Readings for the Week of the Sunday closest to June 1, Proper 4
Sunday, May 31, 2015
Deuteronomy 11:1-12; Psalm 67; Revelation 10:1-11; Matthew 13:44-58
Moses continues to warn the people of the potential dangers in the land of promise. They must keep the statutes and ordinances that Moses is handing on to them on God’s behalf. More, they must continue to teach their children all that God did for them. For, the children did not witness it; nor have their children experienced God’s discipline as they have, so as to know God’s greatness. Moses reminds them of God’s deliverance from Egypt, of God’s intervention to destroy Pharaoh’s pursuing army, and of the discipline God exercised with Dathan and Abiram at their rebellion in the wilderness (Numbers 16:1-35). All of this they have seen with their own eyes, but their children have not, and, so, they must be told. In keeping the entire commandment (notice that the body of ordinances, statutes and Ten Commandments are treated as one commandment), they will have strength to go in and occupy the land, and live long in it. It is a land flowing with milk and honey, not like the flat land of Egypt, which they had to cultivate and irrigate like a vegetable garden. Rather, the land into which they are moving is a land of hills and valleys, watered by rains that the Lord provides. It is a land the Lord cares for and looks after, and his eye is always on it, from the beginning of the year to the end.
Psalm 67 is a classic psalm of praise, invoking God’s blessing and calling on the entire nation to praise the Lord for his blessings, among them. God judges with equity among all the nations. The language here recalls the Aaronic benediction (Numbers 6:24-26) and may have been used as a priestly blessing of the people as they came to or left the Temple at various agricultural festivals. Certainly, “The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, has blessed us,” would suggest as much. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for God’s name, given to Moses at the burning bush, and rendered in English as “LORD,” is missing here. Instead, the broader term for God, Elohim, is consistently used. Central to the psalm is the conviction that the God who has blessed “us” (Israel is never mentioned but assumed), is the God of all, and “all the ends of the earth” are called upon to revere, fear, and stand in awe before him.
There is an interlude in heaven, between the sixth and the seventh trumpet, as an angel descends from heaven, wrapped in a cloud with a little scroll open and in hand. The angel places one foot on the sea and the other on land, demonstrating his sovereignty over the earth and sea, and when he opens his mouth to speak, it is like the roar of a great lion. In response to his shout, the seven thunders sound. Whatever it is John hears in that moment, he is told not to write it down. Then, the angel raises his right hand to heaven, in oath, and swears by God’s name that there will be no more delay. With the blowing of the seventh trumpet, the mysteries of God will be fulfilled as it had been announced through the prophets. John is then instructed to go to the angel and take the open scroll from his hand. As he does, the angel tells him to eat it. (See Ezekiel 2:8-3:3) Though it will be sweet in his mouth, it will be bitter in his stomach, and, indeed, it was. He is then told that he must prophesy again as a warning to peoples, nations, languages and kings—to the whole world.
The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure found hidden in a field. The moment someone discovers it, he goes and sells all that he has in order to purchase the field. It is like a pearl of great price. When the merchant finally finds it, he quickly sells all that he owns in order to purchase it. It is like a great dragnet catching every sort of fish. When it is brought ashore, the fishermen sit down and sort out the good to save and throw out the bad. Each of these is an image Jesus uses to describe the reign of God breaking forth in him. It is old, but it is new, more valuable than any other thing in life, and is sweeping up everyone, all to be sorted out at the end of the age. Do they understand this? When they respond, “Yes,” he tells them they are scribes, trained for the kingdom who, like the master of a household, brings out of his treasury what is old and what is new. They are to live into the kingdom, honoring what is old and demonstrating what is new. Thereafter Jesus returns to Capernaum and continues his preaching and teaching. Initially astonished at his gifts, his neighbors soon take offense, giving rise to Jesus’ words on prophets being held in honor everywhere but in their hometowns. The lesson ends with this intriguing comment: he did few deeds of power there because of their unbelief. Matthew does not say, “He was unable to do deeds of power,” (as Mark does in Mk 6:5), but that he simply did none. His power is not limited by unbelief; it is just infrequently displayed within it.
