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Saturday, March 29, 2014

Daily Readings for Saturday, March 29

Genesis 47:27–48:7; Psalm 31; 1 Corinthians 10:1–13; Mark 7:1–23

Israel and his children and children’s children settle in the land of Goshen and are extraordinarily prosperous. For the next seventeen years, they live there and are fruitful and multiply exceedingly. As death draws near to Israel, he calls Joseph and asks that upon Israel’s death Joseph not bury him in Egypt, but take him back to “the land of his ancestors,” and bury him there. Joseph promises to do so, but Israel demands more: an oath. And once again, the ancient and mysterious rite of oath-taking while holding the other's sexual organs takes place. Again, the future of God’s promise to Israel and his progeny is dependent upon Joseph keeping this oath, lest the Israelites become absorbed into Egyptian life and culture. In addition, returning Israel’s bones to Canaan, among the other ancestors, will continue to witness to their claim on the land. The oath complete, Israel bows himself in worship upon his bed. Some time thereafter, Joseph is told that his father is ill to the point of death, and he takes his two oldest sons, Manasseh and Ephraim with him to see their grandfather. When told they have arrived, Israel struggles to sit upright on the bed and recounts for them God’s appearance to him at Luz, blessing him, and making promises of prosperity and a great people to whom God will give the land of Canaan. And now, Israel claims Joseph’s two oldest sons as his own—of equal rank with the other of Joseph's brothers. Each will share in Israel’s inheritance just as Ruben, Simion, Levi, Judah and other others will. As for Joseph’s other children, they shall be Joseph’s and share only his inheritance in Egypt. But Manasseh and Ephraim are each destined to become the head of one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Israel concludes by reminding Joseph that his own mother, Rachael, Israel’s favorite wife, died in that land and is buried there. The children of Israel must return there, no matter how prosperous they may become in Egypt.

Psalm 31 is both petition and praise, and is a composite, echoing phrases from other well-known psalms (Psalm 4:1; 18:19; 27:14; 33:18, 22; 38:15; 69:3; 71:1-3; 115:17; 118:5). It begins with a confession of faith: “In you, O Lord, I seek refuge; do not let me be put to shame;” virtually identical with 71:1-3. God is to respond, not because of the psalmist’s virtue, but for God’s own name’s sake—to preserve God’s reputation! Verse 4 begins to list the reasons for praise and trust: you are my rock, fortress, guide, and redeemer. It then moves to an expression of trust, confessing that God has placed him “in a broad place.” (See Psalm 18:19 and 118:5.) It is followed by a plea for deliverance, followed by an exhortation to wait for the Lord, (See psalms 27:14.) Verse 5 appears on the lips of Jesus as he is dying in Luke 23:46. Images and phrases from other psalter sources abound: “Let your face shine upon me”; “Do not let me be put to shame, O Lord”; “Blessed by the Lord who has shown his steadfast love to me.” It ends with wisdom’s counsel: “The Lord preserves the faithful, but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily”; then adds the biblical injunction: “Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.”

Paul, having talked about his own spiritual discipline, strengthened by his desire to reach the goal, now returns to the theme of the Corinthian’s behavior. He uses the history of Israel and its exodus and wilderness wanderings to remind them that baptism and communion are not an antidote against immoral behavior. The Israelites were baptized through the sea, into Moses in the cloud and the sear. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink, doing so from the rock that was following them, a rock Paul describes as Christ himself. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them and they died in the wilderness—struck down in judgment. Paul reminds the Corinthians that these things are “examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did.” The judging incited in Numbers 14:12, is recalled. Therefore, the Corinthians must not indulge in idolatry or the sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day. Sexual license was rampant in their Roman-Greco culture and especially evident in the evening meals or the various religious and philosophic symposiums of the day. Drinking bouts often turned sexual. We must not put Christ to the test—claiming his saving power in our lives and ignoring the demands of what it means to be baptized into him.  Rather, we are to live for him and not ourselves. Don’t even complain. Remember what happened to the Israelites complaining over the routine of manna and quail. God sent fiery serpents against them to destroy them. Such complaining is out of order and leads to being destroyed by God’s avenging angel—the destroyer. Again, Paul reminds them that all of this happened to serve as an example for those who would follow, especially “us on whom the ends of the ages have come.” So, if they think they are standing, let them examine themselves, lest they fall. Finally, their testings and temptations are no more severe or special than any other human being. The difference is, “God is faithful and will not let [them] be tested beyond their strength, but with the testing, will also provide the way out so that [they] may be able to endure it.

Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees and some of the scribes has begun. They have come from Jerusalem and gathered about him. The first thing they notice is that Jesus’ disciples are not maintaining the purity stipulations of the Law. Mark then goes on to give a gloss over what they mean: washing hands, eating foodtaken from the market, cups, pots, bronze kettles and the like. “Why,” they ask him, “do your disciples not maintain ritual purity?” Jesus responds that Isaiah was right about them when he condemned them for honoring God with their lips while remaining far away in their hearts. They worship God in vain while teaching human precepts as doctrines. They abandon the commandments of God while hanging onto traditions they have made up themselves. He cites the fifth commandment to honor parents, which they reject in order to observe their own tradition of Corban—a special offering to God that then cannot be used for any other purpose, like caring for one’s aged parents. They ignore the written commandments to observe their oral ones. And so, he calls the crowd to himself and warns them: there is nothing outside a person that by going into them can defile and make them unacceptable to God. Rather, it is the things that come out of people that defile—things like their oral traditions! The disciples are still too thick-headed to understand and in private ask what Jesus meant. He explains that it is not food that defiles, but what comes out of the human heart: evil intentions, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly—a list of vices that were common in the culture that surrounded the church to which Mark is writing.

Posted March 29, 2014
Friday, March 28, 2014

Daily Readings for Friday, March 28

Genesis 47:1–26; Psalm 105; 1 Corinthians 9:16–27; Mark 6:47–56

Joseph goes to Pharaoh to tell him that his family has arrived with their flocks and herds and all their possessions. From among his brothers, he brought five—interestingly, they are not named—and presented them to Pharaoh. As Joseph had told them he would, Pharaoh asks them their occupations, and, following Joseph’s counsel, they respond that they are shepherds as their ancestors have been. Actually, life in Canaan was a combination of agriculture and shepherding, but now that they stand before Pharaoh, they tell him that there is no graze or pasture in Canaan due to the famine. Pharaoh tells Joseph to settle them in the best part of the land, in Goshen, and, if there are capable men among them, put them in charge of Pharaoh’s livestock. Then, Joseph presents his father Jacob to Pharaoh, and immediately Jacob blesses him. Then Pharaoh asks Jacob’s age. Jacob responds, “One hundred thirty: few and hard and nothing compared to his ancestors. Again, Jacob blesses Pharaoh and takes his leave, and he and his family settle into the land of Goshen—the land of Rameses—still rich in pasture. In addition, Joseph provides his father, brothers and their households with food, according to the number within each nuclear family. The narrative now transitions back to the reality of the famine. Joseph collects all the money he has received in return for grain and takes it to Pharaoh, centralizing the country’s lands, government and economy. As the famine continues and the people of the land have no more money, they come begging for food, and Joseph says he will give them food in exchange for their livestock. They agree, and Pharaoh’s wealth increases even more, and Joseph gives them food. At the end of that year, the famine is still upon them and the people again appear before Joseph begging for food. But now, they have neither money nor livestock. All they can do is give Pharaoh their land and sell themselves into his service. But that they are willing to do, if Joseph will give them grain. So, Joseph buys all of their land for Pharaoh, all but the land of the priests, who were living on a fixed allowance from Pharaoh. And now we encounter a textual problem. The Hebrew version of this story says that Joseph removed them off the land to the cities, further centralizing life and making them tenant farmers. It is the Greek translation of text that says he made slave of them. Joseph then tells them that having bought them and their land for Pharaoh, henceforth, they are to sow the land with seed and keep four-fifths for themselves for seed and grain, but one fifth they shall give to Pharaoh. They respond that Joseph has saved their lives, gladly will they do this. And so, Joseph makes a statute concerning the land “that stands to this day, that Pharaoh should have the fifth.” Only the lands of the priests were exempt from this statute.

Psalm 105 is a grand 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 Lord over all of Pharaoh’s house, not only to govern, but to teach his elders wisdom. Joseph’s success (and the famine), brought Israel to Egypt where they lived 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 has given them these lands and the wealth of all of their inhabitants, so that they might be a people who keep his statues and observe his laws. The psalm ends with one final word of praise: “Hallelujah!”

