Thursday, May 29
Ascension of the Lord
Daniel 7:9–14; Psalm 47; Hebrews 2:5-18; Matthew 28:16–20
Daniel has a dream in which one like “a son of man” appears. The phase itself in the Old Testament simply means “male member of the human race,” and appears constantly in Ezekiel, as it is the term God uses when addressing the prophet. Daniel’s vision is filled with apocalyptic imagery of four beasts, each of which represents four pagan kings that are devouring humankind, their horns representing their power. Our lesson opens as God appears and takes his place on the throne to sit in judgment. The imagery of fiery throne, river of fire and thousands upon thousands in attendance is drawn from various biblical texts. The “books are opened,” which is an apocalyptic image of divine record-keeping that will now serve as evidence in the trial. The voice of the most arrogant of the kings, Antiochus IV, who took the title “Epiphanes,” and who reigned the most ruthlessly over the Jews, desecrating the temple and persecuting and slaughtering many, is silenced, put to death and thrown into the fire. The dominion of the other beasts is taken away as the Greek empire is destroyed. Then, “one like a human being” (in the Aramaic this is written as “son of man”), comes with the clouds of heaven and is presented before God, who gives him dominion, glory and sovereignty over all peoples and nations. It is an everlasting dominion that shall never be destroyed. “Son of man” was Jesus’ preferred way of speaking of himself in a way that alluded to who he was and what his mission was. There is great scholarly debate over whether the term had messianic connotations among Jews in Jesus’ day. However, as the theology of Jesus’ two natures developed in the church, “Son of Man” came to speak of his authentic humanity, just as “Son of God” came to speak of his divine nature. Modern scholars see the son of man in this text either referring to a faithful Jew or to an angelic being that looked human.
Psalm 47 celebrates God’s reign over all the earth. It is a hymn of praise that may have been used during a festival commemorating God’s covenant with Israel, and calls on the people to celebrate God’s ritual enthronement. It remembers how the Lord, the Most High, is God of the gods, awesome and king over all the earth—not just Israel. Not only has God subdued the nations, the Lord has chosen Israel as his heritage, “the pride of Jacob whom he loves.” All are called upon to sing praise to God as king. “Our King is King of all the earth.” The phrase, “God has gone up with a shout,” caused the church to associate this with Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, while “with the sounds of a trumpet” suggests this was used as part of the liturgy for Rosh ha-shanah, when the ram’s horn is blown to announce the new year.
Is Jesus inferior to the angels being worshipped by other religions of the day? After all, he was made “lower than the angels for a while, and subject to death.” How could he then be superior to the angels? Hebrews explains that is was necessary for him to become lower than the angels in order to become one of us, so that in and through his suffering as one of us, he could expiate sin and open the way for our reunion and atonement with God. After his suffering and death, he was not simply resurrected, but ascended to his Father, again superior to the angels, where he now stands as our high priest continuing to intercede for us. And so, the one we saw suffer, we now see “crowned in glory, the human pioneer, who tasted death for us all,” and who is now exalted in risen glory. Because he shared our flesh and blood, and is now enthroned as our high priest in his risen flesh, we too shall see God. Calvin speaks of one of the dynamics of the ascension as a promise that as the Lord stands in the presence of the Father in risen human flesh, so too shall we. And, because in his suffering and death he was tested, he is able to help those of us who are so tested.
Matthew closes his gospel with the eleven disciples and Jesus reunited in Galilee on a mountain, where again, they worship Jesus, though Matthew is forthright in saying “some doubted.” Jesus then gives them their commission, now known as “The Great Commission.” First, all authority in heaven and on earth now belongs to Jesus—the Father has given it to him. Therefore, they are to go and make disciples of all nations. By the time Matthew writes this gospel, the inclusion of the Gentiles within the church is an accepted fact. They are to baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit—the three ways the disciples have and will experience and know God (the Spirit has yet to be given in Matthew’s account). This has not yet formed into the notion of One Triune God, but soon will begin to do so. For now, they are to go forth as Jesus’ envoys, making disciples of all people and teaching them to obey everything Jesus has taught and commanded them (this gospel is full of those teachings). Most of all, they are to remember that he is with them always—to the end of the age. And so they did, and so we too are charged to do.