A Final Note: Friends, today marks the official end of my ministry at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church as its Pastor. For twenty-three years, I have had the unique privilege of serving this wonderful congregation as a “Minister of the Word”—the title of the office into which I was ordained in September of 1973, in the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA). Tomorrow, I become Pastor Emeritus, and Questa and I will retire to our home in northern New Hampshire. Thank you for following these reflections. I hope that sharing my own daily discipline with you has been helpful.
Some have asked if this can continue. As our denomination requires, I must step fully aside from official responsibilities—yes, even pastoral ones—until MAPC has called and installed its new pastor and that person is settled in. And so, these reflections will no longer be posted on the MAPC website. In response to that answer, some have asked if there might not be a different venue, not associated with the church, where my reflections might be available. I am currently exploring such a possibility. If you would be interested in participating in something of that sort, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know of your interest. I hope that, after a summer’s respite, I might resume the reflection in the fall of 2015 under a different blog, and I would be happy to include you in that distribution list if I do so.
In any event, thank you for reading, and thanks to those of you who contacted me when you had a question for clarification or had found an error. Most of all, thanks to our Office Manager, Ms. Lissette Perez-Erazo, who has not only served as my administrative assistant, but is an editor and proof reader extraordinaire!
The grace, mercy and peace of Christ be with each one of you.
Saturday, May 30, 2015
Deuteronomy 5:22-33; Psalm 56; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:10; Luke 16:19-31
After reciting for the people the Ten Commandments, Moses reminds them that the Lord spoke out of the fire with a loud voice, not only to him, but to the whole assembly gathered before the mountain. And when that happened, their ancestors approached him in fear, asking that the Lord no longer speak directly to them, lest they die, but rather that Moses go and speak with the Lord on their behalf. Moses conferred with the Lord on this and found that God concurred because God knew the people did not have the mind or heart to fear him and keep his commands as Moses had. Therefore, the Lord told Moses to tell the people to return to their tents. Instead, God will speak directly with Moses and tell him the other ordinances and statutes that he was to teach them, so that they may do them upon entering the land of promise. They must be careful to observe them and not turn to the right or the left, but stay on the path God has laid out for them. Do so, and they will prosper and live long in the land that they are about to possess.
Psalm 56 is a hymn of praise and trust in God in the midst of persecution, and is most helpful when one is being intentionally besieged by others. It begins with a cry for help from one afflicted on all sides. She has no one to turn to but the Lord, and does so. Asserting that having put her trust in God there is no one to fear, the psalmist continues to lament the work of those who assail her, pleading that God cast them out. Notice, that without warning, the psalm ends acknowledging deliverance. And why? So that she can continue to walk in God’s presence according to God’s life-giving light. This psalm of trust in the face of persecution is attributed to David when he had been captured by the Philistines at Gath (1 Samuel 21:10-15). Its central theme is: “I put my trust in you, O God, whose word I praise and trust. What can flesh do to me?” Continually surrounded by enemies, the psalmist recounts the turmoil, and notes that God is watching and keeping count so as to respond on the day when called upon. And so, she exclaims, “This I know, that God is for me!” In trusting God she finds her fear removed and her soul delivered.
Returning to affirm his own integrity in ministry, Paul quotes Psalm 116:10 to make the point that he speaks out of faith and conviction, knowing that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise Paul and his companions and will bring them, with the Corinthians, into God’s presence. And now, in the midst of the language of death and being given up to death, Paul turns to resurrection and eternal life using the images of clothing and our “earthly tent”—our bodies. If our earthly tent is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, that is eternal in the heavens. Yes, in this earthly tent we groan, longing to be clothed in our heavenly tent, if, indeed, when the earthly tent is taken off, we are not found to be naked, but rather clothed in Christ, so that our mortality can be “swallowed up” by life. God has prepared this for us and given us the Spirit as a guarantee that this will, indeed, take place. This is our confidence, no matter what may take place. And even though we know that while we are at home in this earthly tent we call our bodies, we are away from the Lord. After all, we walk by faith not by sight. And though we would rather be away from the body to be at home with the Lord, nevertheless, whether here or there, our aim is always to please the Lord. To this, Paul adds a word of warning: all of us must ultimately appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that we may receive payment for what we have done in the body, whether good or bad. As much as Paul believes in the grace of God, he still reminds us of our accountability before God, but an accountability that is ultimately clothed in Christ’s righteousness rather than our own.
