Archives for February 2018

Psalm 31:11–21; Exodus 6:13–7:24; Matthew 20:1–16

Originally posted 2/28/2014—revised and updated 2/28/2018

Psalm 31:11–21: As he continues, our psalmist describes an exhausted and discouraged David in a dark soliloquy. Apparently David has committed a major wrongdoing and is now reaping the consequences:
For my life is exhausted in sorrow
and my years in sighing.
Through my crime my strength stumbles
and my limbs are worn out. (11)

Even David’s friends have joined his enemies in withdrawing from his presence. Proving once again that human nature has not changed at all, our psalmist describes how most people withdraw from the company of a depressed person.
For all my enemies I become a disgrace,
just as much to my neighbors, and fear to my friends. (12)

That social rejection leads to a sense that not only is he utterly alone but that he has died already:
Forgotten from the heart like the dead,
I become like a vessel lost. (13)

If ever we needed a clear description of what true depression feels like from the point of view of the person experiencing it, it is right here in this psalm, which we presume describes David when Saul was attempting to kill him. The sense of abandonment—to be isolated and then forgotten—is palpable here.  That this abandonment comes as the result of a conspiracy makes it even worse:
For I heard the slander of many,
terror all round,
when they conspired against me,
when they plotted to take my life. (14)

At the bottom of this dark abyss of the soul there is only one hope for rescue and David remembers who that is:
As for me, O Lord,
I say ‘You are my God.
My times are in Your —O save me
from the hands of my enemies, my pursuers. (15, 16)

Rejected by humans, only one agent of rescue remains as he continues to pray in desperation:
Shine Your face on Your servant,
Rescue me in Your kindness. (17)

Only one person can remove his shame: “Lord, let me not be shamed, for I call You.” (18a). And while God is effecting David’s rescue, it would be OK by him if his enemies experienced what he is experiencing:
Let the wicked know shame,
and be stilled in Sheol. (18b)

I often wonder that in light of Jesus’ command to love our enemies whether we can pray for bad things to befall our enemies. But here David is not actually asking for revenge, he is simply praying that his enemies cease their persecution:
Let lying lips be silent,
that speak haughty against the just
in arrogance and contempt. (19)

In our current culture, arrogant and hateful speech—easily amplified by social media—seems to be the currency d’jour, I believe this is an entirely reasonable and proper prayer.

Exodus 6:13–7:24: As always in the OT, it is ancestry that establishes a person’s bonafides, and our authors interrupt the action to provide a detailed list of Moses’ and Aaron’s forebears. In the eyes of our authors this makes them the legitimate players selected by God to carry out the greatest exodus in history.

Even more important than ancestry is the fact that his protestations of inadequacy notwithstanding, Moses is obedient even though he once again reminds God of his weakness in speech and argument: “But Moses said in the Lord’s presence, “Since I am a poor speaker, why would Pharaoh listen to me?”” (6:30). Clearly Moses was no lawyer, but he was lucky to have an articulate brother.

Then in a remarkable statement, God informs Moses that he has it all set up to make sure Moses will be able to carry off this enormous task of persuading Pharaoh to release the Israelites: “The Lord said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet.” (7:1)  But in order to make sure Pharaoh ultimately accepts that Moses is like a god, it will not be an easy task. God informs Moses, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and I will multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt.” (7:4) God’s logic seems to be that only after a series of showy miracles will Pharaoh truly be convinced of Moses’ god-like status. The brothers accept their roles and “Moses and Aaron did so; they did just as the Lord commanded them.” (7:6)

The authors remind us that by the time these events are set to occur, both Moses and Aaron are relatively advanced in age: “Moses was eighty years old and Aaon eighty-three when they spoke to Pharaoh.” (7:7) Which speaking as a 71-year old, is a good reminder that one’s role in effecting great change is not necessarily over.

The first demonstration to Pharaoh is Aaron’s magic staff, which turns into a snake and then back again, followed by the portentous announcement, “See, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall be turned to blood.” (7:17) Which of course he proceeds to do. Unfortunately, the Egyptian magicians are able to perform the same trick, so Pharaoh remains unpersuaded.

So, what is God’s point here? Dueling magic tricks between Moses and the court magicians that leave the inhabitants of Egypt—both Egyptian and Israelite— in desperate straits unable to drink water seems somehow petty. Of course we know how the story turns out, but at this point we can only sympathize with the frustration that Moses felt. After all, Aaron and he were faithfully following God, but God seems to be turning the tables on them. I know I have prayed for an outcome and been obedient but the result has not been the way I had imagined or hoped. At that point it’s difficult not to think of God as cruel trickster. And I’m pretty sure that was the feeling that overtook Moses and Aaron.

Matthew 20:1–16: Jesus continues his disquisition on the nature of the Kingdom of heaven. And it’s clear that the kingdom is not a haven of relaxation. There is labor. Worse, the wages of the laborer are not proportionate to the amount of labor expended. Those annoying latecomers that show up at 4:45 receive the same wages as the diligent workers who reported for work at 8 a.m.

I view this parable as Matthew making the same kind of point that Luke made in the parable of the Prodigal Son with regard to the relationship between the prodigal and his brother. The brother had done everything according to what he saw as his father’s plan: being the good son and working diligently. He has followed the law religiously. The prodigal  has enjoyed—and squandered—the same amount the brother will receive as his inheritance. And yet his return is celebrated by the father. The brother’s feelings are our feelings when something so “unfair” has occurred.

What’s clear in both parables is that when we hew strictly to the law we have no concept of what grace and mercy really are: a gift it is the father’s (and God’s) right to give without further explanation. We law-followers live by the quid pro quo. But life’s not fair. Even God behaves this way.

Our culture wishes everything to be equal and “fair.” But to confuse equity—that we have the potential to receive the same inheritance, the same opportunity— and equality—that we have exactly the same outcomes—are not the same thing. Unfortunately, this confusion is widespread in our culture. Now, as then, to confuse equity and equality, as the laborers in the vineyard did, leads only to hard feelings.

God provides equity. We all get to work in the vineyard. What we do with our opportunity is up to us. We may arrive early or late, but God’s grace falls equally on all of us.




Psalm 31:6-9; Exodus 5:10-6:12; Matthew 19:23-30

Originally posted 2/27/2014—revised and updated 2/27/2018

It’s Susan’s birthday!

Psalm 31:7-10  Verse 10 leaps off the page this morning:
Grant me grace, Lord, for I am distressed.
my eye is worn out in vexation,
my throat and my belly [also].

Not because this is how I feel this morning, quite the contrary.  But the verse’s juxtaposition is striking. Just three verses earlier our psalmist exclaimed,
Let me exult and rejoice in your kindness,
that You saw my affliction.
You knew the straits of my life.

So, what gives here?  There’s total joy in God’s steadfast love and then suddenly, “I am distress.”  The key, I think, is not that God’s love is variable; it’s as steadfast as the psalmist asserts it is.  But it is we who are highly variable as our emotions oscillate between seemingly permanent joy quickly down into the depths of despair.  Who among us has not experienced the instant dissipation of joy when we receive bad news that a distant friend, whom we love has been diagnosed with cancer or even died?  It’s God’s very immovability, his rock-like stability, his “fixedness” that allows us to see our own variability.

Also, as the psalmist has observed, God “knew the straits of my life.” That is, God knows everything there is to know about us. Just as God delights in our joyful exultations, he is indeed gracious in our grief, even a grief that causes our eyes, our body and our soul to be “worn out in vexation.”

