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Sunday, October 12, 2014

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Hosea 11:1-11; Psalm 112; 1 Corinthians 4:9-16 Matthew 15:21-28

After days and chapters of judgment and oracles of doom, we come to one of the most beautiful prophetic poems in the entire Bible, as God reflects on the nature of his love for his people. This oracle begins with a recollection of Israel as a child being called out of Egypt, and being named God’s son. But, as has been recalled in the oracles before this one, from almost the beginning, the people began to turn to other gods, especially the Baal. God taught Ephraim to walk, took them in his arms, but through it all they did not know him (the sexual double entendre bears special significance throughout this book, but especially here). Rather, they “knew” Baal. With cords of compassion and bands of love God led them, and “bent down to them,” to feed and love them as a parent lifts a child to her cheek. But they ignored such love and will, therefore, return to the captivity of Egypt; Assyria shall be their king. The sword will ravage their cities, and when they finally call on the Lord, he will not listen. But suddenly, once again, God is heart-struck, like all parents, and asks, “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?” God recoils at the thought; God’s compassion will not permit it. God’s anger is fierce, to be sure, but God is not a mortal, but the Holy One in their midst. Rather than come in wrath, the Lord will come as a roaring lion, and when he does, his children will hear and tremble, but they will come after him. They shall come from the west (Egypt), and like doves from the north (Assyria), and will return to their homes.

Psalm 112 is a wisdom psalm—another acrostic—that sings the praises of those who fear the Lord. After an initial “Hallelujah,” it lists the blessings (“happy are those”) that come to those who delight in God’s commandments. Descendants, wealth, riches, and light come to those who are gracious, merciful, generous and righteous. They shall never be moved—a biblical phrase that speaks of eternal blessing and being remembered forever. They fear no evil tidings, because their hearts are firm and secure in the Lord. In the end, they will look in triumph over their foes. They give freely, especially to the poor, and their righteousness endures forever. Their strength (“horn”) is celebrated with honor. The wicked see it and are angry, gnash their teeth and melt away, and, in their desire, come to nothing.

Paul is not beyond using irony and sarcasm to make his point among the Corinthians who have come to be “puffed up” in their sense of superiority, and have embraced other leaders than Paul—especially Apollos—leaders who are more “eloquent” than Paul. Earlier, he has identified himself as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries (v.4:1). He asks them what they have that they did not receive (from him!), and having received it, why do they boast as though it were not a gift but their own doing (v. 4.7)? They have become rich—even kings. On the other hand, God has exhibited him and the other apostles as “last of all; as though sentenced to death, because [they] have become a spectacle to the world….” Where Paul and his companions are fools for Christ’s sake, the Corinthians are wise. Where Paul is weak, they are strong. The Corinthians are held in honor, while Paul and his fellows are held in disrepute. They are hungry, thirsty, poorly clothed, beaten, homeless, and weary from the work of their own hands, and though persecuted, endure, and when slandered (as the Corinthians are slandering Paul) they speak kindly. They have become rubbish and dregs to the world—the reason the Corinthians have tried to distance themselves from them. Now Paul turns from irony to instruction: he is not writing to make them ashamed, but rather to admonish them as beloved children. For that is what they are—Paul’s children in the faith—for though they might have ten thousand guardians in Christ, they do not have many fathers. (The guardian was the slave in the Greek household responsible for the oversight of the child until adulthood.) But in Christ, Paul has become their father through the gospel. Therefore, he appeals to them, “Be imitators of me.” This is not arrogance on Paul’s part, but simply him stating, in a straightforward way, what the Corinthian’s themselves know: in their world the father has ultimate responsibility for his children, and children are expected to learn by modeling their parents.

Jesus moves northwest to the Mediterranean coast and Gentile country and is encountered by a Canaanite woman from that region who follows and cries out to him, identifying him as “Son of David,” and asking for help with her sick daughter who is possessed by a demon. Jesus ignores her, but with great persistence she continues to cry out and follow him. The disciples urge Jesus to send her away. Jesus finally speaks to her, saying he has been sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” With that, she kneels at his feet and says, “Lord, help me.” Jesus replies that it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs (the Jew’s derogatory term for Canaanites), but she counters, “Yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Jesus is caught up short—one of the few incidents in the gospels—and, astonished at her faith and her persistence, he does as she asks. Her daughter is healed instantly.

