Tuesday: Ruth 1:19-2:13; Psalm 133; 1 Timothy 1:18-2:8; Luke 13:10-17
Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem and when they arrive the town is in a stir saying, “this is Naomi.” She responds with a pun: “Call me no longer Naomi (“pleasant” or “sweet”), call me Mara (“bitter”) for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.” Naomi went away sweet and full, and now she has returned bitter and empty. Notice that all of this is blamed on “the Almighty.” Also, note the name that is being used for God. So the two women arrive in Bethlehem at the time of the barley harvest. Now Boaz is introduced: he is a kinsman of Naomi’s deceased husband Elimelech, and a prominent rich man. Ruth asks Naomi’s permission to go and glean in the grain fields, as the law made provision for the edges of the fields to be left for the poor. Naomi sends Ruth on her way with her blessing. Ruth goes, following the reapers, to glean what they leave behind or overlook, and as it happens, is doing so in a field that belongs to Boaz. Boaz appears on the scene, coming from Bethlehem, sees Ruth, and asks his servant in charge who she is. The servant identifies her as the Moabite woman who returned with Naomi, who came and asked permission to glean, and has been at it from early morning until now, without so much as a moment’s rest. Boaz, whether recognizing the need for loyalty to the wife of a deceased kinsman, or simply taken with Ruth herself, not only gives her permission to glean in his field, but goes further in his provisions and protection of her. In gratitude, Ruth falls prostrate before Boaz, asking how it is she has found favor in his sight. He tells her that he has heard how faithful she has been to Naomi after the death of Ruth’s husband, Naomi’s son, leaving behind her own mother and father and her native land to come with Naomi to a people she did not know. “May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!” Again, note the name Boaz uses for God. Has Naomi been too long among the Moabites? Again, in keeping with the parable nature of the story, Boaz uses the proper name for God and invokes a pious blessing to boot. Ruth responds with due deference, asking to continue “to find favor in his sight,” (a hint that Boaz has a right to “redeem her” as the elder kinsman through Naomi, and take Ruth as his own wife?), even though she is not even one of his servants.
“How good it is when brothers and sister dwell in unity together.” This psalm of blessing, a psalm of ascent being sung as pilgrims make their way to Jerusalem, describes the blessings of harmony and concord among the people, whether within the immediate family, the clan or the nations, especially as they make their way to Mount Zion. Such unity is good and pleasant, and like precious, fragrant oil. Oil was used in biblical times for healing wounds, as a cosmetic on skin and hair, and for anointing kings, priest and prophets. Such oil of blessing is poured in abundance in Jerusalem, like the dew of Mount Hermon, and runs down upon the beard and over the collar and onto the robe. The image of Aaron refers to the priesthood in Jerusalem; for it is there that the Lord “commanded” his blessing (“ordained” is too weak)—life forevermore. The pilgrimage formed a bond of blessing itself, not unlike contemporary pilgrimages to holy places, with the ultimate blessing coming upon entering the temple. This psalm has had a rich liturgical life in the church, often used in calling people to the Lord’s Table. Augustine used it as warrant for the development of monastic communities that were brotherhoods in which such unity was to dwell.
