Wednesday: Obadiah 15-21; Psalm 128; 1 Peter 2:1-10; Matthew 19:23-30
This is the shortest book of the Old Testament and one that pronounces judgment on a neighbor because of betrayal in time of need. The context is the conquest of Jerusalem by Babylonia between 597 and 587 BCE. Edom, a neighbor southeast of the Dead Sea, had been where Jacob’s brother, Esau had settled. The Edomites were more than neighbors; they were distant family. Yet, during Jerusalem’s days of siege and fall, the Edomites cooperated with Babylon, captured fleeing Jews and turned them over to Babylon at great profit. After it fell, Edom joined others in taking part in the plunder of Jerusalem. Scholars think that Obadiah, whose name means, “servant of the Lord,” lived in Jerusalem after its fall and witnessed Edom’s betrayal. And so, this is an oracle of judgment pronounced on a family member for its treachery and disloyalty. Its theme is God’s punishment of Edom for its deeds on the Day of the Lord. It is near against all the nations, but especially Edom. As they have done so it shall be done to them. As they drank on God’s holy mountain, Zion, so shall the nations drink them; it shall be as though they have never been. But there shall be restoration for the house of Jacob, who will take possession of those who dispossessed them. Jacob shall be a fire, the house of Joseph a flame and Esau’s house stubble that is burned and consumed until none are left. Then the land of Israel shall be repossessed and settled by the Jews. Those from the southern Negeb will possess Mount Esau, those from the southwest shall inhabit the land of Ephraim and Samaria, and Benjamin shall possess Gilead. The exiles of the Israelites shall return and inhabit the places in the north as far as Phoenicia. The exiles of Jerusalem shall settle in the Negeb. All who have been saved and resettled shall go up to Mount Zion where the Lord remains king, and shall rule over all of Esau. Once again, the kingdom shall be the Lord’s.
Named “A Song of Ascents” that 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.
After challenging his readers to rid themselves of all forms of malice, guile, insincerity, envy and slander, the author exhorts them, like new born babes (an image of their new life in Christ) to long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that they may grow into their salvation—if, indeed, they have tasted that the Lord is good. Now the writer moves to the center of his theological and Christological convictions, utilizing the image, from Psalm 118:22, of the rejected stone which has become the cornerstone. Christ is that living stone, to whom they are invited. And though he was rejected by mortals, he was chosen and precious in God’s sight. Therefore, they too are to become like living stones, built into a spiritual household in Christ, to become a holy priesthood that offers spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. The church is not simply a group of people who have been saved. The church is a holy priesthood, ordained in baptism and joined to Christ to continue to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God in its daily ministry in the world. Now the author quotes Isaiah 28:16, in which the Lord promises to lay in Zion a chosen and precious cornerstone, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame—one who trusts in him will have no need to panic. So, to those of them who believe he is precious, but for those who do not believe, but have rejected him, he has become the rock over which they stumble and fall. Picking up another theme from Isaiah, this stumbling is something they have been destined to do. But returning to his readers, the author now turns to soaring language to remind them that they are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that [they] may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called [them] out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Once they were nothing—no people. Now they are God’s people. Once they had not received mercy, but now they have. This letter has had a profound impact on the church and its understanding of itself and its mission, and moved the church from being an enclave of ‘the saved,” hunkered down against the world, to a community of priests commissioned to act in the world, mediating the presence and power of God as they offer their lives as spiritual sacrifices in Christ’s name.
As the young man Jesus invited to follow him goes away sorrowful because of the many possessions he is not prepared to part with, Jesus warns about how hard it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom. Using the well-known image of the difficulty of a camel passing through the eye of a needle, he makes the point that divesting oneself of the things that claim the allegiance that rightfully belongs only to God is what it means to enter the kingdom. The disciples hear this and are as shocked as they were at his words about divorce, and so they ask, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus simply says, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God, all things are possible.” We do no save ourselves—even by selling all that we have and giving it to the poor. Salvation is God’s gift. Peter speaks for the rest of them, reminding Jesus of what it is they have left to follow him. What then will they have? Jesus responds that “at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory,” those who have followed Jesus will sit on the twelve thrones of Israel—one for each of its tribal heads. Anyone who has made the ultimate sacrifice of leaving family or fields for his name’s sake, will receive a hundred fold, and will inherit eternal life—words that should be encouraging to the disciples. But to this, Jesus adds these words: “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first—words that must have been troubling to those following him to Jerusalem, but comforting to those reading Matthew’s gospel many years later, who were also leaving family and field behind for Jesus’ sake.