Wednesday, May 28
Lev. 26:27– 42; Psalm 9; Ephesians 1:1–10; Matthew 22:41– 46
The warnings of judgment are not only astonishingly vivid and horrible—eating their own children?—they are a description of what Israel experienced in the days leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC, and during the subsequent exile in Babylon. The images of defeat are wide ranging and graphic. The people will not only be driven off the land that the Lord gave them, they will be scattered, pursued by the sword, and their land left desolate and their cities a waste. Here we are reading Israel’s understanding of why the horrors preceding exile as well as the hardships within it took place: they failed to keep the statutes and laws of the Lord, especially those having to do with sabbath rest, both for themselves and the land. Now, the land will have a number of sabbath rests to be restored, those it was denied when the people lived on it. As for those who remain, the Lord will strike terror into their hearts; even the sound of leaves being driven by the wind will strike fear in them. In their flight, they will stumble over one another and fall, even though no one is pursuing them. They shall perish among the nations, and those who survive will languish because of the unfaithfulness of their ancestors. But now, the text takes a turn for hope, reflecting what did happened some fifty years after Israel went into exile. If the people confess their iniquities and that of their ancestors, if they are humble and make amends for their iniquity, the Lord will remember his covenant with Jacob, his covenant with Isaac and his covenant with Abraham, and “remember the land.” More astonishing than God’s threats of judgment is God’s promise that if they acknowledge their sin against him and the land, and make amends, the Lord will remember and honor the covenant promises. God’s patience always outlives God’s judgment, giving us time to return.
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 we would expect in a royal psalm. Rather this psalm 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 call upon temple musicians for a chorus of praise, whether instrumental or vocal. 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.
Ephesus was the Roman capital of Asia Minor and a wealthy and prosperous place with magnificent library, lecture area and site of the temple to the goddess Athena (Artemis), with the huge statue that was thought to have fallen from heaven as a gift to the city. The city is mentioned some twenty times in the New Testament and was a center for missionary activity throughout Asia Minor. Though Paul spent three years there, he did not found the Ephesian church. That was probably done by Priscilla and Aquilla, Jewish leaders in the church in Rome, when they arrived from Rome during the Emperor’s banishment of Jews from that city. Ephesus is where Apollos came to fame and was also home to a large group of disciples of John the Baptist. It is finally the home of the church associated with Apostle John, its pastor and bishop, as well as the home of Jesus’ mother until her death, Jesus having consigned Mary to John’s care. Who wrote it? Initially, it was believed to be the work of Paul. However, there are many significant differences in the literary style and vocabulary used in Ephesians than in the other books we are certain that Paul wrote. Also, the theology of the letter shows further development beyond that of Paul’s in Romans, his magnum opus. In addition, the earliest manuscripts do not include Ephesus as the addressee. Scholars go back and forth with these questions and finally come down on one of two sides: either Paul wrote it at the very end of his life, when his thoughts had matured, his vocabulary expanded and his vision of the church grown even larger (“church” in Ephesians always means the universal church, whereas Paul has heretofore written to specific churches); or, it is the work of one of Paul’s younger associates, who after Paul’s death, writes a summary of Paul’s theology and thoughts, sent pseudonymously in Paul’s name, to honor Paul. Regardless of which side they come down on, all agree: the letter is thoroughly “Pauline” in its theology and written to the churches of Asia Minor. For our purposes I will simply identify the author as "Paul." Now, in spite of what is said above, the book in its current form begins with the classic salutation formula common in all of Paul’s letters and identifies him as the author and the saints in Ephesus as the addressee. The letter then explodes in a magnificent blessing that is a summary of the foundational theology of the letter, and in Greek is one single sentence right through verse 14; why the lectionary ends at verse 10 is a bit of a mystery. Paul is noted for long sentences and subordinate clauses, but this is extraordinary, even for him! The theology is fully Trinitarian in its understanding of God, cosmic in its scope, mystical in its thought, filled with the language of the church as God’s elect. The church has been adopted by God in Christ and destined in Christ as a part of the mystery of God’s will—to gather up all things in Christ (notice the now full-blown universalism of the letter).
Jesus challenges the Pharisees to think more fully about the Messiah as more than the son of David by asking them why it is, if the Messiah is David’s son, David calls him Lord and then quotes Psalm 110:1, a “Royal Psalm” that was used for the coronation of Kings—David being the first, the Messiah being the last. Jesus asks, “If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” None of the religious leaders is able to answer him, and Matthew tells us that from that day on they did not dare to ask Jesus any more questions.