Having said he would rather die than be deprived of his ground for boasting, Paul catches himself in his flight of rhetorical fancy to step back and say that if he proclaims the gospel, it gives him no reason for boasting, for an obligation has been laid on him, and woe to him if he does not proclaim it. For, if Paul does this of his own will, which he does not, he has a reward; but if not of his own will, he is entrusted with a commission. What then is his reward? That in his proclamation he may make the gospel free of change and not make full use of his rights in the gospel as an apostle. And now, back to the question of freedom, he writes words that have been foundational to Christian evangelism ever since, “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.” To the Jews, he is a Jew in order to win Jews (remember his purification practices once back in Jerusalem), to those under the law, he becomes under the law—he keeps it—though he is quick to say he does not need to. To those outside the law, he becomes as one outside the law, though remaining under the law of Christ. To the weak he becomes weak so he can win the weak. He has become all things to all people, that he might by all means be Christ’s vehicle for saving them. Why? Simply for the sake of the gospel, so that Paul, too, may share in its blessing. Now, Paul summarized all of this with his famous illustration of the runners who compete in the Greek games. They all run the race but only one wins it. Athletes exercise self-control and do so in order to receive a perishable wreath, but Paul and his colleagues an imperishable one. So, Paul does not run aimlessly, nor does he box the air. Rather, he punishes his body to enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others, he himself is not disqualified.

Jesus has sent the disciples off in their boat to Bethsaida, on the other side of the lake, while he goes up the mountain to pray. Later that night, while they are at sea and he is alone on the land, he perceives that the twelve are struggling against the forces of nature, once again. And so, he comes toward them, early in the morning, walking on the sea. Though he intended to pass them by, when he sees how they are struggling, he draws near, and they see him but think that he is a phantasma—an apparition—and cry out in terrified fear. Jesus responds by identifying himself, saying, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” The phrase is loaded with theological freight: “Do not be afraid,” is almost always the first words out of God’s mouth, or the mouth of God’s messengers whenever God or God’s messengers appear. What is translated, “Take heart,” is more correctly, “Be of good courage,”—there is hope, so bravely await it. “It is I,” is the name God used to reveal himself to Moses at the burning bush. This is no apparition, and to make the point, Jesus climbs in the boat with them. As he does, the wind falls to a dead calm. They are now “utterly astonished,” and fail to understand any of it. Not only did he provide food for the five thousand, this is the second time he has demonstrated his powers over nature, but, Mark tells us, “their hearts were hardened”—they do not understand. But, it is not their fault—their hearts were hardened! In God’s providence, it is not yet time for them to understand, but simply to watch and be witnesses to what is taking place. Sometimes, it is not ours to understand, but simply to watch and “take heart”—be of good courage—remembering that he is in the boat with us. They continue on to Gennesaret and tie up the boat. As they climb ashore, the people immediately recognize Jesus, and rush about the whole region, bringing to him their sick. Wherever Jesus goes, whether villages, towns, farms or marketplaces, they lay their sick before him and beg for permission to simply touch the fringe of his cloak. Clearly, the hemorrhaging woman’s story has made its way through the region. Mark brings this section of miraculous action to a close by simply telling us, “and all who touched it were healed.”

Posted March 28, 2014
Thursday, March 27, 2014

Daily Readings for Thursday, March 27

Genesis 46:1–7, 28–34; Psalm 126; 1 Corinthians 9:1–15; Mark 6:30–46

Israel sets out on his journey to Egypt, stopping in Beersheba, where he offeres sacrifices to “the God of his father Isaac”—this God does not yet have a name. In a night vision, God appears to Jacob and reassures him about his journey to Egypt. There, God will make him and his descendants into a great nation. God, himself, will go with them and be with them in the land, and when the time for Israel’s death comes, Joseph will close Israel’s eyes. The next morning, Israel sets out from Beersheba, taking with him all that he has, his tents, his possessions, his children and their children and all of his flocks and cattle. The lectionary steps over the genealogy of those who accompanied him, and back to the story. Israel sends Judah ahead to make preparation in Goshen. When they arrive, Joseph prepares his chariot and goes up to Goshen for the emotional reunion with his father. Joseph tells his father and brothers that he will go to Pharaoh to remind him that his people are shepherds who tend flocks and that they have brought all of that with them. Joseph tells them that when Pharaoh calls them and asks their occupation, they are to tell him that they are keepers of livestock. That way, Pharaoh will give them permission to settle in the land of Goshen, a distance away from Pharaoh and his court, for, shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians.