Exodus 5:10-6:12 Moses is feeling assailed on all sides.  Having failed to follow God’s very specific instructions about what to say to Pharaoh, he’s placed the Israelites in an even more untenable situation.  The Israelite supervisors do not mince words about this, “You have brought us into bad odor with Pharaoh and his officials, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.” (5:21). The supervisors appeal to Pharaoh, who memorably tells them, “You are lazy, lazy; that is why you say, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.’ Go now, and work; for no straw shall be given you, but you shall still deliver the same number of bricks.” (5:17, 18)

So, in yet another proof that this story is about a fallible man, not a brave hero, Moses does what just about any of us would do, he cries out to God, blaming him for not delivering as promised: “O Lord, why have you mistreated this people?”  All while feeling sorry for himself, “Why did you ever send me?” and making it very clear that it’s all God’s fault anyway, “you have done nothing at all to deliver your people.” (5:22-23).

Wow. Is this us, or what?  We think we hear God’s call, and then we insert our own interpretation of what God really meant to say, and then, when things don’t turn out as we thought we were promised, we blame it all on God.

So, in what can only be described as an outstanding example of God’s infinite patience and grace, God does not remind Moses that he didn’t follow instructions, but responds with infinite generosity, “I have also heard the groaning of the Israelites whom the Egyptians are holding as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant.” (6:5) and instructs Moses to go to the Israelites and tell them who God is and what this God plans to do. This time, Moses follows God’s instructions to the letter, but the situation is already too messed up.  Moses has understandably lost all credibility and the Israelites would not listen to him, “because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.” (6:9).  Their response convinces Moses that the real problem is that God made a terrible mistake in choosing him: “The Israelites have not listened to me; how then shall Pharaoh listen to me, poor speaker that I am?” (6:12)

There are so many lessons here.  But the one that looms large for me is that carrying out God’s call is never an easy task.  Things will not go according to the brilliant plans we devise on our own, as we ignore God’s direction.  And when things don’t turn out as we envisioned, we will be consumed by doubt: doubt in God and doubt in ourselves.  We will say the wrong things.  A lot.  But God is infinitely patient and graceful.

Matthew 19:23-30  This is where Jesus makes it clear that in the Kingdom of God, everything is turned upside down and inside out from what we expect. Contrary to well established cultural custom, the rich are not morally superior, nor are they more righteous and deserving of heaven.  Interesting how the Jews of Jesus’ time thought that, and our culture tends to implicitly, if not explicitly, treat the rich and famous as somehow more “righteous” than we of the hoi polloi. We see this all around us when celebrities opine on controversial topics in which they have no expertise beyond the fact that they are famous.

At this point the disciples have been listening to Jesus for quite some time and it’s beginning to dawn on them that this is apparently not turning out to be the politico-messianic movement they thought they had signed up for. Peter bluntly asks the question that’s doubtless on all their minds: “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” (19:27).  We are exactly the same: we labor in the church, make what we see as being significant sacrifices and for what reward? Well, there’s Jesus’ promise, “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.” (29)

Fine, OK, but just to make it clear, Jesus ends his promise by repeating the Great Reversal he alluded to earlier about the rich: “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (19:30).  And that’s what the Kingdom is about: what we expect is not what’s going to happen.  Just the opposite.  Better not to bring our preconceived notions of what “should” be or “should happen” into the Kingdom. And of course, willingling becoming “the last” always goes against our self-centered will.

Psalm 31:1–6; Exodus 4:1–5:9; Matthew 19:13–22

Originally posted 2/26/2016—revised and updated 2/26/2018

Psalm 31:1–5: This psalm of supplication opens with a statement of the psalmist’s steadfast trust in God’s protection and asking him to listen, using the interesting image of God bending down, his hand cupping his ear as the psalmist speaks:
In You, O Lord, I shelter.
Let me never be shamed.
In Your bounty free me.
Incline Your ear to me. (2, 3a)

The verses here are short and clipped, almost telegraphic, conveying urgency. The military references enhance the feeling that God’s help had better come sooner rather than later:
Quick, save me.
Be my stronghold of rock,
a fort-house to rescue me. (3b)

Once again, he expresses his trust in God with military metaphors:
For You are my crag and my bastion,
and for Your name’s sake guide me and lead me. (4)

Having restated his trust in God’s protection, he comes to the point of his prayer in direct, impassioned sentences. He is trapped, surrounded by enemies:
Get me out of the net that they laid for me,
for You are my stronghold. (5)

And he casts escaping from his dire situation completely on God’s response in words that read almost as a benediction:
In Your hand I commend my spirit.
You redeemed me, O Lord, God of truth. (6)

This is more than a foxhole prayer by someone who has forgotten about God until his moment of peril. Instead, it is a prayer by a man who knows God and trusts God. This is an ongoing relationship and it is out of that well-founded trusting relationship that he asks for God’s intervention. Unlike many psalms of supplication our psalmist is sure that God is nearby; there is no sense that the supplicant has been abandoned by God. The entire prayer is built on a foundation of trust and awareness of God’s presence. I pray that I can affirm that God is indeed the rock, the crag, the bastion in whom I trust when I come to him in prayer.

Exodus 4:1–5:9: Even though Moses has had a direct and personal encounter with God, he still feels inadequate to the task he’s been assigned, asking God almost plaintively, “But suppose they do not believe me or listen to me, but say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you.’” (4:1) God does a little show-and-tell with Moses staff becoming a snake and turning back to a staff again. Then a little more personally, God tells Moses to put his hand in his cloak and draw it back out, “and when he took it out, his hand was leprous, as white as snow.” (6) God quickly heals his hand telling Moses, ““If they will not believe you or heed the first sign, they may believe the second sign.” (8) And for good measure, God tells Moses he can also pour water from the Nile on the ground and it will turn to blood.  These are all a foretaste of the plagues soon to be visited upon Egypt.

Even though Moses is probably now pretty convinced of God’s power, he asks to get out of the assignment by telling God about his inarticulate speech, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (10) God will have nothing of this excuse, so Moses plays his final card: “O my Lord, please send someone else.” (13). God is pretty annoyed at this point and assigns Moses’ brother, Aaron, to be his mouthpiece.

The lesson here is obvious: no matter how many excuses we throw up about our weaknesses or our inability to work in the Kingdom, God has a way of overcoming them—and expects us to follow his commands. We also note that there is no new excuse we can present to God that God hasn’t heard already. It’s clear that Moses pretty much ran the table of excuses and God countered each one of them. The lesson for us is when we offer an excuse, we also need to be alert to see how God will negate the excuse and give us the fortitude to go forward.

Moses asks his father-in-law, Jethro, for permission to move his household back to Egypt to which Jethro quickly agrees. The covenantal deal is sealed in blood by Moses’ wife circumcising their son and touching Moses feet with the foreskin. (Ugh.) Aaron comes to Moses and they meet with the Israeli leaders, with Aaron speaking and Moses performing the signs God had demonstrated to him. In one of the truly uplifting verses in this book, “The people believed; and when they heard that the Lord had given heed to the Israelites and that he had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped.” (31)

With the Israelites now united behind their new leader, Moses appears before Pharaoh and announces that God demands that the king let the Israelites go. Unsurprisingly, Pharaoh refuses, claiming to know nothing of this God character. Aaron and Moses try another gambit, asking for a three-day holiday for Israel “to sacrifice to the Lord our God, or he will fall upon us with pestilence or sword.” (5:3) This request seems outrageous to Pharaoh and he turns the screws on Israel, famously telling them to make bricks without straw. He accuses the hardworking Israelites of being lazy and commands, “Let heavier work be laid on them; then they will labor at it and pay no attention to deceptive words.” (5:9)

This story reminds us that oppressors are always the same: they see the oppressed as lazy and unworthy of mercy and double down in their cruelty. I’m pretty sure this story resonated strongly among the Afro-American slaves in the 19th century. And it resonates strongly with us as we see oppressed people all around the world today.

