Daily Readings for Friday, April 11
Exodus 9:13–35; Psalm 105; 2 Corinthians 4:1–12; Mark 10:32–45
The lectionary steps by the fourth, fifth and sixth plagues: flies, striking the livestock with pestilence and boils on humans and animals alike, each with the same result: Pharaoh’s heart is hardened even further and he refuses to let the people go, just as the Lord has told Moses. Today, the Lord tells Moses to again present himself to Pharaoh with the same demand, this time telling Pharaoh that if he refuses he will send plagues upon Pharaoh and his people, so that he may know that there is no other like the Lord in all the earth. The Lord reminds Pharaoh that by now, he could have struck him and his people with pestilence and cut him off from the earth. But rather than do so, the Lord has let him live to show him the Lord’s powers and to make the Lord’s name resound through all the earth. But Pharaoh is still exalting himself again the Lord’s people, refusing to let them go. Consequently, the next day the Lord will send the heaviest hail to ever fall in Egypt. Pharaoh is told to send and have his livestock, and all else that he has in the open field, and bring them in to a secure place, for when the hail comes, whatever is not under shelter will die. Pharaoh’s officials who have come to fear the Lord hurry and gather their slaves and livestock to a secure place, while those who have not yet done so, leave their slaves and livestock in the open field. The next day, the Lord tells Moses to stretch out his hand toward the heavens so that hail may fall on the whole of Egypt. Moses does, and the Lord sends thunder, hail and fire—such heavy hail that had never before fallen in Egypt. The hail struck down everything in the open fields: humans, animals, plants, and trees. Only Goshen, where the Hebrews lived, was spared. At this, Pharaoh summons Moses and confesses that he has sinned against the Lord. He pleads with Moses to pray to the Lord to stop the hail, rain and lighting. If he does, Pharaoh will let the people go. Moses says that he is leaving, and when he reaches the edge of the city, he will stretch out his hands to the Lord, and the Lord will bring the hail, rain and lighting to an end. However, Moses is not fooled; Pharaoh and his officials do not yet truly fear the Lord. We are told that the flax and barley were ruined in the storm, but the wheat and spelt had not yet broken through the earth’s surface, and so were unharmed. Evidently, Pharaoh thinks he can hedge his bets with the Lord—the wheat and spelt will sustain them. Moses leaves the city, and as he does, he stretches out his hand to the Lord, and the Lord brings the storm to an end. But when Pharaoh sees that the rain, hail and lightning have ceased, again, he hardens his heart and refuses to let the people go, just as the Lord had told Moses.
Psalm 105 is a psalm of praise that calls everyone to make known God’s deeds among the people. The language of praise dominates the first portion of it: “give thanks,” “call,” “sing,” “glory” and “rejoice.” It then recounts the reasons for this praise: God’s faithfulness to Israel. It begins citing God’s initial covenant with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and the children of Israel—a covenant made forever—making them God’s “chosen ones.” Then, the psalm remembers their past: few in number and of little account and nomads in the land, a famine took them to Egypt, where God had, beforehand sent Joseph. Joseph’s trials are remembered until he gained the king’s pleasure and became Pharaoh’s chief officer and lord of his household. The portion of the psalm remembers that because of Joseph’s success (and the famine), Israel came to Egypt and lived there as aliens. It was there that the Lord made the people very fruitful and strong—so much so that the Egyptians came to hate them. God then sent them Moses and Aaron, and the plagues in Egypt, which are remembered as God’s work to free the people. Remembering the ultimate woe—the striking down of all first born—God brought Israel out of Egypt with its silver and gold, and spread the covering of fire by night and cloud by day to lead them. God fed them with quail and gave them bread from heaven, opened the rock to produce water in the wilderness, and did so because God remembered the covenant he had made with Abraham. The psalm concludes, remembering that God has brought the people out with joy and into the lands of the nations in Canaan. God gave them these lands and the wealth of all of their inhabitants so that they might be a people who kept his statues and observed his laws. The psalm ends with one final word of praise: “Hallelujah!”
