Tuesday, May 26, 2015
Deuteronomy 4:15-24; Psalm 36; 2 Corinthians 1:12-22; Luke 15:1-10
Moses warns the people against any attempt to fashion an idol to represent the God they encountered at Mt. Horeb. Remember, they saw no form out of the fire, only the fire and smoke. They are to take care then, to assure that they do not “act corruptly” by fashioning an idol of God resembling any living creature the Lord God made. Nor are they to be lead astray to worship the sun, moon or stars, as though they were divine. They are not. They are creations of God’s hands just as much as the animals, the birds and the fish. Though God has allotted all of this to all people under heaven, the Lord has taken the children of Israel and brought them out of the “iron-smelter” of Egypt, to make them into a people of his very own—God’s own possession. However, Moses says, it was because of them that the Lord was angry with Moses and vowed that Moses would not cross over into the land that the Lord is giving them. It is interesting to see how Moses side-steps his own culpability here, blaming them for his striking the rock (Numbers 20:1-13). Still, Moses is going to die here, in this land, rather than cross over with them into the land of promise, where they will take possession of the land. So, they are to be careful not to forget the covenant the Lord has made with them and all of its demands, especially the one regarding the making of idols. For the Lord is a jealous God, a devouring fire, and will not have what belongs to him given to any other thing he has made, much less something made of wood or stone.
Psalm 36 reflects on the difference between those who take pride in their transgressions and those who trust in the loving kindness of the Lord. It begins addressing the capacity for wickedness deep within the human heart. Is it the psalmist speaking, reflecting on the ways of the wicked, or is the one speaking transgression itself speaking to the wicked ones, deep in their hearts? Both are possible. Yes, the wicked have no fear of God. There is no end to the way they flatter themselves in their own eyes, thinking that their iniquity is hidden. They have ceased to live wisely and spend their time in plots of mischief and embrace evil rather than reject it. Suddenly, in contrast, as if to keep one from despair, the psalm turns to praise for the Lord’s steadfast love, which extends to the heavens. God’s righteousness is like the mighty mountains and judgments like the great deep. The Lord saves humans and animals alike. The psalm lauds the preciousness of God’s steadfast love and confesses that all take refuge in the shadow of God’s wings. It goes on to speak of the abundance and goodness of God’s house, where God gives drink from the river of delights. God is the fountain of life; in his light we see light. The prayer concludes by asking for God’s continued steadfast love to those who know him. As for the arrogant with whom this psalm began, do not let their foot tread on him or the hand of the wicked drive him away. Rather, let the Lord continue his salvation. As for evildoers, let them lay prostrate, thrust down, unable to rise.
Paul reminds the Corinthians that he and his companions have acted in the world with frankness and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom, but by the grace of God, and all the more so to them. They have written nothing to the Corinthians that they cannot understand, and he hopes they will continue to understand it to the end. On the day of the Lord Jesus (at his coming), the Corinthians will be their boast, and Paul and his companions the Corinthians’ boast. And now, Paul addresses why he did not come to them as first planned. Initially, he had hoped to visit Corinth on his way to Macedonia and again on his return from it, and then have the Corinthians send him on his way to Judea. Was Paul vacillating when he wanted to do this? Does he make his plans according to ordinary human standards, ready to say “yes” and “no” at the same time? As surely as God is faithful, that has not been the case. For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom they proclaimed was not “yes and no”; but in him it is always “Yes.” In him, every one of God’s promises is “Yes.” That is why, through him, we say “Amen,” to the glory of God. It is God who establishes Paul and his companions, as well as the Corinthians, in Christ, and has anointed Paul and his fellow-workers with the seal of his Spirit in their hearts as the first installment on the promise.
Tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus, and the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling that Jesus not only welcomed them but ate with them. This forms the setting for telling three parables about the joy of finding and reclaiming those who have been lost. The first is the parable of the shepherd, who having 100 sheep has lost one of them and does an astonishing thing: he leaves the 99 to go look for the one who is lost. Finding it, he places it over his shoulder and rejoices and, upon arriving home, invites all of his friends to come and rejoice with him. Just so, there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 who have no need of repentance. So too, the woman who had ten silver coins but lost one of them. Does she not take a lamp and sweep the house clean, turning it upside down until she finds that lost coin? And when she finds it, she calls together her friends and neighbors saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. We will turn to the third parable about God’s joy over lost things, tomorrow.
Monday, May 25, 2015
Deuteronomy 4:9-14; Psalm 9; 2 Corinthians 1:1-11; Luke 14:25-35
Moses reminds the people of how they stood at the base of Mt. Horeb (Sinai) and witnessed the presence of God as the mountain blazed, shrouded in dark clouds, and God spoke to them out of the fire. They are to take care and watch closely so that they do not forget what they have seen and heard. Not only must they remember and keep the words they heard from the Lord, they must also teach them to their children and their children’s children. Tell them how they stood before the Lord at Horeb and how they heard the words but saw no form. The Lord declared to them his covenant, which they were charged to observe, including the ten commands that God wrote on two stone tablets. At that time, the Lord charged Moses to teach them not only the commandments but also the statutes and ordinances that he is about to reiterate, so that they can observe them in the land they are about to occupy.