Instruction is given to Timothy to “fight the good fight,” a term used by the philosophers to encourage fidelity to their codes, and by Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:7, 2 Corinthians 10:34, and Ephesians 6:10-17. Timothy will maintain a good and clean conscience by remaining loyal to the Christian code. Rejecting such a conscience instructed by those stronger in the faith is to suffer shipwreck. Two men are cited as examples of those who have done so: Hymenaeus, who in 2 Timothy 2:17 is cited for claiming that the resurrection has already taken place, and Alexander, about whom we know little. The point is that failing to hold to the tradition about the resurrection allows one to fall into speculation about the faith and such speculation leaves the faith shipwrecked. Paul says he has handed them over to the Satan—God’s agent for testing—in order that they might learn the error of their ways. Herein lies the tradition of excommunication. Its purpose is not punitive, but instructive and restorative, so that Hymenaeus and Alexander may learn not to blaspheme. The text now turns to instructions for prayers: intercessions and thanksgivings are to be made for everyone, beginning with kings in highest authority so that the church may live a quiet and peaceable life in godliness and dignity. This is right in God’s eyes, who is called “our Savior.” God desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. This is followed by another creedal fragment from the church’s worship in Ephesus that encapsulates the Christian Gospel for which Paul was appointed a herald and apostle, a teacher of the Gentiles. Men are addressed first. They are to gather for prayer without anger or argument, lifting up holy hands. The lifting of hands in prayer was an ancient gesture of reverence and receptivity (Psalm 141:2; 143:6) that is often modeled today by the celebrants behind the communion table, and has become popular again in Evangelical and Pentecostal circles. Here, the designers of the lectionary rather indelicately step over the rest of the chapter because it deals with the controversial issue of women’s participation in worship as well as taking leadership in the church. Women are told to dress modestly for worship, not as women in the culture would normally dress for the symposium where braided hair, gold, pearls and expensive clothing often stirred passions and led to sexual behavior acceptable in the symposium but not the church. Modesty and virtue are to be the norm in the church. The provision for women to learn in silence with full submission is, in fact, antiquities’ moral code for women. Obviously, the women in Ephesus have been exercising their freedom in Christ to enter into prophecy, and under the influence of the Spirit, that may well have led them to instructing their husbands—something absolutely forbidden by the household codes of the day—and remember, church was house worship. A wife who instructed her husband under the influence of the Spirit in worship, could easily fall into instructing him in the household. Whatever, it has caused a disruption and brought embarrassment to the church and made it a source of ridicule in the larger community. The fact that the author has included it here, with the addition that he permits no woman to have authority over him, buttressing it with a forced midrash on Genesis 2:15-22 and 3:13, is one of the clues that this is not Paul who is writing this letter. After all, Paul regularly relied upon women like Lydia and Pricilla to provide leadership, and even names Junia, his female relative, who was “in Christ before him,” as an apostle (Romans 16:6; note that later manuscripts change the ending of the name to make it the masculine, Junias, to be in accordance with later tradition of only men in apostolic leadership). Finally, we see the author, insisting that only Eve was tempted and therefore culpable, bending scripture to fit culture, a problem and temptation that has confronted the church from the beginning and continues to do so to this day.
It is the sabbath and Jesus is again in the synagogue teaching. A woman appears who is crippled and badly stooped over, and has been for eighteen years. Jesus calls her over, announces that she is being freed from her ailment, lays his hands on her. and immediately she stands up straight and begins to praise God. Notice that whenever healings happen like this, the praise is always directed to God and not to Jesus. Nonetheless, the leader of the synagogue is indignant—Jesus did this on the sabbath. And so the synagogue leader begins to criticize Jesus publically for having done so. After all, there are six days on which to work. One ought to come on one of those days to be cured. Jesus can stand the hypocrisy no longer and names the synagogue leader just that—a hypocrite. Do not each of them untie their donkey from the manger and lead it to water on the sabbath? As that is the case, what is to prevent this daughter of Abraham, whom Satan bound for eighteen years, from being set free on the sabbath? The logic is, of course, irrefutable, and Jesus’ opponents are publically put to shame—a major censure in that culture—while the crowd continued to rejoice in all the wonderful things Jesus was doing. The crowd may be thrilled but the religious leaders are not and, increasingly threatened by Jesus and his message, they are quickly becoming his enemies.
