Monday, June 30
Numbers 22:1–21; Psalm 57; Romans 6:12–23; Matthew 21:12–22
We begin the story of Balaam and his donkey: the Israelites continue to creep north, on the eastern side of the Jordan River, and now they are opposite Jericho in the plains of Moab. Balak, King of Moab, sees the huge number of Israelites and fears for his own land. Consequently, he sends for the prophet Balaam, who he will hire to pronounce a curse on the Israelites so that Balak might drive the Israelites from his land. When Balak’s people reach Balaam and make their request, Balaam says he must first consult with the Lord (notice that even Balaam, on the Euphrates, worships and serves “the Lord”). Balaam asks the emissaries to stay the night while he consults the Lord. God appears to Balaam that night and tells him not to go to Balak or heed his request to curse the Israelites, for they are blessed. Balaam rises in the morning, announces that the Lord refuses to let him go—notice that he says nothing about the Israelites being blessed—and sends Balak’s officials back to him with this message. Unwilling to take “No,” for an answer, Balak sends an even more distinguished group back to Balaam a second time, making the same request and promising even greater reward for doing so. Balaam staunchly refuses, noting that no matter the reward, he cannot go against the Lord’s command. Once more, he asks the officials to stay the night while he consults with the Lord, and this time, God tells Balaam to go to Balak, but only do and say what God tells him to do. And so, Balaam goes. The destiny of the Israelites is tied up with the nations around them, but the Lord is at work even there, through a prophet for hire, who recognizes and respects God’s voice when God speaks. The saga will continue tomorrow, and only gets better!
Psalm 57 is a psalm of trust from someone in the midst of personal trouble. Others seek his life and he finds that his only sure refuge is the Lord. So, he lifts up and strengthens his soul by praising God--one of the Psalter's eternal truths. It is attributed to David when he was fleeing Saul’s murderous rage, and contains lovely and classic expressions of trust and praise for God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. God is exalted as merciful, and will catch the psalmist’s enemies in their own trap. Would that Balak knew that; would that we could trust that promise as well.
Paul continues to press the case that the grace of God is not merely forgiveness of past sin, but a summons to live a new way, empowered by such grace. Our slavery to sin has been transformed into slavery to righteousness—a curious phase that means the process of sanctification—in which we, by God’s grace, participate. As slaves we have no other choice! What did our slavery to sin bring us but death? Freed from that slavery, we are now enslaved to God, who is making us holy as we live into such servitude. The ultimate gift of this is eternal life. Such are a slave’s wages: sin brings death, but the grace of God in Christ brings eternal life. There is no third option.
Jesus enters the Temple, sees what is taking place and drives out those “selling and buying”—those exchanging Roman coins for shekels so the Temple offerings could be made in the required form of currency. He disrupts both their business and their worship, quoting Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11, he labels the religious establishments corrupt. He then turns to those whose physical infirmities have kept them from the house of prayer—the lame and the blind—and cures them, restoring their Temple rights. The children respond, crying out, “Hosanna, Son of David”, which angers the chief priests and scribes who infer that Jesus should stop them. Instead, Jesus quotes Psalm 8:2 as justification for their praise and withdraws to Bethany. The next day, returning to the city, he approaches a fig tree, hoping to find fruit. Finding none, he curses it, and immediately it withers. The disciples marvel and Jesus talks about the power of faith. But don’t miss the meaning behind the cursing of the tree: it is God’s symbolic judgment on the Temple and its religious establishment that has failed to produce the fruits of faithful worship.
Sunday, June 29
3rd Sunday after Pentecost
Numbers 21:4–9, 21–35; Psalm 67; Acts 17:(12–21) 23–24; Luke 13:10–17
Having to circumnavigate Edom, the people’s continued complaints about food and water causes the Lord to send “fiery serpents” among them to bite and kill them. The people acknowledge their sin and God instructs Moses to fashion a bronze snake, fasten it to a pole and place it where those bitten can see it and be healed. Such a bronze snake stood in the Temple in Jerusalem until the time of King Hezekiah, who destroyed it because people had begun to worship it. The Israelites continue to try to move north, on the south-eastern edge of the Dead Sea and north up the Jordan, but King Sihon of the Amorites, like the King of Edom before him, refuses them passage. More than refuse, King Sihon comes out against the Israelites to do battle, and in the fight that follows is totally defeated. The Israelites take possession of his land and settle into the towns. So, too, for King Og of Bashan, as the Israelites settle into the land east of the Jordan.