Tuesday: Nahum 1:1-13; Psalm 124; 1 Peter 1:13-25; Matthew 19:13-22
Nahum is one of the most difficult books of the Old Testament to date, as well as to identify its author and the circumstances of its writing. It is also difficult in another way: it is filled with a theology of God and God’s vengeance that is highly questionable from a Christian perspective. However, within the context of the day, among a people who have suffered humiliating defeat and the multiple horrors of war, at least the vengeance is attributed to God’s judgment, and not something taken into the people’s own hands. The book appears to have been written sometime after 663 BCE, when the Assyrian empire reached the zenith of its expansion in the Middle East. Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire, was destroyed in 612 BCE by the Babylonians and the Medes. Scholars think that because of the vividness of the rejoicing portrayed in the book, it must have been written at some time shortly thereafter, as a means of confessing that it was the Lord who was at work through the Babylonians and the Medes, neither of whom had yet become a threat to Judah. The text is included in this week’s readings because of the continuing theme of the Day of the Lord, preparing us for Advent. The opening oracle is against Nineveh. The Lord, who is slow to anger but great in power, is not about to clear the guilty, and Nineveh is very guilty. The Lord’s power is described in terms of his sovereignty over the element of nature: the sea dries up, the mountains quake and the earth heaves before him. After asking who can stand before such indignation and anger, the text again affirms the goodness of the Lord, who is a stronghold in the day of trouble, who protects those who take refuge in him. Yet, the Lord will make a full end of his adversaries, pursing his enemies even in darkness. The oracle then asks, “Why do you plot against the Lord?” Whether what follows is addressed to Assyria or to some in Judah who insist that the Lord has forgotten them or is unable to stand against Assyrian power, is a biblical scholar’s debate. In fact, the warning may be directed both ways. It insists that whoever the addressee may be, from them one “has gone out who plots evil against the Lord,” one who counsels wickedness. Then come the words of comfort for Judah: though its enemy is full of strength and many, they will be cut off and pass away. More, though the Lord has afflicted Judah through them, the Lord will afflict Judah no more. Rather, he will break off Assyria’s yoke and snap their bonds by which they have bound Judah.
“Had not the Lord been on our side—now let Israel say—had it not been the Lord who was with us when our enemies rose up against us, we would not have survived.” This is a communal psalm of thanksgiving, following a war that was just barely won, in which Israel survived in spite of its lack of strength or might, and now gives thanks where it understands thanks is due. It rightly is appointed for this day when we hear the words of Nahum promising God’s vengeance against Assyria. The Lord is blessed for not giving his people into the enemies’ teeth as prey. Israel escaped destruction as the bird escapes the fowler’s broken snare. The psalm ends with the theme recurrent, not only in the psalms, but throughout the Bible: “Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.” A paraphrase of this psalm was sung in Coventry Cathedral in England, at the conclusion of World War II, as recognition of the country’s own deliverance by the Lord.
