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Friday, November 28, 2014

Friday, November 28, 2014

Zechariah 14:1-11; Psalm 141; Romans 15:7-13; Luke 19:28-40

The familiar “a day is coming” places this oracle of restoration in the future. But, before restoration, there is the judgment of destruction. The nations shall gather against Jerusalem to do battle and it shall be taken, its houses looted, its women raped, and half its people taken into exile. It is clearly a remembrance of Jerusalem’s fall to Babylon in 587 BCE and a foretelling of those events coming again in the future. But the Lord shall go forth against those nations. A great earthquake will split the Mount of Olives north and south, and the people shall flee as they did during the earthquake during King Uzziah’s days. “Then the Lord my God will come, and all the holy ones with him.” What follows is the oracle of restoration, with constant sun, climate and water for the growing of crops. Living water shall flow out of Jerusalem in abundance to both the east and the west throughout the entire year, providing drink for the people. The Lord will become king over all the earth and his name One (remember the Shema: “The Lord our Lord is One.”). From this universal rule will come peace and abundance for the people. Jerusalem shall be re-inhabited and never again fall, but abide in security forever.

Psalm 141 is a wisdom psalm that is a personal petition and calls on God for protection from the lures of evil. It alternates between “the way of life” and “the way of death”—the traditional “two ways” theme of wisdom literature. It opens with a call to prayer that has, ever after, been used in communities gathered for evening prayer: “Let my prayer rise before you as incense; the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.” It recalls the incense burning in the temple as a symbol of the prayers of the faithful. God is called upon to “Set a guard over my mouth, and keep watch over the door of my lips. Do not turn my heart to any evil.” God is asked to keep the psalmist from the company of those who work iniquity. “Do not let me eat of their delicacies.” It is a plea to be kept from the company of those who walk in the way of evil and, rather, be kept in the way of good, even to the point of, “Let the righteous strike me....” This is an expression of continual openness to correction on the way, especially by those who are more wise than themselves. This is followed by the plea that “the oil of the wicked never anoints my head.” The imagery quickly shifts to violence that befits the wicked. But, just as quickly, the psalmist returns her focus upon the Lord and addresses God directly: “O God, my Lord; in you I seek refuge; do not leave me defenseless. Keep me from the trap that the wicked have laid for me; let them fall into their own nets, while I escape.

Paul encourages the mixed and divided congregation of Jews and Gentiles in Rome to welcome one another as Christ has welcomed each of them, and to do so, not for their own sake, but for the glory of God. Christ has become a servant of the circumcised in order to confirm the truth of the promises given to the patriarchs and in order that the Gentiles might also glorify God for his mercy. Paul follows this with a series of Old Testament quotes, each confirming that it has been God’s plan, from the beginning, to include the Gentiles in salvation. This is simply part of the fulfillment of God’s plan. Paul concludes this section with the wonderful blessing: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” It is a word important for every community of faith in any and every age, especially when the secondary agendas of life, with all of their passions and prejudices threaten to bring division into the community. In Christ, there is no place for such things, for if we are truly one in Christ, it will ameliorate the hindrances of our diversity while utilizing them to the full extent of their gifts.

Luke tells his version of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The journey from Galilee to here has been filled with opportunity for Jesus to tell his disciples what to expect once here, and part of that expectation is fulfilled. Jesus is welcomed as the Davidic Messiah, at least initially. The story of sending two disciples to secure the colt is both an affirmation that all of this is unfolding as God intends, the owners freely giving up the animal for Jesus’ use. Behind this all is Psalm 118 and Zechariah 9:9 that we recently read. Their king comes to them humble and riding on a colt, as he enters the holy city of Jerusalem. The people give him a royal greeting, spreading cloaks down before the animal as it makes its way to the Mount of Olives. There, the path turns down what is now called “the Hosanna Road,” and the people break forth into shouts of praise from Psalm 118:38, used before the loss of the monarchy in Israel as a liturgical greeting for the annual reenactment of the king’s coronation. Some of the Pharisees who have been in his entourage shout out to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” But there is no stopping this. Even if everyone—disciples, crowd, bystanders, all—were to be silent, the very stones would shout out in welcome, for they recognize their Lord even if the religious leaders do not!