Psalm 126 is a pilgrim song, sung to the song of ascents, as worshippers make their way to the temple. It remembers the initial joy experienced by the people upon their return home to Jerusalem, from the Babylonian exile. They were like those who dream: their mouths were filled with laughter, their tongues with shouts of joy. As the Lord had promised, the nations said among themselves, “The Lord has done great things for them.” In affirmation, they declare it themselves: "the Lord has done great things for us,” and in them they rejoiced. They have been saved. But now, home, there are new challenges. The second half of the psalm falls into a petition for God to bless them, to come and restore their fortunes, like water rushes through the watercourses in the Negeb. When the rain comes, those flat, dry riverbeds suddenly become awash with torrents of water. May the restoration come as suddenly so that those who sow in tears—planting season in the Ancient Near East was associated with sorrow for many reasons, not the least being that the summer drought was drawing near and threatened to destroy the seed—will reap with shouts of joy because the crop has been abundant beyond belief.

There appears to be an “anti-Paul” party within the Corinthian congregation that is using several arguments to discredit Paul and his teaching. Paul has just used the example of love as more important than knowledge, and now falls back to defend himself as such an apostle to the Corinthians. With two rhetorical questions: “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle?” “Of course!” must be the Corinthian’s answer—he brought them the gospel. They are the very seal of his apostleship in the Lord. Therefore, Paul has all the rights of the other apostles, which he makes clear with additional rhetorical questions. He has the right to be supported by the Corinthians in matters of food and drink. He has the right to be accompanied on his apostolic missions with a believing wife, as are all of the other apostles and brothers of Jesus—especially Peter. Is it only Paul and his companion, Barnabas, who are exceptions to these rules and expected to work for their own living? Using military, agricultural and pastoral imagery, Paul presses home the right of the worker to receive appropriate wages for doing the work. Is it that because Paul was not asking for support, his detractors were using it to say, “Were he truly an apostle he would demand these things? He does not because he knows he is not an apostle, but a self-appointed, traveling huckster, peddling religion.” There were many such people in the culture that day. Paul continues: he is not saying this just on human authority; what does the law say? “You shall not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is this law for the sake of oxen? Or, is Moses speaking for Paul and his companion’s sake? If they have sown the spiritual seeds of the gospel among the Corinthians, is it not appropriate that they also have the right to reap? And, as is Paul’s style in such arguments, having laid out a series of questions that can only substantiate his point, he utters his well-known “nevertheless” to make the point that Paul has chosen, in love for the Corinthians, not to lay these burdens on them. Paul would endure anything rather than become a stumbling block to others in the way of the gospel (like those who eat sacrificial meat or with others in the temple). Even those employed in the temple service receive their income from what is brought to the temple and offered to God. In this same manner, the Lord has commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get there living from doing so. Paul has laid no claim to these rights in the past, nor is he writing to begin doing so now. He says he would rather die than have someone deprive him of this and make his boasting in these matters false.

The disciples return from their itinerant preaching mission to tell Jesus all that they had taught and done. He calls them away on retreat for some rest, for Mark tells us that so many were coming to them that they did not even have time to eat. Boarding the boat they head for a deserted place, but the crowd gets wind of it and heads there on foot ahead of them. When Jesus and the disciples come ashore and see the crowd there awaiting them, Jesus has compassion on them. They are like sheep without a shepherd, an image used frequently in the Old Testament to sit in judgment on unfaithful kings of Israel. Jesus will be a faithful king and good shepherd to the people, and so, he begins to teach them “many things.” The day moves into dusk and none of them have eaten. The disciples want Jesus to send the people away into the nearby towns and villages so they may find something to eat, but Jesus says, “No, you give them something to eat.” Startled by this, the disciples object: with what? Two hundred denarii worth of bread could not feed this crowd. He asks what they have. They search and discover among them five loaves and two fish. Jesus orders them to have the people break into groups and sit on the ground. He then takes the bread, looks up to heaven, blesses and breaks the bread and gives it to the disciples to distribute to the crowd. So, too, he divides the fish among them all. Mark tells us that not only was everyone’s hunger met and satisfied, but that there were twelve baskets left over. The number of those who were fed was five thousand men. The Eucharistic symbolism of this feeding is intentional on Mark’s part. Indeed, many early depictions of the Eucharistic meal included fish as well as bread and wine. The twelve baskets left over can either bring to mind the twelve tribes of Israel still wandering for lack of an authentic shepherd, or they may be an image that says there is a basket for each of the twelve disciples with which they are to continue to feed Jesus’ sheep.