Psalm 67 is a classic psalm of praise. It invokes God’s blessing and calls on the entire nation to praise the Lord for his blessings, as well as his judging with equity among the other nations.
The back story to today’s lesson from Acts is that Paul and his company had moved south from Philippi to Thessalonica, where, after successfully preaching in the synagogue, a riot broke out, forcing Paul and Silas on to Beroea where they had a better welcome and greater success. Learning of it, the Thessalonians came to Beroea to stir up trouble there, causing the believers to send Paul east to the coast, for passage to Athens, leaving Timothy and Silas behind, to follow him later. As Paul awaits them in Athens, he notes all of the temples with the statues of their many gods—even one dedicated to “an unknown god.” Paul debates daily, both in the synagogue and with Greek philosophers who gathered in the marketplace. Utilizing the temple to the unknown god, Paul proclaims to them the gospel, employing quotes from the Hebrew Scriptures as well as Greek philosophers to bolster his points. The Greeks are initially fascinated with Paul, as they loved nothing more than a new philosophic idea. But, when Paul introduces Jesus, but not by name, and speaks of the resurrection of the dead they begin to sneer and mock him. It is one of Paul’s most unsuccessful efforts. Only a few become believers—two by name—Dionysius and a woman named Damaris. The gospel is not a philosophy of life; it is a call to a new way of living.
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 so for eighteen years. Jesus calls her over, announces that she is being freed from her ailment; he 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. Does 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 continues to rejoice in all the wonderful things Jesus is doing. The crowd may be thrilled but the religious leaders are not. Increasingly threatened by Jesus and his message, they are quickly becoming his enemies.
Saturday, June 28
Numbers 20:14–29; Psalm 56; Romans 6:1–11; Matthew 21:1–11
Two transitional events take place in this reading: the King of Edom refuses Moses and the Israelites passage through his land, forcing them to further wandering, and Aarons’ ministry and life come to an end with the priesthood being transferred to Aaron’s son Eleazar. The reference by Moses to “your brother Israel,” points back to the conflict between Isaac’s twin sons, Jacob and Esau, Jacob later becoming Israel, and Esau moving to the land of Moab and becoming the father of the Moabites. Hereafter, the ancient hostility will be further reinforced by the King of Edom’s refusal. The King’s Highway was a major caravan route running from the Gulf of Aqaba in the south to Syria in the north and passing east of the Jordan. Moses takes Aaron and his son Eleazar up Mt. Hor, there to make the transfer of priestly authority from Aaron to Eleazar. “In the sight of the whole congregation” Moses strips Aaron of his vestments and places them on Eleazar. Aaron dies on the mountain, as the Lord said he would, and Moses and Eleazar descend back to the people. When the people realize that Aaron is dead, they mourn for him thirty days.
Psalm 56 is a hymn of praise and trust in God in the midst of persecution, and most helpful when one is being intentionally besieged by others. It begins with a cry for help from one afflicted on all sides. She has no one to turn to but the Lord, and does so. Asserting that having put her trust in God there is no one to fear, the psalmist continues to lament the work of those who assail her, pleading that God cast them out. Notice, that without warning, the psalm ends acknowledging deliverance. And why? So that she can continue to walk in God’s presence according to God’s life-giving light. This psalm of trust in the face of persecution is attributed to David when he had been captured by the Philistines at Gath (1 Samuel21:10-15). Its central theme is: “I put my trust in you, O God, whose word I praise and trust. What can flesh do to me?” Continually surrounded by enemies, the psalmist recounts the turmoil, and notes that God is watching and keeping count so as to respond on the day when called upon. And so she exclaims, “This I know, that God is for me!” In trusting God, she finds her fear removed and her soul delivered.
Does this free gift of redemption in Christ mean that it makes no difference whether or not we sin, and that if we do sin, we simply cause God’s grace to abound all the more? This is more than a rhetorical question for Paul. It was the criticism that had been leveled against him, because of his insistence that the law was no longer applicable to those who are in Christ. His, “By no means,” means “Absolutely not!” How can we, who have been baptized into Christ, and in that baptism have died to sin, go on living in it? Rather, as Christ was raised to new life, so too we have been raised to walk in the new life Christ makes possible. We are no longer slaves to sin, but rather, dead to it in Christ and in him, alive to God as God continues to pour his love and Spirit into our lives to make us holy. The references here to baptism reveal just how important this sacrament was in the infant church.