Tuesday, May 27
Leviticus 26:1-20; Psalm 66; 1 Timothy 2:1–6; Matthew 13:18–23
The statutes and commandments return to the basics of loyalty to the Lord, sabbath observance and rejection of any form of idol worship. There are clear ties between this and the fertility and safety of the land. If they obey the Lord’s commands, the land will yield so abundantly that “threshing shall overtake the vintage, and the vintage shall overtake the sowing.” There shall be such abundance of crops that the harvest seasons will expand into the time for dressing vineyards, and the harvest of grapes into the time of sowing for the winter wheat. They will have so much abundance that they will need to clear their barns of the previous year’s harvest in order to make space for the new. The Lord will make them fruitful, so that they and their children continue to multiply. All of this will be a result of the Lord’s covenantal faithfulness. So, too, for security in the land; it is not idols or the gods they represent that keep Israel secure, but the Lord. There will be no wild or ravenous beasts in the land, and they will not be besieged by the sword of intruders or enemies. Observing the Lord’s statutes and commands will bring peace and security to the land, with five of them chasing out a hundred of their enemies. But, if they fail to keep the statutes and commands, the Lord will actually use their enemies to punish them. Notice, it is not the enemies’ gods who will prevail, but rather, the Lord, who will actually be the source of their enemies’ triumph over them. The Israelites had moved into a place where the people practiced such idol worship in order to assure the land’s fertility and give them success in warfare. Making the transition from a nomadic, pastoral economy to an agricultural one must have created an enormous temptation to follow suit, if not blend the Canaanite practices with the worship and daily behaviors Yahweh required. Few of us have altars with carved idols on them, though with the new-aged spirituality and eastern influence, the practice does exist. However, the question this text raises for us is what are the forms of contemporary idolatry that keep us from covenant faithfulness? Few of us keep house idols or erect sacred poles; but what are the other things we idolize or worship for our financial gain or other prosperity that keep us from worship on a weekly basis, or cause us to think that working 24-7 is the key to success?
Psalm 66 calls upon the entire earth to make a joyful noise and sing to the glory of God’s name, telling God how awesome he is. The whole earth is called to worship God. Then all are invited to “come and see what God has done among mortals.” The psalm then remembers God’s acts of redemption out of Egypt and deliverance at the Red Sea. God has kept us among the living and does not allow our feet to slip. But, God also tests. And so, the people have known the burdens that come with subjugation by other peoples. But, in the end, God “brought us out into a broad and spacious place.” The psalmist now vows to enter the temple with burnt offerings to fulfill the promise that his lips have made, making an offering of bulls and goats. Finally, the psalmist calls on all who fear God to listen as he tells them what God has done for him. He cried aloud and extolled God and God listened because the psalmist was innocent. Had he cherished iniquity in his heart, God would not have heard his voice. But truly, God has listened. Blessed be God, who has neither rejected his prayer nor removed his steadfast love.
The letter to Timothy reminds us not only that Paul was a good Roman citizen, but of the responsibilities for believers to be good citizenship as well. We are to pray for the princes of our land—those who lead, especially through western political process which is always so susceptible to the influence of special interest money—not so much for the politician’s success, but rather, that they might use their power to govern in such a way that everyone “may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity,” not simply the privileged who have access to them and influence on their decisions. Wouldn’t that be a refreshing change to the world of politics blaring at us daily, and something truly worthy of our prayers? In addition, a new thought enters here: prayers for our leaders is acceptable because God our Savior desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth, because there is only one God, and only one mediator between God and humankind—Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself “a ransom for all. This is not Paul quoting a specific Old Testament text. Rather, scholars believe that what we have here is a “liturgical fragment” of the worship of the infant church. The notion of “ransom” here is an expression of the right of the Israelites to buy back, or “redeem” a family member who had been sold into slavery, a frequent Pauline theme. Jesus gives up his life in order to redeem us from slavery to sin, and did it, not just for us, but for everyone.
Jesus has told the disciples it is theirs to know the secrets of the kingdom that he is proclaiming in parables. He now explains the parable of the sower, and what becomes of the seed sown on the four different kinds of soil. Though three-fourths of what is sown is lost, that which takes root in good soil, brings forth a harvest so abundant that it more than makes up for what was lost on the other three forms of soil. The point here is not lost seed, but the kind of soil that leads to abundant life. Consequently, more important than the realization that we have been blessed to understand the parables is the question of how that seed is taking root and bearing fruit in our own lives. There is a connection between each of these lessons and it is the injunction to put the Lord first in all that we do, not just in matters of “religion.” Now, as then, it is the “cares of the world and the lure of wealth” that have the capacity to “choke” the seed of the gospel planted within us.