Posted March 27, 2014
Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Daily Readings for Wednesday, March 26

Genesis 45:16–28; Psalm 27; 1 Corinthians 8:1–13; Mark 6:13–29

When the word that Joseph’s brothers had come to Egypt reached Pharaoh; he charged Joseph to send his brothers back to his father and bring him and all of the extended family and households, including the livestock, to Egypt, in order that Pharaoh might give them “the best of the land of Egypt”—Goshen—so that they may live off the fat of the land. More, Pharaoh provides wagons for the women, children and their father to ride in, as well as carry their possessions. The brothers do as Pharaoh commanded, and Joseph gives to them wagons and provisions for the journey. In addition, he gives each brother a set of garments. But, to Benjamin, he gives three hundred pieces of silver and five sets of garments. For his father, Joseph sends for twenty donkeys, the males to be loaded with “the good things of Egypt,” and the females to be loaded with grain and bread and other provisions for his father’s journey. As he sends the brothers on their way, he warns them against quarreling. Or, is it, as the alternate footnote would suggest, he warns them not to be agitated, a word of comfort to indicate that there will be no more ruses of gold in bags and silver cups in sacks, as his plotting against them is over? He truly does want the entire family in Egypt. The brothers go up out of Egypt to their father in Canaan and tell him that Joseph is not only alive, but even rules over Egypt. At first, Jacob is so stunned by the news that he cannot accept it. But, when the brothers tell him of all that Joseph has said to them, and when Jacob saw the wagons loaded with provisions that Joseph had sent to carry him to Egypt, his spirit was revived. Now the text uses his new name to say, “Israel said, ‘Enough! My son Joseph is still alive. I must go and see him before I die.’”

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 another of the Corinthian’s questions: can they eat meat sacrificed to idols? There are some in the Corinthian community who, claiming superior knowledge are asserting that, given their freedom in Christ, it is their right to do so. Behind this lies the Greek and Roman sacrificial systems in their many temples so that such meat, if not consumed by the worshipper was often sold in the market at a reduced price. Could they buy and eat such meat? And what about dining at the invitation of a friend who has presented such sacrificed meat as a part of the meal? Paul begins with the issue of knowledge and its use. In Corinth, it seems to have become an issue of status rather than something in service to discipleship. Paul begins by affirming that, “all of us possess knowledge,” but knowledge for its own sake only “puffs up,” whereas love “builds up.” Someone, it seems, is trying to trump an argument such as this on the basis of their superior knowledge, and in doing so, they are revealing that they do not yet have the necessary knowledge to know how to be offering such counsel to the community. But more, superior to knowledge is love, and those who love God, with or without such knowledge, are known by God. This is one of only three places where Paul uses this phrase about loving God (1 Cor. 2:9, Romans 8:28). For Paul, more often than not, it is faith and trust in God that are the issues. That said, Paul turns to the question of food offered to idols. In essence, he is saying food is food and nothing more, and, at that level, inconsequential, for we know that idols are merely idols and do not represent the only true God—in fact, they represent no god whatsoever. The Roman-Greco world may be filled with gods in the heavens and gods of the earth, but none of them are the true and living one God, “the Father, from whom are all things and to whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we all exist.” However, not everyone in the community has reached that maturity. Having been accustomed to such Greek and Roman idols, newer members of the faith community may still make the connection of the idol to a god, and being weak in their knowledge, have their conscience offended when seeing a brother or sister in Christ eating meat offered to one of them. Again, Paul reiterates it: “Food will not bring us closer to God.” They are no worse off if they eat such sacrificed food, and no better off if they do not. The real issue here is their responsibility to one another, especially the mature to the weak. And now a principle for life in the church is boldly set forth: “But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” For if the weak see those who possess knowledge eating sacrificed meat or doing so in a temple, might they not be encouraged to do so as well, but from a stance of believing that in doing so it is acceptable to be serving the god of that temple in this way? So, in the exercise of liberty and knowledge, the weak believer for whom Christ died is destroyed, and the wise have used their liberty and freedom as an occasion of sin. Paul concludes this by saying, “If food is a cause of another’s falling, I will never eat meat, so that I might not become the occasion for their tripping and falling from the faith.”