Posted November 28, 2014
Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Zechariah 13:1-9; Psalm 133; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 19:11-27

Zechariah now turns to an oracle of purification: “On that day a fountain shall be opened for the house of David.” It shall be purified of all of its sin and impurity, as well as the people living in Jerusalem. Further, all false prophecy shall be cut off and destroyed, both the prophecy that issued forth from speaking for the god’s represented by idols and their worship and the prophecy that came from those speaking falsely in the name of the Lord. In fact, the parents of such false prophets are commanded to pierce them through when offering false prophecy. On that day, the prophets shall be ashamed of their visions. In order to avoid being identified as a prophet they will not wear the prophet’s hairy mantle but rather, claim to be a tiller of the soil. And when asked about his wounds, the prophet will respond that they have come from the house of his friends rather than his parents. The text then turns to an oracle calling upon a sword against the shepherd—here identified as the Lord’s compatriot or associate. The shepherd is to be struck down so that the people may be scattered, with two-thirds being cut off and left perishing. Only one-third shall remain, and this third shall be put into the fire and refined as one refines gold or silver. These will call upon God’s name and the Lord will answer and say, “They are my people”; and the people will say, “The Lord is our God.” This is the only place in the prophecy of Zechariah that God calls the people, “my people,” and only after the last third have been refined. This text took on new life in the New Testament where Jesus speaks of the shepherd being struck and the sheep scattered (Matthew 26:31 and Mark 14:27), and lies behind Jesus words in John where he speaks of himself as the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep (John 10:10-18), though in John, Jesus is clear, no one takes his life from him but, rather, he lays it down on his own.

Psalm 133 sings of the blessings of unity among all God’s people: “How good it is when brothers and sister dwell in unity together.” The psalm of blessing, again, a psalm of ascent being sung as pilgrims make their way to Jerusalem, describes the blessings of harmony and concord among the people, whether within the immediate family, the clan or the nations, especially as they make their way to Mount Zion. Such unity is good and pleasant and like precious, fragrant oil. Oil was used in biblical times for healing wounds, as a cosmetic on skin and hair, and for anointing kings, priest and prophets. Such oil of blessing is poured in abundance in Jerusalem like the dew of Mount Hermon, and runs down upon the beard and over the collar and onto the robe. The image of Aaron refers to the priesthood in Jerusalem; for it is there that the Lord “commanded” his blessing (“ordained is too weak)—life forevermore. The pilgrimage formed a bond of blessing itself, not unlike contemporary pilgrimages to holy places, with the ultimate blessing coming upon entering the temple. This psalm has had a rich liturgical life in the church, often used in calling people to the Lord’s Table. Augustine used it as a warrant for the development of monastic communities who were brotherhoods in which such unity was to dwell.

Having heard of the Ephesians’ faith suggests that the author does not know the community firsthand, which, of course, would challenge the authorship of Paul. Scholars disagree, not only on who wrote Ephesians, but if it was written only to the Ephesians or if it was a letter written for all the churches of Asia. On the other hand, it may be that Paul is saying, “Word of your faith is so well known that it has reached even this place.” After all, the author is in prison! Either way, the writer goes on to offer thanksgivings and intercessions for the people to whom it is written, asking that “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory” give them a spirit of wisdom and revelation as they come to know Christ, in order that they may know the hope to which they have been called, the riches of Christ’s glorious inheritance among them, and his immeasurable power at work among all who believe. This power was first put to work in Christ when God raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places—the seat of all rule, authority, power and dominion. God has given Christ a name above every other name, not only now, but in the age to come. God has placed all things under Christ’s authority, making him head over all things for the church—Christ’s body and the fullness of him who fills all in all—God himself! This letter is extraordinarily rich in its Christology and theology of the church as Christ’s body (a unique Pauline theme), and suggests a mature Paul or Pauline disciple at the height of his theological and pastoral power.

Still seated at table as Zacchaeus’ 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 and for Jesus to assume the Messianic reign. Jesus tells this story to counter that notion—what will happen in Jerusalem must take place before Jesus can finally assume his Messianic reign. A nobleman in line for royal reign is about to go off to a distant country in order for that reign to be confirmed, and gathers ten slaves and gives each “a pound,” (the Greek word here is mina, which was equal to wages for 100 days of work), 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 the nobleman and he returns to his home. Vested now 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 accord with what they had done 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 give it back 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, says he will judge the man according to his own expectations and words about the nobleman. Calling the slave “wicked,” he asks why 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 because those who borrowed were in need, and interest would only increase their need], but, by Jesus’ day, though extracting interest on a loan to the poor was still forbidden, 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 the people 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, but living among Jesus’ enemies. Upon Jesus’ final return, he gives authority to those who were trustworthy, in accordance with the ability they demonstrated while he was gone, while taking it away from those who were not productive. Only thereafter does he destroy all his enemies. 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 as “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—announcing his gospel 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?