The author of 1 Peter now turns to his purpose in writing: to exhort, strengthen and encourage his readers by additional teaching. They are to prepare themselves for action, disciplining their minds, and setting all their hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring when he returns (is revealed). They are to be obedient children and not conform to desires that they formerly had while they were in ignorance. Instead, the author quotes Leviticus 19:2 and tells them that they are to be holy in all of their conduct, as the one who has called them is holy. They are reminded that the one they call “Father” is a judge who is impartial, therefore, they are called to live in reverent fear during this time of “exile.” They are reminded of the futile ways of their ancestors from which they have been ransomed, not with perishable things like gold or silver, “but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. Once again, the image of the sacrificial lamb offered in the temple is used in reference to Jesus and his death. But now the author writes a blockbuster of a thought: this was neither an accident nor last minute fix for things gone wrong. Rather Christ was destined “before the foundation of the world” for all of this, but revealed at “the end of the ages” for their sake. Notice that the conviction is that they are living at the end of the age and that a new one is unfolding in Christ. It is through Christ that the readers have come to trust in God, who raised Jesus from death and gave him glory, so that their faith and hope are set on God. Following upon the appeal to holy living, the author now presses for a community that is not simply purified by obedience to the truth, but by its genuine mutual love. They are to remember that they have been “born anew”—quite literally “begotten once again,” not by perishable human seed, but through the living and enduring word of God. Quoting Psalm 34:8, as a means of reminding them that all earthly things perish, and that it is only the word of the Lord that endures forever, they are reminded that the word is the good news that was announced to them.
Little children are brought to Jesus in order that he might lay his hands upon them, but the disciples sternly order those who brought the children not to do so. Jesus interrupts and says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” This is less an affirmation of children’s innocence than recognition that in that culture, they were considered the lowest of the low. It is to those who have no status, those the culture casts aside as without worth that the kingdom belongs. And so, Jesus laid his hands upon them in blessing. At that, someone in the crowd calls him “Teacher,” and asks what good deed he must do to have eternal life.” The word “good” riles Jesus who asks why the man has asked him about what is good, since only one is good. He then says that if the man wishes to enter eternal life, he must keep the commandments and quotes the second table of the law—the one dealing with interpersonal relationships—adding also, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Astonishingly, the young man claims to have kept all these; what else is lacking? Jesus tells him that if he wishes to be perfect, to “go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then, come, follow me.” It is one of the few times in the gospel when someone who Jesus has not already chosen is invited to follow. But, we are told, the man went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Monday: Joel 3:1-2,9-17; Psalms 106:19-48; 1 Peter 1:1-12; Matthew 19:1-12
The Valley of Jehoshaphat is an imaginary place chosen for the meaning of its name: “The Lord will judge.” The prophet Joel, whose name means, “The Lord is God” is not known to us historically, and it is hard to pin-point the date of his prophecy. But most scholars identify it as sometime in the 5th century BCE, primarily because of the way the daily life in the temple, with all of its cultic apparatus is identified. It appears this week because of the theme of the Day of the Lord, which Joel announces as a day of judgment on the nations for the way they have treated Judah. God will, on that day, restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem. God will gather the nations and bring them to the valley of judgment (Jehoshaphat), and judge them because they have scattered God’s people, divided their land, cast lots over them, and sold the children into slavery: the boys for prostitutes and the girls for wine. And so, Joel calls for an announcement among the nations: they are to prepare for war and stir up their warriors. Joel calls on God to bring down his heavenly warriors on all the nations. The issue is so important that evening the implements of agriculture must be turned into weapons; plowshares beat into swords and pruning hooks into spears (Micah 4:3 will reverse that image as he talks about the day of the Lord). The nations are called to come to the valley, for there the Lord will put in the sickle and reap a ripe harvest, and treat the full winepress of the nation’s wickedness. The day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision. The elements of the cosmos withdraw their light while the Lord roars from Zion and the earth shakes. God is redeeming his people. The Lord is a refuge for them, a stronghold for the people of Israel.