Stepping over Jesus’ uncomfortable words about divorce, the lectionary turns to Jesus’ parable about the rich man and Lazarus. But before going there, a word about verse 18 is important. Jesus has been talking about the law and the kingdom of God and warning that the law is still God’s word and is not to be forgotten or set aside, and that the kingdom of God is present to any who will receive it. But the Pharisees, in their attempts to justify themselves, have made themselves an abomination to God, who knows not only their outward actions, but also their hearts. Three things were regularly regarded as an abomination in God’s sight: idolatry, financial mis-dealings, and divorce, which was understood as a form of adultery. Though, initially, verse 18 may appear to be misplaced, Jesus is simply reminding the Pharisees, who had some very liberal rules concerning divorce, that his proclamation of the kingdom is not an attempt to set the law aside, but rather a stringent interpretation of it. The Pharisees’ love of money (idolatry), their financial mis-dealings, and their loose and liberal divorce laws are a false form of piety that the Lord sees through. With that he tells the parable of the rich man who feasted sumptuously every day while ignoring the needs of a poor, wretched man, infested with sores named Lazarus, who sat at his door-step and who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table—normally food for the dogs, who were considered unclean. The fact that the dogs licked Lazarus’ sores is only one more sign that he is an outcast. Both men die. The angels come and carry Lazarus to be with Abraham, while the rich man is buried and ends up in Hades, where he is severely tormented. The rich man sees Lazarus at Abraham’s side and pleads for Abraham to have Lazarus dip his finger in water and come and cool the rich man’s tongue; for he is in agony in the flames. Abraham reminds the rich man that, in life, he received good things, and Lazarus, likewise, all manner of evil things. Now he is comforted and the rich man in agony. The just rewards are being received. Further, there is a great chasm fixed between Abraham and Lazarus and the rich man, one so great no one can cross over to him. The man then begs that Lazarus be sent to the rich man’s father’s house to warn his five brothers, so that they may repent and not end up in Hades with him. Abraham replies that they have Moses and the prophets (remember what Jesus had just said about them), they should listen to them. The rich man objects, saying that if someone comes to them from the dead they will, indeed listen. Then Jesus puts this ironic reply into Abraham’s mouth: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” The story not only illustrates Jesus’ former statement about being faithful or dishonest with wealth. The rich man used it as though it was his own, rather than what had been given to him to meet not only his own needs but the needs of others. It highlights Jesus asking that if we have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give us what is our own? The Pharisees are serving another master. In neglecting the poor, they are violating the law and the prophets. Even someone rising from the dead, as he will do, will not change the hearts of those captivated by the love of money; nor has it!