Matthew 19:13–22: Jesus once again provides his disciples—and us—with an object lesson when people bring little kids to be blessed and the disciples try to shoo them away. Jesus responds, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” (14) The message is clear: everyone, no matter their age, is eligible for the kingdom. Jesus is also telling them that as a matter of fact, guys, the kingdom is much different than you think. In fact, it’s pretty much the opposite of what you (and we) are expecting. This “upside downness” will be borne out with increasing drama as the story proceeds.

As usual, Matthew makes an important point via the juxtaposition of his stories. Just after Jesus blesses the children, telling us we need to be like them, the rich young ruler (RYR) comes up to Jesus and asks the all-important question, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Unsurprisingly, Jesus does not directly answer the question, but asks if the RYR has obeyed all the commandments. The RYR responds that he has and then Jesus tells him that is insufficient. He must go and sell everything and give it all to the poor.

Unwilling to do so, the RYR walks away sadly, foregoing the opportunity of a lifetime. The RYR’s adult hesitation is contrasted with the innocence of little children. The lesson is clear: if we cannot lose our “adultness” and our all-consuming need to remain in control and if we are unwilling to abandon everything to Jesus, we cannot be like innocent children eager to enter the Kingdom.

Alas, I am far more like the RYR wishing to retain control of my life and my possessions, unwilling to forego everything. I suspect I am not alone.

Psalm 30:6–12; Exodus 2:11–3:22; Matthew 19:1–12

Originally posted 2/25/2016—revised and updated 2/24/2018

Psalm 30:6–12: One of the greatest gifts form God that every creature enjoys is the diurnal rhythm of life. No matter what happens in a given day, the day comes to an end and we begin afresh in the morning with a new day and a fresh perspective. Our psalmist puts it beautifully:
At evening one beds down weeping,
and in morning, glad song. (6b)

We may not always wake up in “glad song,” but as we awaken it’s worth reflecting on the new day’s opportunities rather than yesterday’s trials.

There is another underlying rhythm here: the apparent presence and absence of God. When we feel God’s presence, we sing with the poet’s confidence in God’s sustaining power:
Lord, in Your pleasure
You made me stand mountain-strong. (8a)

But when we feel abandoned by God, then, “—When You hid Your face, I was stricken. (8b)

Even so, the psalmist has a good lesson here for us. Even when he felt abandoned, he continued to pray:
To You, O lord, I call,
and to the Master I plead. (9)

I know this is where I personally go astray. When I feel I’m in a spiritual desert and God is nowhere to be seen, I stop praying. Which only makes me feel more abandoned.

On the contrary, our psalmist is prayerfully persistent and asks God the same question that is asked in many psalms of supplication:
What profit in my blood,
in my going down deathward? [Great word!]
Will dust acclaim You,
will it tell Your truth? (9)

In other words, what’s your logic, God, in allowing us to die, or even feel abandoned? Dead people do not worship or acclaim God.

This raises the eternal question of theodicy, if God loves us, why does he allow bad things to happen to us? So we ask with the psalmist,
Hear Lord, and grant me grace.
Lord become a helper to me. (11)

I don’t think of God as my helper very often, but God is indeed the powerful help at the center of our lives, especially when we realize that God expresses his love through the kind actions of other people.

We come to realize that even if God does not directly answer the question, we are nevertheless able to reflect each new morning. Which means we’re still alive! And if we are alive in God, we rejoice at his transformative power:
You have turned my dirge into a dance for me
untie my sackcloth and bound me for joy. (12)

And with the psalmist, we rise and dance and sing: “O, let my heart hymn You and not be still.” (13a) May each new day be a dance rather than a dirge.

Exodus 2:11–3:22: This reading covers a lot of territory. We encounter the troubling passage where Moses, angered by the harsh beating of a fellow Hebrew, kills the Egyptian and hides the body thinking no one has seen his act. But the next day, he’s found out, not by an Egyptian but a fellow Hebrew and he flees to Midian, where he helps the daughters of the priest of Midian scare off marauding shepherds at the water trough. He’s invited to dinner, takes up residence, and shortly marries the priest’s daughter Zipporah, who bears him a son. I’m sure that at this point Moses he intended to live out his days in Midian.

Moses is living proof that you cannot escape God. Conditions in Egypt have gone from bad to worse for the Hebrews, and “Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God.” (2:23), whom they had obviously forgotten about since the time of Joseph. God, who has apparently been silent for the past 400 years, “heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” (24). Really? Did God forget about the Israelites all this time? Or had the Israelites forgotten about him until their circumstances were so desperate that “their cry for help rose up to God?” I suspect the latter, since we tend to come to God only in dark times. But God is loving and “God took notice of them.” (2:24b)

As usual, God has an improbable rescue plan and he chooses an equally improbable leader to help carry it out. It’s this murdering shepherd who’s been hiding for some years off in Midian. God makes himself known in the form of a burning bush and identifies himself: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” (3:6). Moses, aware he is experiencing a theophany hides his face in terror “for he was afraid to look at God.”

Moses’s terror does not faze God in the least, who proceeds to tell him that he’s now God’s chosen leader who will lead the Israelites out of Egypt “to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (3:8) Moses, having overcome his initial fear, understandably asks why God chose him to go to Pharaoh. God speaks the words all of us facing a difficult or impossible situation wish to hear: “I will be with you.” (3:12)

This comforting answer seems to reassure him because Moses asks a question that no one in the Bible has thus far asked: “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (13). God answers in what I have always felt is pretty cryptic: “I am who I am.” Nevertheless, this seems to satisfy Moses since he continues to listen as God gives him instructions of what to do.

But I’m sure God’s plan felt quite impossible to Moses. He is to suddenly reappear in Egypt, convince the Hebrew leaders that he’s not the escaped murderer they think he is, but has come directly from God and they had better listen to him. Even worse, he has to go to Pharaoh and demand that he allow Egyptian society to be ripped apart by freeing its slaves. Here, however, God promises to help him, telling Moses, “I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all my wonders that I will perform in it; after that he will let you go.” (3:20) This is a good reminder that God is with us when he asks us to do the impossible. The question of course is even though God is with us are we willing to take a risk to carry out God’s work?

God certainly seems to have a sense of irony when he says “ I will bring this people into such favor with the Egyptians that, when you go, you will not go empty-handed.” (3:21) ‘Favor’ toward the Hebrews was not exactly what the Egyptians were feeling when they allowed the Hebrews to depart. But then again, God promises, they’ll be free to plunder the Egyptians as they leave.

Matthew 19:1–12: We come to one of Jesus’ truly hard sayings: the question of divorce, which arises, as usual, from the Pharisees, relentless in their quest to trip him up. Jesus refers them to Genesis, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’” (4) and therefore, children leave their parents and marry because it is God’s will as Creator that the natural order of all living creation be observed: “they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (6).

The Pharisees counter that the Law allows a certificate of divorce, which allows an ‘out.’ Jesus retorts, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives,” (8a) but he emphasizes that it violates God’s natural created order: “from the beginning it was not so.” (8b) Which is what I think divorce is today: It is not God’s good created order, but it is allowed. And I suppose we could appy that rule to all of the other gender weirdness taking place today.

Then comes the hard part: “I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.” (9) The disciples probably know people who have divorced and they logically conclude, it is better not to marry in the first place. Jesus cuts them off by saying not everyone, e.g., eunuchs, can marry, and that his words apply only to those who can.

The Catholic church has remained steadfast on the issue of divorce and among the consequences of that steadfastness, the Anglican church came into being. Jesus knows divorce will happen, but he is also telling us that divorce (and the newly flexible gender roles) corrupts the natural order. In his words about eunuchs [welcome to my world…] I think the underlying message is that divorce will always be part of a society of fallen humans, but also that it always corrupts us further.