This confession of sin continues, recounted Israel’s apostasy at Mt. Horab, making and worshiping the golden calf, exchanging the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass and forgetting that it was the God who was their savior. For that, God was ready to destroy them all. Had it not been for Moses’ intercession, God’s wrath would have been poured out upon them. But still, they despised the pleasant land that was reported to them by their spies, and having no faith in God’s promise, they grumbled in their tents and disobeyed God’s voice. Consequently, God consigned them to the wilderness, there to wander and die, and only then will place their descendants in the land of promise. But even in their wanderings, they attached themselves to foreign gods, and sacrificed to the dead. God’s anger was stoked and plagues broke out among them until Phinehas interceded on their behalf and the plague was stopped (Numbers 25). The people argued with the Lord at Meribah to the point that even Moses was implicated, became rash and spoke bitter words. The Israelites did not destroy the nations, as God had commanded, and instead, mingled with them, taking up their religious practices, sacrificing their children to demons and the idols of Canaan, so that the land was polluted with their children’s blood. Thus, the people became unclean and prostituted themselves. Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against them and he gave them into the hand of the nations who ruled over them. Many times the Lord raised up judges to liberate them, but the people remained rebellious in their iniquity. Nevertheless, God remembered his covenant and showed compassion and steadfast love, so that those who held them captive pitied them. The psalm of confession ends with a plea for redemption and salvation: “Gather us from among the nations that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise.” After a final blessing of the Lord as their God from everlasting to everlasting, the people say “Amen!” The psalm ends with a final word of praise: “Hallelujah!”
We begin reading one of the most influential small letters of the New Testament, the first letter of Peter. The book, which probably originated in Rome, is sophisticated in its use of Greek—some of the most beautiful in the New Testament and one of the reasons scholars believe it was written by a disciple of Peter in Peter’s name. It’s theology of Jesus as the Christ is some of the most important in the New Testament. Whether or not Peter wrote this letter, or it was written by someone in the circle of Peter’s followers, the letter is a profound expression of the Christian gospel. It begins with a greeting, similar to those we are accustomed to reading in Paul’s letters. It is written to the “exiles of the Dispersion” in Asia, who the author names as “chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ, and to be sprinkled with his blood”—an act of purification in the ancient Jewish sacrificial system, in which the worshipper was make holy and suitable for God’s presence by being sprinkled with the blood of the animal that had been sacrificed and its blood offered to God. The greeting ends with a blessing-prayer calling for grace and peace in abundance. What follows is one of the most beautiful blessings in the New Testament. It sets the context for the themes what will come forth in the letter, in much the same way Paul’s blessing outlined his writings. God has, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, given new birth into a living hope and an inheritance that is “imperishable, undefiled and unfading, kept in heaven” for the reader, who is being protected by the power of God through faith for salvation, which is ready to be revealed “at the last time.” This is their source of joy, even though, for a little time, they must suffer trials. Suffering is given new meaning. It is understood to be a means of revealing the genuineness of their faith, more precious than gold that is being tested by fire. Withstanding such tests will result in praise, glory and honor to them when Jesus Christ returns. The readers of the letter are a generation of Christians who are converts to the faith, who never saw or knew Jesus, but nonetheless have loved and believed in him, and rejoice with indescribable and glorious joy because they are receiving the outcome of their faith—the salvation of their soul. All of this was announced beforehand, through the writings of Hebrew prophets, who testified in advance of the sufferings destined for Christ and his subsequent glory. One of the characteristics of this letter is that it will cite the Hebrew scriptures that Christians call the Old Testament, as warrant for the Christian gospel, and do so in a way that sees those scriptures as a preparation for the good news, especially Christ’s suffering and glory as a means for our salvation, that, by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, has given to the readers. It is as though all of the Old Testament is but a preparation for revealing the gospel.
Matthew gives us his version of Jesus’ words on divorce and introduces a new concept: eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven. After a normal Matthean transition: he departed from Galilee and came into the region of Judea beyond the Jordan, where a large crowd was following him, and he healed those among them who were sick--we read about another encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Pharisees, again testing Jesus, come to him asking if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. Jesus quotes to them the narrative from creation in which the husband and wife become “one flesh,” (Gen 2:24), and then says that since they are no longer two but one, what God has joined together must not be divided. The Pharisees respond by asking, why then, did Moses give them permission to give a wife a writ of divorce (Deut 24:1-4)? Jesus responds that it is because of the hardness of their hearts that the law includes this provision. But from the beginning it was not this way. He then goes on to say that whoever divorces his wife, except for “immorality,” in other places named “adultery”—the Greek word means “fornication, sexual immorality or unchastity”—and then marries another, commits adultery. Notice that Matthew has included this broader provision. Many scholars think that Jesus’ original statement did not include this provision. That helps better understand the disciples’ response that, if this is the case, it is better for men not to marry—a number of whom already were married, Peter in particular. Matthew now includes a saying of Jesus, unique to his gospel. Jesus says that not all men can understand this, but only those to whom understanding has been given. Some are born eunuchs, others are made eunuchs by men, and finally, there are those who make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Here is the text that the church has historically pointed to as the foundation of celibacy for monks, nuns and priests.
