy: “she envied her sister; and she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!”  (30:1) Jacob responds angrily that it’s not his fault she was barren (and it really wasn’t his fault since he’d already proved his virility through Leah). So Rachel offers Jacob her maid Bihlah, whom Jacob promptly impregnates. His son Dan and later, Napthali arrive via the servant girl.

In the meantime, Leah realizes she has become barren and offers her maid Zilpah to Jacob, who bears Gad and Asher. There’s an odd transaction involving mandrakes, which were considered an aphrodisiac, and Jacob lies once again with Leah, who bears a fifth son, Issahar, and a few months later, Zebulun. Oh, and a daughter as well: Dinah.

In a wonderful turn of phrase, “Then God remembered Rachel, and God heeded her and opened her womb.” (30:22) This child by Jacob is Joseph. But never quite satisfied, Rachel, in bearing Joseph, says, “May the Lord add to me another son!” (30:24). Of which more later.

This story is told in detail because the authors are outlining the ancestral roots of each tribe of Israel. But they are reminding every Israelite that while he or she has the same ancestral father they have one of four different ancestral mothers. Which would be a way of explaining some of the inter-tribal and battles later on in Israel’s history.

At first, multiple wives and concubines may seem very strange to our monogamous culture. But today, many men and women have become increasingly serially monogamous where the same mother may bear children by multiple fathers. And the same passions of envy and disappointment around sex, virility and childbearing are still very much with us.

Matthew 11:1–10: Jesus was clearly not one of those teachers or professors who just expounds on a theory or seeks to communicate his vast knowledge and understanding and remain in the safety of his ivory tower. He is the exemplar of what it means to practice what he preaches: “Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.” (1) Which is an awfully difficult thing for Christians like me to emulate. I’d much rather remain in the safety of the community, expounding on theological niceties rather than going out among the poor and broken bringing not just Christ’s message of compassion but demonstrating that compassion.

By this time, Jesus’ fame and notoriety had spread to the followers of the better-known John the Baptist. John’s followers come to check out the competition and ask if he’s the “the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (3). As usual, Jesus does not actually answer the question directly, but asks them to examine the evidence: Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (4,5) And in his beautifully indirect way, he communicates to John’s followers that he is no competitor to John: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (6)

Obviously, this dialog took place rather publicly because Jesus rises to an eloquent defense of John—both his person and his rather tough message: What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes?” (7,8) He reminds them of John’s role as prophet (“forthteller”) by again quoting Malachi: “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,/ who will prepare your way before you.’” (10) Once again and always, Jesus allows the people to draw their own conclusions about just who that may be. But we have to believe that the evidence of who Jesus is was not lost on the crowds any more than it was lost on John’s disciples.

But that’s how Jesus operates, isn’t it? He neither pushes his agenda nor makes pronouncements about who he is. He always wants us to look at the evidence and draw our own conclusions for ourselves. But he will always demand that we do so honestly and without denial.


Psalm 18:7–15; Genesis 28:10–29:14; Matthew 10:26–42

Originally posted 1/27/2016—revised and updated 1/27/2018

Psalm 18:7–15: Our poet continues speaking in David’s voice, describing how he called to God in desperation—and Godanswered:
In my strait I call to the Lord,
to my God I cried out.
He heard from His palace my voice,

and my outcry before Him came to His ears.” (7, 8).

God does not respond to David’s plea with a mere whisper, but with all the dramatic force of nature, beginning with a seismic event:
The earth heaved and shuddered,
the mountains’ foundations were shaken.” (9a).

Our psalmist compares God to an erupting volcano that destroys David’s enemies as
“…smoke rose from His nostrils
and fire from His mouth consumed,
coals blazed up around Him.” (9b)

God causes the very heavens [which were viewed as a flat plane somewhere above earth] to move:
He tilted the heavens, came down,
dense mist beneath His feet.” (10).

Then, there is the imaginatively awesome but somewhat unsettling image of God astride an angel coming down out of now-tilted heaven to wreak vengeance on David’s enemies:
He mounted a cherub and flew,
and He soared on the wings of the wind.” (11)

But in the psalmist’s telling, God is not yet quite ready to reveal himself to the enemy. Rather, we get an image of an unseen God that evokes the primordial beginning of the Genesis 1 creation story:
He set darkness His hiding-place round Him,
His abode water-massing, the clouds of the skies.” (12)

The ominous tension builds and finally God speaks as only God can—his voice resembling a violent thunderstorm:
From the brilliance before Him His clouds moved ahead—
hail and fiery coals.
The Lord thundered from on high.

Elyon sent forth His voice—
hail and fiery coals
He let loose His arrows, and scattered them,
lightning bolts shot, and He panicked them.” (13-15)

So, God dispatches David’s enemies with natural phenomena.. These are the same forces of nature that still destroy—volcanoes, storms, hail and volcanic fire. These verses are a reminder that long before our world of science and technology, nature was seen as the primary agent through which God acted.  For the psalmist and people of his time, these natural events such as volcanic eruptions and fierce thunderstorms were seen a dramatic manifestation of God’s awesome power—and substantiated the fact that God was indeed very much involved in the affairs of men. Alas, in our own culture we use science and technology to explain God away—and in so doing have done everything we cant to exclude God from both natural and human affairs.

Genesis 28:10–29:14: Jacob understandably flees in order to escape the deadly fury of the brother whom he has tricked and deceived. He stops to sleep for the night outdoors, using a stone as a pillow. He then has one of the more memorable dreams of the OT: “He dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.” (28:12) This dream is the means by which God reminds Jacob of the Abrahamic Covenant: “the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth,” (13, 14a).

But then God makes an even greater promise than he made to Abraham: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (15) This of course is the same promise to which we cling today. Even when God seems far away, he has not abandoned us.

Not surprisingly, the dream has an enormous impact on Jacob, who shouts, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (17). Jacob takes his stone pillow and sets it up as a pillar and pours oil on it, calling the place Bethel. And unlike his father and grandfather, Jacob makes a vow in return to God: If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God,” (20, 21).

This seems to be the point at which Jacob, now some 40 years old, finally becomes an adult. He has made a commitment to God. Or is this just “mountaintop experience” enthusiasm?

Jacob journeys on and encounters shepherds and a large  flock of sheep. He asks the shepherds where they come from and they reply “We are from Haran.” (29:4)  Jacob asks if they know Laban. Indeed they do and point out Laban’s daughter—his cousin—Rachel, who is arriving with her father’s sheep. Jacob politely rolls away the stone covering the well so Rachel can feed her flock. Then, he rather dramatically [and I suspect indiscreetly] kisses Rachel as weeps and tells her he is her kinsman. Rachel runs to her father’s house with the good news. Jacob comes to Laban’s house and meets his uncle. Laban happily says,“Surely you are my bone and my flesh!” (29:14) and invites him to stay.