In the course of authenticating his ministry among the Corinthians, Paul has given us an in-depth and profound theological understanding, not only of his own ministry, but all Christian ministry. It renounces manipulation and falsification of things to achieve its ends, and never speaks falsely about God or falsifies God’s word. Rather, by open statements of the truth, ministers commend themselves to others in the sight of God. And even when the gospel they preach is veiled, it is so veiled to those who are perishing. This not only harkens back to what Paul has been saying earlier about the veil cast over Israel’s eyes when the law is read so that they cannot truly comprehend its meaning, but now extends the veiling to all who hear the gospel of Christ but cannot accept it. The god of this world has blinded their minds to keep them from seeing the “light of the gospel of the glory of Christ who is the image of God.” This last phrase is packed with confessional information about Christ as the one who reveals the presence of God (glory), because he is the very image (icon) of God. When we look at Christ, we see God, who otherwise is invisible. The One who has prohibited all attempts to represent him in physical form now presents himself to us in a physical form that we can comprehend and is absolutely true to who God is. Christian ministers do not proclaim themselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord and themselves as others servants for Christ’s own sake. For the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness” at creation, has shown in our hearts to give us the knowledge of God’s very presence in the person of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, we have this treasure in clay jars—fragile humanity—in order that it may be made clear that the extraordinary power we have been given belongs to God and does not come from us. Paul now turns autobiographical to describe the hardships he has experienced as he has proclaimed the gospel of Christ, and speaks of the sufferings and death of Jesus being made visible in him and his companions. As Jesus was given up to death in life, so too, Paul and his companions have often been given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that Jesus’ life may be made visible in their mortal bodies. Ministry is giving witness to Jesus in both life and in death, so that the life Jesus gives may be made manifest to all.
Jesus and the disciples are on the way to Jerusalem. He has just told them of what is to take place there, but the twelve seem oblivious to what Jesus has said, and immediately jump to triumphal conclusions, so much so that James and John come forward to inappropriately ask for the seats of greatest honor when Jesus comes in his glory. Jesus must have been beside himself with frustration, if not despair, over this request, but he simply tells them they do not know what they are asking. Are they prepared to go through what he will go through? They don’t have a clue. Are they able to drink the cup that he drinks or be baptized with the baptism of suffering and death that he will undergo? True to form, they answer, “We are able!” Their words turn out to be prophetic, for Jesus tells them that indeed they will drink his cup of suffering and be baptized with his martyr’s death; but it is not Jesus’ to grant either to sit at his right or his left in glory. That is destined for those to whom it has been prepared. When word of James and John’s request gets to the other ten, they are rightfully angry at the two and another argument breaks out among them. Jesus silences all of them reminding them that this is the way the Gentiles behave—their leaders lord it over them so much so that the great ones among them become tyrants over all others. But it is not to be so within Jesus’ community of followers. Among them, whoever wishes to become great must be a servant, and whoever wishes to be first must be a slave of all. Then, pointing to himself as the example he says, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many”—the first time Jesus’ death has been spoken of in this gospel in redemptive terms.
Daily Readings for Thursday, April 10
Exodus 7:25–8:19; Psalm 27; 2 Corinthians 3:7–18; Mark 10:17–31
Seven days have passed since the Lord told Aaron and Moses to strike the Nile. Now the Lord tells Moses to again go to Pharaoh, saying, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Let my people go, so that they may worship me. If you refuse to let them go, I will plague your whole country with frogs.’” The entire land shall swarm with frogs from Pharaoh’s palace and his bedchamber to the ovens and kneading bowls of Pharaoh’s people. Without giving Pharaoh an opportunity to respond, the Lord commands Moses to tell Aaron to stretch out his hand with his staff over the rivers, canals, and pools and make frogs come upon the Land. He does, but so do Pharaoh’s magicians through their secret arts. Now, Pharaoh calls Moses and Aaron and says, “Pray to the Lord to take away the frogs from me and my people, and I will let the people go to sacrifice to the Lord. Moses responds by asking at what time Pharaoh would like this to happen so that he knows it is the work of the Lord. Pharaoh says, “Tomorrow,” and Moses replies, “As you say! So that you may know that there is no one like the Lord our God, the frogs shall leave you and your people’s houses and return only to the Nile. Moses and Aaron go from Pharaoh, and Moses “cries out to the Lord concerning the frogs that he had brought upon Pharaoh.” The Lord does as Moses requests, and the frogs die all across the land. The Egyptians gather them in heaps, and the land stinks from their rotting. But, when Pharaoh sees that there has been a respite, he again hardens his heart, and will not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the Lord had said. And so, the Lord tells Moses to say to Aaron, “Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the earth, so that it may become gnats throughout the whole land.” Aaron does, and throughout the whole land, the dust is turned to gnats. This time the magicians try to replicate the wonder, but are not able to do so. Therefore, they tell Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God!” But still, Pharaoh will not listen, just as the Lord had said.