Monday: Ruth 1:1-18; Psalm 29; 1 Timothy 1:1-17; Luke 13:1-9
We begin the Book of Ruth, named for a Moabite woman who became David’s grandmother. The Moabites were a shunned people in Judah, despised in much the same way Samaritans were later despised. Though the book is named for Ruth, it is really about her mother-in-law, Naomi. Naomi (“pleasant” or “sweet”), her husband Elimelech (“God is my King”), and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion (sounds like “diseased” and “perishing" in Hebrew, respectively), leave Bethlehem (“The house of bread”) because of a severe famine and venture into Moab. The symbolic names and ironic circumstance reveal this to be more a parable to make a particular point than history. Elimelech, Naomi and their sons settle there among a people the Israelites despised because of the Moabites incestuous beginnings (Gen 19) and other hostilities between the Israelites and the Moabites. Once there, Elimelech—notice he is named “the husband of Naomi,” shifting the focus of the story from him to her—dies and the sons both take Moabite wives, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. About ten years later, both sons die, childless, leaving Naomi a widow with no means of support and two additional widows in the household with no means of support. Naomi plans to return to Bethlehem, for she has heard that the Lord has dealt favorably with the people there and given them food. She takes the two daughters with her but as they enter Judah, she sends the women home to their mothers and fathers. They will, after all, be despised in Judah and Naomi is too old to have additional sons that could ultimately grow into their providing husbands. She kisses them goodbye, they weep, but the daughters-in-law refuse to leave her. Naomi insists and Orpah does comply, but Ruth, whose name means “friendship,” steadfastly refuses and, though not expected to stay with the mother of a dead husband, utters her well-known, “Entreat me not to leave thee (KJV), where you go I will go, where you lodge I will lodge, your people shall be my people and your God will be my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me and more as well, if even death parts me from you.” Seeing such determination on Ruth’s part, Naomi permits her to come with her.
This psalm appears to be the appropriation of a Canaanite hymn to Baal, who was believed to be a warrior god whose voice was heard in the thunder and other aspects of the storm. However, here, Israel has taken all of the attributes of the storm and attributed them to the voice of the Lord; it thunders, is sovereign over the waters, is powerful and full of majesty. Its lightening and wind break the cedars of Lebanon and its flashes cause the land to skip like a calf and a young wild ox. The Lord’s voice sends forth flames of fire that shake the wilderness. It causes the oaks to whirl in the wind that strips the forest bare. And to all of this, the heavenly are called to ascribe “Glory, strength and holy splendor” to God’s name. As the storm continues to break forth, terrifying others, those in the temple shout, “Glory!” The psalm concludes remembering that the Lord is God of the storm, and the flood, and sits enthroned as king forever, giving strength to his people. It ends with a prayer for God’s blessing of peace. For those of us who have just come through the storm named “Sandy,” we have some sense of the majesty and power of the sea, flood and wind. Remembering that God is Lord of all of this, how can we but not join in shouting, “Glory!”
The first letter of Timothy is written to combat false teachers and the incursion of various other forms of religion into the church of the New Testament. On the face of it, the letter is written from Paul to his younger missionary co-worker Timothy, who has been left behind in Ephesus. However, internal evidence, and what we have from other New Testament sources, suggest that this may be a letter written in Paul’s name for the sake of authority to Timothy, who may, or may not be in Ephesus, but whose name also bears authority there. After a traditional salutation, in which Timothy is named Paul’s “loyal child in the faith,” the letter describes the problems vexing the church in Ephesus: people teaching different doctrine (a term Paul never uses in his uncontested letters), occupying themselves with myths, genealogies and various speculations rather than sound training “that is known by faith.” Again this sounds less like Paul than an associate writing at a later date in Paul’s name. The subject of the letter is not faith, as we would expect from Paul, but love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience and sincere faith—faith is in the process of becoming “codes of doctrine.” Some in Ephesus have departed from these doctrines, turning to meaningless talk, attempting to be teachers of the law without understanding it. There follows what the author describes as the appropriate use of the law: to keep the lawless in line. The lawless are named by their behaviors, which are described as “contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God,” which has been entrusted to Paul. A biographical section follows in which Paul gives thanks that God entrusted the gospel to him, given his prior life as a sinner. But the grace of the Lord overflowed for him with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. There follows what must have been a creedal statement in Ephesus introduced by the liturgical formula, “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance.” “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Paul quickly adds that he was foremost among those sinners. Yet, he received mercy to make him an example to all others who would come after and believe in Christ. He ends this section, as Paul regularly does, with a doxological blessing. Scholars solve the quandary of authorship this way: it is either written by one of Paul’s associates after his death in Rome, or, Paul did not die in Rome and had an additional career following his imprisonment there, which would account for the change in vocabulary and theological emphasis away for faith in Christ to doctrinal concerns. Either way, this, the longest of the three “Pastoral Epistles” gives us a look into the theological challenges being faced in the infant church as it struggled to find its place in a world where Jesus had not yet returned.