At this point things look pretty promising and romantic. Jacob is now well aware of the Covenant from God and now he’s met the girl of his dreams. It all looks so pastoral and gentle and promising. But the story is not over yet.

Matthew 10:26–42: Matthew’s Jesus continues his private discourse with his disciples. His words are far less comforting than what he said to the crowds in the Sermon on the Mount. In preparing his disciples for their upcoming missionary journey, he tells them “have no fear of them [those who reject the Kingdom]; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” (26) The disciples must to be brave and boldly proclaim the message of the Kingdom: “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” (27) Yes, it’s potentially dangerous work, but Jesus assures them that God will protect them.

Jesus then tells them one of the great promises of faith: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (28). These words surely resonated with Matthew’s readers/ listeners—people who were already in trying, even dangerous, circumstances by virtue of their faith. Jesus’ words remind them—and us—that they are to go about God’s very serious business but will receive God’s protection. Which is a good thing, because Jesus did not come to be gentle and self-effacing: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (34)

The radical nature of Jesus’ message is going to severely test and upend human relationships, as he quotes from Micah’s prophecy:
For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
…and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
” (35, 36)

Perhaps one of the most challenging verses in the New testament is Jesus’ statement that only when we abandon our own self-centeredness will we find true life: “…and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (38, 39) Surely the verse was an inspiration to Oswald Chambers who points out over and over that we must abandon ourselves and cling to Jesus. This is very hard.

But for this high cost there is great reward: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” (40)

Our number one priority in life is not only to follow Jesus, but to take up the cross—the ultimate symbol of suffering and yes, death—and follow Jesus. This phrase, “take up your cross,” is also an ominous premonition of events to come. The disciples and certainly Matthew’s readers will surely recall Jesus’ warnings on that bleak Passover Friday.

The message the disciples—and we— are to bring to the world is far from the namby-pampy “feel good about yourself” treacle that so pervades parts of the church today. Jesus would not cotton to the likes of Norman Vincent Peal or Bob Schuller, and certainly not to today’s “feel good gospel” preacher d’jour, Joel Osteen. We have received a tough and challenging commission from Jesus, but it is far better than anything else we could ever do with our lives.

Psalm 18:1–6; Genesis 27:30–28:9; Matthew 10:17–25

Originally posted 1/26/2016—revised and updated 1/26/2018

Psalm 18:1–6: Instead of the usual terse introduction such as “a psalm of David,” our psalmist provides us the precise setting in which this psalm was sung by David [or, as I suspect the case of most “David psalms,” written much later by another poet to make it appear it was sung by David]. Moreover, this psalm is essentially the Song of David that is recorded in 2 Samuel 22, which Alter suggests is the older one and the literary source of this psalm.

Here, in the first verse the poet tells us who, “for the lead player, for the Lord’s servant, for David;when, “who spoke to the Lord the words of this song on the day the Lord saved him;” and what happened, “from the grasp of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul.” (1)

This translation of the psalm opens with “I am impassioned of You, Lord, my strength,” which is even stronger than the NRSV’s more reserved, “I love you, O Lord, my strength.”  Alter tells us that the word for “impassioned” is used only here in the Bible. I much prefer “impassioned” because it connotes an ardor that is really stronger than mere “love.” It’s easy to talk about “loving God” in the same way we say, “I loved that movie.” But to say we are “impassioned” is to indicate an even deeper commitment that makes love all the more real and profound.

The third verse of this psalm includes some of the most famous metaphors in all of Psalms:
The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,
my God, my rock in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” (3)

A rock is solid and trustworthy, unlikely to break apart. Rocks are also objects we hide under when we are in deepest danger. God is not just a safe hiding place he is also an active rescuer. The verse’s metaphors make this clear with a profusion of military images: shield, horn [as in the horn of battle to signal the troops to attack], and a fortress [“stronghold].

Verse 4 tells us that the theme of this psalm is David’s [and our] praise and thanksgiving for rescue:
I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised,
so shall I be saved from my enemies.” (4)

The psalmist goes on to describe David’s dire straits using a metaphor of being bound and trapped with a rope or chains to the point of death:
The cords of death wrapped round me,
and the torrents of perdition dismayed me.” (5)

In this perilous state, David cries out—”In my distress I called upon the Lord“—and he is confident that God heard him:
From his temple he heard my voice,
and my cry to him reached his ears.” (6)

In the end, it is the assurance that undergirds David’s pleas—and so too for us. If we have the faith of David we know deep down inside that God will hear us no matter our circumstances.

Genesis 27:30–28:9: Our authors do not hesitate to raise the dramatic stakes  of Jacob’s ruse by describing a close call: “when Jacob had scarcely gone out from the presence of his father Isaac,his brother Esau came in from his hunting.” (27:30). Esau prepares “savory food” and brings it to his father, who now realizes what happened and he “trembled violently.” (27:33) “When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry, and said to his father, “Bless me, me also, father!” (27:34) But a blessing is a one time thing. It cannot be retracted and given to its rightful recipient.

Esau remembers what Jacob has now done twice to him: “he has supplanted me these two times. He took away my birthright; and look, now he has taken away my blessing.” (27:36) Again, Esau pleads, “Have you only one blessing, father? Bless me, me also, father!” And Esau lifted up his voice and wept.” (27:38) Isaac tells Esau that the blessing given to Jacob cannot be undone and gives Esau a rather enigmatic benediction, which is clearly not a blessing: “By your sword you shall live,/ and you shall serve your brother.” (40a) 

Furious, Esau vows to kill Jacob once Isaac dies. Rebekah discovers this and tells Jacob to flee at once to my brother Laban in Haran, and stay with him a while, until your brother’s fury turns away.” (27:44) Here, we see ever-optimistic Rebekah, who has played a key part in the deception, and rather self-centeredly tells herself, “Why should I lose both of you in one day?” (27:45) Then, she goes into Isaac, who apparently is unaware of her role in the ruse. In one of the great non sequiturs in the Bible, she tells Isaac that she hopes Jacob will not marry one of the local Hittite women.

Apparently convinced by Rebekah that what’s done is done, Isaac blesses Jacob a second time and instructs his son, ““You shall not marry one of the Canaanite women.” (28:1) Instead he is to marry a cousin: “take as wife from there one of the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother.” (28:2) Jacob leaves, apparently never again to see his father or mother.