Readings for the Week of the Sunday closest to November 23
Sunday: Isaiah 19:19-25; Psalm 145; Romans 15:5-13; Luke 19:11-27
As we head from Christ the King toward the first Sunday in Advent, the Old Testament lessons lift up the prophets’ words that came to be understood as the Lord’s promise to make Israel sovereign in the world and their king, the Messiah, the Sovereign of Sovereigns. Today the subject is Egypt. It is located in a larger section of oracles concerning Egypt, and today’s lesson appears to be a composition by a later author inserted within the words of Isaiah of Jerusalem, that would have been written about 715 BCE, in which Isaiah was warning against foreign alliances and insisting on trust in the Lord. Whoever the author is, the section shows strong evidence of being a later composition rather than a series of Isaiah’s oracles, and its theme is the Lord’s sovereignty over all the nations. It begins by announcing that the Lord is going to make Israel so sovereign over Egypt that the Egyptians will speak the language of Canaan, and will worship the Lord as their only God. There will be altars to the Lord set up in Egypt. Pillars to the Lord, though prohibited by Deuteronomy 16:22, probably unknown to the author, will be established at Egypt’s boarders as a sign that it worships the Lord. Finally, Israel, like Egypt and Assyria will be a world power, and though all three will be united in worshipping the Lord, Israel is and will remain the Lord’s heritage and favorite.
This is the last of eight alphabetical acrostic psalms and a masterful hymn of praise that extols the Lord as God and King, focusing on all that God has done. Its emphasis is individual in nature rather than corporate, remembering less God’s acts of salvation for the nation, than God’s interventions and providence in personal life. The psalm promises to bless God every day and praise his name forever and ever, and is filled with some of the most memorable phrases of praise in all of scripture. “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised.” One generation after another shall praise God’s name and celebrate his awesome deeds and his abundant goodness. “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love;” good to all. “His compassion is over all that he has made.” All God’s works give thanks and praise him; all the faithful shall bless him. His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom and his dominion endures throughout all generations. As the psalm moves to its conclusion, it identifies what it is that makes God faithful in all his words, and gracious in all his deeds: God upholds those who are falling, raises up all who are bowed down, gives food in due season, satisfies the desire of every living thing, is just in all his doings, near to all who call on him, fulfills the desires of all who fear him, hears their cries and saves them, watches over all who love him, while “all the wicked he will destroy.” The psalm ends like it began, promising to speak the praise of the Lord and announces that “all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever.”
Paul offers a prayer that the God of encouragement and hope will grant the Romans the mind of Christ, so that out of their unity, they may, with one voice, glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. They are to accept one another as Christ has accepted them, both Jew and Gentile. Christ, after all, became a servant to Jews for the sake of God’s promises to their forebears, and a servant to the Gentiles for the sake of glorifying God for God’s mercy. Paul then offers a series of scriptural quotes to confirm what he has said about God’s intentions among and for the Gentiles and then concludes with a prayer that the God of hope will fill them with all joy and peace in believing so that they may abound in hope.