Psalm 27 expresses confidence in the presence of the Lord and does so in triumphal language. “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom then shall I fear?” (Sorry, that’s the way I memorized it, and this should be memorized, right after Psalm 23!) The Lord is the strength and stronghold of my life, of whom should I be afraid? Enemies range from “evildoers,” adversaries and foes—all shall stumble and fall because of the Lord’s care. “Even though an army encamps against me, yet, my heart shall not fear.” The imagery of a fearful heart is so true to life when anxiety hits. After one more expression of confidence, the psalm turns more reflective: “One thing have I asked of the Lord and that will I seek after: to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.” This is precisely the same sentiment with which Psalm 23 ends. It goes on to affirm (and perhaps even recall) God’s sheltering care in the day of trouble. The double action of “conceal me in his tent,” and “set me high on a rock” covers the span from shelter when on the run to ultimate triumph over those who pursue. And now, the psalm turns victorious and exultant with promises of sacrifice, shouts of joy and songs (psalms) and melodies to the Lord (remember, they were often accompanied by or sung to melodies; not just recited). There is the request for God to hear when he cries, and to answer. Immediately, his heart says to him, “Come, seek his face,” and he replies, “Your face Lord, do I seek; do not hide it from me.” Notice the kind of face-to-face intimacy of relationship that is being sought as the psalm pleads not to be turned aside, cast away or forsaken. And then there is the extraordinary confession, “Though my mother and father forsake me, the Lord will not, but will take me up.” There follows the request to be taught the Lord’s ways and to be led on a level path (who of us does not want life without its ups and downs?), and to be kept out of the hands of his adversaries, for false witnesses have arisen against him and are breathing threats of violence. The psalm ends with the wonderful affirmation, “I believe I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living,” and then “wait for the Lord, be strong, let your heart take courage. Wait for the Lord.” This last phrase, in one or another form, appears some fourteen times in the Old Testament, better than a third of them in the Psalter. The faith of the Psalter, if not all of Scripture, can be summed up as “Waiting for the Lord.” Seeing the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living along with the previous, “the Lord will take me up,” was later seen as a reference to life after death in heaven. Here, in its original setting, it simply means goodness of life lived with and out of the strength of the Lord now, here, in the land of the living.
Paul now turns to one of the issues of division at hand in Corinth that has been raised by the “Judaizing” teachers who followed him there, preaching the need to become a Jew to be Christian. In astonishingly graphic language, Paul characterizes the law of Moses as “the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stone tablets.” Yes, the law came in glory, so much so that when Moses came down from the mountain after receiving the tablets from God, the people of Israel could not gaze at Moses face because it still reflected God’s glory (see Exodus 34:27-35). But over time that glory faded. If the law came in glory, how much more will the ministry (notice that he calls it ministry not law) of the Spirit come in glory. If there was glory in “the ministry of condemnation” (the law only being able to judge and condemn people for their behavior, rather than enable them to live into it), how much more does the ministry of justification abound in glory? The former has lost its glory because of the much greater glory of the ministry of the Spirit and has been set aside because the permanent has now come. This, then, is their hope, a hope that enables Paul to act with great boldness. Returning to the image of Moses, who wore a veil over his face so that God’s reflected radiance would not blind the people, Paul, in rabbinic fashion, turns the image on its head. Moses wore that veil, not to protect the people, but so that the people might not see that the glory of the old covenant was fading and being set aside. Consequently, the people’s minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when Jews hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is there, since only in Christ is it set aside. So, when Moses is read, a veil lies over the Jews’ minds. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is lifted. Now, the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (as opposed to the constraints of the law). Paul now takes the veiled glory of God one step further, telling the Corinthians that all who have turned to Christ have unveiled faces and are able to see his glory as though reflected in a mirror. And as they do, they are being transformed into the same image, from one degree of glory to another. All of this is from the Lord, the Spirit.