In the meantime, Esau also marries into the family: a certain Mahalath, who is the “daughter of Abraham’s son Ishmael” (28:8), which would make her his step-cousin.

Why all this drama? It’s clear that the family has been torn apart by each parent playing a favorite–Rebekah to Jacob, Isaac to Esau–and to put it bluntly, Rebekah’s desire to have everything her way. What’s fascinating is that these dysfunctional and broken relationships reveal the same qualities of human nature almost four millennia ago that we see replicated around us today.

Matthew 10:17–25: Jesus continues to warn his followers of the high cost of discipleship. One has the feeling that Matthew is editorializing to his listeners here, who themselves have probably endured some of the trials described here. Matthew’s Jesus says, “you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them [the Jews] and the Gentiles.” (18) This is a perfect description of what happened to Paul in Jerusalem being taken before the Roman governor. The other seeming contradiction is that earlier, Jesus has charged his disciples not to preach to Gentiles.

Jesus goes on to instruct his disciples [and us] on how to respond to these show trials: “do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time.” (19) Rather, in one of those confluences of the Trinity: Jesus speaking and referring to the Holy Spirit, we are to allow the “Spirit of your Father [to be] speaking through you.” (20) Being a Jesus follower will not just rip families apart, it will cause death, which I suspect Matthew is well aware has already happened among his followers. Jesus warns, “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.” (21) These are certainly uncomfortable verses to those of us who prefer a more gentler Jesus. Yet, this kind of persecution is occurring all over the world today. Jesus did not sugar-coat faith.

Where Jesus said earlier to “wipe the dust from your feet” and move on from those places that reject the Kingdom message, he is now driving home the cost of being a Jesus follower in the starkest possible terms: “you will be hated by all because of my name.” (22a) The clear lesson for us here is that true discipleship is all about endurance through hardship: “the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (22b)

The question for us in the 21st century is, will we be willing to endure hardship and ridicule as Jesus-followers as American culture continues its inexorable slide away from the shared Judeo-Christian values that once held this country together as we slide into the abyss of sheer individualism and intolerance in the name of “tolerance?”

Psalm 17:8–15; Genesis 27:1–29; Matthew 10:1–16

Originally posted 1/25/2016—revised and updated 1/25/2018

Psalm 17:8–15: Having asserted his righteousness before God, our psalmist arrives at the central purpose of his prayer, which is to be rescued from his enemies:
Make Your mercies abound, O rescuer of those who shelter
from foes at Your right hand.” (7)

As if to make sure God gets his point, he devotes another verse to the necessity of God’s protection:
Guard me like the apple of the eye,
in the shadow of Your wings conceal me
from the wicked who have despoiled me,
my deadly enemies drawn around me.” (8, 9).

Since this is a “David prayer,” we can visualize David surrounded by Saul’s army or perhaps when after he has become king, he is surrounded by conspirators in his court. In any event, there is a real undercurrent of desperation here. But our poet is not so desperate that he avoids penning one of more memorable descriptions of one’s enemies:
Their fat has covered their heart.
With their dewlaps they speak haughty words.” (10)

This image of a fat-covered heart and fat-covered faces speaking brings the image of Charles Laughton or Sidney Greenstreet of Humphrey Bogart movie fame to mind. Or more recently, Jabba the Hutt in Star Wars. It is an arrogant and threatening indolence which David faces—suggesting that his enemies are probably court conspirators.

The poem’s aspect turns darker as it appears David faces a mortal threat from those who lust after the king’s power:
My steps they hem in,
their eyes they cast over the land.” (11)

One individual in particular is after him:
He is like a lion longing for prey,
like the king of beasts lying in wait.” (12)

Realizing the enormity of this threat, David’s supplication shifts from seeking God’s protection to seeking God’s action in annihilating his enemies:
Rise, Lord, head him off, bring him down,
save my life from the wicked with Your sword,
from men, by Your hand, from men,

from those fleeting of portion in life.” (13, 14a)

After all, David seems to argue, these evildoers are mere humans of little long term consequence to God since they do not follow God’s path of righteousness as he does. Once those enemies are taken care of, David can at last worship God in peace and safety:
As for me, in justice I behold Your face,
I take my fill, wide awake, of Your image.” (15)

Once again, the question for us is, can we pray for the destruction of our enemies? Based on what Jesus has said, the answer is clearly ‘No.’ Having turned our desires for God to wreak vengeance on our enemies upside down, we are to love these same enemies that the psalmist wishes to be destroyed. Nevertheless, we can still seek what David seeks in the last verse: to see God’s justice and wide awake, to reflect on God’s face.

Genesis 27:1–29: We come at last to the infamous story of the purloined fatherly blessing. Isaac is old and almost blind. He asks his favorite son, Esau, to go hunt some game for a last dinner: “prepare for me savory food, such as I like, and bring it to me to eat, so that I may bless you before I die.” (4)  Esau leaves to go hunting. With the older brother out of the house, as the conspiracy commences.

Rebekah turns to her favorite son and tells him “I heard your father say to your brother Esau, ‘Bring me game, and prepare for me savory food to eat, that I may bless you before the Lord before I die.’” (6,7) So Jacob brings two fresh goats, which Rebekah prepares for Isaac’s dinner. However, Jacob is not sure this trick will work because he lacks the body hair that Esau has. Jacob fears he will be cursed rather than blessed if Isaac uncovers the scam. Rebekah famously clothes Jacob in goat skin on his arms and neck. Jacob goes in to his father with the savory meat.

But Isaac is still suspicious. Dinner is arriving too early and the old man asks, “How is it that you have found it so quickly, my son?” (19) Jacob compounds the deception by lying to the point of bringing God into the deception, “Because the Lord your God granted me success.” (20) Isaac feels the goat skin on Jacob’s arms but is still suspicious: “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” (22) Despite this inconsistency, the ruse works and Isaac asks, “Come near and kiss me, my son.” (26) and then pronounces the blessing which is probably one that was given to every eldest son in that culture:
   “Let peoples serve you,
       and nations bow down to you.
   Be lord over your brothers,
       and may your mother’s sons bow down to you.
   Cursed be everyone who curses you,
       and blessed be everyone who blesses you.” (29)

In our egalitarian society it is difficult to imagine the sheer importance and power that the right of primogeniture combined with the power of the fatherly blessing bestowed on the eldest son. The final blessing was essentially a last will and testament. The father has spoken. There can be neither amendment nor revocation.

But what does this story have to do with us? Why does deception lie at the heart of this story–and therefore at the heart of Jacob’s descendants, who become the nation of Israel? I believe the authors are telling us that deception has consequences. Some are good, such as the rise of Israel. Others are far less good. As we will find out, Jacob himself becomes the object of a deception by his own sons. God’s justice is definitely a two-edged sword as deception becomes a running theme through the remainder of tGenesis.