Posted October 12, 2014
Saturday, October 11, 2014

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Hosea 10:1-15; Psalm 144; Acts 25:13-27; Luke 8:16-25

Hosea continues his oracle of judgment against the Northern Kingdom, Israel, here called by the name of her capital city, “Samaria,” employing fertility metaphors and images of sexual worship to describe Israel’s sin and the reason for God’s judgment on her. Here, the focus is on her kings and priests who, as they flourish, build more and more altars and erect more and sacred pillars, implements of Baal worship, in their sanctuaries. Though they also make oaths to the Lord, they are empty. As a result, political chaos and litigation “spring up like poisonous weeds in the furrows of the field.” The inhabitants of Samaria tremble. The golden calf, placed in the sanctuary of Bethel (Beth-aven—house of iniquity), will be carried off by the Assyrians, with whom their kings have made alliances, and the sanctuary will be destroyed. All of its people shall mourn. Their king will perish; their high places of wickedness will be destroyed, with thrones and thistle covering their worship places. Though Ephraim was trained as a heifer to thresh grain, and God spared her “fair neck” the plowing yoke, now she bears that yoke in order to plow, just as Judah must plow and harrow for himself. The tribute Israel must pay to Assyria for its alliance will be so large that ultimately her yoke will be exile. Verse 12, as an exhortation to return to the Lord, appears to be a later insertion and should be skipped over, as verse 13 and those that follow continue the themes of Israel plowing wickedness, reaping injustice, and eating the fruit of lies. Consequently, war will rise up against them and they shall be conquered and destroyed as Shalman destroyed Beth-arbel in a particularly cruel and vicious battle, when even mothers were dashed to pieces with their children. The same atrocity awaits them in Bethel.

Psalm 144, a Royal Psalm, is a composite prayer, offered by and on behalf of Israel’s kings, using themes from psalm 8 and 18. It looks back to the reign of David, longing for God to break in as he did in those former times to give victory. The question, “what are human beings that you regard them,” picks up that question from Psalm 8, but without the profound wonder and praise of psalm 8. The plea for God to bow the heavens and come down with arrows of lightning flash to scatter and rout the enemy comes from Psalm 18:7-16, but appears without reference to any real particular enemy, further revealing the general nature of the psalm. But anticipating God’s response, the psalmist promises new songs of praise sung on ten-stringed harps, and again pleads for God to rescue him from those who speak lies against him or who raise their right hand in false promise. The psalm then turns to praying for continued blessing upon the people and their land, with no breach in their walls and no distress in their streets. It ends as it begins, blessing the Lord who blesses God’s people.

Several days after Festus had overseen another trial between Paul and his Jewish antagonist from Jerusalem, King Agrippa and his widowed sister Bernice arrive in Caesarea and Festus tells him about Paul and his quandary over what to do. Paul has appealed to the Emperor, and Festus has agreed to the request, but does not know what to charge Paul with, since the disagreement with the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem seem to be over fine points of their religion—something to do with a certain Jesus who had died, but whom Paul now asserts to be alive. That said, there is nothing that would warrant Paul the punishment of death under Roman law. King Agrippa expresses interest and asks to hear from Paul himself. The next day, Agrippa and Bernice come with great pomp and enter the audience hall surrounded by military tribunes and the prominent men of the city. Festus then orders Paul to be brought in, and tells the king and all present with them the circumstances that have brought Paul before them. Festus then presents Paul to be examined by King Agrippa.

Jesus’ previous image was seed being sown and heard; now the image is light. No one puts a lighted lamp under bed, but on a lamp stand so that all who enter may see. In the kingdom, nothing is hidden and all will come to light. So, pay attention—listen! What you hear must come to light, for to those who have (hear), more will be given and to those who do not, even what they seem to have will be taken away (remember the birds coming to take away the seed?). Jesus mother and brothers suddenly appear but are unable to reach him because of the crowd. When told they are outside wanting to see him, Jesus replies that his true mother and brothers and those who hear the word of God and do it. The scene then cuts away to Jesus and the disciples getting into a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee. As they sail out into the deep, Jesus falls asleep. A windstorm arises and threatens to swamp the boat. Panic stricken, the disciples awake Jesus who simply rebukes the wind and waves which fall to a calm. Looking at them, Jesus asks, “Where is your faith?” Have they not yet heard? They are too astonished and afraid to respond, but simply say among themselves, “Who is this that even the winds and the waters obey him?”