Friday, May 29, 2015
Deuteronomy 5:1-22; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 4:1-12; Luke 16:10-17
Moses recounts for the people the Ten Commandments that were given by God to the people’s ancestors as stipulations of the covenant he made with them at Mt. Horeb (Sinai), as it is recorded in Exodus 20. Notice that Moses makes the point that these were given not only to their ancestors, but also “with us, who are all of us here alive today.” The account in Exodus is brief, whereas, here, Moses elaborates on them, indicating that they are foundational to Israel’s corporate life together with God and to be the basis of their life together as a people who are a series of families joined in tribes, the tribes forming the nation. God identifies himself as the Lord, (Yahweh) who brought them out of Egypt, and makes the point that they shall have no other God than the Lord. Notice that at this point this is not a confession of monotheism, but rather, that among the gods; only the Lord will be Israel’s God. Further, they shall not attempt to make a visual image of the Lord, whether to worship, or to attempt to control for their own purposes, nor shall they share the Lord’s glory with anything that the Lord has made. He is jealous of his holiness [glory] and will share it with no other, and punishes to the third generation those who disobey him, but shows steadfast love to the thousandth generation (notice the abundance) of those who love him and keep his commandments. Just as they shall not try to control or misuse God’s presence through the fashioning of an idol, they shall not misuse God’s name, either in oath-taking or in petitions and especially in situations that would demean or disrespect (blaspheme) God’s person, for God’s name is holy as he his holy. The command to “observe” the sabbath as a day of rest for everyone and everything in the community (in Exodus it is “remember,”), is how they are to keep it consecrated to the Lord. The command extends even to slaves, and in doing so, they are reminded of the crushing burden of slavery they experience in Egypt, from which the Lord delivered them. The command about honoring parents is the hinge between honoring the Lord as God and honoring the people as God’s possession, and reflects the fundamental importance of family to the society. It is the only one of the Ten Commandments that has a promise attached to it. Such honor will produce a society where it goes well with them in the land that the Lord God is giving them. The command against murder is a universal prohibition against the taking of human life that is not otherwise prescribed, because of a violation of the ordinances and statutes that Moses will subsequently give. Here, it is not only a prohibition against killing another in greed or anger, but is also a prohibition against taking vengeance in a culture where even accidental death could be avenged by a victim’s family. All forms of killing of another human being within the community (notice these did not apply to their enemies), is ruled out, while capital punishment is still sanctioned for the most serious violations of the Law of Moses, in order to protect the community from ongoing violation. The command against adultery is designed to protect the family and insure paternity within the family unit. The command against theft was not only against wanton stealing, but also disputes over property ownership and inheritance. False witness against one’s neighbor challenged not only the fabric of communal life, but if indulged in, challenged the very legal foundation upon which the nation was built. Later, any challenge of wrongdoing against another will require two witnesses for validation. And finally, men are not to covet their neighbors’ wife—again, a means of insuring the integrity and importance of the family. Only thereafter are other items mentioned: home, field, slaves, animals or any other things in your neighbor’s household. I have often said that obedience to this 10th commandment is foundational to keeping the other nine, and violation of the other nine all grow out of a covetous nature that is fundamentally narcissistic and idolatrous.
Psalm 130 is a classic lament for those living “in the depths” of life, whether physical or emotional, waiting on God to come and save. Notice that it is also a “psalm of ascent.” It is being used by a pilgrim who has come to the temple in Jerusalem to worship God in the midst of despair. Out of the depths he has been crying to the Lord with no response. Now, he pleads again for the Lord to hear his voice and supplication. Notice that the psalmist has moved beyond self-recrimination. This is about more than personal sin. The pit is not God’s punishment, for if God counted sin and thus punished, who would stand? No one—we would all find ourselves in the pit of God’s judgment! No; with God there is always forgiveness. And so, the psalmist continues to hold tenaciously to God’s word and to wait and watch with an intensity that exceeds that of the watchmen waiting for the morning. The psalmist knows that when God comes it will be with steadfast love, healing and redemption. He prays, “Come, Lord; redeem all Israel!” This is a prayer for all who wrestle with depression, all with chronic or terminal illness, all who spend sleepless nights in anxiety and worry, and for any who find themselves in the pit of life for whatever reason.