We have to ask ourselves what has been the consequence of divorce in American society. I think there is no question that widespread divorce has corrupted the definition of marriage itself. Just look at the growing rates of cohabitation without marriage—which in effect is exactly an answer to the disciples’ question— as well as the expanding definition of what marriage even means in terms of gender. No matter how we justify divorce, same sex marriage, and further redefinitions of marriage now occuring, there can be no argument that Jesus is right: divorce and its consequences have corrupted God’s natural created order. One more evidence of our fallenness as human beings. No matter its justification, it goes against what God had in mind for us.

Psalm 30:1–5; Exodus 1:1–2:10; Matthew 18:15–35

Originally posted 2/24/2016—revised and updated 2/23/2018

Psalm 30:1–5: This psalm’s superscription is quite specific: “Psalm, song for the dedication of the house, for David.” (1) First, no surprise as it announces itself as a psalm. Second, it suggests it is used at the dedication of the temple [although the temple wasn’t around in David’s time], so perhaps it was written for the dedication of an altar or something that preceded the temple. Third, it’s “for David,” i.e., not written by David, as I suspect very few psalms were.

Speaking in David’s voice the psalmist opens on a note of pure joy and thanksgiving for God’s rescue:
I shall exalt You, Lord, for You drew me up,
and You gave no joy to my enemies. (2)

Alter informs us that the phrase “drew me up” is exactly drawing water up from a well. In short, David has been rescued from the pit of death because his enemies did not succeed in their conspiracy to kill him.

Our poet also acknowledges a supplication to God which was answered:
Lord, my God,
I cried and You healed me. (3)

These are words that resonate strongly for me since I believe that God rescued me from an inevitable death from advanced cancer. I have been truly healed. The psalmist reiterates the idea of  a rescue from certain death:
Lord, You brought me up from Sheol,
gave me life from those gone down to the Pit. (4)

David was rescued in what seems to be just minutes before his death. The idea of going “down to the Pit,” reminds one of the Apostle Creed’s affirmation that after he died on the cross, Jesus descended into hell, or what in the OT is called Sheol or the Pit. This psalm reflects that same descent and ascent.

For this rescue there can be only one response: worship, which is nicely summarized in verse 5:
Hymn to the Lord, O his faithful,
acclaim his holy name.

This is one of those moments when we realize that “worship” and “thanksgiving” are essentially synonyms. While there are many elements to liturgical worship including confession and the word, there’s no question that a high point is the “Great Thanksgiving” just before the words of institution. Would that we sung it more often than just saying it in unison.

Exodus 1:1–2:10: This second book of the Pentateuch, Exodus, begins by naming the 11 brothers and Joseph, in what started out as a large family (of 70!) has become in succeeding generations “fruitful and prolific” and “they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.” (7)

The pharaonic dynasty has changed in the intervening years and “a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” (8). He looks out over his empire and is exceedingly nervous about holding his grip on power. The Israeli “guests” have multiplied to the point where the Pharaoh declares, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we.” (9) His major concern is political as he tells his aides, “let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” (10). So they enslave them, and the “Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor.” (13, 14a). To make sure we get the point about the Egyptians becoming the oppressors, our authors repeat themselves: “They [the Egyptians] were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.” (14b) Given that this book was probably written during the Babylonian captivity, this story of Egyptian oppression would certainly have had resonance among the Jews of that time, even though that had not been enslaved by the Chaldeans.

Even as slaves the Jews continue to multiply. Pharaoh decides things have gotten out of hand the Israelite fecundity must be stopped brutally in its tracks. He orders all the Egyptian midwives to kill any Israelite boy minutes after his birth. “But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.” (17)

When Pharaoh challenges them on this, they reply rather cleverly that “the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” (19). Our authors tell us, “because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.” (22). Realizing the midwife tactic won’t work, the Pharaoh issues an even harsher command: “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.” (22)

The scene shifts from the palace to the house of Levi and his wife, identified only as “a Levite woman.” [What is it with omitting the names of courageous women? Such is patriarchy, I guess.] We all know the story: the mother can no longer hide the child and builds a little ark and places it in the reedy part of the Nile. The boy’s sister watches; the Egyptian princess spots it, rescues the child and via the sister, winds up giving the child to its actual mother, who nurses and raises the child. “When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son.” (2:10a) And what I had not realized before, it is the Pharaoh’s daughter who “named him Moses,“because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.” (2:10b)  [Does this mean that the name ‘Moses’ is actually Egyptian in origin?]

In Sunday School we started right out with the story of the infant Moses set adrift in the wicker basket, conveniently omitting over the Pharaoh’s genocidal intentions.  This story, of course, is a conscious allusion to the Noah story, and Alter points out that the word used for wicker “ark” is the same as the ark of the Noah story.  I don’t think it would be a stretch to note that this is also a form of baptism; that it is in water the next great act in this story of God and his chosen people begins.  Water, which also marks major turning points in Moses’ own life, from the crossing of the Red Sea to Moses’ striking the rock, to looking at, but not crossing, the Jordan River at the end of his life.

And in the Pharaoh’s decree we see a foreshadowing of Matthew’s account of Herod demanding boy children to be killed after he hears about the nascent Messiah just born in Bethlehem. Matthew’s point being that just as Moses was rescued from certain death to save his people, so too Jesus is our rescuing Messiah.

I’m struck by the parallels to the never-ending immigration debate here today, including even the reality that Hispanic birth rates are higher than Caucasians, as we whites will eventually become a minority.  Clearly, many feel threatened by moving form majority to minority status.  I’m sure a similar rationale was used in the 19th century Antebellum south against freeing the slaves, lest they proliferate uncontrollably and overrun the white landowners.  As usual, human nature, especially when it feels threatened, has changed not a whit in thousands of years.

Matthew 18:15–35: I’ve always been puzzled by this passage about the process of dealing with someone “who sins” in the church. This whole passage seems oddly out of context, feeling much more like an insertion by Matthew, especially in light of the fact that the church of Jesus Christ did not exist while Jesus was on earth. And I suspect Jesus was not talking about temple politics here. Nevertheless, the process of meeting one-on-one to resolve an issue and if that doesn’t work then bringing a “two or three witnesses” is a pretty effective technique if handled in the name of Jesus and not as to often happens as a means of vindictiveness.

Whether or not Jesus actually said these things is really not the issue here, since this is a passage provides a useful lesson in church polity. Moreover, this section concludes with the all-important reality that “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (20)

Even more important is that conflicts among Christians provides a good opportunity for Jesus to make the all-important point about our obligation to forgive: “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” (22)

Jesus drives the point of forgiveness home with his memorable parable of the unforgiving servant. The slave grovels and is forgiven an enormous debt by his master. But he turns around and demands a comparatively trivial amount from a fellow slave. Other slaves complain to the master, who  demands, You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ ” (32, 33) The unforgiving slave meets a bad end. The parable’s lesson is terribly clear here. Through Jesus Christ, God has forgiven us our enormous sins and we are to pay that forgiveness forward by forgiving those who sin against us.

Of course this behavior of forgiveness is enormously puzzling to those outside the church, as witness the forgiveness of the youth who killed nine people gathered for a Bible study in a church in Charleston SC. While the world beyond the church may find this behavior odd and even wrong-headed, there’s no question what our obligation as Christians is—just as it was obvious to those church members in Charleston.But it’s worth noting what Jesus left unsaid: bad acts have bad consequences. Forgiveness  is one thing. Nevertheless, the sinner must be prepared to pay the price for his wrongdoing.


Psalm 29; Genesis 50; Matthew 18:1–14

Originally posted 2/23/2016—revised and updated 2/22/2018

Psalm 29: This “David psalm” praises the power of almighty God—particularly the power of God’s voice. Alter notes that many have puzzled over its first line—”Grant to the Lord, O sons of God”—as to who these sons might be. Apparently many scholars have suggested this psalm arises from an earlier Canaanite psalm and that the “sons of God” is “best thought of as a flickering literary afterlife of a polytheistic mythology—God’s royal entourage on high.”