This section of Luke’s gospel comes to a conclusion with Jesus’ call for repentance as a changed life that manifests the fruit of that change. Two publically known tragedies have been bandied about as the result of people’s sinfulness: Pilate’s slaughter of a group of Galileans as they offered sacrifices in Jerusalem, and a tower in Siloam that fell on eighteen people, killing all of them. In telling Jesus about this, there is the suggestion that this is the kind of judgment Jesus has been talking about. Jesus clearly refutes their notion of “greater sinners”—sin is sin and repentance is repentance; there are not shades of it in life, some more grievous than others. No, unless the people conveying the report repent, they too will perish as those others did. And now Jesus tells the parable of the barren fig tree. When the man who had planted it came looking for fruit he found none, not one year but three in a row! Consequently, he ordered the gardener to cut the tree down. Why should it be taking up the soil? The gardener pleads for more time. He will dig around it, put down some manure and wait. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, then he can cut it down. God is patient, but only for so long and one should not delay repentance in life by presuming on it.
The Day of Pentecost: Isaiah 11:1-9; Psalm 104; 1 Corinthians 2:1-13; John 14:21-29
Isaiah of Jerusalem prophesies the coming of a new king within the line of David upon whom the spirit of the Lord shall rest. The gifts of that spirit are wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge and fear of the Lord. It is this last gift that is the most important: the new king’s delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. The oracle continues to describe the benefits of the spirit in the new king’s reign: he will judge—especially the poor—with righteousness, and insist on equity for the meek, abandoning the power politics, patronage and favor for the wealthy that so often characterized monarchies. The wicked shall perish and righteousness and faithfulness shall be the characteristics of his reign. As a result, the nation will turn into the peaceable kingdom; ancient enemies living together in peace and all sorts of danger put at bay. “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain (Jerusalem); for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” This oracle has been viewed as messianic, when, in fact, it is really about what happens when the spirit of the Lord rests on leadership, something important for us to remember on this Pentecost, when we celebrate the coming of the Spirit to the church.
This psalm, a creation hymn, is one of the “load stones” of the psalter and speaks not only of God’s creative power, but also God’s saving power and purpose throughout the universe. Though other religions of the day had their own creation psalms, and this one shows some significant influence from the Egyptian hymn to the sun god Rah, what makes Israel’s creation psalmody unique is that God is always at the center as creator and not dependent upon other factors, least of all, human intervention. What makes this psalm even more unique in the collection of creation hymns is that it is not anthropocentric—God does not create the world for human beings to be at the center of it. God creates each element of the created order for its own distinct and unique purpose: streams to water trees, trees for birds nes, caves to shelter wild beasts, grass to feed cattle, etc. It celebrates the Lord as creator, ruler, savior and sustainer of all that is, fashioned, governed and sustained by the Lord’s wisdom. The Lord opens his hand and gives all good things, especially life and breath to all that live. Day is created for humans, night for wild animals. All have their place within the created order parceled out by God’s wisdom that is visible throughout all of creation. Creation reveals the Lord’s glory, which the psalmist sings to and prays will last forever. Everyone and everything has its appointed place—except the sinner. This is one of the most beautiful and comprehensive creation hymns in the entire psalter. In addition, remember, the creation narratives in Genesis are among the last to be written and were deeply influenced by psalms such as this one, as well as those that appear in the book of Job.
Paul’s theology of the Spirit of God emerges in today’s lesson to remind us that it is the power of God at work in the world. The Spirit is God’s wisdom, and the means by which God searches all things. Responding to the critics at Corinth who thought Paul not philosophically eloquent enough, he reminds them that he decided to know nothing among them save Jesus Christ, and him crucified—something that to the Corinthians seemed foolish. Yes, he came to them in weakness and in fear (the sarcasm behind Paul’s playing to his critics here is amusing, given what we know of Paul in other places), and without “plausible words of wisdom,” but with a demonstration of the Spirit of Power, so that their faith might not rest on human words, but upon the power of God. Paul continues to defend himself and the gospel he has preached among them, reminding them that among the mature—those who have come to perfection, and a not so subtle reminder that the Corinthians have not!—he does speak of wisdom, though not a wisdom of this age or belonging to the rulers of this age (Greek philosophers) who are doomed to perish. This is God’s wisdom that none can understand unless God gives it to them. Why else would the rulers of this world have crucified the Lord of glory? No one who was truly wise, or knew the ways of God, would have done such a thing. The human heart is not capable of conceiving the things of God. Only God’s Spirit, who searches everything, even the very depths of God’s own self, knows all things. It is this knowledge, rather than that of the world, that Paul and his companions have received, so that they might understand the gifts that God has given them. And so, Paul speaks by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual. One other thing on this Day of Pentecost: for Paul, it is having received the Spirit of God that marks the difference between being children of God and children of this age (Romans 8:14-17).