Matthew 10:1–16: By this time, the roster of Jesus’ inner-circle disciples is complete and Matthew helpfully lists them all. For some like Thaddeus, this mention is their single claim to fame in the gospel. Another will be infamous down through history: “and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.” (4)

A brilliant leader, Jesus knows that spreading the word about the Kingdom of heaven requires human commitment and participation. He sends the twelve out on as independent agents to minister only to the Jews and to do exactly what he has been doing himself: “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” (7, 8a) This is not a paying job: “You received without payment; give without payment.” (8b) This mission is not a job; it is a calling. Paul of course amended Jesus’ instructions when he stated that pastors and leaders should be paid.

One of the most important thing Jesus says here–and what we need to remind ourselves about again and again–is that our mission will never be 100% successful. Many who hear will reject the opportunity to know Jesus. Moreover, we should not to waste time on hopeless cases: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.” (14) Of course, those who reject Jesus and the Kingdom of God will get theirs in the end: “Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.” (15)

Finally, just because we are doing God’s work does not mean we leave our brains at the door of the church. Jesus knows there are many risks surrounding this mission and we must not be foolhardy enthusiasts. People will always be trying to do Jesus’ messengers harm—and we see that today where the Church is persecuted and Jesus followers are killed by terrorists and churches burned to the ground.. Therefore Jesus gives perhaps the wisest advice in the gospels about how we are to go about his risky and often dangerous business: “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (16)

We are to be merciful and kind on the outside, but also we must constantly be alert to danger. It would be good to see more Christians remember what Jesus said as they too often battle foolishly and unsuccessfully as innocent doves in the culture wars of our time when being wise as serpents in terms of strategy could lead to far more successful outcomes.

Psalm 17:1–7; Genesis 26; Matthew 9:27–38

Originally posted 1/24/2016—revised and updated 1/24/2018

Psalm 17:1–7: Unlike many psalms of supplication where the poet seems to be shaking his fist at the heavens wondering why God has abandoned him, this “David prayer” opens gentlly and introspectively:
Hear, O Lord, a just thing.
Listen well to my song.
Hearken to my guileless prayer.” (1)

To me, a “guileless prayer” is one without an overt agenda, much more a quiet conversation with God. But gentleness is not wimpiness. Our psalmist recognizes that God is the source of judgement:
From before You my judgement will come,
Your eyes behold rightness.” (2).

And he knows that God discerns our every thought even when we are asleep:
You have probed my heart, come upon me by night.” (3a) But that is OK because the psalmist knows he is innocent of wrongdoing: “You have tried me,/ and found no wrong in me. (3b). In fact, he has consciously worked to avoid wrongdoing by what he says to others: “I barred my mouth to let nothing pass.” (3c) Here we have another reminder of one of the key themes of Psalms: speech as a primary means of wrongdoing.

He asserts that his actions are as pure as his speech:
As for human acts—by the words of Your lips!
I have kept from the tracks of the brute.” (4)

‘Brute’ here would suggest other evil persons and perhaps in the David story, the psalmist is referring to Saul’s relentless hunt to kill David.

Despite our psalmist’s pure speech and correct actions, he is wise enough to know he cannot do this on his own. He prays for God’s guidance:
Set firm my steps on Your pathways,
so my feet will not stumble.” (5)

The lesson here for us is that we are aware that our proper actions do not arise from within us but come because we walk closely with God. Like the psalmist, when we walk next to God, we have assurance that he will answer when we call: “I called You, for You will answer me, God.” (6a) But regardless of our proximity to God it’s still important for us to ask him to “Incline Your ear, O hear my utterance.” (6b).

With this preamble that describes the qualities of a right relationship with God, our psalmist begins to move to the issue at hand. He faces tangible danger and seeks not just God’s guidance but also his protection:
Make Your mercies abound, O rescuer of those who shelter
from foes at Your right hand.” (7).

So, too, for us: God is indeed our protector in a hostile world.

Genesis 26: Isaac is an acorn that did not fall far from his father’s tree. There’s a famine, and Isaac is advised by God not to head to Egypt but to “reside in this land as an alien, and I will be with you, and will bless you; for to you and to your descendants I will give all these lands, and I will fulfill the oath that I swore to your father Abraham.” (3). God repeats the core promise of the Covenant as well: As God promised Isaac’s father, “ I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and will give to your offspring all these lands;… because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” (4, 5)

Also like his father, Isaac tells the people around him that his wife Rebekah is his sister, thinking, “or else the men of the place might kill me for the sake of Rebekah, because she is attractive in appearance.” (6) The ubiquitous Abimelech, quite aware of this particular ruse used by Abraham, cuts immediately to the chase. He chastises Isaac, pointing out that “One of the people might easily have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.” (10) He wisely “warned all the people, saying, “Whoever touches this man or his wife shall be put to death.” (11)

Isaac is a successful farmer and “he prospered more and more until he became very wealthy.” (13). The Philistines become envious and Abimelech asks Isaac to“Go away from us; you have become too powerful for us.” (16) Isaac heads off to the valley of Gerar where a well digging program proves successful, “but the herders of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herders, saying, “The water is ours.” (20) Rather than dispute water rights, Isaac moves on and eventually finds water at Rehoboth, so named because at last, “the Lord has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.” (22)

The ever-popular (at least to the authors of this story) Abimelech reappears and Isaac understandably is none too cordial: “Why have you come to me, seeing that you hate me and have sent me away from you?” (27) Nonetheless, the Philistine king pursues the diplomatic initiative, recognizing that “the Lord has been with you,” and therefore asks Isaac to swear an oath that “you will do us no harm, just as we have not touched you and have done to you nothing but good and have sent you away in peace.” (29) Isaac assents and throws a party for Abimelech. Even better, another successful well is dug right there on the spot.

So, why all this business about wells and water? In that part of the world water is a precious commodity that usually ends up being fought over. But also for us Christians water comes to mean life because water is also the medium of baptism—representative of the saving grace that comes to us through Jesus Christ. In the end, we cannot survive much less prosper without both physical and spiritual water.

However, this chapter ends on the sour note of family discord. Esau marries not one, but two Hittite women and the three of them “made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah.” (34) We can be sure that this short note is here to provide additional justification for Isaac’s motivation to get back at Esau by buying his birthright.