Seated at table with Zacchaeus as one of the tax collector’s many guest, Jesus tells a parable about ten pounds. Luke reminds us of the context: they are near Jerusalem and his followers expect the kingdom of God to appear immediately with Jesus to assume Messianic reign. Jesus tells this story to counter that notion. A nobleman with ties to royal reign is about to go off to a distant country to get his reign confirmed. He gathers ten slaves and gives each “a pound,” telling them to do business with it until he returns. The citizens of the land, who hate the nobleman, send a delegation after him saying they do not want this man to rule over them. But in spite of their objections (and ultimately because of them!—see below), rule is given to him and he returns to his home. Vested with full authority, he tends first to his slaves and then to his enemies. The nobleman calls his servants and asks for an accounting (though the story only accounts for the first three slaves). The first has taken the pound and made ten more, the second five. Both are commended and given authority over ten or five cities in accordance with what they had earned with the pound. But the third was risk averse and disobeyed his master. Rather than do business with the pound he was given, he hid it in order to be sure he could return it when the master returned. When the nobleman demands an accounting, the slave characterizes him as harsh: taking what he did not deposit and reaping where he has not sown. The nobleman takes no time to refute that charge, but instead, judges the man according to his own words. Calling the slave “wicked,” he asks why it was then that he did not put his money into the bank so that when the master returned, he could have collected the increase. (Torah forbids loaning money at interest [Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:36-37; Deuteronomy 23:19], but, by Jesus’ day oral tradition of the law allowed money to “increase,” in its usage. It could not be “loaned at interest” but could be used to make more.) The nobleman instructs those standing by to take the pound from the wicked slave and give it to the one who earned ten. When they object, the nobleman replies that “to those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” But notice that beyond that, the slave is not punished. The historic interpretation of this parable in the church is that it is an allegory about the end of time, Jesus going away at his ascension to become king, leaving his servants in charge, with the Jews as his enemies, and upon his final return, giving authority to those who were trustworthy, and taking it away from those who were not. Behind this lies a dispensationalist theology in which the Jews are left out. A more contemporary reading is to see this as a commentary on precisely what is taking place at this point in Jesus’ life as Luke unfolds his gospel, and a prophecy of what is yet to take place for Jesus. He is about to be hailed “king” as he enters Jerusalem. But he will take up his reign only by rejection and suffering, as he has regularly told them would take place. His reign will begin from the cross where he exercises royal power to grant the thief entrance into his reign. It will continue at his resurrection and ascension, but through his “slaves,” as they continue to do business on his behalf in his absence. Those who object to his reign are the religious leaders who deny and reject him being named their king and who mock him, but unwittingly inaugurate his reign by demanding his crucifixion. Denying that he was a prophet, they continue to persecute his slaves in whom he has invested his wealth, as the synagogue persecuted members of the infant church. His enemies will finally be “cut off—slaughtered in his presence, which points to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE by the Romans. If you were listening to this in a congregation in the first century, who would you identify with and what would you hear being said to you? Which of the two applications would you find the most helpful?
Saturday: Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalms 33; Revelation 22:14-21; Matthew 18:21-35
The last second of Isaiah, often called “Third Isaiah” announces the new thing that God is doing in and among his people. Themes from Second Isaiah are elaborated, but now, the “new thing” that God is doing is in and through all of his people, as opposed to a remnant, and the change will be so dramatic that it will create a new heaven and a new earth. More, the former tings shall not be remembered or come to mind—even for God! Rather, “Be glad and rejoice forever in what [God is] creating. There will be a new Jerusalem. Weeping will no longer be heard for there shall no longer be any distress. Infants will no longer die prematurely, and an old person who dies at a hundred years of age will be considered not only unfortunate, but accursed. The people shall build houses and live in them (rather than conquering nations), they shall plant vineyards and enjoy its fruit, rather than another. Like the days of a tree, so shall the days of God’s people be, long enjoying the work of God’s hands. No one will labor in vain or have children destined for calamity, but all will be blessed by the Lord. The intimacy with God will be such that before the people call, God will answer, and while they are speaking God will hear. This will be about more than relationship between God and his people. The whole creation will live in peace, the wolf and lamb feeding safely together and the lion eating straw like the ox. There will be no predators in this new reality—not even the serpent will have power to do anything but eat dust. “They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain”—Jerusalem, God’s delight. It will be as its name proclaims: the city of God’s peace. The text had profound impact on the church as it has looked for the coming of Christ. Many of its themes have been incorporated into various liturgies and are apparent in other places in the New Testament, especially the Book of Revelation.