Our text from John follows on Jesus’ farewell words to his disciples, his reminding them that he is the way, the truth and the life, and that to see him is to see the Father. He has promised that he will not leave them orphaned, but in going, will send the Counselor (“Advocate” in the NRSV). Now he reminds them that in keeping his commandments, they reveal their love for him, and likewise, he and the Father will love them. Judas (not Iscariot), asks him how it is he is going to reveal himself to them, but not to the whole world. Jesus responds that he and the Father will come to those who love him and keep his commandments, and the Father and the Son will make their home in them. This will not be the case for those who do not love him or keep his word. This, by the way, is not from Jesus, but directly from the Father. All of this he has told them while still with them, but the Holy Spirit, who is Advocate, Counselor, Helper, Comforter and Guide (the Greek word paraclete used here can mean all five), whom the Father will send in Jesus’ name, will teach them everything and remind them of all that Jesus has said to them. Jesus then speaks about the peace he leaves with them—not as the world gives, but the peace of God that surpasses understanding. Rather than be troubled or afraid at his departure, they are to rejoice, for he is going to the Father. On Pentecost, among the many things in this passage to remember, we need to be reminded that one of the tasks of the Holy Spirit is to lead and keep us in the truth, and that one of the ways the Spirit does this is to constantly remind us of what Jesus has said. In the controversies that have swirled in the church from the beginning, and will continue to disrupt the church until Jesus’ return, it is the Spirit who is to be sought and relied upon to keep us in the truth by reminding us of what Jesus has said.
Saturday: Ezekiel 43:1-12; Psalm 92; Hebrews 9:1-14; Luke 11:14-23
Beginning in chapter 40, the Lord gives Ezekiel a vision of a restored temple, with emphasis upon God’s residence in its central chamber, but also the numerous provisions to assure that the people’s sin not be able to reach the Lord there. Once the Lord sets Ezekiel “on a very high mountain,” with what appears a city to the south of it, a man appears, whose appearance is like bronze, and he has a measuring rod in his hand. He will be Ezekiel’s guide in the vision of the restored temple. In elaborate detail the vision is sketched out on this mountain (not necessarily Jerusalem), all of which is to be holy. Having toured the temple in the vision, the guide brings Ezekiel to the east gate of the temple. As Ezekiel looks east he sees the glory of the Lord approaching from the east, accompanied by the sound of many waters with the whole earth radiating God’s glory. As in the former visions of God’s presence, Ezekiel falls on his face. The glory of the Lord enters the temple and the spirit stands Ezekiel on his feet, and God’s glory fills the temple. With the man still standing beside him, Ezekiel hears the voice of the Lord speak to Ezekiel announcing that this is to be the place of God’s throne; God’s feet shall reside among the people of Israel forever. They shall never again defile God’s name, neither they nor their kings by whoring after other gods, as they did in former times when, though placed next to the Holy of Holies, they continued to defile his name with their abominations. They are to put all of that away, and the Lord will reside among them forever. God addresses Ezekiel and tells him to describe the temple to the house of Israel and let them measure out its footprint. As they do, let them be ashamed of their iniquities. Once they are sufficiently ashamed, Ezekiel is to make known to them the plan of the temple, its arrangements, its exits and entrances and its whole form, including its ordinances and laws. This is to be written down in their sight so that they may observe and follow its entire plan and all its ordinances. And this is the law: the whole territory of the top of the mountain is to be most holy, not just the sanctuary. A new level of holiness is being demanded of the people.