Posted October 11, 2014
Friday, October 10, 2014

Friday, October 10, 2014

Hosea 9:10-17; Psalm 142; Acts 24:24--25:12; Luke 8:1-15

Hosea remembers Israel’s early days of innocence, like wild grapes in the wilderness, but then turns to an incident during their wilderness wanderings at Baal-Peor when the Israelite men participated in Baal worship through sexual practices with Moabite women (Numbers 25). As a consequence, Ephraim’s glory shall fly away like a bird. Invoking various fertility images, Hosea announces that God’s judgment will give them “miscarrying wombs and dry breasts.” Their evil deeds at Gilgal are recalled where Joshua first made an alliance with the Canaanites (Joshua 9-10). “I will drive them out” is a technical term of divorce used to express God’s rejection of Israel. Because they have not listened to him, God will reject them and they shall become wanderers among the nations. This last passage was later inappropriately applied to all Jews by Christians to justify anti-Semitism.

Psalm 142 is a personal lament that cries to the Lord for relief in the midst of troubles brought on by unidentified enemies. Not only is the psalmist being oppressed by foes, it seems the entire community has abandoned him—no one takes notice, no refuge remains, no one cares. And so, the psalmist cries out to the Lord, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.” Only the Lord can provide the care that is needed while “imprisoned” in this state of affairs. But, the prayer ends pleading, “Bring me out of prison, so that I may give thanks to your name.” Then, the righteous will surround him and recognize God’s bountiful rescue and help.

Paul remains in the safe-keeping of Felix, who is married to a Jewish woman named Drusilla. Felix calls for Paul to hear more about his faith in Jesus Christ, but as Paul talks about justice, self-control and the coming judgment, Felix becomes frightened and sends Paul away (Felix, according to the Roman historian Tacitus, was a corrupt, power-hungry, cruel and ruthless man who had good reason to be frightened by Paul’s words!) Yet, periodically, Felix calls for Paul, who he hopes might appeal to Felix’s corrupt side and give him a bribe in order to be free of all of this. For two years this take place, until Felix is replaced by Porcius Festus, who, wanting to keep the Jews happy, keeps Paul in prison. Shortly after Festus’ arrival in Caesarea, he goes up to Jerusalem where the chief priests and leaders tell him of their complaint against Paul and asks that Paul be brought back to them, planning to have him ambushed on the way back. Festus replies that Paul is being kept in Caesarea, where he will shortly return, and they are welcome to come with him to see if the charges against Paul are true. About ten days later, Festus returns to Caesarea. Taking his seat on the tribunal, Festus orders Paul brought forth. The Jews who have come with Festus from Jerusalem immediately begin bringing charges against Paul. But, in his own defense, Paul asserts his innocence, having done nothing illegal against the Jewish law, the Jews or the emperor. However, Festus, wanting to do the Jews a favor, is prepared to send Paul back. Paul insists that the emperor’s tribunal is the place where he, as a Roman citizen, has a right to be tried. In the course of the argument, Paul appeals to the Emperor himself. After conferring with his council, Festus declares, “You have appealed to the emperor; to the emperor you will go.” Paul will have his opportunity to witness to Jesus in Rome.

Jesus is again on the road and the twelve disciples are with him. In addition, a number of women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities have joined the entourage, with several being named: Mary called Magdalene, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, and Susanna. These and the other women provide for Jesus from their own resources. A large crowd gathers about Jesus and he tells them the parable of the sower, with the seed being sown far and wide, regardless of the kind of soil it might land upon. The emphasis here is two-fold: the generosity of God to all people in all conditions of life and, upon “hearing” the word being sown. Those who hear, and in whom the seed takes deep root, produce much fruit. Luke inserts a comment on why Jesus teaches in parables, quoting Isaiah 6:9, when God indicated that the people would not listen to Isaiah’s message, and does so here as a means of explaining why some hear and produce good fruit while others do not.