As Jesus and his disciples prepare to leave Capernaum, one of the wealthy young men of the community comes to him, kneels and asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Notice that though other religious figures have referred to Jesus as “Teacher,” this man adds “Good.” Clearly, he is among the privileged, genuinely striving to live a faithful religious life, and this is quickly demonstrated in his response to Jesus’ question. But first, Jesus asks, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments ….” Interestingly enough, Jesus only cites the second table of the law—that dealing with relationships between people—and substituted “do not defraud” for “do not covet.” Regardless, the young man openly, and innocently, claims that he has kept all of these from his youth—from the day he became responsible before the law. Jesus looks on the young man, and Mark tells us, “loved him”—the only place in this gospel where that is said of Jesus and another human. Jesus tells him that he lacks one thing: he is to go, sell what he owns, give the money to the poor, thereby he will discover treasure in heaven; then he is to come and follow Jesus. The answer is more than the young man can bear. Hearing this he is filled with sorrow for he has many possessions. The young man goes away grieving and in distress, and as he does, Jesus looks around at his disciples and says, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples are amazed and perplexed, because in their world wealth is the means that enables one the privilege of study and devotion to Torah—how can this be so? Jesus repeats what he has said, calling the disciples “Children,” and then to further make the point, adds a parable expressing the impossibility of doing so: it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. The disciples are even more astonished and begin to ask one another, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looks at them and says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Peter still does not get it and says to Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” And, indeed they have, to which Jesus adds, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers, sisters, mothers and children, and fields”—what happened to the fathers?—but adds “with persecutions!” Clearly, Mark is directing Jesus’ words not only to the disciples gathered about Jesus, but those gathered about him in the reading of Jesus’ words in the churches where this gospel circulates. And then Jesus adds, “and in the age to come, eternal life.” Mark then concludes this incident with the proverb of reversal, again making the point that God’s ways are of an entirely different order than our own. Yet, the truth of Jesus’ words continues to be demonstrated day in and day out as possessions possess rather than serve us, convince us they have the capacity to give life, and thereby distract us from living more fully into the world where God, and God alone, is the source of life. No wonder Andrew Carnegie spent his later years trying to divest himself of his fortune.
Daily Readings for Wednesday, April 9
Exodus 7:8–24; Psalm 5; 2 Corinthians 2:14–3:6; Mark 10:1–16
The lectionary steps over chapter 6:2 through 7:7 because it is a second tradition of the call of Moses, the revelation of God’s name—identifying the Lord as the same God who appeared to Abraham as El Shaddai, the commission to go back to Egypt, Moses’ frequent objections, the introduction of Aaron into the narrative and the genealogy of Aaron. The section concludes with Aaron and Moses going to Pharaoh, as the Lord has commanded, and tells us that Aaron was eighty-three and Moses eighty years of age. The narrative resumes with the encounters with Pharaoh. The Lord tells Aaron and Moses that when Pharaoh says, “Perform wonders,” then Moses is to tell Aaron to thrown down his staff before Pharaoh, and it will become a snake. They do. But Pharaoh sends for his sorcerers and wise men, and they do the same through their secret arts. However, the snake from Aaron’s staff swallows all of the other snakes. Yet, Pharaoh’s heart is hardened and he will not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the Lord has said. Then the Lord tells Moses to go to Pharaoh in the morning, when he walks along the Nile. Meet him there with staff in hand—the staff that was turned into a snake—and again, demand that he free the Hebrews. Tell him, “The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say ‘Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness,’ but you have not listened.” Moses adopts prophetic speech once again, declaring, “Thus says the Lord, by this you shall know that I am the Lord.” Moses is to strike the water of the Nile with the staff and it will turn to blood. The fish in the river shall die, the river will stink, and the Egyptians shall be unable to drink water from the Nile. More, they are to stretch out their staff over the waters of Egypt—its rivers, canals, pond and pools of water—so that they too become blood, even the water in vessels of wood and stone. They do as the Lord commands in the sight of Pharaoh. But his magicians do the same thing “by their secret arts;” so Pharaoh’s heart remains hardened, and he does not listen, just as the Lord had said. Pharaoh returns to his house, while the rest of the Egyptians are left having to dig wells along the Nile in order to find water to drink, for they could not drink from the river.
Psalm 5 is traditionally used in the service of Morning Prayer as it pleads for God’s protection and care against one’s enemies. Knowing that God abhors wickedness and the boastful, the psalmist expresses the certainty that because of God’s steadfast love, he will again be able to enter God’s house to worship, even as now, he bows down toward the temple in awe. His enemies are full of lies and deceit, and have rebelled against God. He ends as he begins, expressing joyful confidence in the Lord’s blessings and care.
Paul employs the language of triumphal military processions, in which conquering heroes return to their home cities, to speak not only of the sense of triumph he felt in Macedonia upon hearing Titus’s message about the Corinthians, but to note that Christ always leads them in triumph, and through them spreads the fragrance that comes from knowing Christ. Then, becoming more inclusive still, he uses “we” to include the Corinthians themselves, reminding them that together “we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.” To the latter, they are the fragrance of death to death. To the former, they are the fragrance of life to life. But who is sufficient for these things? They are, after all, not like so many “peddlers of God’s word,” but in Christ, speak as persons of sincerity, people sent from God, people standing in God’s presence. Paul then reminds them that he is not writing this letter to them as a means of commending himself to them. He needs no letter or recommendation, for the Corinthians are his letter of recommendation, and it is written on Paul and Timothy’s hearts; an expression of their affection for the Corinthians. They, themselves, are letters of Christ, who were prepared by Paul and Timothy, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the Living God, not on tablets of stone but on the tablets of human hearts. They are his letters of recommendation. Such is the confidence Paul has in the Corinthians through Christ to God, who made Paul and his companions competent to be “ministers of a new covenant,” not one formed by dead letters on stone tablets, but one formed by the Spirit. For, though the letter of the law kills, the Spirit gives life.