What is the identifying mark of the upright? Praise; praise that makes melody to the Lord on the ten stringed harp, and sings to him new songs of praise filled with loud shouts of joy. After three verses calling the assembly to praise the Lord, the reasons for such praise are identified. The word of the Lord is upright; all his works are done in faithfulness. He loves righteousness and justice. The earth is filled with his steadfast love. Verses 6-9 form the foundation of creation theology: “by the word of the Lord the heavens were made….” God spoke and creation came into being. These verses had strong influence on the creation narrative in Genesis 1. God’s “counsel” is superior to all others’—happy is the nation whose God is the Lord. God’s eye is all seeing. Kings are not saved by great armies or warriors by their strength. The war horse is a vain hope for victory. Rather, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, those who hope in his steadfast love and look to him to deliver their souls from death. The psalm ends with the recurring theme and commitment to wait for the Lord who is both help and shield. As they wait, their hearts are glad because they trust in God’s holy name. The psalm ends with a final plea: “Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you.”
The Risen Christ now speaks directly to the churches in which this letter is read: “See I am coming soon; my reward is with me to repay according to everyone’s work.” Here is one of the reasons Luther was so uncomfortable with this Book. It is less an expression of the grace of God than God’s wrath at work in a chaotic world. However, in such a world, one expects texts to exhort people to faithfulness, and that is what lies behind this. After further identifying himself as the beginning and the end, a blessing is pronounced on all who have washed their robes so that they have a right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. A further warning is issued against unfaithful behavior that will bar one from the Holy City. Again, Jesus identifies himself as the one who has sent the angel to John with this word for the churches. He is the root and descendant of David and the bright morning star—all messianic titles. Then, there is yet another invitation to come. In spite of what has been said above about “works” and sinful behaviors, everyone is finally invited to come and take of the waters of life as a gift. The book then includes in it a warning against anyone altering the words of this prophecy, complete with curse on those who do—a practice that was common in ancient documents. Again, Jesus says he is coming soon, to which John responds, “Amen, Come, Lord Jesus! The book ends with the final blessing: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen!
Peter comes to the Lord, having heard what he said about forgiving a brother or sister in the faith, asking how often he should forgive—as many as seven times? It is seemingly already generous. But Jesus responds, “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.” (Notice the footnote with the alternation reading” “seventy times seven”—greater still.) Jesus then tells a parable about the need for repeated and unlimited forgiveness in the church, for as we have been forgiven by God, we must also forgive others. A servant had a debt to the king of ten thousand talents—an extraordinary amount of money—so much so that he could not pay it and was about to be sold into slavery along with his wife, children and entire household. The slave pleaded for grace, promising ultimately to pay back everything. In pity for him, the lord of the slave, rather than grant the grace of postponement, actually forgave him all of the debt! Shortly thereafter, the reprieved servant came upon a fellow servant who owed him one hundred denarii—an amount far less than what the first servant was forgiven—but demands that the one hundred denarii be paid to him immediately. The second servant pleaded for mercy as well, but instead, is thrown into prison by the first until the debt was paid. When the fellow’s slave saw all of this, they were astonished and reported it to their lord, who summoned the first servant for an explanation. Calling him “wicked,” the lord reminds the slave that all of his debts had been forgiven, should not he also forgive the debts of others, having mercy on them as the lord had mercy on the servant? It is, of course Jesus’ fundamental point. But he does not stop there. Rather, he tells us that in anger the Lord handed the first slave over to be tortured until he paid the entire ten thousand talents. Jesus ends with discomforting words for those who utter the phrase, “I will never forgive so-in-so for what they have done.” He tells us divine forgiveness is revoked! So his heavenly Father will also do to everyone in the church who does not forgive, and do so from you heart. Our debts have been forgiven in Christ, and so he teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgiven our debtors” and do so daily.
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.