Matthew 9:27–38: Jesus continues his healing program, this time healing two blind men and a mute. Once again, healing comes through faith as Jesus asks,“Do you believe that I am able to do this?” and the two blind men answer, “Yes, Lord.” (29) They are healed and “Jesus sternly ordered them, “See that no one knows of this.” (30). Needless to say, the healing has the opposite effect and “they went away and spread the news about him throughout that district.” (31)

What’s with Jesus ordering those who are healed not to spread the news? Obviously, he knew that despite his remonstrations, that’s exactly what these joyous newly-healed people would do. Is he using reverse psychology in order to get the word about his miracles out into the wider public quickly? Living today as we do, surrounded by press releases, fake news, and flackery it’s easy to think that’s what Jesus was doing. However, I think the real reason that Jesus is instructing these people not to tell—even though he knows they will tell—is to establish himself as a very different kind of healer than his competitors.  At the time jesus is ministering, there were all kinds of mystics floating around in his day claiming to be the Messiah and even appearing to heal people. They sought all the publicity they could get–not unlike today’s televangelists who perform “healing”—and there’s nothing quite as dramatic as physical healing miracles.  Jesus is not interested in publicity; he interested in changing lives.

Despite Jesus’ best efforts to keep his healing power under wraps, word gets out. And when Jesus heals the mute man by casting out demons, word get to the Pharisees, who immediately conclude he is satanic: “By the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons.” (34) Which, if one is highly religious as the Pharisees were, is not an entirely unreasonable conclusion.

Since we know how Jesus’ story turns out, (as do Matthew’s readers), we know that that fuse among the Pharisees and religious officials has been lit by Jesus’ dramatic acts of kindness.

Matthew pulls the camera back to give us a wide angle view, telling us, “Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.” (35) Matthew also describes the state of the people among whom Jesus ministers: “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (36). Jesus is carrying out the ubiquitous mandate in the Scriptures he knew so well: that we are to care first for the poor and oppressed and for the widows and orphans.

Reminding us that Jesus is human, Matthew tells us that Jesus is physically tired. He asks the disciples to pray, asking “the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (38) And that is a clear challenge to each of us reading this. Will we pray for more laborers in the Kingdom? Will we go out and find these folks ourselves and help with the enormous task of harvesting souls who are lonely and lost?

Psalm 16:7–11; Genesis 25; Matthew 9:14–26

Originally posted 1/23/2016—revised and updated 1/23/2018

Psalm 16:7–11: The psalmist’s joy at his relationship with God permeates the second half of this psalm. He rejoices not just because God is inherently good, but that he can rely on God for direction, especially in times of distress:
I shall bless the Lord Who gave me counsel
through the nights that my conscience would lash me.” (7)

This counsel can happen because God is the psalmist’s first priority:
I set the Lord always before me,
on my right hand, that  I not stumble.” (8)

The effect of this close relationship is not only emotionally positive but its benefits even course through him physically:
So my heart rejoices and my pulse beats with joy,
my whole body abides secure.” (9)

Our psalmist states a truth that was not proven until recently:  Joy creates physical benefits when serotonin is released in the brain. In addition to joy, there is the assurance that God preserves him and will never abandon him:
For you will not forsake my life to Sheol,
You won’t let Your faithful one see the Pit.” (10)

Of course we will shortly encounter other psalms where the poet cries out in despair because God has apparently abandoned him. Nevertheless, our psalmist here speaks a theological truth. God is our faithful guide through our entire life—all we need to do is be faithful in turn and trust him (which of course as we all know is not always so easy): “Make me know the path of life” (11a)

And the consequence is joy no matter what happens:
Joys overflow in Your presence
delights in Your right hand forever.” (11b)

Even though its theme of God’s protection and guidance is similar, in some ways I find this psalm even more encouraging than Psalm 23 because it radiates such untrammeled joy.

Genesis 25: Well, they never taught this to us in Sunday School. The ever-virile Abraham marries another wife in addition to Sarah—a certain Keturah. He promptly sires six children, which become ancestors of various tribes known to the authors. But Isaac remains his favorite and “Abraham gave all he had to Isaac.” (5) Even though he is generous to the sons of his concubines, the patriarch “sent them away from his son Isaac, eastward to the east country.” (6)

With amusing understatement, the authors note that the 175-year old Abraham “breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people.” (8) Ishmael returns from wherever he was and together with Isaac, they buried their father in the now-famous cave of Machpelah. In case we  might have forgotten, the editors remind us: “in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, east of Mamre, the field that Abraham purchased from the Hittites.” (10) which of course is Canaan and one more evidence of ISrael’s claim on the land. As for Isaac: “after the death of Abraham God blessed his son Isaac.” (11)

Ishmael makes his final appearance, dying at age 137, and I suspect because Abraham is his father, his progeny is duly listed. What I had not realized is that Ishmael became the father of “twelve princes according to their tribes,” which settle “in the direction of Assyria.” (18)—a nice piece of symmetry in that both Abraham’s two sons each become patriarchs of twelve tribes. Ishmael’s descendants now fade from history as our authors turn to the descendants of Isaac.

We see a replay of the difficulties that Abraham and Sarah encountered in bearing children as we learn that Isaac was 40 when he married, but Rebekah remained barren. But Isaac turns to God and the problem is solved: “Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived”  (21) when Isaac was 60. We see hints of sibling conflict even while her sons are in the womb. Greatly distressed at this very difficult pregnancy, she prays and God informs her:

Two nations are in your womb,
    and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
    the elder shall serve the younger.” (23)

Hairy Esau emerges from Rebekah’s womb first giving him the right of primogeniture; Jacob follows a minute later, clutching Esau’s heel. Each twin becomes the favorite of a parent. Esau is Isaac’s favorite; Jacob is Rebekah’s. We see hints right there of a dysfunctional relationship not just between the brothers, but also between husband and wife. Isaac loves Esau “because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.” (28)

But perhaps the strangest part of this story is that Esau saw no value in his birthright and sells to to Jacob in exchange for a bowl of “red stuff” (30) Jacob forces Esau to swear to sell his birthright and “gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way.” (34) It’s clear in this exchange the brothers have no particular regard for each other. But as we will see, Jacob is the more cunning.

Was Esau merely stupid? Or is there something deeper at work here? For the Jews in Babylonian captivity reading this story it was surely a stark reminder that their heritage was crucially important and they would be wise to retain their racial identity and not to “sell their birthright” as God’s chosen people. Intermarriage and assimilation into the local culture would indeed be selling their collective birthright. Of course, as we know too well, the people of Israel had been selling its birthright to non-Jewish people and abandoning the Jewish God for centuries—which was the proximate cause of them ending up n Babylon in the first place.

Matthew 9:14–26: John the Baptist’s disciples come to Jesus and pose the question,“Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” (14) Clearly, there is judgement behind the question, but Jesus observes that fasting will come after the bridegroom (him) leaves the party.