Jesus moves more deeply into Judea and the crowds continue to gather around him. As was his custom, he teaches them. The Pharisees arrive once again to test Jesus, this time asking him if it is permitted (lawful) for a man to divorce his wife. Irritated by their motivation and assumption that he does not know what they are up to, Jesus answers with a question: “What did Moses command you?” They respond that Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and divorce her (Deut 24:1-4). Notice, only the man could divorce his wife; there were no grounds for a woman to seek divorce from her husband, not even adultery. Further, the law also prohibits taking a previously divorced wife, who subsequently remarried, back if she is again divorced, or if her second husband had died. Jesus’ response gives them what they want—he refutes Moses! Moses gave them this commandment because of the hardness of human hearts. Jesus goes on to remind the Pharisees that from the beginning, again quoting Moses, “God made them male and female,” and it is for this reason that a man leaves his father and mother to be joined to his wife, and the two become one flesh. “So, they are no longer two but one.” Jesus now steps even further, superseding Moses with this command: “What God has joined together let no one separate.” This is so startling to the disciples that when they are alone with Jesus, they ask him about this. Jesus then adds the new dimension to the marriage code, saying, “whoever divorces his wife and remarries commits adultery against her.” And, expanding the circle further still, revealing the Roman-Greco audience for which this is written, where a woman could divorce her husband for appropriate grounds such as adultery, Jesus says, “If a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” This second answer has led ecclesiastical nitpickers to conclude that Jesus was not speaking so much against divorce itself, as he was against remarriage after divorce, once again demonstrating the perversity that creeps in when we try to parse Jesus’ words to avoid their hard edge. Mark interrupts the scene with the entrance of people bringing their children to Jesus so that he might touch them, and the disciples sternly object. At this, Jesus becomes indignant with them saying, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” Then elaborating further on what he means, he says, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child—without warrant, right or claim—will never enter it.” Remember, children were powerless in that culture. At this, Jesus takes the children up in his arms, lays hands on them and blesses them.
Daily Readings for Tuesday, April 8
Exodus 5:1–6:1; Psalm 34; 1 Corinthians 14:20–33a, 39–40; Mark 9:42–50
Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh, where Moses functions as a prophet saying, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.’” Pharaoh is unimpressed; he does not know the Lord, why should he heed him and let the people go? Then Aaron and Moses say, “The God of the Hebrews has revealed himself to us.” Again they make the request to go three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Lord. If they do not, he will fall upon them with pestilence or sword. Pharaoh is still unimpressed and now simply convinced that Moses and Aaron want to take the people away from their work as brick-makers. He tells them to get back to work, but more, commands the taskmasters of the people, as well as their Hebrew supervisors, to no longer give straw to the people for their brick-making. Rather, they must gather the straw themselves. But, the daily count of brick, as well as the quality of them, is not to diminish. Again, Pharaoh accuses the Israelites of being lazy, and using the idea of worship as a ploy to escape their work. Therefore, their workload is increased. The taskmasters and the supervisors do as they are told, and the people must now forage for straw. As they do, the taskmasters remain urgent, demanding the work be complete, beating the Hebrew supervisors set over the people when they fall short of the daily requirement of bricks. At that, the Hebrew supervisors go to Pharaoh and cry out to him, asking why it is he is treating them—his servants—in such a way? Why are they being beaten? Notice that the they are now claiming to be not only Pharaoh’s servants, but also his people? No straw is given them for brickmaking, yet bricks are demanded, and the people continue to be beaten. They now are bold enough to tell Pharaoh that he is being unjust to his own people. Pharaoh again replies that they are simply lazy; they are using the request to go sacrifice as a means of getting out of work. Pharaoh sends them away, again insisting that they be given no straw, while the daily requirement of bricks will remain the same. As the supervisors leave Pharaoh, they come upon Moses and Aaron and issue an accusation: “The Lord look upon you and judge.” They have brought this misery on the Hebrew people by creating “a bad odor” with Pharaoh and his officials. Pharaoh’s officials now have swords in their hands to kill them. At that, Moses turns to the Lord to ask why it is he has mistreated the people in this way; why did he send Moses in the first place? From the day Moses first spoke with Pharaoh, he has been mistreating the Israelites, while the Lord has done nothing to deliver his people. At that, the Lord responds: “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh: indeed, by a mighty hand he will let them go—God’s mighty hand; a point emphasized in its being repeated. It is the Lord’s mighty hand that will drive the Hebrews out of the land, as Moses drove off the Bedouin shepherds.