Psalm 9 is an acrostic psalm that gives thanks to the Lord for continuing protection and salvation. Though it might appear a royal psalm, the enemies being other nations, we never hear the voice in the prayer identified as the king’s, as it would be in a royal psalm. Rather it simply focuses on God’s ability to respond, whether “present” or afar, to scatter the wicked and maintain the just person’s cause. The text moves from thanksgiving for God’s wonderful deeds, to thanks for deliverance from particular enemies, to praise for the rebuke of other nations and the wicked, to the affirmation that the Lord is enthroned forever and his throne is a throne of judgment. Then, it affirms that the Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed who seek him. These he will not forsake. After calling for praise in Zion, the psalmist turns to personal intercession and deliverance from those who hate him. Again, there is recollection of God’s judgment on the nations that have been caught in their own net. The wicked are consigned to Sheol while the needy shall “not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the poor taken away,” one of the high and memorial phrases from this psalm. Finally, God is called upon to “Rise up,” judge the nations, and put them in their place—they are only human. “Se’lah,” is a word that appears to now call upon a musical chorus of praise, whether instrumental or vocal, from the temple musicians. Because this is an acrostic psalm, beginning each successive section with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the flow of ideas can seem a bit jumbled. It can seem that two psalms have been joined into one: the first, a psalm of thanksgiving; the second, a petition for help. And because Psalm 10 has no introductory material, some believe Psalm 9 and Psalm 10 were originally one. In fact, they appear as one in both the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) and the Roman Catholic Vulgate Bible, which used the Septuagint to make the Latin translation.
Though Paul had promised the Corinthians in his first letter to them that he planned to return to them while traveling through Macedonia, beginning and ending in Corinth, and perhaps staying with them for the winter, that visit never took place. Whether in disappointment or for reasons of loyalty to other apostles and teachers, the relationship between Paul and the Corinthians thereafter became strained, as the people accused him of vacillating and questioned not only Paul’s pastoral authority but also his integrity. Another visit is noted, one that was “painful” for all concerned, causing Paul to delay other visits in case they too should be as destructive as this painful one (there is no record of this visit in the Book of Acts). Instead of visiting, Paul wrote a letter out of distress and anguish that was, of Paul’s own admission, severe in its nature, as he tried to express his love for the Corinthians. This letter he sent to them by the hand of a fellow-worker, who many assume was Titus. Whether that letter has been lost, or is embedded within chapters 10-13 of this letter is a debate left to scholars. The severity of the letter caused Paul even more anxiety and caused him to leave Ephesus in search of Titus to learn what he could about things in Corinth. Finally connecting with Titus in Macedonia, Paul received good news about the Corinthians and their feelings for Paul. Encouraged, Paul writes this letter, which has come to be known as 2nd Corinthians. It opens with its customary self-identification: Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus, Timothy “our brother,” to the church of God in Corinth as well as all the saints throughout Achaia. This is followed by a typical Pauline greeting: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” God is blessed as the father of all mercies and consolation, who consoles all who are in affliction—themes that will emerge and be elaborated on in the letter. As affliction and suffering are abundant through Christ so too is consolation. It is with that consolation that Paul and his colleagues can console the Corinthians. Paul says his own afflictions are for the Corinthians’ consolation, which they experience as they patiently endure the same sufferings he is suffering. He adds that his hope for them is unshaken, knowing that, as they share in his sufferings, so too they share in his consolation. Paul now goes on to describe the afflictions in Asia as their being “utterly, unbearably crushed so that they despaired of life itself.” It was as though they had been sentenced to death so that they would rely, not on themselves, but solely on God who raises the dead. God, who rescued them from so deadly a peril (never defined), will continue to rescue them; on this they have set their hope. God will rescue them again as the Corinthians join in helping Paul and Timothy with their prayers.
Jesus leaves the dinner table and again takes up his travels to Jerusalem. A large crowd travels with Jesus, as if to follow him. On the way, he tells them that whoever comes to him and does not “hate father and mother, wife and children, brother or sister, yes, even life itself,” cannot be his disciple. The phrase “hate” here is hyperbolic rather than literal, stronger than Matthew’s “love more,” and points to the issue of primary loyalty, when it comes to making choices between Jesus and others, even those as close as family. Those who do not carry their crosses and follow him cannot be his disciples. And so, Jesus reminds them to count the cost beforehand. Which of them intending to build a tower would not first count the cost, lest, after laying the foundation, they should run out of money and not be able to complete it? Would not others call them “foolish?” Or, what king, going to wage war against another, does not first sit down and consider the cost? And, if it were too great, would he not, rather, send a delegation to sue for terms of peace? So, Jesus says to those around him, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” The shift from family and the cost of things can seem sudden, and a shift in syntax, but, as we read on, we hear what Jesus means. All of this is summarized with Jesus’ saying on salt: it is good, but if it has lost its taste what good is it except to be thrown out? As a chemist once pointed out to me, following a sermon on this text, sodium chloride does not lose its properties, its “taste”—it is always sodium chloride. Rather, it becomes diluted. And this is precisely Jesus’ point: our discipleship cannot be diluted with other things like family, wealth or possessions. Any mode of discipleship that tries to balance commitments to Jesus with commitments to others or other things is not discipleship and is fit for nothing; it will be “tossed out.”
The Day of Pentecost
Sunday, May 24, 2015
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.
Psalm 104 is a creation hymn and one of the “load stones” of the psalter. It speaks not only of God’s creative power, but also of 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 fashions each element of the created order for its own distinct and unique purpose: streams to water trees, trees for birds to nest in, 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, May 23, 2015
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 of 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 to be 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.
Psalm 92 is a hymn of thanksgiving and is identified in its header as a song for the sabbath. It 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 has 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 ark 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, something all too frequently forgotten today). All of this was a symbol of what continues to the time this letter is written, as gifts and sacrifices are offered daily in the temple 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). Others 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, May 22, 2015
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 who have 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. “Therefore, 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.”
Psalm 96 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—and justice will ultimately be done.
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, the true tent, one that the Lord, and not any mortal, has set up.” The “tent” is a reference to the tabernacle that the Lord instructed Moses 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, Jesus has obtained “a more excellent ministry” and, thereby, has 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—God does not abandon his people! Second, that the older covenant 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.