Jesus then gives his soliloquy about patching old clothing and putting new wine in old skins–and the problems arising therefrom. Once again, Matthew is telling us that Jesus is somebody completely unexpected and unprecedented. The old rules do not apply where Jesus is concerned. Paul certainly employs Jesus’ admonitions here as justification for his argument that Gentiles may be in the church without them having to resort to the “old rule” of circumcision.

We have the “colliding healings” as Jesus heads to the synagogue leader’s house to heal his daughter and the hemorrhaging woman sneaks up behind him and touches his coat. The woman is healed because she had faith she would be healed. I think Matthew’s point here is that miracles can occur when we are motivated enough to believe in them. However, as we know, there are plenty of times when even those of great faith are not healed.

Jesus arrives at the synagogue leader’s house to find the mourners already mourning. He sends them away although they doubt him and laugh derisively. Jesus promptly heals the girl.

For me,the lesson here is Matthew’s juxtaposition of the woman of great faith, who is healed, against the doubting mourners that demonstrates the issue of faith versus doubt. The mourners were sure of the evidence that the girl was dead. They represent the opposite of faith: skeptics for whom no miracle will ever occur. Alas, the world today is awash in skeptics—and they miss the miracles even when they occur.


Psalm 16:1–6; Genesis 24:26–66; Matthew 9:1–13

Originally posted 1/22/2016—revised and updated 1/22/2018

Psalm 16:1–6: This “David psalm” appears to be a confession of faith by a person newly converted from a pagan religion—or perhaps from no religion at all. He opens with an appeal for the safety only God can provide, followed immediately by a bold statement about his relationship with God:
“Giard me, O God,
for I shelter in You.
“I said to the Lord,
‘My master You are.
My good is only through You.” (2)

The key point here is that true righteousness comes only through a relationship with God; it is not self-generated. I must respectfully disagree with those who say if we look deep enough within ourselves we will find righteousness.

Although idolatry was once the poet’s practice, this small-g gods (here called “the holy ones”) must find others who will worship them:
“As to the holy ones in the land
and the mighty who were all my desire,
let their sorrows abound–
another did they betroth.” (3,4)

It’s amusing to think about a wooden or carved stone idol having feelings and that their ostensible sorrows would “abound.”  But such is the depth of belief by people in their idols of choice. As for the idol he has rejected, he asserts it must find someone else to cling to (which is how I read “betroth.”)

ONce again, the poet restates his trust in God:
“The Lord is my portion and lot,
it is You who sustain my fate.” (5).

We get a glimpse of a father-son relationship between God and psalmist when he tells us,
“An inheritance fell to me with delight,
my estate, too, is lovely to me.” (6)

This verse is a signal to each of us to reflect on our own life estate–our life situation–as well.  It’s crucial to our faith and our well-being that we pause and thank God for all he has done and continues to do for us—or in the words of the first verse: to guard us.

Genesis 24:26–66: Rebekah’s big brother, Laban, sees Rebekah decked out in the nose ring and jewelry that Abraham’s still unnamed servant has given her and invites the servant to dinner. Dinner is placed before the servant, but “he said, “I will not eat until I have told my errand.” (33). laban invites him to speak and the servant tells the story that Abraham insists that his son Issac’s wife must come from the father’s native land—hence his errand. He recounts how Rebekah’s appearance exactly followed the script that the angel had given–down to Rebekah’s reply, “‘Drink, and I will also water your camels.’” (46)

Laban and Rebekah’s father, Bethuel, agree to the deal because they, too, know God: The thing comes from the Lord; we cannot speak to you anything bad or good. Look, Rebekah is before you, take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has spoken.” (50, 51)

Needless to say, Abraham’s servant is overjoyed and deposits the dowry with Laban and Bethuel. But then there’s a hiccup: Laban and Rebekah’s mother ask to “Let the girl remain with us a while, at least ten days; after that she may go.” (55) The servant demurs, saying, “Do not delay me, since the Lord has made my journey successful.” (56) This is certainly an astute reply lest anyone change his or her mind. They call in Rebekah to ask her opinion and she replies with three words that I take to be our author’s message: “I will go.” (58) It also shows us that Rebekah, despite having no say in whom she is to marry, is going without coercion. Willingness to go—to follow God’s call— is a theme we see throughout the Bible from Abraham himself to Moses to Jesus, who went willingly to the cross.

Rebekah returns to Canaan with her maids. Seeing Isaac coming toward her in the distance, she quickly dismounts her camel and asks, “Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?” (65a). The servant replies, “It is my master.” Rebekah, “took her veil and covered herself.” (66).  The major key violin music swells and the scene fades to black.

Without doubt, this is one of the most detailed and romantic stories in the OT. It’s also one of the few where we hear the woman speak so much.

Rebekah of course becomes the mother of Jacob and Esau, and later plays a major role in indeceiving old Isaac in bestowing his blessing on Jacob rather than the elder brother. I think it’s important for us to know that Rebekah truly loved Isaac and came to love Jacob. Inasmuch as Rebekah plays a major role in israel’s national story, I’m sure that this romantic interlude amidst all the sturm und drang made the story all the more appealing in the telling. And every Jewish woman could look to Rebekah as the romantic bride that they would be pleased to emulate. We certainly see that same “willingness to go” in Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Matthew 9:1–13: Jesus returns to Capernaum where Jesus pronounces that the paralytic’s sins are forgiven and heals him. This of course reflects the Jewish view that illness was the result of sin—either the individual’s own sin or those of his family. Matthew is informing his mostly Jewish audience that Jesus’ primary role is to forgive sins, with physical healing as a happy side effect.

That this is Matthew’s intent is underscored when he reports that scribes observing this think–but do not say aloud: “This man is blaspheming.” (3). Being the Messiah, Jesus of course perceives their thoughts and says, Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’?” (5) And for the first time we hear Jesus identify himself as the “Son of Man,” which the Pharisees knew as one of the titles used in Hebrew Scriptures for the promised Messiah.

Matthew notes that the crowds “were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.” (8) In other words, Jesus was 100% human, which of course is what we believe, too.

It’s at this point that Matthew, the tax collecting author of this eponymous gospel appears on the scene. Jesus simply says, Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.”  (9) We then see another unexpected side of Jesus: party animal. He joins the festivities and eats in celebration, apparently at Matthew’s house with his new disciple’s friends. The hyper-religious Pharisees disapprove and Matthew sets out one of his major themes in Jesus’ reply: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” (12) His point to The Pharisees: You guys are fine, but there are many others who need caring for.