Monday, May 26
Leviticus 25:35–55; Psalm 124; Colossians 1:9–14; Matthew 13:1–16
If any in the extended family falls into difficulty and come asking to depend upon you, you are to support them, allowing them to live among you as resident aliens (who had great status within Israel). Taking interest from them is forbidden, for it is not permitted for an Israelite to make a profit at a fellow Israelite’s expense. They are to give them a place to live, food, clothing and even lend them money, but at no interest. Further, no Israelite is to ever again be a slave. They had been slaves in Egypt and God had redeemed them. The Israelites may acquire both male and female slaves from the surrounding nations, and even the aliens living among them, as well as the aliens’ family members who have been born in the land. These may be purchased as property that can be handed on as inheritance, and these they may treat as slaves. But for their fellow Israelites, no one shall rule over them with harshness. Provision is made for those Israelites who do indenture themselves to prosperous aliens, selling themselves into the alien’s service. The alien cannot claim permanent possession, nor treat the Israelite harshly. In addition a member of the Israelite’s family has the right to redeem them by paying the alien the purchase price calculated to the year of coming Jubilee, for in the year of Jubilee, all slaves that have not been thus redeemed, shall go free, they and their families. For the only one an Israelite is to serve is the Lord, for they remain, first and foremost, God’s servants.
Psalm 124 reminds the people that, “Had not the Lord been on our side—now let Israel say—had it not been the Lord who was with us when our enemies rose up against us, we would not have survived.” This is a communal psalm of thanksgiving following a war that was just barely won, in which Israel survived in spite of its lack of strength or might, and now gives thanks where it understands thanks is due. The Lord is blessed for not giving them into the enemies’ teeth as prey. Israel escaped destruction as the bird escapes the fowler’s broken snare. The psalm ends with the theme recurrent, not only in the psalms, but throughout the Bible: “Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.” A paraphrase of this psalm was sung in Coventry Cathedral in England, at the conclusion of World War II, as recognition of the country’s own deliverance.
Paul did not know the Colossians personally, but he knew enough about them to write in order to support and encourage them in their devotion to Christ. It is for this reason that, from the day Paul first heard these words, he has not ceased to pray for them, asking that they be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that they may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as they bear fruit in every good work while they grow in the knowledge of God. He also prays that they may be strengthened in order to enable them to endure everything with patience, joyfully giving thanks to the Father who has enabled them to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. God has rescued all of them—Paul and Timothy included—from the power of darkness and transferred them into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom they have redemption—the forgiveness of sins.
Matthew now leaves the controversy about who is and is not a member of Jesus’ family behind and tells us Jesus, whether the next day or sometime thereafter, left the house in Capernaum and goes to sit beside the sea. Such a great crowd gathers around Jesus that he must get into one of the fishing boats, and push it out into the water a bit, so that he can teach the crowd gathered on the beach. Herein is the introduction to Matthew telling us seven different parables that Jesus used to teach the people. Each is taken from some event or practice in common life and used to reveal the dynamics of the kingdom Jesus is announcing. Today, it is the parable of the sower who casts seed almost randomly and as wide as possible—ridiculous, but this kingdom is being offered to everyone! Some of the seed falls on the hard path, and soon, the birds come and eat it. Other seed falls onto rocky soil, and though it initially takes root, without depth of soil, when the sun comes out and beats upon it, the plant withers and dies. Some falls among thorns, and again, it takes root and begins to grow, though ultimately, the thorns chock out the young plant. But some falls on good soil and, in the end, brings forth grain, some a hundred-fold, some sixty and some thirty—an abundance that more than covers the failure of the other three forms of soil upon which the seed fell. The soil is, of course the four forms of discipleship that Jesus is encountering on the way to Jerusalem, and is as true about discipleship today as it was when he first told this parable. After Jesus tells the parable, the disciples draw him aside and ask why it is he speaks to the people in parables, as though they could not understand their meaning. Jesus tells them that to them, his disciples, has been given the privilege of knowing the secrets of the kingdom that he is imparting in parables. More, to those who have, even more will be given and they will have in abundance; but those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. He is not talking about possessions but about the abundance that is theirs in the kingdom, and how it is taken away from those who do not invest in it. And now, he answers their question by quoting the prophet Isaiah who condemned the people for listening but never understanding and looking but not perceiving. It is the general condition of a perverse and rebellious generation whose hearts have become dull to the ways of God. But that is quickly followed by a blessing: the disciples see, and hear correctly. Jesus then tells them that many prophets and righteous people have longed to see what they are seeing, and hear what they are hearing, but did not.