Matthew continues Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and recounts his Palm Sunday entry into the city. Jesus comes on a donkey not a warhorse. The donkey is a symbol of humility and traditionally used for the Kings of Israel as they have come into Jerusalem for coronation. It is a reminder that who is truly king in Israel is the Lord. Matthew misunderstands Zechariah’s poetic use of repetition to strength his phrase, and so reports both a donkey and her colt as part of the procession, with the rather awkward possibility of Jesus as a circus performer, sitting astride both at the same time! Verse 6 is more correctly translated, “and he sat on the cloaks,” the word in Greek for “them” being a reference to the cloaks not the animals. The crowd sings fragments from Psalm 118:25-26, which means “Save us,” and identifies Jesus as the “Son of David.” But once in the Temple precincts, the crowd there now asks who he is, and there, they only dare call him “the prophet from Nazareth.” The crowd continues to reveal its confusion about who Jesus is and what he has come to Jerusalem to do.
Friday, June 27
Numbers 20:1–13; Psalm 130; Romans 5:12–21; Matthew 20:29–34
We step over instructions for the priests, including the portion of sacrifices that is to be theirs as a means of support, as well as the instructions concerning the sacrifice of a red heifer, as a means of a purification offering. Today, the wandering stops for a time in the Wilderness of Zin, at Kadesh where Moses’ older sister Miriam dies and is buried. Though the wandering stops, the complaining does not. This time the issue is water. Failing to recognize God’s lead in their travels, they again blame Moses and say it would have been better had they died with their brothers at the Tent of the Meeting. Moses and Aaron withdraw and return to the Tent where the Lord appears (“the glory of the Lord” being a pious way of saying “God appeared.”) Again, God will demonstrate his power and ability to care for the people through his chosen leaders, Moses and Aaron. They are instructed to assemble the people before a rock and command it to bring forth water. Moses and Aaron do so, saying “Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” Scholars debate whether Moses is claiming that he and Aaron will bring water forth from the rock, or if he is asking a rhetorical question, whose answer is “No.” Moses then takes the staff, and rather than speak to the rock as God had commanded, Moses becomes a bit more dramatic and decides to strike it with his staff, twice! Water does come forth, as promised, and all the people and their cattle are refreshed. But the Lord says to Moses and Arron that their failure to trust God in this case means that they, too, will be denied entrance into the promise land. And so, the place is named, “Meribah,” which means to quarrel. Though this appears to be a parallel story to the one in Exodus 17:-17, here Gods’ charge to Moses is different: he is to command water from the rock rather than strike it. And here we have the first act of faithlessness on Moses’ part, which becomes the rationale for him and Aaron dying in the wilderness with the rest of the faithless generation.
Psalm 130 is a classic lament for those living “in the depths” of life, whether physical or emotional, waiting on God to come and save. Notice that it is also a “psalm of ascent.” It is being used by a pilgrim who has come to the temple in Jerusalem to worship God in the midst of despair. Out of the depths he has been crying to the Lord with no response. Now he pleads again for the Lord to hear his voice and supplication. Notice that the psalmist has moved beyond self-recrimination. This is about more than personal sin. The pit is not God’s punishment, for if God counted sin and thus punished, who would stand? No one! No; with God there is always forgiveness. And so, the psalmist continues to hold tenaciously to God’s word and wait and watch with an intensity that exceeds that of the watchmen waiting for the morning. The psalmist knows that when God comes, it will be with steadfast love, healing and redemption. He prays, “Come, Lord; redeem all Israel!” This is a prayer for all who wrestle with depression, all with chronic or terminal illness and for any who find themselves in the pit of life for whatever reason.
Sin entered life through Adam’s deliberate disobedience and brought with it death for everyone, whether with or without the Law and whether their sin was deliberate or inadvertent. Death reigned in life for everyone. But now, grace, justification and life have entered the scene through the obedience of one man—Jesus Christ. And the free gift of his work, though for everyone, is even much more than that of Adam, for it has power to redeem all from sin and death. Paul has set up the Adam/Christ typology in parallel, to show that both come from willful action—Adam’s disobedience and Christ’s obedience—and both have consequences, one death and one life. But, that is where the parallel ends, for the grace that has emerged out of Christ’s obedience is “much more” than the sin that has come from Adam’s disobedience, and that grace leads to “justification and life for all.” What God has done in Christ, God has done for all so that God’s grace may abound.