This being the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is constantly referring to the Scriptures, quotes Hosea 6:6: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”—a passage surely known by the Pharisees, but I’m sure they never heard it in this context before. Once again, we have Jesus shining a completely new light on Scripture. Matthew doesn’t tell us, but I’m sure the Pharisees were left speechless for there is simply no rebuttal to Jesus’ statement. Jesus made it clear that by supping with “sinners” he was acting out exactly what Hosea meant when he uttered that famous line. 


Psalm 15; Genesis 23:1–24:25; Matthew 8:23–34

Originally posted 1/21/2016—revised and updated 1/20/2018

Psalm 15: This short psalm is something of a relief from the reflections on wickedness of its several predecessors. Rather, it limns the qualities of the righteous in the answer to the rhetorical question, “Lord, who will sojourn in Your tent,
who will dwell on Your holy mountain?” (1).

Which is something of a rhetorical question since it clearly refers to the temple atop Mt. Zion in Jerusalem.

This psalm is metaphor-free.  It gives us the all-important yet simple list of the moral attributes of the righteous person, that is:
He who walks blameless
and does justice
and speaks truth in his heart.” (2)

The phrase, “speaks truth in his heart,” informs us that the first requirement is that we are honest with ourselves neither deluding ourselves nor being in denial. (And we know how challenging that can be!) Unfortunately, the culture seems more awash than ever with self-delusion. An article in the Wall Street Journal (Jan 19, 2018) notes that 80% of college students  and recent graduates aspire to be rich and 50% want to be famous.

As always, what we say and do to others is the crucial expression of the honesty already residing in our heart. However, here they are stated as negatives:
“Who slanders not with his tongue
nor does evil to his fellow man
nor  bears reproach for his kin.” (3)

The righteous man is capable of clear judgement and sees wrongdoing for what it is:
“The debased in his eyes is repugnant
but to Lord-fearers he accords honor. (4a)

The righteous man also keeps his promises:
“When he vows to his fellow man,
he does not revoke it.” (4b).

Finally, and perhaps most difficult for many, “His money he does not give at interest.” (5a) This seems to be a clear injunction against usury, but we cannot avoid what seems to me a clear implication that money we lend to our relatives and friends is interest-free. Also, “no bribe for the innocent he takes,” (5b) i.e., he is not bribed to testify in court against a person he knows to be innocent.

The simple conclusion to this list:
He who does these
will never stumble.” (5b)

Of course, for all of us performing well and consistently is far  easier said than done. But it is our focus on God in our heart that forms our character out of which our actions come. The question to ask is, “Am I being of good character?”

Genesis 23:1–24:25: Sarah, aged 127 years, dies before her husband, and “Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.” (23:2). The patriarch has been living among the Hittites as a resident alien, but now it is necessary to bury Sarah there and he does not own any land on which to provide this honor. The Hittites deeply respect Abraham and tell him to “Bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places; none of us will withhold from you any burial ground for burying your dead.” (23:6). But Abraham politely declines because has his mind set on the cave of Machpelah, which is owned by a certain Ephron. Abraham is willing to pay full price, but Ephron offers it to him free.  Nevertheless, following the precepts of his heart that our psalmist above has enumerated, Abraham insists on paying the 400 shekels even though it’s a mere pittance to Ephron. And he does so publicly “in the hearing of the Hittites” (16) as his witnesses. This was no secret transaction. “Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah facing Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. The field and the cave that is in it passed from the Hittites into Abraham’s possession as a burying place.” (23:19, 20)

So why is it so important to Abraham to buy this land and so important to the editors to consume an entire chapter telling this story? I think it is because it justifies Israel’s claim on the land of Canaan as their own. After all, Abraham had bought and paid for it. In other words, then the Israelites eventually return to Canaan they are morally and legally justified in seizing it from its inhabitants, who are in effect dwelling illegally on property bought and paid for by Israel’s patriarch.

It becomes increasingly evident that Abraham is something of a control freak. It’s time for Isaac to marry and Abraham is determined to make sure his son does not marry a Canaanite. He calls his servant to return to bring back a wife for Isaac from his native land. The servant notes this will be difficult and it might be preferable “to take your son back to the land from which you came.” (24:5) Abraham rejects the suggestion because “the Lord, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth, and who spoke to me and swore to me, ‘To your offspring I will give this land,’” (7) Once again, the editors are making it clear to all that Canaan is to be the new land of the Patriarch’s offspring.

After sealing the vow with the odd and rather repulsive (to me, anyway) gesture of the servant putting his hand under Abraham’s thigh, the servant departs. He arrives in Nahor, understandably puzzled about how he is going to find a wife for Isaac, and prays, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham.” (14:12) and creates a scenario of asking for a drink of water and the girl who replies, “‘Drink, and I will water your camels’—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac.” (24:14)

Lo, and behold, Rebekah—whose name was listed in Abraham’s brother’s — does exactly that. Even better, the “girl was very fair to look upon, a virgin, whom no man had known.” (16) The servant (who really deserves to have been named because of all the great work he’s done here) is convinced that Rebekah is the woman for Isaac. He pulls out a gold nose ring and two large gold bracelets and asks to see her father. Rebekah kindly offers him a place for the night.

So, why all this detail about finding Isaac’s wife? Because as we will see, she will become the mother of the Israelites. This is an extremely important detail in their national story and as we shall see in another virgin from Nazareth, who comes many centuries later, the purity and virtue of motherhood is exceedingly important.

Matthew 8:23–34: Jesus is catching some shut-eye on Peter’s boat when the famous storm comes up. The others are terrified and cry for help: “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” Jesus, after telling them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” (26) promptly quells the storm to the amazement of his disciples. We assume this is the same storm that appears in Luke but here in Matthew there is no walking on water.

Next, Jesus heals the two demoniacs and sends the demons into the pigs, which famously jump off the cliff. The swineherders are none too pleased and run back and tell the townspeople about what happened. The townspeople “begged him to leave their neighborhood.” (34) Or put another way, no good deed goes unpunished…

By juxtaposing these two events, Matthew is demonstrating that this Jesus fellow was much more than a miracle-healing itinerant rabbi. He has power over the earth (the storm) and power over the principalities and power under the earth (the demons). It important that this evidence comes early in the story to underscore Mathew’s assertion that Jesus is the true Messiah. This juxtaposition also provides the meta-framework for events yet to come in this gospel.

Psalm 14; Genesis 22; Matthew 8:5–22

Originally posted 1/19/2016—revised and updated 1/19/2018

Psalm 14: This is a psalm of philosophical soliloquy on the moral depravity of the society in which the psalmist finds himself. Once again, we have a prophetic (as in “forthtelling”) psalm that could have been written by Jeremiah or Ezekiel, who reflected on the same issues.