In the course of authenticating his ministry among the Corinthians, Paul has given us an in-depth and profound theological understanding, not only of his own ministry, but of all Christian ministry. It renounces manipulation and falsification of things to achieve its ends, and it never speaks falsely about God or falsifies God’s word. Rather, by open statements of the truth, ministers commend themselves to others in the sight of God. And even when the gospel they preach is veiled, it is so veiled to those who are perishing. This not only harkens back to what Paul has said earlier about the veil cast over Israel’s eyes when the law is read, so that they cannot truly comprehend its meaning, but now extends the veiling to all who hear the gospel of Christ but cannot accept it. The god of this world has blinded their minds to keep them from seeing the “light of the gospel of the glory of Christ who is the image of God.” This last phrase is packed with confessional information about Christ as the one who reveals the presence of God (glory) because he is the very image (icon) of God. When we look at Christ, we see God, who otherwise is invisible. The One who has prohibited all attempts to represent him in physical form now presents himself to us in a physical form that we can comprehend and is absolutely true to who God is. Christian ministers do not proclaim themselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord and themselves as others servants for Christ’s own sake. For the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness” at creation, has shown in our hearts to give us the knowledge of God’s very presence in the person of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, we have this treasure in clay jars—fragile humanity—in order that it may be made clear that the extraordinary power we have been given belongs to God and does not come from us. Paul now turns autobiographical to describe the hardships he has experienced as he has proclaimed the gospel of Christ, and speaks of the sufferings and death of Jesus being made visible in him and his companions. As Jesus was given up to death in life, so too, Paul and his companions have often been given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that Jesus’ life may be made visible in their mortal bodies. Ministry is giving witness to Jesus in both life and in death, so that the life Jesus gives may be made manifest to all.
Jesus builds on the parable of the dishonest steward, reminding us of the truth that those who are faithful and reliable in the small things of life can be counted on to be faithful and reliable in the larger issues of life, while those who are dishonest in small things are dishonest in larger things as well. If one has not been faithful with the small things of this world, who would entrust to them true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? Just as a slave cannot serve two masters, we cannot serve God and Wealth—the latter being capitalized to emphasize its capacity to become an idol that we worship as much, if not more, than God, and of the pursuit of wealth’s capacity to draw us away from God and God’s ways. Now, Luke tells us that the Pharisees were “lovers of money.” Hearing what Jesus has said, they begin to mock him. Jesus replies that, though they try to justify themselves in the sight of others, by their supposed scrupulosity before the law, God knows their hearts. What is prized by humans and is frequently used in an attempt to justify them, is an abomination to God. The law and the prophets have been God’s standard right through John’s ministry. Since then, Jesus has been proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God, and urging everyone to enter it—even the Pharisees and the scribes! But like the Pharisees and scribes, there are some who try to take it by force. It is not to be taken but to be received. God’s word is God’s word; it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one letter of it to be dropped.
Thursday, May 28, 2015
Deuteronomy 4:32-40; Psalm 37:1-18; 2 Corinthians 3:1-18; Luke 16:1-9
Think about it; has this ever happened before? Has God ever made a covenant with a nation, with a people who God chose to be God’s own? Have a people ever heard the living voice of God, or God acting so dramatically on their behalf? Has God ever taken a people out of a group of other people to make them his own by trials, signs and wonders? From heaven, God has made his voice known in order to give them discipline for living as his people. Because God loved their ancestors, God chose their descendants after them, bringing them out of Egypt with great power and mighty acts, giving them his constant presence and driving out before them nations greater than themselves that they might take possession of the land that God had promised them. Therefore, they are to keep the Lord’s statutes and commandments, which Moses is giving to them this day. The statutes and commandments are for their own wellbeing and that of their descendants after them, so that they may long remain in the land that the Lord God is giving to them.
Psalm 37:1-18 is an instructional acrostic from the wisdom tradition that counsels, “Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers, for they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb. Trust in the Lord, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.” With this and other such injunctions, the psalm encourages patient trust in the Lord in the face of the prosperity of the wicked. It is from the Yahwist tradition, with the name “Lord” used for God again and again, constantly exhorting: “Trust in the Lord.” Its purpose is to instruct and encourage people in the face of watching the wicked prosper. “Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.” “Be still before the Lord, and patiently wait for him;” Abandon anger, wrath and fretting, for these only lead to doing evil. Remember, “The evildoers will be cut off while the Lord knows the days of the blameless, whose heritage will abide forever. In a little while, you will look for the wicked but find that “they are no more.” “The enemies of the Lord are like the glory of the pastures; they vanish like smoke.” The Lord laughs at them, knowing their day of judgment is coming. Their drawn swords and bent bows will be turned upon themselves and become their undoing, as evil always ends up being turned on itself. “Those blessed by the Lord shall inherit the land,” “Our steps are made firm by the Lord, when he delights in our way.” “The Lord loves justice; he will not forsake his faithful ones.” “The Lord will not abandon [the righteous] to the powers of the [wicked].” Wait for the Lord, and keep to his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land and rescue you from the wicked.” Better the little the righteous have than the abundance of the wicked, for the Lord knows the day of the blameless; their heritage will abide forever.