Posted October 10, 2014
Thursday, October 9, 2014

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Hosea 9:1-9; Psalm 132; Acts 24:1-23; Luke 7:36-50

The Lord continues to pour judgment and contempt upon Israel for its apostasy. Using metaphors that point to their participation in the Baal cult, because of their expectation that it will ensure their crops, they are told that all will fail. Their alliances with Assyria will result in their being captive to Assyria, and their pact with Egypt will reclaim them as well and take them into captivity. How will they celebrate the appointed festival’s there? There was a time when Israel was God’s prophet, but it has been caught in the bird’s snare. They continue to try to worship the Lord as well, pouring out their drink offerings and bread offerings, but the Lord rejects them. He remembers their sin and he will not only reject them, but punish them.

Psalm 132 is a Royal Psalm that celebrates and legitimates the reign of the Davidic dynasty, recalling the covenant the Lord made with David to ensure his reign, as well as that of his descendants on the throne of all Israel forever. (2 Samuel 7) It begins recalling David’s hardships in capturing Jerusalem to establish there a capital for a united kingdom, then his vow to build a temple so that that Lord would have a resting place among them. “We heard it in Ephrathah; we found it in the fields of Jaar,” is a reference to the return of the Ark of the Covenant which had been lost in battle to the Philistines, but was left in the field of Jaar because it was perceived too dangerous (2 Samuel 6), until David brought it to Jerusalem and placed it in the tent of the meeting that he had erected there. (The building of the actual temple would fall to his son Solomon). With the ark in Jerusalem, it was ever-after understood as the place of the Lord’s habitation, until the division of the kingdom after Solomon’s rule. Given the sanctuaries in the Northern Kingdom, after their division, the psalm probably had polemic intent as well, insisting that Zion was God’s only place of worship. The psalm includes a remembrance of God’s oath to David that one of his sons would always sit on the throne, and the promise that the Lord, not David, had chosen Zion as his “desired habitation” forever. It concludes, reciting the blessings that come to Jerusalem because of God’s presence there, and how God will continue to bless the descendants of David who sit on his throne (“cause a horn to sprout up for David”). After the destruction of the temple and the loss of the king in 587 BCE, this psalm served as a reminder that the Lord is the ultimate king over Israel and the promise that Zion was the Lord’s home, was still in place, as was his promise to David. Consequently, this psalm also began to fire Messianic expectation.

The high priest Ananias arrives in Caesarea with some elders and an attorney named Tertullus, to begin Paul’s trial. Tertullus attempts to ingratiate himself to Felix with kind words about his administration of Roman rule among them, and then outlines their case against Paul as “a pestilent fellow, an agitator among all the Jews throughout the world (Roman empire), and “a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes,” the first time Christianity is acknowledged as a sect of Judaism, similar to the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Felix then allows Paul opportunity to defend himself. Paul does so “cheerfully,” also ingratiating himself to Felix with kind words. But then, he points out that their charges against him are false: he was not disputing with anyone in the temple or their synagogues in the city. He simply returned to Jerusalem to bring alms to his people (the collection for the church in Jerusalem), and entered the temple after purification in order to offer sacrifices. It was Jews from Asia that arrived and created the disturbance. But, there is one charge alone, which he will acknowledge: he is a member of “the Way,” which they call a sect. He hopes in the same God they do, follows the same law, but believes in the resurrection, and it is about this that he is on trial. We are told that Felix himself was well informed about the Way, and at this point adjourned the hearing until the Tribune Lysias, who sent Paul to Felix, can arrive. Until then, Paul is to be kept in the custody of Felix (for safekeeping), but is to be allowed to have his friends help care for his needs.

Jesus accepts the invitation to dine at the home of a Pharisee. While he is at table, a woman who is a “notorious sinner” enters the room with an alabaster jar of ointment and, standing behind Jesus as he reclines on the floor at table, she begins to bathe, anoint and wipe his feet with her hair (a woman letting down her hair in a man’s presence was an act of great intimacy, as was touching his feet). When the host sees this, he says to himself, “This man cannot be a great prophet, for if he were, he would know who this woman was and would not allow her behavior.” Jesus, of course, knows precisely what the Pharisee is thinking, and so asks a question about the forgiveness of debts, one very large, and one small. Which of the two debtors would be the most grateful? The Pharisee responds, “The one who owed the most.” The Pharisee is, of course, right, so Jesus goes on to outline the forms of behavior she has exhibited to express her great gratitude, while he as host has done the minimal in inviting Jesus to dinner. Both are forgiven, but only one seems to really recognize it. Then Jesus says to the Pharisee, “her sins, which were many, have been forgiven, hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Turning to the woman Jesus says, “Your faith has saved you, go in peace.” The other guests at the table are left wondering, among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”