Sunday, May 25
6th Sunday of Easter
Leviticus 25:1–17; Psalm 117; James 1:2–8, 16–18; Luke 12:13–21
The principle of sabbath rest is extended beyond the weekly cycle to once every seven years, the seventh being a time of rest for the land. There was to be no sowing fields or pruning vines. Rather, they were to be left fallow for the rejuvenation of the land. The Israelites were to live off of what the land provided in the seventh year, but they could not cultivate the land. Added to this is the command that seven cycles of seven year (49) then led to yet another sabbath in the 50th year—the year of Jubilee. Not only was the land not to be worked, but all property that had been bought or sold must be returned to the family that originally owed it. This meant that every fiftieth year was a year of freedom. All accounts were to be leveled, land taken in payment for debt returned to its original family of ownership, complete rest for the land, and new beginnings for all. For those who had leased the land for a time that went beyond the Year of Jubilee, the family to whom the land was being returned must return the portion of lease payment not being used. They are not to cheat one another, but fear the Lord, for the Lord’s concern for justice among his people—people having what they need for life—is preeminent; only God truly “owns” the land—all else “borrow it.”
Psalm 93, probably used during the annual enthronement of Israel’s king, has been appropriated by the church for Easter because in his resurrection, Jesus has become King of kings and Lord of lords. The psalmist praises the majesty, strength and holiness of the Lord—Israel’s true king—and recalls how all creation has been fixed by God and shall not be moved. So too, is God’s throne firmly fixed from of old and is “until everlasting.” Even the floods join their voices in praising God’s majesty. God’s reign is eternal, God’s decrees are sure, and only holiness is suitable for God’s house. In the enthronement, this psalm reminds Israel’s king of who it is who truly reigns in Israel, and to whom he is accountable—the Lord.
We begin the book of James, the book that Luther called “an epistle of straw” because of its emphasis on works as the expression of faith, and the lack of talk about Jesus, whose name appears only twice. There are two different leaders named James in the New Testament: the apostle James, the son of Zebedee and brother of John, and James the brother of Jesus who became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. Both died early as martyrs, the former in 44 CE and the later in 62 CE. Neither seems to be the author of this book that is written much later and in quite elegant Greek, utilizing the sophisticate literary style of the diatribe. The book appears to be a general epistle, not written to any specific congregation, and instructional in nature. It is heavily influenced by the Jewish wisdom tradition. Notice that the only thing the author claims for himself is to be “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,” an introduction used by many of the writers of New Testament Epistles. It is written to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion—Jewish Christians beyond Palestine. The first issue is trials—obviously written at a time and to a group being persecuted (from within Judaism?) for their faith. Testing of faith produces endurance, and endurance makes them mature. The letter picks up the Old Testament’s theme of wisdom as God’s gift, but now, wisdom is to be asked for in faith and the theme of doubt as the opposite of faith is introduced. Doubters are not faithful and can expect to receive nothing from the Lord. Quickly, the distinction between rich and poor is introduced, with wisdom’s word that wealth will disappear like the flower in the field. Next we have a blessing upon those who endure temptations and trials (the word can be translated either way). Those who withstand this will receive “the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” (This notion of reward for faith made Luther very uneasy, and is why he argued against this book being included in the New Testament.) James warns: let no one ascribed temptation to God, “for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one.” What tempts or tests us is our own desires (and within that word comes a strong connotation of sexual desires), which then give birth to sin, and if allowed to come from birth to full life, brings death. James reminds the church that all good gifts come from God. Every generous act of giving is from above coming from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation. The ultimate gift is that he has given birth to them, by the word of truth, that they would become a kind of first fruits of God’s new creation—a theme very common in Paul’s writings as well.
Jesus has been talking about the challenges that are to come to those who follow him; they will be brought before the rulers of synagogues and other authorities. Having told them this he quickly adds that they are not to worry about how to defend themselves or what to say because the Holy Spirit will teach them at that very moment, what to say. Someone in the crowd interrupts him, calling him “Teacher” and says, “Tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” The man is coming expecting Jesus to give him a rationale for why the request is reasonable, or like rabbis of the day, decide the question himself. Jesus responds by asking, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” From this interruption, Jesus goes on to warn about the pitfalls of greed, and then says, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. Then he tells the parable of the foolish rich man, whose land has produce so abundantly that he cannot possible store it—his barns are already full. But seeking more, the man decides to tear down his current barns and build larger ones, so he can store all of his grain and goods. Then he can say to himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years: relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But that very night God said to him “You Fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Thus it is with those who work to be rich in things rather than rich in the things of God.
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.