Paul is not writing this letter to the Corinthians as a means of commending himself to them. He needs no letter or recommendation, for the Corinthians are his letter of recommendation, and it is written on Paul and Timothy’s hearts; an expression of their affection for the Corinthians. They, themselves, are letters of Christ, who were prepared by Paul and Timothy, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the Living God, not on tablets of stone but on the tablets of human hearts. They are his letters of recommendation. Such is the confidence Paul has in the Corinthians through Christ to God, who made Paul and his companions competent to be “ministers of a new covenant,” not one formed by dead letters on stone tablets, but one formed by the Spirit. For, though the letter of the law kills, the Spirit gives life. From here, Paul now turns to one of the issues of division at hand in Corinth that has been raised by the “Judaizing” teachers who followed him there, preaching the need to become a Jew to be Christian. In astonishingly graphic language, Paul characterized the law of Moses as “the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stone tablets.” Yes, the law came in glory, so much so that when Moses came down from the mountain after receiving the tablets from God, the people of Israel could not gaze at Moses’ face because it still reflected God’s glory (see Exodus 34:27-35). But, over time that glory faded. If the law came in glory, how much more will the ministry (notice that he calls it ministry not law) of the Spirit come in glory? If there was glory in “the ministry of condemnation” (the law only being able to judge and condemn people for their behavior, rather than enable them to live into it), how much more does the ministry of justification abound in glory? The former has lost its glory because of the much greater glory of the ministry of the Spirit, and has been set aside because the permanent has now come. This, then, is their hope, a hope that enables Paul to act with great boldness. Returning to the image of Moses, who wore a veil over his face so that God’s reflected radiance would not blind the people, Paul, in rabbinic fashion, turns the image on its head. Moses wore that veil, not to protect the people, but so that the people might not see that the glory of the old covenant was fading and being set aside. Consequently, the people’s minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when Jews hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is there, since only in Christ is it set aside. So, when Moses is read, a veil lies over the Jews’ minds. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is lifted. Now, the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (as opposed to the constraints of the law). Paul now takes the veiled glory of God one step further, telling the Corinthians that all who have turned to Christ have unveiled faces and are able to see God’s glory as though reflected in a mirror, in the face of Christ. And, as they do, they are being transformed into the same image, from one degree of glory to another. All of this is from the Lord, the Spirit.
This parable of the dishonest manager is frequently a source of trouble to those who do not read it in its larger context, but tell it as a parable that is to express a particular truth, resulting in a message that to most readers seems dishonest. But, if you read this parable in the context of all that has come before—the joy in heaven over what has been lost being found and sinners coming to repentance—it makes perfect sense. The manager has been squandering and misusing what is not his, just as sinners have been squandering and misusing God’s gift of life. When his mismanagement is brought to the owner’s attention, the manager is summoned for an accounting—judgment day! Panic stricken, the manager knows that the property and its management are going to be taken from him. What then will he do? He is not strong enough to dig and is too proud to beg. Then, it dawns on him; ingratiate himself to those in debt to his master so that in his own time of need they will be gracious to him. Consequently, he goes to his master’s debtors and tells them to change and reduce the amounts they owe the owner, one by fifty percent another by 20 percent. When the owner arrives for the accounting, rather than condemn the dishonest manager for his former stewardship, he commends him for his shrewd prudence when the chips are down. When the manger felt the heat, he repented. Then, Jesus adds this word of commentary: “The children of this age (sinners) are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light (the religious leadership of the day). So, make friends for yourselves by means of mammon (“dishonest wealth” is too strong here, and is better translated “wealth that is dishonestly gained” as the manger had gained it), so that when that wealth runs out and can no longer sustain you, you will be approved and received by the One who does sustain and will be welcomed into his eternal home. This is not about economics, but about the power of repentance; the manager feels the heat, sees the light, changes his way of living, and is commended for doing so.