Be that as it may, the thrust of the psalm is pure praise of God’s attributes and especially his power over nature—which seems natural given that God is the Creator. As we see so often in the Psalms, it is speech and voice that is the defining quality  of power—and no more so than here where “The God of glory thunders” (3) and “the Lord’s voice breaking cedars,/ the Lord shatters the Lebanon cedars.” (5) God’s voice is expressed in thunder and then as earthquake expressed with a remarkable simile of livestock prancing:
and He makes Lebanon dance like a calf,
Sirion like a young wild ox. (6).

Earthquake begets fire as “the Lord’s voice hews flames of fire” (7) and then come still more earthquakes:
The Lord makes the wilderness shake,
The Lord’s voice makes the Kadesh wilderness shake. (8).

God’s earthquake and thunder brings both birth and destruction:
The Lord’s voice brings on the birth-pangs of does
and lays bare the forests. (9).

All of this is laid out as evidence of God’s unfathomable glory and power, “and the Lord is enthroned as king for all time.” (10b)

In its benediction we come to the raison d’etre for this psalm:
May the Lord give strength to His people
May the Lord bless His people with peace. (11)

It is God’s almighty power that gives us God-followers our own strength—and our peace. The poem begins with repetition of the phrase,”Grant to the Lord,” but there is reciprocity here: this all-powerful God that can shake the earth has given us strength and peace in return.

Genesis 50: Joseph weeps as his father dies. This being Egypt, Jacob then benefits from the remarkable embalming skills of the Egyptians, which was certainly necessary in those pre-refrigeration days to carry Jacob’s body back to Canaan. Perhaps what is most remarkable is that “the Egyptians wept for him seventy days,”—a sure indication of the political power Joseph possessed, but also we would hope of the affection the hoi polloi had for this remarkable family. And a stark contrast to the situation four centuries down the road.

The return to Canaan to bury Jacob is no small affair and “ With him [Joseph] went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his household, and all the elders of the land of Egypt, as well as all the household of Joseph, his brothers, and his father’s household.” (7, 8) There are so many of them that “When the Canaanite inhabitants of the land saw the mourning on the threshing floor of Atad, they said, “This is a grievous mourning on the part of the Egyptians.” (11) But the crucial fact is that this is a final act of obedience to their father “his sons did for him as he had instructed them.” (12)—a message to every Jew of the respect due one’s father.

Upon their return to Egypt, Joseph’s brothers have the very understandable concern that with their father now dead, Joseph will finally take his revenge on them for what they did so many years ago: “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” (15) Even now there’s some deceit on their part as they tell Joseph, Your father gave this instruction before he died, ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’” (16, 17). If Jacob said that, it was not been mentioned in the earlier dialog between Joseph and his father. I have the feeling Joseph figured that this bit about his father’s instruction may have been made up, but he gracefully chooses to ignore that possibility and takes the brothers’ statement at face value.

Nevertheless, I’m sure the brothers’ next statement, “Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” (17b) was sincere. Joseph certainly accepts it as such as another scene of brotherly emotion erupts: “Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept.” (18) One has to believe that the authors insert this scene as a reminder of the brotherly love that once existed among the tribes of Israel. As we know too well from Israel’s history, enmity and even civil war had long replaced fraternal love.

The brothers offer to become Joseph’s slaves, but Joseph once again repeats the underlying theme of this long story: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” (20) For me, this is the overarching theme of the entire book of Genesis.

No matter how far astray the many personalities from Cain and Able to Noah to Abraham to Isaac to Jacob and his sons went astray—particularly the patriarchs—it is always part of God’s plan to bring good out of human fallenness. Joseph’s words to his brothers, “So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” (21) is a message to every Jew hearing this story: like Joseph, God will provide in times of trouble. And it is a message to us as well as we receive comfort from God who loves us and salvation from Jesus Christ.

Finally, there is the key promise that while the family of Israel may be in Egypt for a while, there is the promise of eventual return to Canaan as Joseph, now on his deathbed, says, “God will surely come to you, and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” (24) And on this note of eventual return, this magnificent book of beginnings ends with the death of Joseph.

Matthew 18:1–14: Jesus has just finished telling the disciples about his eventual fate and three of them have had the mountaintop experience of the Transfiguration, which they surely shared among their fellows. Now they seem to be getting visions of great personal glory to come and they ask Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (1) To which Jesus calls a child and tells them that “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (3). He tells them—and us—that humility, not religiosity, is the means to enter the Kingdom.

He then warns anyone who places “a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (6). To be sure, it’s a warning to his disciples, but it is also a warning to us two millennia later. Be iit n the name of maintaining “good order” or over-interpreting theology, too many Christian churches have done exactly what Jesus warns about. Just as in Jesus’ day with the Jews, Christianity is too often about rules and restrictions rather than about grace. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be structure, but the human predilection to rules and bureaucracy has caused too many churches to become a millstone themselves.

Jesus’ warning is harsh: “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away…if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away” (8,9) As usual though, Matthew’s juxtaposition of little children and millstones is exactly right: it is humility, not religiosity that is the key to following Jesus. Religiosity only results in millstones that impede the journey.

Jesus continues his theme of how to respect and treat children,“Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.” (10) and he goes on to tell the parable of the lost sheep. We are rmeinded by Jesus himself that children and young people are the future of the church—a reality that too  many churches have ignored and consequently have faded from the scene.

In this story of the lost sheep I think that there is a certain universalism here: it is God’s desire that 100% of humanity comes to him. For like the shepherd, he loves each human being intensely. It is not in God’s nature to reject anyone. Alas, it is in our nature to reject God. And it is we—both as individuals and as community—that too often take perverse pleasure in causing others to stumble and become lost.

Psalm 28; Genesis 49; Matthew 17:14–27

Originally posted 2/22/2016—revised and updated 2/21/2018

Psalm 28: This psalm of supplication understands that communication requires both listening and speaking, and the poet prays that God will indeed hear him and reply to him as he cries in desperation,
My Rock, do not be deaf to me.
Lest You be mute to me
and I be like those gone down to the pit. (1)

If God does not hear, he will certainly not reply. For me, this is often my fear when I pray. Is God really there or is this just a pointless exercise? As a child might cry to a recalcitrant father, the psalmist repeats his cry. The point seems to be that perhaps God will really get the message if we keep repeating it:
Hear the sound of my pleading
when I cry out to You. (2a).

He reminds God that he is in the proper physical attitude for prayer and in the proper place:
I lift up my hands
to Your holy shrine.

What gives this prayer its added urgency is that our poet fears that God will do the opposite of hearing and speaking—that he will consign his supplicant to a horrible existence among evildoers:
Do not pull me down with the wicked,
and with the wrongdoers. (3a).

Even worse, they are hypocrites,
who speak peace to their fellows
with foulness in their heart. (3b)

In fact he continues, as if to prove he’s on God’s side, evildoers deserve appropriate recompense for their foul deeds: Pay them back for their acts
and for the evil of their schemings.
Their handiwork give them back in kind.
Pay back what is coming to them. (4)

The question arises, is it proper for us to pray to God to punish people who have done us wrong as our psalmist does here? With his command to love our enemies, Jesus seems to have overridden the the thematic thrust of this prayer.

The psalmist finally comes to the realization that God’s action is not required. Evildoers will come to a bad end completely on their own:
For they understand not the acts of the Lord
and His handiwork they would destroy and not build. (5)

This verse reenforces the idea that those who follow God build up and are a positive influence in society while evildoers destroy what has been built. I believe this is the essential dynamic of human affairs. This psalm sees culture in stark black and white terms; there is no room for ambiguity. Either we are building up under God’s leadership or we are tearing down without God.