Jesus’ fame is spreading and with it misunderstanding as to who he is. Some think him John the Baptist back from the dead. Others think him Elijah returned, as he was expected to do before the Messianic reign appeared, and others simply one of the prophets of old, since the well of prophecy had dried up. Now Mark takes time to tell us about the death of John the Baptist at Herod’s hands. John had been publically condemning Herod for his marriage to Herodias, who had formerly been Herod’s sister-in-law, when married to Herod’s brother Philip (Lev 18:16; 20:21). Consequently, Herodias had a grudge against John and wanted him dead. The most Herod would dare to do is arrest John and put him in prison, for not only had John become powerful among the people, Herod both feared him, but also regarded him as a righteous man and liked to listen to him. But when, on the occasion of his birthday, Herod gave a party for his courtiers and officials in Galilee, one thing led to another. Herodias’ daughter came to dance for him and so pleased Herod and his guests that he promised her whatever she might ask. It was not simply an aside to the girl; it was a public oath. One gets the sense that the wine had been flowing all too freely at the party! The daughter (it is the Jewish historian Josephus who tells us her name was Salome) goes to her mother for advice and Herodias replies, “The head of John the baptizer.” The daughter does, leaving Herod deeply grieved but bound by his word and oath in front of his guest. And so he sends soldiers of the guard with orders to return with John’s head. They bring it back to the girl on a platter and she promptly gives it to her mother. The story ends with John’s disciples coming to claim and bury John’s body in a tomb. The point to all of this too easily gets missed in the drama of dance, vision of veils falling away, and an illicit wife’s revenge. Herod had great regard for John and found himself between a rock and a hard place. Believing in the resurrection of the dead, Herod now thinks that John has been bodily raised and is back in Jesus, which for Herod, explains the powerful things that Jesus is doing.

Posted March 26, 2014
Tuesday, March 25,. 2014

Daily Readings for Tuesday, March 25

Genesis 45:1–15; Psalm 25; 1 Corinthians 7:32–40; Mark 6:1–13

Joseph can bear it no longer and abandons the disguise to reveal himself to his brothers and be reconciled. Judah’s offer has overwhelmed Joseph and, in and outburst which seems to have been uncharacteristic of him, Joseph orders every Egyptian from his house, leaving him only with his brothers. No one, save the brothers, stays behind to witness what happens next. Joseph makes himself known to his brothers in weeping so loud that the Egyptians hear it. He says, “I am Joseph; is my father still alive?” for it is clear that, as of yet, he has not believed what his brothers were saying and considered it more of their conniving against him. The brothers are, for their parts, stunned into silence; so dismayed are they to see Joseph. What will he do to them to get even for their attempt to kill him and later selling him into Egyptian slavery? Again, Joseph identifies himself as their brother, now reiterating the events when they sold him into slavery. He tries to assure them, telling them not to be distressed or angry with themselves, for God was at work in all of this. Yes, they did sell him into slavery. But, God was behind it to send him before them to Egypt in order to preserve their lives. The famine, he tells them, has been only two years, and there are five more to come. Again, he assured them that God has sent him, for them, to preserve them for a remnant on the earth and to keep alive for them many survivors. So, it was not them who sent Joseph here, but God, who has made Joseph a father to Pharaoh and lord of all of Pharaoh’s house, and ruler over all the land. They are to hurry and go up to Joseph’s father and tell him all of this, and that he asks that Jacob and all of the brother’s families come down to Egypt and settle in the land of Goshen (the delta of the Nile), so that they can be near him. They are to come with their flocks, their cattle and all of their possessions and settle there. Joseph will provide for them there, so that they not come into poverty. Then, as final confirmation that he is who he says he is, he says, “And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you.” Not only has he called Benjamin his brother, but he is, for the first time, speaking to them in Hebrew, rather than through an interpreter. They must tell his father how greatly Joseph is honored in Egypt, just as they have seen. So, they must hurry and bring his father to him. At that, Joseph embraces Benjamin, and the two weep. Then Joseph kissed all of his bothers as a sign of their reconciliation and wept “upon them.” Now, for the first time, the brothers are able to talk freely with Joseph. He is, indeed, their lord; but he is also their brother.