Psalm 34 is attributed to David, when he feigned madness before king Abimelech so that the king drove David out, allowing David to escape. It is a wisdom psalm built on an acrostic pattern, each new section beginning with a word that begins with the successive letter of the alphabet and focuses on God’s goodness. It uses a number of Hebrew parallelisms, the first phrase making a statement that the second phrase repeats with different language: “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall be continually in my mouth.” “O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt in his name together.” “Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.” These, of course, have been solidly incorporated in the liturgical language of the church as the Psalter was its first prayer-book. The psalm is testimonial through and through: “I sought the Lord, and he answered me…, look to him and be radiant. …. This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord.” The young are then summoned to listen and learn the fear of the Lord and what it means for their lives. “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in sprit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all. ….
Paul challenges the Corinthians to “grow up” in their thinking. If they are to be infants, let it be in matters of evil. They are to behave as thinking adults. Quoting Isaiah 28:11-12, which Paul calls “the law” he makes the point that tongues are not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is for believers. If the church is filled with tongues and someone infant in the faith (“outsiders” is misleading), or more, unbelievers enter, will they not think that the Corinthians are simply out of their minds? But if they hear prophecy, they will be reproved and called to account. In the prophecy, the “secrets of the unbeliever’s heart” will be disclosed and result in that person bowing down and worshipping God, declaring, “God is really among you.” Paul now turns to instruct the Corinthians on the nature of their worship. When they come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, yes even a tongue as long as it has an interpretation. In other words, all things are to be done in order to build up the community. Tongues are limited to no more than two or three, and always require interpretation. If there is no interpreter, then the one caught in the spirit praying in tongues must do so silently and speak to God by themselves. There should be two or three prophets allowed to speak (prophecy here being what today we call preaching), and let them weigh what others have said as well as their own prophecy. If a revelation comes forth while another is prophesying, the revelation takes precedence over prophesy, and the prophet is to remain silent. All can eventually prophesy, one by one, so that everyone may learn and be encouraged. Paul adds the ancient adage that the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets, in much the same way we say scripture must be read and interpreted in light of scripture. All is to be done orderly, for God is the God of peace, not disorder. Next comes one of the most contested sections of all of Paul’s writing, verses 33a through 36, in which Paul demands that women remain silent in church and not be permitted to speak, even to ask questions, but be subordinate “as the law says.” Let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. Because this section is so contrary to Paul’s own practice and experience, as he again and again names women as his colleagues in ministry and even one as an “apostle,” most contemporary scholars believe this is a later addition to Paul’s letter, written at a time when women speaking in the assembly had become a scandal, because it was so contrary to the cultural standards of the time. To add additional authority, whoever added the rhetorical question, “Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?” Clearly, by this time in the church, the cultural standards of women maintaining silence, as they did in the synagogues of the day, is trumping the freedom for which Paul writes, Christ has set us free, where there is neither male nor female (Gal. 3:28). Take out the section prohibiting women from speaking and what follows makes perfect sense. Having laid down the rules for worship, he makes the point that anyone who claims to be a prophet or have spiritual powers must acknowledge that what Paul is saying is not Paul’s command, but the Lord’s! Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized. So then, they are to focus on prophecy, but not forbid tongues, “but all things should be done decently and in order.”
Within these short, eight verses, Mark has packed what most scholars think were originally separate sayings of Jesus, linked here by various word associations. They follow on the rewards for caring for Jesus’ “little ones”—not just children, but all of his followers who do not rank among the “great” of the community. It is, in all probability, a warning to church leaders about their vested responsibility for the members of the community. It would be better to have a huge grinding wheel tied about one’s neck and then be cast into the sea than to be the cause of a member stumbling into sin. Jesus then addresses the various things that cause us to stumble—hand, foot and eye—offering radical cures if we are unable to control such impulses. The cures are radical because of what is at stake—our participation in the Kingdom of God. It is better to go through life maimed, yet a member of the kingdom, than full bodied yet excluded from that realm and ultimately thrown into the hell-fire of Gehenna. Gehenna was the site in the Valley of Hinnon, just southwest of Jerusalem’s wall, where the pagan cults had practiced child sacrifice. By the time of Jesus, it was a smoldering trash-heap and a metaphor for the place the unrighteous would be sent on judgment day to experience eternal punishment, a place where the fire was eternal and the flesh consuming worm never dies. This is followed by an enigmatic saying about being “salted with fire,” and is found only in Mark. Salt was both seasoning and preservative in Jesus’ world. Is he saying that his followers are to be preserved through the various fires of life burning out our dross? Is he saying that followers should expect such fire in a world that rejects him, and that in enduring the fire we will be seasoned and preserved? The phrase, “salted with fire” also leads to the association of believers maintaining their zest and disciplined fire for the gospel. Salt, after all, does not lose its “saltiness” but rather, becomes polluted with other things, and is therefore no longer of any use. Do not let the salt and fire for the gospel become polluted and diluted with other cares of concerns. “Have salt in yourself”—preserve and persevere—but in doing so, be at peace with one another. With this final saying, we are brought back to the argument among the disciples that set off this entire conversation.