This reality also accounts for the poet’s desperation. If God does not answer, he knows he will be cast among the destroyers. But happily—and as always the case—God comes to the righteous man’s rescue:
The Lord is my strength and my shield.
In Him my heart trusts.
I was helped and my heart rejoiced
and with my song I acclaim him.” (7, 8)

As always, God comes through in the end. And through our faith in the salvific power of Jesus Christ we know that we are saved.

Genesis 49: A dying Jacob calls his sons, and said, “Gather around, that I may tell you what will happen to you in days to come.” (1) And as the psalmist above has informed us, the brothers who have done evil will receive their due recompense—here, in verse form:

You shall no longer excel
because you went up onto your father’s bed;
then you defiled it” (4)

For their various murders and animal cruelty(!)—”and at their whim they hamstrung oxen”—Simeon and Levi receive a curse rather than a blessing:
Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce,
and their wrath, for it is cruel!” (7).

We can surmise that this is history was written centuries after the events by the men belonging to the tribe of Judah, who becomes a central focus of Jacob’s blessing, telling him that his descendants will rule over all the others:
The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
 nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him.” (10)

Appropriately, Joseph receives Jacob’s lengthiest blessing, concluding with:
     “The blessings of your father
        are stronger than the blessings of the eternal mountains,
         the bounties of the everlasting hills;
     may they be on the head of Joseph,
         on the brow of him who was set apart from his brothers.” (26)

But what’s interesting to me is that there was no tribe of Joseph; his paternal inheritance was split between  the “half tribes” of his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. Was it because he married an Egyptian wife? Or something else?

But perhaps most mysteriously, Benjamin is effectively cursed by his father:
Benjamin is a ravenous wolf,
  in the morning devouring the prey,
  and at evening dividing the spoil.” (27)

I’m pretty sure that the historical Jacob uttered none of this. Rather, the authors of Genesis writing centuries later have used this final statement as a rationale to summarize the various qualities of the twelve tribes of Israel. I’m pretty sure that the tribes that comprised the northern kingdom of Israel are among those receiving the curses, and perhaps this accounts for the disconcerting statement about Jacob’s youngest son, Benjamin.

Jacob then leaves detailed instructions regrading his burial and he asks his sons to bury him with his grandfather Abraham, his father, Isaac, and his late wife, his beloved Rebekah and his other wife, Leah.

At last, the man who stole the blessing from his brother, committed numerous sins, and yet who was immeasurably blessed by God breathes his last, “When Jacob ended his charge to his sons, he drew up his feet into the bed, breathed his last, and was gathered to his people.” (33)  I think it is remarkable that the authors acknowledged Jacob’s faults right alongside his strengths. We would do well when on our deathbed we ask that our eulogy to emulate this practice.

Matthew 17:14–27:  Jesus returns to his healing ministry. A father of an epileptic son tells Jesus that “I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.” (16) Jesus responds in what can only be 100% human frustration: “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” (17) So, who exactly is this faithless generation? It is his disciples who continue to demonstrate inadequate faith. Personally, I think it is every generation, including our own.

Jesus’ frustration becomes a teachable moment: “I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” (20)

As we well know, once Jesus has departed earth, his disciples do indeed move mountains, changing the world itself as Christianity ultimately takes over the Roman Empire. But I think we need to remember that faith of this power did not come to them until Jesus sent them the “comforter” in the form of the Holy Spirit after he left earth. As mere humans without the power of Holy Spirit, they—and we—can do little work in the Kingdom. But the mustard seed has been planted in their hearts.

Just in case they didn’t get the message the first time, Jesus repeats his announcement of his impending death and resurrection. Matthew tells us that upon hearing this again, “they [the disciples] were greatly distressed.” (23) I suspect in large part it wasn’t that they were afraid he would die on them, but that they had hitched their respective stars to a seeming lunatic.

Religious officials approach Peter and ask if Jesus pays the temple tax, to which Peter replies, “Yes, he does.” (24) We Americans find the idea of paying a tax to support a religious institution unconstitutional, but it has been common throughout history and irreligious Europe still pays for state-run churches today. So too in Capernaum: the temple tax is due. Jesus asks Peter, “From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” (25) Peter answers quite naturally that ‘others’ owe the tax. “Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free.‘” (26), his point being that as children of the Kingdom they will not owe religious taxes.

Nevertheless “so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up” (27) wherein Peter will find a gold coin with which to pay the tax. Thus, Peter will have paid the tax “to them for you and me” without having to use his personal funds. Thus, Peter and especially Jesus are still free and not beholden to the temple authorities. Jesus seems to be making a strong point here about his independence from the religious system of the day. He is indeed coming to replace conventional religious practices and organization with something quite different.

Psalm 27:7–14; Genesis 48; Matthew 17:1–13

Originally posted 2/20/2016—revised and updated 2/20/2018

Psalm 27:7–14: When we talk about the “face of God,” we tend to think of it as being highly  symbolic meaning that we are near or in the presence of God. But our psalmist makes it much more than that:
Of You, my heart said,
‘Seek My face.’
Your face, Lord, I do seek.
Do not hide Your face from me,
Do not turn Your servant away in wrath.  (8, 9a).

By repeating the word ‘face,’ our poet creates a strong anthropomorphic flavor here: he truly wishes to look for and then gaze on the face of God—something even Moses was not able to do. “Face” of course implies a strong and powerful relationship, as in ‘face to face.’ Truly, our psalmist wants to be a close to God as he can possibly get.

To intensify his point, he shifts to the opposite tack as he pleads,
Abandon me not, nor forsake me,
O God of my rescue. (9b)

This is a pretty standard trope in a psalm of supplication. But then, as if to prove his desire to prove his loyalty to God above all else, he makes a rather shocking statement:
Though my father and mother forsook me,
the Lord would gather me in. (10)

Shocking to us for sure, unimaginable in the psalmist’s culture. So, yes, there is hyperbole here, but it is a dramatic means to make it clear how deeply the psalmist wishes to be in relationship with God—and how deeply he trusts God even over the people who are his closest guardians on earth.

We encounter another plea for protection:
Do not put me in the maw of my foes.
For false witnesses rose against me,
outrageous deposers. (12)

Ultimately, it all boils down to trusting God as the psalm ends with a beautiful benediction recapitulating the themes of this psalm. It began by asserting the psalmist’s confidence in God’s presence and ends with his declaration of trust that God is faithful and the hope that God will protect him against the evil acts of his enemies:
If I but trust to see the Lord’s goodness,
in the land of the living—
Hope for the Lord!

Let your heart be firm and bold,
and hope for the Lord. (13, 14)

Hope and a firm and bold heart—the sure sign of courage. This psalm reminds us of the unsurpassed gifts of a close face-to-face relationship with God.

Genesis 48: Now 147 years old, Jacob/ Israel lies on his deathbed. Only Joseph seems to be present as Jacob tells him that God appeared to him at Luz and blessed him. Once more Jacob utters the covenantal promise from God: “‘I am going to make you fruitful and increase your numbers; I will make of you a company of peoples, and will give this land to your offspring after you for a perpetual holding.’ ” (4) As demonstration of that promise Jacob brings Joseph’s sons officially into the family, “Therefore your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are now mine.” (5)

Joseph brings his sons into meet Jacob and all three kneel in front of their father and grandfather. Jacob asks who they are and when Joseph tells him Jacob blesses them, placing his official primogeniture hand of blessing on the younger son, Ephraim, crossing his arms, placing his left hand on the eldest son, Manasseh. But “when Joseph saw that his father laid his right hand on the head of Ephraim, it displeased him.” (17) and he tries to physically switch Jacob’s hands to put his right hand on the eldest son. But Jacob refuses, telling Jacob, “I know, my son, I know; he also shall become a people, and he also shall be great. Nevertheless his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall become a multitude of nations.” (19)

Every time Jacob is involved in a blessing, there seems to be a departure form norm. That was certainly true when Jacob stole the blessing from Esau. And now, in a reflection of that event, the younger rather than the older son is given the blessing. Is Jacob just being contrary? Or is there something about the descendants of Ephraim that allow them the greater blessing? Or is it simply that the author here is from of the tribe of Ephraim and gets to write the history as he sees fit?

