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.
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?”
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.
Tuesday, October 7, 2014
Hosea 7:8-16; Psalm 120; Acts 23:12-24; Luke 7:1-17
The charges against the Northern Kingdom, characterized by the name of Ephraim, one of the northern-most tribes of Israel, continue with the use of several of the metaphors. Israel is a cake half baked, when turned it will crumble. It has mixed itself with other peoples and alliances, and foreigners now devour his strength, but he does not yet know it. He is aging but does not recognize his failing strength, and his pride continues to witness against him. Like a silly dove Ephraim flits about, flying off to Egypt and Assyria for alliances that will never save them. Like the easily trapped dove, God will cast a net over them and bring them down, and discipline them according to the report about them. They have strayed from God, which will mean their destruction. God would redeem them, but they speak lies against him. Rather than call to him from the heart, they wail upon their beds in sexual pursuit of Baal, and ritually gash themselves, as Baal's prophets did in their contest with Elijah, worshipping Baal in hope of grain and wine. Though God trained and strengthened them, they plot against him and turn to things that will not bring profit. They have become a defective bow that is either broken or has lost its strength. Either way, they are not able to defend themselves and their officials will all fall. This is what their babbling in Egypt will bring them.
Psalm 120 is a prayer that seeks deliverance. It begins asking for relief from lies and deceitful slander and focuses upon the tongue and its ability to do great damage. The tongue is like the sharp arrows of a warrior or glowing hot coals, able to set things afire. The prayer is almost a curse against the tongue, whether one’s own or another’s, though, as the prayer ends, it appears to be a neighbor’s. The psalmist then tells us he is in a distant land living among those who hate peace. Meshech and Keder are places of great distance from Jerusalem, and the psalmist appears to be living there as an alien. Announcing his desire for peace, he acknowledges that there is no peace because his neighbors only want war. Every now and again we need this prayer, either to remind us of the need to guard our tongues, or, in another way, that there are some neighbors for whom, no matter what you do, their desire or disposition is to create trouble.
Though Paul is in the safety of the barracks, the Jews in Jerusalem are still enraged and now plotting his assassination. Forty of them take a vow to not eat or drink until they have killed Paul. They come to the council to announce their plan and involve the council in it, asking the Council to send word to the tribune that they want to examine Paul more fully. As he is being sent to the council, the forty will ambush and kill Paul. Fortunately, the son of Paul’s sister hears of the plan and runs to the barracks to tell Paul. When Paul hears the story, he asks that the boy be permitted to speak with the tribune. The centurion takes the boy to the commander who takes the boy aside to listen to what he has to say. Upon learning the plan, the tribune commands two centurions to prepare to leave for Caesarea by 9 pm that evening, taking two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen—possibly exaggerated for effect!—as well as a mount for Paul, and take him to the safety of Felix the Governor. One wonders what became of the forty who took the vow!
Jesus returns to Capernaum and a centurion in that village, whose slave is ill and near death, sends word to Jesus through some Jewish elders asking him to come and heal the slave. The elders appeal earnestly with Jesus, telling him the Centurion is an honorable man, worthy of this act, for he loves their people and has built their synagogue for them. Jesus goes with them, but not far from the centurion’s home they are met by the man’s friends through whom the centurion has sent word to Jesus, saying, “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not presume to come to you myself. Simply speak the word and my servant shall be healed.” The centurion knows himself to be a person of authority who speaks and things happen. Surely Jesus can do that. Jesus is astonished and says to the crowd, “Not even in Israel have I found such faith.” Though Luke does not say what Jesus does next, he tells us that when the friends returned to the Centurion they find that his slave had been healed. Shortly thereafter, Jesus goes to a town called Nain, followed by a large crowd. As he approaches the city gates, a man who has died is being carried out for burial—his widowed mother’s only son. When Jesus sees it, he has compassion on the woman and tells her, “Do not weep.” He then approaches the bier, and the bearers stop in place. Jesus says, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” and the young man sits up on the bier and begins to speak. Jesus gives him to his mother, while Luke tells us “fear seized all of them.” Beyond glorifying God, they say, “A great prophet has risen among us. God has looked favorably on his people.” Word begins to spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country.