Posted October 9, 2014
Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Hosea 8:1-14; Psalm 128; Acts 23:23-35; Luke 7:18-35

The Lord continues to describe Israel’s apostasy, charging that she has violated the covenant, and that the kings and sanctuaries they have chosen for themselves have never been authorized by the Lord. “They have made kings, but not through me.” In addition, they have fallen into idolatry, making graven images. “The calf of Samaria” refers to two golden calves that Jeroboam had placed in the sanctuaries at Dan and Bethel; “Samaria,” the capital of the Northern Kingdom, now becomes an inclusive term for the nation. “For they sow the wind and they shall reap the whirlwind. The standing grain has no heads, it shall yield no meal. And, even if it were to yield grain, foreigners would devour it.” Israel, in its foreign alliance with Assyria is described as a “wild ass wandering alone.” Though they have sacrificed and called on God’s name, he does not know them nor accept their worship. They shall be punished, because they have forgotten their maker. They will return to Egypt—until now, the ultimate symbol of slavery and bondage.

Psalm 128 is named, “A Song of Ascents,” which tells us this was part of an entrance liturgy to the temple that was employed as men made their three annual compulsory visits to Jerusalem to worship during one of the three major feasts. It is a wisdom psalm whose message is very much like Psalm 1: those who walk in God’s ways receive God’s blessing—the negative is not even considered! It may have been offered by the pilgrim himself, or, it may have been invoked on the pilgrim as he entered the temple. But, whereas Psalm 1 is general in its application this one is more personal, expressing the blessings and their impact on one’s wife and children. It concludes with a series of general blessings, first on the pilgrim worshipper, then on Jerusalem, and finally on all of Israel itself.

We are watching Roman rule be exercised, as we finally learn the name of the Roman tribune; it is Claudius Lysias. He writes to the governor, Felix, and explains how it is that Paul is being sent to him. Notice how the Romans looked upon the Jews and their internal controversies over matters of their Law. Jews were permitted to live within it, so long as it did not encroach on Roman law, and as best Claudius can tell, Paul has done nothing deserving death. Claudius has learned of a plot to kill Paul, and so he is being sent to the Governor while Claudius is ordering his accusers to appear before the Governor as well, in order to state their case before him. The cohort of soldiers make it to Antipatris, a point mid-way between Jerusalem and Caesarea, now clearly in Gentile territory, and so all but the horsemen return to Jerusalem, with the former taking Paul on to the Governor. After reading the letter from Claudius, Governor Felix (probably Antonius Felix, who was procurator from 52-60 CE) asks Paul what province he is from. When Paul tells him he is from Cilicia, Felix agrees to give him a hearing, but only after his accusers arrive. Until then, Paul will be kept under guard in Herod’s headquarters there in Caesarea.

Word of Jesus’ ministry reaches John the Baptist through some of John’s disciples, and John sends two of them to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Luke then inserts a report about all that Jesus has done. When asked, Jesus replies, “Go tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” These are clear signs that the Messiah has come. And then Jesus adds, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” When John’s disciples leave, Jesus asks those following him who it was they expected to see when they went out to the wilderness to see John; a reed shaken by the wind or someone dressed in soft robes and living in royal palaces (reference to Herod, whose palace within that wilderness region and whose coat of arms included reeds)? Is that what they saw? No, they saw a prophet, but one who is more than a prophet. Then Jesus names John the one Isaiah had spoken of as the forerunner (Isaiah 40:3). Among those born of a woman, no one is greater than John. Yet, even the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than John! The kingdom has arrived and is reversing all worldly standards. The tax collectors and all others who had gone to John for baptism are acknowledging this. But the Pharisees and lawyers who refused John’s baptism are actually rejecting God’s purposes for themselves. Jesus then employs an illustration from a popular child’s game, “Dancers and Mourners,” and says that the religious authorities are like children who simply cannot take God’s “yes” for an answer. John came as an ascetic and they said he was possessed, and Jesus has come eating and drinking, and they call him a glutton, drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and sinners. They want it both ways. But, “wisdom is vindicated by all her children,” God’s work and purposes are being revealed in both John and Jesus, and those who oppose the two of them are actually opposing God.

Posted October 8, 2014
The Rev. Dr.       Fred R. Anderson

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.

© 2014