The chapter ends on what is the second core element of God’s covenant with the people of Israel—and surely resonated with the Jews in exile in Babylon, as well as giving us  a hint of events to come: “I am about to die, but God will be with you and will bring you again to the land of your ancestors.” (21) One story—that of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph—is coming to an end, but the next part of the story is a light on the far horizon.

Matthew 17:1–13: Jesus has spoken strange and disturbing words to his disciples about his earthly fate. Peter has articulated what I’m sure the other disciples must at least be thinking: Jesus is truly the Messiah Israel has been waiting for. So, six days later, Jesus takes Peter, James , and John up to have the ultimate mountaintop experience. Jesus is transfigured and “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” (2) Which we’ll interpret as his true Godly being—the Word that John (John 1) and Paul (Philippians 2) write about.

Then, to underscore his messianic bona fides to his Jewish disciples, the great prophets, Moses and Elijah appear in conversation. Finally, in a replay of the baptism scene, God himself speaks: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (5) Understandably, “When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.” (6)

How do we parse these three elements of the Transfiguration? We witness the divinity of Jesus in his personal transformation as he strips away his humanness for a moment. In presenting Moses and Elijah, his disciples are shown that Jesus is indeed who he says he is: the Son of Man/ the Jewish Messiah. God’s audible voice makes it clear that when Jesus speaks of his true father, it is not Joseph of Nazareth.

The reaction of the disciples is altogether natural: terror. And as we hear so often in the Bible, Jesus tells them not to be afraid. But did Jesus’ words of comfort suffice? It would seem so since they are shortly walking back down the mountain in deep conversation.

As always, the disciples ask the questions we would ask, the first being, “Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” (10) But as Jesus makes clear, Elijah had already returned in the form of John the Baptist “and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased.” (12a) Jesus then reinforced his earlier predictive warning: “So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.” (12b)

I really wish Matthew had written what the response of the disciples was at that point. Were they convinced about who Jesus was? Did they tell the other disciples what they had seen? I suspect they didn’t. Peter, James, and John must have happily followed Jesus’ command not to tell anyone because they knew they would be hauled off to the looney bin if they attempted to describe what happened.


Psalm 27:1–6; Genesis 46:28–47:31; Matthew 16:21–28

Originally posted 2/19/2016—revised and updated 2/19/2018

Psalm 27:1–6: Although this is a psalm of supplication, it rings with confidence in the salvific power of God, especially in its famous opening verse:
The Lord is my light and my rescue.
Whom shall I fear?
The Lord is my life’s stronghold.
Of whom shall I be afraid? (1)

Notice that this psalm is not some theological abstraction; it is intensely personal: “my light;” “my rescue;” “my life’s stronghold;” “of whom shall be afraid?’ The psalmist’s confidence extends to the knowledge that his enemies cannot conquer him, but they will “trip and fall.” (2)

God’s sheltering power is greater than any army, and we can easily imagine David murmuring these words as the sun rises on the day of battle. Even in the midst of the battle clash, his confidence in God allows him to say,
Though a camp is marshalled against me,
my heart shall not fear.
Though battle is roused against me,
nonetheless do I trust. (3)

The natural question is, could we pray with the same trust and confidence as David even as we face challenges and trials that are nowhere near as great as those he faced on the battlefield?

Following these statements of confidence in God, our psalmist turns to supplication:
One thing do I ask of the Lord,
it is this that I seek—
that I dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life. (4a)

This is the temple of Jerusalem in the safety of sanctuary, but for us the “house” is our bodies, assuredly where the Holy Spirit is dwelling within us. It is not just temporary, but “all the days of my life.” (4b)

God’s protective power provides “shelter on the day of evil” (5a). Even though God “conceals me  in the recess of His tent,” (5b) we do not hide from the trials that surrounds us. Rather, the freedom from fear and the assurance of God’s protection brings courage.—even when things seem to be at their most hopeless.

We can see David looking out over the field of battle as he stands up and looks out from behind the safety of God’s rock and sees the challenge ahead:
And now my head rises
over my enemies around me.” (6a)

I pray that I will be open to this same marvelous assurance that will hide me in God’s tent, yet give me the courage to look out at the and “sing and hymn to the Lord.” (6b) and when I, too, ask,
Hear, O Lord, my voice when I call,
and grant me grace and answer me. (7)

Genesis 46:28–47:31: Joseph and his father meet at last and it is a sweet reunion as Joseph “presented himself to him [Jacob], fell on his neck, and wept on his neck a good while.” And Jacob says he can now die in peace. (46:29, 30)

Now that Jacob’s family had arrived in Egypt there is the question of “what next?” But ever resourceful and clever, Joseph tells Jacob and his brothers that there is a significant industry that the Egyptians either abhor ar are not very good at: shepherding and ranching. And he has a particular part of Egypt in mind for them to settle in: Goshen. So, Joseph instructs the brothers that when Pharaoh asks, “What is your occupation,” they are to respond, “‘Your servants have been keepers of livestock from our youth even until now, both we and our ancestors.’” (46:34)

Joseph brings five brothers to Pharaoh, who generously says, “The land of Egypt is before you; settle your father and your brothers in the best part of the land; let them live in the land of Goshen;” (47:6) Once again, Joseph’s plans are happily realized as Pharaoh even puts them in charge of his own livestock.

There is a poignant scene when Joseph brings his father to meet Pharaoh, who asks how old Jacob is.  Jacob tells him he’s 130 years old, but tells the king, “few and hard have been the years of my life. They do not compare with the years of the life of my ancestors during their long sojourn.” (47:9), which is certainly the case. In what appears to be an unprecedented act of cross-cultural diplomacy, Jacob then blesses Pharaoh.

Severe famine continues and Joseph, who has control over the entire grain inventory of Egypt, sells the grain to the hungry populace: “and Joseph gave them food in exchange for the horses, the flocks, the herds, and the donkeys.” (47:17. The following year, the situation is even more desperate and Joseph sells food in exchange for land, expanding Pharaoh’s landholdings to the point where only the Egyptian priests have any land left.

A new rule is established as well: “Joseph made it a statute concerning the land of Egypt, and it stands to this day, that Pharaoh should have the fifth.” (26) So, here is the root of tithing, only for the Egyptians, it was essentially a 20% tax. The famine became a great vehicle for Pharaoh to consolidate his power—all because he benefited from Joseph’s foresight and cleverness. And of course, Israel’s family benefits nicely, as well: “Thus Israel settled in the land of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; and they gained possessions in it, and were fruitful and multiplied exceedingly.” (47:27)

Jacob lives in Egypt for another 17 years. Jacob’s last request of Joseph is that he be buried in Canaan. Joseph responds, “I will do as you have said.” (47:30). This request to return to Canaan will be echoed in a far different way some 400 years later.

Matthew 16:21–28: Jesus begins to reveal to his disciples what lies ahead: “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (21) What’s interesting is that in private, Jesus is very straightforward about what’s going to happen, including the rather unbelievable news of a bodily resurrection. Peter, understandably in my view, is in massive denial about this: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” (22) But rather than being sweetly therapeutic, Jesus retorts unsympathetically, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (23).

Yes, Jesus is correct theologically, but this is definitely one of those reminders why being Jesus’ disciple can be challenging at best and irritating at worst. Which I think applies to us as well as it did Peter. A walk with Jesus is not all buddy-buddy. He asks us to hear and do challenging things.