Monday, October 6, 2014
Hosea 6:7—7:7; Psalm 106:1-18; Acts 22:30—23:11; Luke 6:39-49
Hosea continues to catalogue Israel’s transgressions, which he traces back to their entry into the land in the Book of Joshua. Though God divided the waters of the Jordan at Adam, (Joshua 3:16), from that moment on, the people began to violate the covenant. Gilead is the tribe that led revolts against fellow Israelites in the hill country, and Shechem is where the revolt of the Northern tribes took place to divide the kingdom. All of them are corrupt, from the priests, who indulge in murder while on their way to perform religious duties, to all the whoring people of Ephraim (a metaphor now for the Northern Kingdom). They deal falsely with one another, with thieves breaking in and bandits raiding on the outside, all of which seems to make their king glad. Or, alternatively, they have gotten the king and his officials drunk in preparation for an attempted assassination (the text here is complex and can be read two ways). We now encounter four metaphors; hot oven, half-baked cake, silly dove and defective bow, whose rhetorical significance is obscure, at best. Heated oven seems to speak of their hot passion, but is it sexual, political, condemnation of the corrupt priesthood, or simply inebriation? The king’s court has become sick with wine and he has joined the mockers. Whatever the heat is, it is kindled as their hearts burn within them, smoldering through the night and erupting in full flame in the morning, its fire designed to devour their rulers. And, even as they fall, their kings fail to call upon the Lord.
Psalm 106:1-18 seems to be a counterpoint to Psalm 105, which recounts all of God’s acts on behalf of Israel from Abraham, to their entering the land of promise. Whereas Psalm 105 is silent on the people’s response, Psalm 106 is an extended confession of the people’s faithless response. Though it begins with the familiar refrain, “Hallelujah [“Praise the Lord”]! Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.” It quickly turns into a corporate confession of sin, remembering the numerous ways the people have sinned been stubborn and untrusting in the face of God’s steadfast love and care. “We and our ancestors have sinned; we have committed iniquity, have done wickedly.” The recital of sins begins in Egypt, where they ignored God’s wonderful works. Liberated from Egypt, they rebelled against God at the Red Sea, not trusting God to deliver them from the Egyptians. When God did save them from their foe, they rejoiced and sang God’s praise, but then quickly forgot God’s works and counsel. Their cravings for food and water, their murmurings and various rebellions in the wilderness are recounted, as well as their jealousies of Moses and Aaron, and God’s judgments on them. Today the psalm ends at verse 18, with the judgment against Dathan and Abiram and their families for challenging the leadership of Moses and Aaron (Numbers 16).
The Roman Commander wants to know what it is Paul is being accused of by the Jews and so releases him, he orders the chief priests and council to convene and brings Paul to stand before them. Paul begins his self-defense, and, as he does, the chief priest orders that he be struck on the mouth. At this, Paul retaliates, threatening the chief priest with God’s judgment and calling him a whitewashed wall—a form of Jewish curse. When told that Paul has insulted the high priest, he stops, saying he did not realize he was the high priest. Then Paul notices that the council is made up of both Pharisees and Sadducees, and he uses the opportunity to start a theological argument among them which turns into a minor uprising. Paul tells them he is a Pharisee and on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection, something the Sadducees denied because they could not find it in Torah. The assembly breaks out with the two groups contending with one another, the Pharisees siding with Paul, and the Sadducees becoming all the more set on doing away with him. As the scene becomes increasingly violent, the tribune orders the soldiers to rescue Paul, lest the council tear him to pieces. The soldiers do and bring Paul, once again, to the barracks—this time for safety. That night Paul has a third reassuring vision, as the Lord appears and stand by him, telling him to keep up his courage. As he has testified to Jesus in Jerusalem, so too, he will bear witness to him in Rome. This hardship has a divine purpose and opportunity for continued faithful witness, as innocent hardships often do.
Jesus brings his sermon on the plain to a conclusion with three parables: the blind leading the blind, a tree and the fruit it produces and the two men who built houses, one with a firm foundation, the other with none. Disciples are not above their teachers—free to avoid and ignore his teaching and discipline—but everyone who is fully qualified is like the teacher and his teachings. So, care for the boulder in your own eye before trying to remove the speck in your neighbors, lest you become a hypocrite. Notice that good trees produce good fruit, whereas bad do not. Good is produce out of the treasury of a good heart, whereas evil comes out of the treasury of an evil heart, and the mouth is simply what attests to the abundance of what is in the heart, be it good or evil. Then Jesus brings the sermon to its climax by asking the pointed question: “Why do you call me ‘Lord. Lord,’ and not do what I tell you to do?” Those who come to him and do as he teaches are like the man who, when building a house, digs deep until hitting rock and then builds his house on that foundation. When the flood comes, the house remains because it is well built. But those who come to him but do not act on his words are like a man who built his house on the ground with no foundation at all. When the river rose and overflowed its banks, it not only flooded the house, it washed it completely away.
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.