This psalm of thanksgiving is identified in its header as a song for the sabbath and is perfectly suited for remembering and praising the Lord in sabbath rest, when the worshipper is to reflect on God’s goodness. The hours of prayer are cited, as well as the music to accompany such prayer in the temple. The Lord has made the psalmist glad by God’s work. At the sight of it, the psalmist sings for joy. He then turns to reflect upon what God has done. The dullard cannot know and the stupid cannot understand the ways of God. Though the wicked sprout like grass, they are doomed for destruction forever, for the Lord will destroy his enemies. In addition, the Lord has exalted the psalmist’s strength (horn), like that of a wild ox, and poured fresh oil upon him in blessing. His eyes have seen the downfall of his personal enemies and his ears have heard of the doom of his assailants. The psalm ends in typical wisdom tradition with the affirmation that the righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like the cedar of Lebanon planted in courts of the house of the Lord. In old age, they continue to be fruitful, full of strength and sexual potency—showing that the Lord is upright and a rock to those who fear him. “There is no unrighteousness in him.”
Hebrews continues to draw a distinction between the covenant provisions for worship made by God with Moses at Mt. Sinai, and with the new that has come in Jesus Christ. Detailing the structure and content of the tabernacle, with its outer and inner sanctums, the latter the dwelling place of God that contained the arch of the covenant and its contents of manna, Aaron’s rod and the tablets of the covenant, the author describes the priestly actions as they go about the business of ritual duties. But only the high priest goes into the Holy of Holies, and that but once a year, carrying the blood he has offered for his own sin and for the unintentional sins of the people (note: there was no sacrifice in the system for the forgiveness of intentional sin). All of this was a symbol of what continues to the time this letter is written, as gifts and sacrifices are offered daily that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshipper. Rather, the system only deals with outward things like ablutions, food and drink regulations and other bodily regulations imposed until “the time comes to set things right.” That time has come in Christ, who through a greater and perfect tent (one not made with human hands, that is, not of this created order), entered once for all into God’s Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and bulls or the sprinkling of ashes of a sacrificed heifer, but with Christ’s own blood. And if those former things sanctified and purified, how much more then, does the blood of Christ who, through the eternal Spirit, offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worshipping the living God?
Jesus has just cast out another demon, this one from a man that was mute. With the demon gone, the man begins to speak and the crowd is, typically in Luke, “amazed.” But some in the crowd doubt Jesus intentions and authority and accuse him of casting out the demons by the power of Beelzebul (the Lord of the Flies—a name for Satan). Other want more than exorcisms; they want signs from heaven. Jesus, knowing exactly what they are thinking, tells a brief parable about a kingdom divided against itself; how can it stand? If Satan is divided against himself, he is doomed, for they accuse Jesus of casting out demons by Satan’s power. Jesus then adds yet another twist: if he is casting out demons by Satan’s power, by whose power are their own exorcists casting out demons—Jesus was not the only healer in the land? Those exorcists will be their judges. But, if by the finger of God Jesus casts out demons, then know that the Kingdom of God has come to you. When a strong man, fully armed, guards his house, it and its contents are safe. But when someone stronger attacks him, over powers him, and takes away his armor and divides his plunder, then that man is doomed. Satan is doomed; but more: whoever is not with Jesus is against him, and whoever does not gather with him scatters—the very opposite of what Jesus has said about those who would follow him in Luke 9:50.
Friday: Ezekiel 34:17-31; Psalm 96; Hebrews 8:1-13; Luke 10:38-42
This chapter opens with an oracle against the kings of Israel (the people’s shepherds), who have abandoned the needs of the people for the sake of their own royal comfort and indulgence. As a result, the people have become prey for all sorts of things. After pronouncing judgment on the royal shepherds, God announces that he will become the people’s shepherd and will search out the lost and bring back the strayed, bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong God will destroy with justice. The lesson then condemns those among the people who have been strong and secure, and grown fat in their prosperity, but have shown no concern for the weak. Not only do they claim the choicest pasture, they actually tread down what they don’t eat so others cannot. Rather than drink at clear water carefully, they greedily wade in and foul the water beneath their feet making it undrinkable for others. “Therefor, says the Lord God to them: ‘I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you have pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide.’” God will save his flock. No longer will it be ravaged from without or within, for God will judge, not simply rulers, but between sheep and sheep. This is followed by the promise of a new Davidic king who will rule with justice and compassion and feed all the people. The Lord will be their God and this new David will be God’s servant. From this will come a covenant of peace and abundance. God will provide “showers of blessing” (from which the gospel hymn takes the theme), the earth shall be verdant and plentiful in food, and all shall be secure on their land. They will know that the Lord is their God and they are God’s people, and that God is with them. God will then say to the house of Israel, “You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God.”