After what must have seemed like a dark fairy tale to his disciples, Jesus continues in the same (from a human standpoint) famously negative vein: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (24,25) To accept these words requires a massive shift, not just in outlook, but in a total rearrangement of one’s life. As Oswald Chambers would have it, we must abandon to Jesus our own self-centered lives and any thought of control over our life.

Finally, Jesus goes totally eschatological on his disciples, speaking of heavenly events to come:  For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.” (27). This is definitely an ‘end-times’ forecast, and a much more spectacular replay of how Jesus arrived on earth: not in visible glory, but as a tiny baby, nonetheless, as Luke has it, accompanied by a chorus of angels.

Well, that’s fine. Jesus will come someday in the far off future in a cloud of glory. But then he says something that has confused not only his disciples, but all of us in the centuries ever since: “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (28) That statement seems to be a forecast a near-term return since he makes it clear that some of the folks he’s talking to will still be alive.  But I wonder if he’s actually referring to his Ascension where he returns into his kingdom rather than from his kingdom, which certainly occurred in the lifetime of his disciples? The participle “coming” is ambiguous enough to accommodate both directions, I think.  [This is one of those times when I wish I could read this in the original Koine Greek…]

One thing we do know: After Jesus ascended he did not return in visible glory during the lifetime of his disciples, although that same near-term expectation is certainly what creates the sense of  Jesus’ imminent return in Paul’s letters and elsewhere in the New Testament. Instead, as Jesus promised in the Upper Room (John 16, 17), he sent the Holy Spirit instead. As we note whenever we say the Apostles or Nicene Creed, we still await Jesus’ return in glory. We wait with expectation, but we will never know the timing of this wonderful event, so it’s best not to obsess about the Return and in the meantime, to go about Kingdom business here on earth.




Psalm 26; Genesis 46:1–27; Matthew 16:5–20

Originally posted 2/18/2016—revised and updated 2/17/2018

Psalm 26: Like several of the preceding psalms, notably 23, the psalmist sees life as a metaphorical walk through frequently treacherous territory. This psalm’s journey begins with a righteous walk with God:
Judge me, O Lord.
For I have walked in my whole wholeness,
And the Lord I have trusted.
I shall not stumble.” (1)

In fact, he challenges God to throw everything at him. Nevertheless, he remains committed to following this path of righteousness:
“Test me, O Lord, and try me.
Burn pure my conscience and my heart.
For Your kindness is before my eyes
and I shall walk in Your truth.” (2, 3)

He reminds God that by following him he means he has avoided the temptation manifested in the company of the wrong sorts of sinful people. In fact, I think he comes off as just a bit too defensive in his protestations:
I have not sat with lying folk
nor with furtive men have dealt.
I despised the assembly of evildoers,
nor with the wicked have I sat.” (4,5)

This uprightness is proper preparation for him to worship, presumably at the temple in Jerusalem:
Let me wash my palms in cleanness
and go round Your altar, Lord,
to utter aloud a thanksgiving
and to recount all Your wonders.” (6,7)

At the temple worshipping God is certainly where our poet wants to be—again a bit too enthusiastically, IMHO, to the point where it starts to sound a tad rote and artificial:
Lord, I love the abode of Your house
and the place where Your glory dwells.” (8)

And because of how well he has followed God he asks that should he die it would be with God, not all those evil people, especially those who would conspire against God or against King David:
Do not take my life’s breath with offenders
nor with blood-guilty men my life,
in whose hands there are plots,
their right hand full of bribes.” (9, 10)

Rather, he will “walk in my wholeness./ Redeem me, grant me grace.” (11) Having traced the path of righteousness, the psalm concludes with him standing in the place where he can now worship God with a clear conscience:
My foot stands on level ground.
In the chorus I bless the Lord.” (12)

There is no question the psalmist is sincere that in having followed God’s path of righteousness he has earned the right to worship. But the phrase, “grant me grace” at verse 11 causes us to realize how much better we have it under the terms of the New Covenant: we do not have to ask for grace (which really isn’t grace, is it?) Rather, we have received grace through the gift of Jesus Christ. Grace is something we have been given, not something we had to earn through our good works. And our expression of gratitude for this gift is indeed to walk the same path of the poet avoiding evil, but happily we are free of the anxiety have not having done it well enough.

Genesis 46:1–27: Jacob takes up Joseph’s and the Pharaoh’s offer to emigrate to Egypt. The authors assure us that this move is the will of God by noting that “God spoke to Israel in visions of the night, and said, “Jacob, Jacob.” And he said, “Here I am.” (2) [One wonders why God calls him Jacob instead of Israel.] God specifically points out that this he has approved this plan and that he will keep his promise of creating a great nation, only now down in Egypt, telling Jacob/Israel “I am God,  the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there.” (3)

So, Jacob and company pull up roots and take his entire family and all their possessions to Egypt. Because of the importance of genealogy to Israel, the author lists everyone of Jacob’s offspring, including his grandchildren. The brothers of course are the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel.

For the readers of Genesis in Babylonian exile, this list is crucial: they can trace their lineage all the way back to Jacob and therefore to Abraham. It is also a reminder that the nation Israel came into being in what ultimately became exile in Egypt. So, too, they are assured that they have retained their identity as a nation while exiled in Babylon many centuries later.

The author is careful to note the legitimacy of every child who became the ancestors of the nation: “All the persons belonging to Jacob who came into Egypt, who were his own offspring, not including the wives of his sons, were sixty-six persons in all.” (26) Our author then adds in Joseph, his wife, and his two Egyptian-born children arriving at the significant total of 70 , which represents completeness: “all the persons of the house of Jacob who came into Egypt were seventy.” (27) In short the migration of Israel starts out God-approved and with high hopes.

Matthew 16:5–20: Matthew’s almost obsessive focus on bread continues as Jesus says, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (6). The disciples take this quite literally, believing Jesus is warning them not to eat bread that may have been prepared or handled by these religious people. Jesus appears moderately annoyed that after the feeding of the 5000 and then the 4000, that they still do understand that the yeast Jesus is speaking about is metaphorical.

He says there’s no problem with getting physical bread, rather testily reminding them, “Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered?” (9, 10) The yeast metaphor Jesus is using is the malign influence of the Pharisees and Saducees. We can almost hear Peter saying, “Oh, now I get it!” Matthew is more abstract, telling us that “they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (12)

Now we come to what is at once one of the hinge points of the Gospel—and one of the most controversial. Jesus starts off by asking a fairly simple question, that on its face appears to be simply about Jewish history: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (13). The disciples ffer an array of candidates: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah. I suspect that among the twelve even some of the less well known prophets were mentioned. Haggai, perhaps?

But then Jesus spring his real question on the hapless disciples: “But who do you say that I am?” (15). Peter, being Peter, answers directly: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (16) Jesus is pleased and replies, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” (17) In short, Peter gets it not because of his native intelligence but because he is now guided by the Holy Spirit.

At this point Jesus gives what is the most profound blessing of his earthly ministry with a pun right in the middle of it: “And I tell you, you are Peter [Petros], and on this rock [petra] I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” (18) Debate has raged for centuries about just who is this “rock” on which the church is founded. The Catholic church reads it directly, and therefore Peter is the founder, the first pope since he has been given the “keys of the kingdom of heaven.” (19).

Protestants, on the other hand believe that Jesus is being self-referential and “this rock” is Jesus himself. The question then is, who is the “you” in the next verse, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (19) Is it Peter himself or is it the church at large? My own belief is that Jesus is being self-referential. After all, as Paul points out again and again, Jesus is the bridegroom and the church is the bride of Christ. Thus, there’s little question in my mind that Jesus is the rock upon whom the church is built and grew.