Our psalmist opens with a dark observation about the people around him:
The scoundrel has said in his heart,
‘There is not God.’
They corrupt, they make loathsome their acts.” (1a)

Not only have they rejected God, but this rejection has led inevitably to moral depravity.  In fact, and even worse than in Noah’s time where God at least found one good man, here the psalmist finds no one morally worthy: “There is none who does good.” (1c)

These corrupt people may think there is no God, but as in Noah’s time, God is in heaven observing human affairs, looking for that one good man:
The Lord from the heavens looked down
on the sons of humankind/ to see, is there someone discerning,
someone seeking out God.” (2)

But unlike God’s search centuries earlier where he at least found Noah, here the  search is fruitless:
All turn astray,
altogether befouled.
There is none who does good.
There is not even one.” (3)

One senses a certain judgement on the psalmist’s part as he again asks the question more incredulously, how these people can miss God’s presence?
“Do they not know,
all wrongdoers?
Devourers of my people devoured them like bread.
They did not call the Lord.” (4)

As far as the psalmist is concerned, these evildoers are like locusts—consuming the good and leaving only desolation in their wake. And they have forgotten (or ignore) the fact that “God is with the righteous band.” (5a)—a hint that at least a remnant of God followers still exist.

Once again, we encounter the theme of how the powerful exploit the poor, but they forgot that God is watching:
In your plot against the poor you are shamed,
for the Lord is in his shelter.” (6)

Armed with the knowledge that God is watching all this evil, the psalmist prays for God’s intervention:
Oh, may from Zion come Israel’s rescue
when the Lord restores His people’s condition.
May Jacob exult
May Israel rejoice.” (7)

This psalm is proof that we can cry out in despair created by the reality that we are surrounded by God-rejecting evil. But as we cry, we also know in our hearts that God is indeed still here and that he’s well aware of what’s going on. Although the present may look dark and hopeless, there is a future where God will finally bring justice. As America evolves to an increasingly post-Christian culture this psalm will stand out with grim relevance.

Genesis 22: The authors of the famous story of Abraham’s almost sacrifice of Isaac begin by telling us God’s motivation for this story that seems so bizarre on its surface but reveals an all-important truth: “God tested Abraham.” (1) Alas, as with so many stories in the Bible we only hear one side of the conversation. Would that we could have heard what Abraham said in reply to God’s command. Would it have been something like, “You’ve got to be kidding, God. After all the trouble it took to bring Isaac into the world the first place?” Or, perhaps, “Isaac was a gift from you and now you’re asking me to give that gift back to you in the most cruel way possible.” We know that child sacrifice was common in other cultures of Abraham’s time, so it may have come across to Abraham as a cruel but all-too-familiar request. He may have concluded with some justification that this God was not the generous protector he thought he was, but was just like the other capricious and cruel small-g gods that inhabited the countryside.

Or did Abraham intuit from the first that God would not force him to actually carry through on this cruel plan and provide some means of escape? That’s my preferred scenario: that Abraham ascended the mountain in the assurance that God would provide a means of avoiding the necessity to carry out this act.

Things go pretty far as Abraham builds an altar and somehow overcomes his son, (who, we need to remember, is about 100 years younger than he), in order to tie him down. We have to imagine that Isaac was either drugged into unconsciousness, or simply played along to amuse his obviously insane father. Abraham draws the knife and the angel intervenes at the last moment: “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” (12) The ram stuck in the thicket magically appears and Isaac is spared.

The angel tells Abraham (and I presume, Isaac as well) that he has passed the test and that God says, “ I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.” (17)

Why this story? Whether it’s historical fact or not really doesn’t matter. I think the authors put it there to remind the Jews in captivity that while they are undergoing a severe test of their faith in Babylon, they must remember that God is indeed faithful and will save them at the last moment just as he saved Isaac. When things seem darkest and most hopeless a sacrificial ram will appear in the bushes.

For us Christians, of course, this story is a metaphor for God sending his son, Jesus, to us. But unlike Abraham and Isaac, who escaped the dreadful act of a sacrificial death, Jesus did indeed become the final sacrifice on our behalf.

The chapter concludes with, yes, another genealogy—perhaps to provide narrative relief after the high drama that precedes it. This time of Abraham’s brother, Nahor. Among all his progeny, the delightfully-named Uz and Buz. As far as I can tell, these men play no recorded role in Israel’s history. There is one exception and that’s “Bethuel [who] became the father of Rebekah.” (22) Again we are reminded that women play as important a role in Israel’s story as the men.

Matthew 8:5–22: Although Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience, he clearly wants to make it abundantly clear that Jesus came for everyone, both Jew and Gentile. He makes his point with the healing of the centurion’s servant, who “is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.” (6) Jesus offers to go to the centurion’s house: “I will come and cure him.” But the centurion demurs and says, “only speak the word, and my servant will be healed.” (8). We then hear a wonderful speech about delegation, which means trusting the job will get done without having to be physically present: “I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” (9)

Jesus is impressed: “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith“(10) and he heals the servant from a distance. But the most important thing Jesus says is that Gentiles will be included in the kingdom heaven along with the faithful Jews: “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” (11)

Further, in what I think is a clear prophecy that Jesus will ultimately be rejected by the Jews, Matthew’s Jesus says, “while the heirs of the kingdom [the Jews] will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (12) I suspect that the community to whom Matthew was writing was eager to reject Gentile followers of Jesus and this is why the healing of the centurion’s servant is recorded as Jesus’ second miracle.

If the healing of the leper was the symbol of Jesus including the unclean, this incident makes it clear that Gentiles are included in the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, allowing us to know that Peter was married. One wonders if his wife accompanied her disciple husband on the three years of peregrination to come. Matthew has gone quite while without citing the Hebrew Scriptures, but at last he informs us, “This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.” (17) Although it is John who speaks of Jesus being the Word, there is little question that Matthew’s Jesus is the “Fulfiller of God’s Word.”

Matthew displays Jesus’ harsher, more demanding side with two would-be disciples. The scribe stands for those who are enthusiastic about becoming Jesus followers, but are not really ready to drop everything else, and above all, abandoning their present lifestyle. Jesus makes it clear that anyone who follows him will be leading neither a comfortable lifestyle nor staying in hotels: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (20) Moreover, Jesus is demanding the absolute first priority. Even burying dead fathers is unimportant compared to the Kingdom work that is afoot.

Of course, in reading this passage, I realize I am both the scribe who doesn’t want to camp by the side of the road and also the man with higher priorities than following Jesus.