Jesus, and the crowd following him, are leaving Jericho when two blind men, sitting by the roadside, hear that it is Jesus and cry out, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” They are not as blind as the crowd around them, who tries to silence them. But the more the crowd tries to quiet the men, the more loudly they shout, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” Jesus stands still, calls out to them and asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” They say, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” Jesus is once again powerfully moved with compassion. He touches their eyes, and immediately they regain their sight and follow him. The mercy of the Lord, when authentically received, not only heals and redeems, it causes one to follow.
Thursday, June 26
Numbers 17:1–11; Psalm 36; Romans 5:1–11; Matthew 20:17–28
God sets out to stop the jealous grumbling and tribal fighting among the Israelites, once and for all. Each tribe is told to present a staff inscribed with the name of its ancestral head, Aaron’s name on the staff of the tribe of Levi. The staffs will be placed before the Lord in the Tent of the Meeting. The Lord is determined to stop this infighting: the staff that sprouts will reveal the Lord’s choice. They do so, and twelve staffs are placed before the Lord, Aaron’s among them. When Moses returns the next day, Aaron’s has not only sprouted, but also put forth buds, borne blossoms and produced ripe almonds. Moses brings the staffs out of the tent for the people to see, each man taking back his own staff. But Aaron’s is not returned to him. God instructs Moses to take Aaron’s staff back and place it in the Tent of the Meeting as a warning to the rebels to end their complaints about Moses, Aaron and God and God’s ways with them, or else they will die.
Psalm 36 reflects on the capacity for wickedness deep within the human heart and is unique in that the one speaking is transgression itself, rather than the Lord. 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. Now, in contrast, the psalm turns to 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, 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.
Whatever alienation existed between us and God because of the power of sin has been undone in what God has done in Jesus Christ. When embraced in faith we are “justified”—put in a right relationship with God, where we experience peace with God and God’s gift of true life. We boast then, not in our faith, but in what God has done in Christ and our hope of sharing the glory of God in Christ. And to the extent that we know suffering, we boast in that also, not because suffering is good; it is not! Rather, we can boast in it because of what it leads to: a chain reaction from suffering, to endurance, to character, then to hope. And unlike all other human hope, this hope does not disappoint. Why? Because God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (this is the first Paul has spoken of either). By faith, we live in a state of grace—a condition as life-giving as the state of sin is deadly. And notice that it is completed action that continues into the future! Back to what God has done in Christ: while humanity was still captive to sin, Christ died. And notice that it was not for the righteous or the Godly. It was for the ungodly! Why would anyone, much less God, do that? So God could prove God’s love for the world. Jesus’ death on the cross was not an accident, or the result of things getting out of control. It was God’s way of dealing with the condition of sin that kept us from God’s presence, revealing God’s love for us and enabling us to be reconciled to God. In Christ, God filled the breech so that we can now live out of God’s love and power, sanctifying us—the word means “making us holy.” Notice that it, too, is an ongoing action. The life of faith is one in which the love and power of God are making us holy and fit to be God’s people at work for God’s purposes and able, at last, to live in God’s eternal presence.
As Jesus, the disciples and his other followers go up to Jerusalem, he takes the twelve aside and again foretells his suffering, death and resurrection once they have gotten to Jerusalem. At that, the mother of the sons of Zebedee, James and John, comes to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling before Jesus, asks for a favor. Jesus asks what it is she wants, and she asks him to declare that her two sons will sit, one at Jesus’ right and the other at his left hand when he comes into his kingdom. Jesus responds that she does not know what she is asking. Are they able to drink the cup of suffering that he is about to drink? The two respond, “We are able.” Jesus tells them that they will indeed drink that same cup, but to sit at his right hand and left is not his to grant. That is the prerogative of his Father. It is for those for whom it has already been prepared. But the event does not stop there. When the other ten hear of the request, hostilities break out as they become angry with James and John—did they put their mother up to this? Jesus calls all of them together and reminds them that this is precisely the way the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over one another, making their great ones tyrants. It is not to be so among the twelve or any who come thereafter. Whoever among them wishes to be great among them must become their servant, and whoever wishes to be first must be their slave. To seal the point, he reminds them that this is precisely why the Son of Man has come: not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as ransom for many.
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.