Daily Readings for Monday, April 7
Exodus 4:10–20 (21–26) 27–31; Psalm 119:73-80; 1 Corinthians 14:1–19; Mark 9:30–41
Moses continues to complain that he is not eloquent enough to speak to the people or to Pharaoh. The Lord’s patience has been tried long enough, and now in anger, he asks Moses about his brother Aaron—notice that Aaron is also carefully identified as a Levite. Aaron is eloquent; even now, Aaron is on his way to meet with Moses and when he sees Moses, Aaron’s heart will be glad. Moses is to speak with Aaron. The Lord will speak to Moses, and Moses is to speak to Aaron, and the Lord will be with their mouths to teach them what to do. Aaron shall speak to the people and be Moses’ mouthpiece, and Moses shall be as God to Aaron. With that, the Lord tells Moses to take his staff with him, and the “divine interview” comes to an end. So much is hidden within this incident that can easily be missed, simply because of the wondrous nature of the encounter. First, we are confronted with the absolute reluctance of Moses to respond to the Lord’s commands, and the persistence and patience of the Lord through it all, and his accommodation to Moses’ need for signs. Second, the staff turning to a snake: a serpent was one of Pharaoh’s protectors; it was fashioned upon the king’s head-dress as a sign of the serpent’s mysterious power. Moses’ staff turning into a snake symbolized the Lord’s sovereignty in that realm. The appearance of Aaron on the scene reflects the priestly tradition’s insistence on his role in all of this, but, at the end of the day, Aaron is simply Moses’ servant, as Moses is the Lord’s servant. The interview over, Moses returns to Jethro, his father-in-law, and asks permission to return to Egypt to see if his kindred there are still alive. Jethro sends Moses forth in peace. We learn that the Lord had told Moses that those seeking his life in Egypt were now dead. And so, Moses takes his wife and his sons (another has evidently been born to them), places them on a donkey and begins the journey back to Egypt, Moses carrying what is now called “the staff of God” in his hand. The Lord now tells Moses that when he gets to Egypt he is to perform before Pharaoh “all the wonders that I have put into your power,” but that, in spite of this, the Lord will harden Pharaoh’s heart and not let the people go. At that, Moses is to tell Pharaoh that the Lord has said that “Israel is my firstborn son. I said to you, ‘Let my son go that he may worship me.’ But you refused to let him go; now I will kill your firstborn son.’” The narrative again focuses on Moses and his family as they travel to Egypt. One night, the Lord meets Moses and the family and tries to kill one of them—it is not clear whether the “him” here is Moses or his firstborn son Gershom. Whether Moses or Gershom, the attack illustrates the Lord’s claim on the firstborn, for Moses is the firstborn of the new people that will emerge under his leadership, just as Gershom is Moses’ firstborn son. Zipporah quickly takes a flint knife and cuts off Gershom’s foreskin and then touches Moses’ penis with it (“feet” here is a euphemism for sexual organs). As she does she says, “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me.” Commentators range in their interpretations of this. Is this the unleashed holiness of the Lord breaking out against Moses as the Lord wrestled with Jacob that night? Is this an ancient understanding of circumcision as a means of protecting the firstborn against God’s claim that this one’s life belongs to the Lord? Or, is this witness to the power of blood to ward off the destroyer in the Lord? Circumcision in that culture was often delayed until marriage, when the father-in-law would perform the act. Coming from Egypt, where circumcision was practiced, Moses may well have already been circumcised, but simply as a matter of hygiene. Cutting off Gershom’s foreskin and touching the head of Moses’ penis may well have been a way of sanctifying both Moses and his son, solidifying their relationship and that of their progeny with the Lord. For thereafter, it is clear that the Lord is bound to Moses. Never again will the Lord break out against him. Now, we learn that the Lord has appeared to Aaron and sent him into the wilderness to meet Moses at “the mountain of God.” The two meet and kiss, and Moses tells Aaron all that the Lord has said to him and the signs with which he has given Moses this charge. The narrative now cuts away to Egypt, where Moses and Aaron go and assemble all of the elders of the Israelites. Aaron speaks to them all the words that the Lord had spoken to Moses. Text reports that it is Aaron and not Moses who performs the signs in the sight of the people, probably witness to the fact that this comes from the priestly narrative source. The people believe, and when they hear that the Lord has heard and given heed to their misery, they bow down and worship the Lord.