The psalm celebrates God’s goodness as King, and calls on all creation to “sing a new song to the Lord!” It celebrates the goodness of God’s sovereignty over all things and is a reminder that God is not only sovereign, but judge, and will judge with righteousness and truth. Every line is a call to worship. It is, perhaps, the finest example of a hymn of praise we have in the entire Psalter, filled with familiar and beautiful words and phrases that praise and thank God. In addition, it keeps before us the important truth that God not only reigns in goodness, but is coming in judgment that is righteousness and truth—another form of God’s goodness.
Hebrews comes to the center of its message: in Jesus Christ we have a high priest superior to all others, who is seated at the right hand of “the throne of Majesty” (the way a pious Jew would avoid using God’s name), a “minister in the sanctuary and the true tent that the Lord, and not any mortal, has set up.” The tent is a reference to the tabernacle that Moses was instructed to construct in the wilderness wanderings that became the precursor to the temple in Jerusalem with its “Holy of Holies,” where God was thought to dwell and where the high priest entered, once a year, on behalf of the people. These priests were required to offer gifts and sacrifices before entering. Jesus is contrasted with this sacrificial system that seems to still be in place at this letter’s writing (ergo its dating somewhere around 65 CE, but before the destruction of the temple in 70 CE). But that sacrificial system and worship space is but a “sketch and shadow of the heavenly one” in which Jesus now resides. Consequently, he has obtained “a more excellent ministry” and thereby become the “mediator of a better covenant” which has been enacted through God’s promise. Had that original covenant at Sinai been faultless there would be no need for this second. But God, himself, found fault with it, and the text goes on in verses 8 through 12 to quote Ezekiel 31:31-34, in which God promises a new covenant with the house of Israel. The author concludes his argument making the point that in speaking of a “new covenant” God has made the first one obsolete. And, what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear. Several things need to be said at this point: first, this is one of the texts that gave rise to the dispensationalist heresy, claiming that God had abandoned his covenant with and relationship to Israel when establishing the new covenant (dispensation) with the church. Notice that the new covenant that God promised through Ezekiel is a covenant with Israel! Second, that the old did not include within it forgiveness of sins is one of the reasons the new covenant is superior to the old. That the old “will soon disappear” is probably a reference to Jesus’ own words about the future of the temple. The point the author is making to Jewish Christians, probably in Rome, is that this new covenant that includes both Jews and Gentiles is vastly superior to the covenant God made with only Israel at Mt. Sinai, and so there is no reason to return to it.
Luke has placed the story of the sisters Mary and Martha behind the parable of the Good Samaritan to demonstrate what it means to be a neighbor to Jesus and a faithful follower. Martha welcomes Jesus into their home and her sister Mary immediately sits at Jesus’ feet to listen to him teach, becoming so absorbed in him that she fails to help Martha with the provisions of hospitality. Martha, on the other hand, not only makes provision, but becomes “distracted by her many tasks,” and ultimately comes to Jesus and asks, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left all of the work to me? Tell her to help me.” Jesus’ response is not a comment on the difference between the contemplative and active lives of faith (as this has often been portrayed in sermons), but is simply the plain statement that only one thing is necessary—devotion and attention to Jesus and his word. It is possible to get so caught up in “making provision,” in providing hospitality, and in serving in the church, that we soon forget who it is we are serving and why. Mary is listening, has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her. Notice that nothing is said about taking away Martha’s part for her welcome and hospitality. Rather, as important as that may be, there is something more important still—authentic discipleship. One other word: the astonishing thing here is that in a world where women were expected to serve as Martha was serving and not to exercise spiritual leadership, Mary has chosen to be a disciple. Though outrageous for the day, Jesus has blessed Mary’s decision and welcomed her.
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.