Wednesday, May 27, 2015
Deuteronomy 4:25-31; Psalm 38; 2 Corinthians 1:23-2:17; Luke 15:1-2, 11-32
Moses warns the people against complacency once settled in the land. Within the third generation, and possibly before, they will be tempted to act corruptly by making and worshipping idols. This will kindle the wrath of the Lord who will drive them out of the land they are about to cross the Jordan to occupy. Only a few of them will be left to occupy the land—a reference to both the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests, in which the captives were exiled to other lands. (Remember, the Book of Deuteronomy was put in its final editorial form after the Exile and so has the wisdom of hindsight.) When scattered among the nations, they will worship other gods made by human hands, fashioned from wood and stone, gods that can neither see, hear, eat nor smell. In exile, in their distress, they will again seek the Lord, and they will find him, if they seek him with all their heart and soul and heed him. Because the Lord is merciful, he will neither abandon nor destroy them. He will remember his covenant with their ancestors.
Psalm 38 is the third of seven penitential psalms (6; 32; 51; 102; 130 & 143) and is a challenge to modern sensibilities, because of the way it makes a direct connection between sin and sickness and understands the latter as God’s wrath unleashed against humankind. It was, of course, common in Old Testament times to attribute everything to God and that nothing took place outside of the scope of God’s permission. There was no concept of a power of evil at work in the world, demons or devils, a much later solution to the problem of evil. Rather, there was divine purpose in suffering and affliction, and it ranged from punishment to instruction, to purification. All of this we see reflected in the counsel of Job’s friends, while Job remains resolute in affirming his innocence, refusing to confess to any unfaithfulness. This, then, is the kind of prayer Job’s friends are urging on him. A closer analysis reveals that the psalm was carefully composed (twenty-two lines, the number of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet), rather than an impromptu expression of personal failure. It was written to be used by those who were sick and seeking recovery and is a prayer of confession from one who knows that his foot has slipped. As a result, the psalmist is bearing the pain of divine wrath: God’s arrows having sunk deep within him; God’s hand is heavy upon him—he is physically ill as well as sick at heart. Repentant through and through, the prayer does not deny culpability; this is all because of his own foolishness. He describes the effect of his illness and the bodily suffering he endures. But beyond his physical pain and isolation, is the alienation that he feels, not only from loved ones and friends (it may well be a skin disease that has caused him to be quarantined), but more, the isolation his sin has caused with God. And so, the psalm is addressed to God who knows his longing, more for the removal of the isolation than other intervention. Though, to make matters worse, his enemies are using this to seek his ruin as they continue to meditate on their treachery. But he will remain deaf and blind to that; it is God he seeks, it is the Lord who is his only hope in all of this and he knows it. And so, he confesses his iniquity, sin, and sorrow, and his desire for God’s presence. His final plea is for God not to forsake him, but to come quickly as his only source of salvation. Unlike laments that almost always end in a note of triumph that celebrates God’s intervention, this psalm simply leaves the supplicant “waiting,” as Job waits. And, it was in order to refute the theology behind this psalm that the book of Job was written. A final thought concerning his psalm: we must exercise care in using it. This is not a universal statement that all sickness is God’s punishment for specific sin. Rather, when used in the larger context of scripture it can be helpful as a confession of sin or an expression of the general sinful condition in which all of us live, and the problems in life that we encounter because of our sin.