Psalm 119 is an acrostic that praises the Lord for the gift of Torah. This portion of it begins with the letter yod (y), recognizing God as the one who has created him and fashioned the psalmist as he is, giving him understanding of God’s commandments. Those who fear the Lord rejoice in him. He knows God’s judgments are right, and even in moments of humbling it is God’s faithfulness at work. God’s steadfast love, promise and mercy are his comfort as he delights in God’s law. As for the arrogant, let them be put to shame. As for him, let him be blameless.
Paul returns to the discussion of tongues within the context of other spiritual gifts and encourages the Corinthians to pursue love and strive for the higher spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy. For it is prophecy that build’s the church. Tongues, as authentic an expression of the Spirit as they may be, are of no use to a congregation, but only to the one speaking. No one understands them because they are, in Paul’s words, speaking mysteries in the Spirit. That may build up the one praying, but not the congregation. And in this instance, it is even creating division. It is prophecy that builds the church. However, Paul will not deny tongues as a Spiritual gift, only that it is not appropriate in worship, unless, of course, there is an interpreter. He says he would be happy if all of them could speak in tongues, but even more for them to prophesy, for the one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongue. Paul again uses himself as a hypothetical example to make his point. He speaks in tongues more than all of them. But what if he had come among them simply speaking in tongues? Would it have been any benefit to them? Unless he speaks to them of some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching, they cannot benefit. When in tongues, they utter speech that is unintelligible, how will anyone know what is being said? Rather, they are simply speaking in the air. He ends his illustration of the futility of speaking in tongues for building the church, urging them, in the eager desire for spiritual gifts, to strive to excel in them for the building of the church rather than their own status. Paul continues with his instructions concerning the use of tongues in worship. Those who are speaking in tongues in worship should pray for the power to interpret those tongues. For if he prays in a tongue, he is praying in the spirit and his mind is unproductive, while no one else understands and only the one praying is edified. Paul asks, “What should I do then?” He answers, pray with the spirit if you will, but pray with the mind also. Otherwise, as they offer a blessing only in the spirit, others will not understand it, much less be able to add their “Amen.” How can anyone who is not as gifted or mature, (the word “outsider” is far better translated “unlearned,” or “unskilled” or “untrained,”) know what they are saying? The blessing in tongues may build up the one praying, but not others. Paul again reminds them that he speaks in tongues far more than any of them—he will not deny the gift. But that gift is out of place in the assembly, where Paul would rather speak only five words with his mind in order to instruct others, rather than ten thousand words in tongue that are meaningless to others.
From Caesarea Philippi, Jesus and his disciples travel through Galilee on their way to Capernaum, but doing so as secretly as possible for Jesus does not want the crowds interrupting his teaching the disciples about what is to happen to him. Again, he tells them plainly that, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” Yet, once again, the disciples fail to understand him, but are now afraid to ask him more. When they reach Capernaum and are in Peter’s house, he asks them what it was they were arguing about on the way. The disciples fall silent, afraid to tell him it was about who was the greatest. Mark is not clear here. Is this an argument about who among them is the greatest, or is this about making distinctions between Moses, Elijah and Jesus? Probably not, as only Peter, James and John have been party to that experience; or, have they disobeyed Jesus, told the others, and set the context for the argument? Or, is this a question of who is greater, Jesus or John the Baptist? All are possible subjects for the argument. Still aware of how unaware the disciples are, Jesus sits down and calls the twelve around him and says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” It seems this argument may have been a jostling for position among them! Jesus takes a little child, who in that culture was about the lowest of the low, and places the child in the midst of them. Then he takes the child up in his arms and says to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” John shifts the subject, telling Jesus that they have seen someone casting out demons in his name—something they had just been unsuccessful in doing—and they tried to stop him. After all, he was not a part of Jesus’ inner circle and was not following them. Notice the “them” rather than “you;” clearly, John and the others want no competition and are jealous of their special relationship with Jesus, just as many Christians seems jealous of their “personal relationship with Jesus” today. Jesus replies, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” And now he casts the net of faith much wider than we are usually accustomed to thinking of it: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to someone because they bear Christ’s name will receive their suitable reward.
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.