Psalm 25 is an acrostic that is a prayer in which the psalmist pleads for God’s protection, guidance, mercy, instruction, pardon and grace. A wisdom psalm, it repeats the convictions that those who wait upon the Lord and who walk in God’s ways (Torah), will never be put to shame, while the wantonly treacherous will end in disgrace and defeat. Seeking for the wisdom to ever to know God’s ways, the psalmist asks to be led in God’s truth and taught God’s ways. She pleads for God’s mercy and steadfast love and asks that the sins of her youth be forgotten. She blesses the Lord as good and upright, who instructs sinners and leads the humble in the paths of steadfast love and faithfulness. In the midst of many foes, she asks that they not prevail or put her to shame, for she has taken refuge in the Lord. May that integrity and uprightness be a source of strength and preservation as she waits on God. Finally, the scope of this petition is expanded beyond personal concerns to pray that God will redeem Israel out of all its trouble.

Paul continues to give the Corinthians marriage advice, in light of his conviction that there will be upheaval ahead for the church. He wants them to be free of as much anxiety as possible. The unmarried man is “anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.” So, too, for the women: virgins and unmarried women are free to be serious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in both body and spirit, whereas those married are anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please their husbands. Having said this, Paul is quick to add that he says this, not to put any restraint upon them, but in order to promote order in the church and unhindered devotion to the Lord. On the other hand, if one thinks he is not behaving properly with his fiancée, if she is maturing past her prime as she waits for him, or if he cannot control his passions—notice Paul’s concern for both the woman and the man, (a concern often missed in some translations that avoids the reference to her growing past her prime), let them marry—they do not sin. But those who stand firm in their resolve and have their desire under control are under no necessity to marry; they may remain engaged. Those who decide to marry “do well,” while those who refrain from marriage “will do better.” All of this has less to do with marriage than the dynamics and obligations marriage brings to life as the time grows short. Finally, some words about marriages that have come to an end for various reasons. A wife is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, even if they are divorced. But, if the husband dies, she is free to remarry anyone she wishes, only he must “be in the Lord.” Marriage outside of the faith is not permitted because of the even greater stresses it brings upon relationships. But, in Paul’s judgment, a widow is more blessed still if she remains a widow. To this he adds the reminder that these are Paul’s opinions, not dictates from the Lord. That said, he believes that they are spoken in the Spirit of God. 

Jesus returns to Nazareth with his disciples, and on the Sabbath, goes to his home synagogue to teach. Those who hear him are astounded, wondering where he has gotten all of this, and where his wisdom has come from. They are astonished at the deeds of power he is doing. They ask, “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joses, Judas and Simon, as well as his sisters?"  (Notice that Joseph is not included here and is clearly dead.) Why they take offence at him is unclear—was it his entourage and the fact that they thought he was taking himself entirely too seriously? Jesus simply responds with the truism that prophets are honored everywhere except at home, among their own people, even in their own families, or perhaps, especially within their own families! His clearly did not know who he was or understand what he was about. At any rate, their unbelief is such that he can do no deed of power there, except for laying hands on a few of the sick and healing them. Mark tells us Jesus was amazed at their unbelief. Leaving Nazareth, he moves through the surrounding villages, teaching in them. Then he calls the twelve and gives them authority—it is not only his, but his to give!—over unclean spirits and sends them out to preach and heal. Sending them out without bread, bag or money, and limiting what they wear, he has put them into the status of itinerant preachers who are to be dependent upon the hospitality of those to whom they preach. Such was common in that day, and generally, it was thought an honor to house and care for such a preacher. Whenever a house welcomes them, they are to stay there until they leave the village. If any place will not welcome them, and its people refuse to hear what it is they have to say, leave town and shake the dust of that place off of your feet as testimony against them. And so, they went out and preached that the people should repent. Notice the absence of “and believe the good news.” They cast out many demons and healed many sick by anointing them with oil, but so far, they seem not to understand that this is the good news of God and bigger than their miracle working leader.

Posted March 25, 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