Paul calls on God as his witness; it was to spare the Corinthians additional pain that caused Paul not to come to them as he had initially planned. He had caused them pain on the earlier visit. Why would he want to do that to them again? After all, they are his reason for joy. No, instead he wrote to them. And, he wrote to them as he did, out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause them pain, but to let them know the abundance of Paul’s love for them. But, if someone in Corinth has caused Paul pain, in fact, that one person has caused it to the entire Corinthian community because of the breech that it has caused. It seems that the majority in Corinth have risen up and punished that person for his actions. That is enough, says Paul. Rather, now they should forgive and console him so that he is not overwhelmed by excessive discipline and sorrow. Let them reaffirm their love for him. Paul now returns to the letter; he wrote it, in part, to test them, to know whether they are obedient in all things. Those they forgive, Paul forgives. And what Paul has forgiven, if it is anything, is for their sake in the presence of Christ. Why do Christians do this? So as not to be “outwitted by Satan” who uses such controversies and divisions in the church to Satan’s own ends. Paul and his companions are not ignorant of this. When Paul first came to Troas to proclaim the good news of Christ, a door was opened for him in the Lord; but Paul’s mind could not rest because he did not find Titus there. So he left behind that opportune ministry in Troas to go on to Macedonia. Paul then employs the language of triumphal military processions in which conquering heroes return to their home cities, to speak not only of the sense of triumph he felt in Macedonia, upon hearing Titus’s message about the Corinthians, but to note that Christ always leads them in triumph, and through them spreads the fragrance that comes from knowing Christ. Then, becoming more inclusive still, he uses “we” to include the Corinthians themselves, reminding them that together “we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.” To the latter, they are the fragrance of death to death. To the former, they are the fragrance of life to life. But, who is sufficient for these things? They are, after all, not like so many “peddlers of God’s word,” but in Christ, speak as persons of sincerity, people sent from God, people standing in God’s presence.
Still in the presence of the scribes and the Pharisees who have been grumbling about Jesus eating and drinking with sinners, and again wanting to make the point about the joy in heaven when a sinner repents, Jesus tells this third parable, one of his best known, and one unique to Luke’s gospel. A man had two sons and the younger of them demanded his inheritance immediately. Upon receiving it, the younger son left the country for a distant one where he lived lavishly and squandered everything he had. When flat broke, a famine came upon the land, and, in dire need, the younger son hired himself out to someone who sent him into the field to feed pigs—about as low as it can get for a Jew! The son would have gladly filled himself on the food being given to the swine, but no one gave him anything. Coming to himself, he realized that even his father’s hired hands had enough to eat while here he was starving. So, he determines to go to his father, confess his sin against him and heaven, and ask to become his father’s hired hand. Thus determined, the younger son sets off to his father. But, while the son is still far off, his father sees him, is filled with compassion and runs and puts his arms around the boy and kisses him. The son recites his well-prepared confession, ending with “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father will have none of it, and calls his slave saying, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Kill the fatted calf and let us eat and celebrate, for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” They began to celebrate as God celebrates in heaven when a sinner repents. But now, for the other half of the story—the older brother’s response. There are always elder brothers like the one in the field—are the scribes and Pharisees listening? And when the brother approaches the house and hears the music and sees the dancing, he calls one of the slaves and asks what was going on. The slave replies, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf because he has gotten him back safe and sound.” The older brother erupts in anger and refuses to go into the celebratory banquet. And so, his father comes out to plead with him, but still the older brother refuses. And in his anger he says, “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command, yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours comes back (notice how the older brother is disowning the younger), who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you kill the fatter calf for him!” Listen carefully to the father’s response: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” His forgiveness of the younger son does not change his relationship with his older one. It is the older son who has changed the relationship and even fails to call the younger son his brother. Can the scribes and Pharisees rejoice when a sinner repents? Can we, or do we simply think someone is copping a religious plea to escape the consequences of what they have done? Jesus is pretty clear about what we are to do in such situations: celebrate and rejoice because a brother or sister who was dead has come to life. Those who were lost have been found.
Author: The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson
Created: June 21, 2012
The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson, Pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, offers thoughts on today’s lectionary readings.