Posted November 27, 2014
Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Zechariah 12:1-10; Psalm 129; Ephesians 1:3-14; Luke 19:1-10

This oracle concerning Judah, Jerusalem and “the nations,” makes the point that, though small among the surrounding powers that control the land, Judah and Jerusalem will become a “cup of reeling,” for all who surround her. On that day she will be a “heavy stone” that harms all who try to lift her so that they “grievously hurt themselves,” even though all the nations of the earth come against it. The repetition of “on that day,” keeps the oracle future in its orientation, rather than a comment on current circumstances. So, too, on that day, the Lord will make the clans of Judah like a blazing pot and a flaming torch, consuming those who surround them, while Jerusalem will stand. And lest the people of Jerusalem become self-aggrandizing in all of this, the Lord will save the tents of Judah first (the dwellings of it soldiers, not its clans). Thereafter, even Jerusalem’s most feeble citizens will be like David, and David’s house like God—an astonishing assertion that is quickly modified by, “like the angel of the Lord,” as David is described in 2 Samuel 19:27. Again, “on that day,” pushes all this onto the horizon as the Lord promises to set out to destroy (the NRSV “seek to destroy” is too weak for the context), all the nations that come against Jerusalem. God will pour out a humane spirit of compassion and consolation on the people (Ezekiel 36:26, as opposed to “my Spirit” in Ezekiel 39:29 and Joel 2:28-29). What follows is one of those troubling verses that can be translated two ways. Will the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem look upon God whom they have pierced (notice the footnote “me”) or, is it a reference to one of a number of renowned instances in which children were sacrificed to preserve the reign of other Judean kings? The text was later given Christological significance through its use in John 19:37, in reference to the Roman soldiers piercing the body of Jesus on the cross to assure that he is dead.

Psalm 129 is a pilgrim’s song, the tenth of fifteen “songs of ascent” in the collection (see psalms 120-134) and is cast in the form of an individual lament. It was probably used by pilgrims communally, as they made their way to Jerusalem for one of the three festivals in which they were required to “appear before the Lord”—Passover, Weeks and the Festival of Booths. It remembers Israel’s many enemies and how they mistreated Israel, attacking it from its youth, plowing its back deeply, making within it long furrows of pain and suffering. Yet, the Lord is righteous (notice the present tense in the rehearsal of the past), and has cut the cords of the wicked—they cannot bind or hold Israel in bondage nor can their tents stand. Then, a curse is invoked on all who hate Zion, God’s dwelling place. Let them be put to shame and turned back. Let them become like the grass that grows on rooftops; without deep root it withers in the sun and does not produce a crop worth reaping. Those who pass by the enemy attempting to reap such a harvest, offer no words of blessing. The psalm ends with the liturgical greeting offered to pilgrims on their way to and at their entrance to the temple: “We bless you in the name of the Lord.”

This is one of the most lyric and glorious passages in the New Testament. After a standard greeting, Ephesians breaks into one long, eleven-verse, sentence citing the blessings of God in Christ and laying forth the theological convictions of the book. It is totally Trinitarian in its structure, blessing the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing, in the heavenly places—this latter being a phrase frequently used to describe the entire cosmos—with the promise of it all guaranteed by the Holy Spirit. What God has done, God has done throughout and for the entire created order. The text then moves to the theme of election: God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world and destined us for adoption as God’s children through Jesus Christ. Election is not a privilege, but for a purpose: to be holy and blameless before him in love. The themes of redemption through Jesus’ blood, the forgiveness of our “false steps” (the meaning of the word translated here “trespasses’) according to the riches of grace lavished on us. It announces the mystery of God’s will: to gather all things up in Christ—God is doing this for the world, not just a singular religious movement or sect. God has given us an inheritance in Christ so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. Again, election, adoption, predestination—whatever one calls it—is for God’s purposes, not ours, though we are the beneficiaries of it. When hearing the word of truth—the good news of our salvation—and when we had believed in him, we were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people; again, to the praise of God’s glory.

“Zacchaeus was a wee little man; a wee little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see.” This children’s Sunday school rhyme captures the event perfectly. Jesus is entering Jericho where Zacchaeus, a rich tax collector, lives. Being short of stature, Zacchaeus cannot see through the crowd and so climbs up into a sycamore tree. (If you visit Jericho today, your guide will show you the very tree at a fork in the road!) When Jesus gets to that place, he stops, looks up in the tree and commands Zacchaeus to come down; Jesus plans to stay at his house this day. Zacchaeus hurries down and is happy to welcome Jesus. And, of course, all who see it grumble—not just the religious establishment, but all who see it—because Jesus has gone off to be the guest of a notorious sinner. Tax collectors were hated, not only because of their collaboration with Rome, but because they were infamous for fraud, adding huge personal commissions to the tax bill in order to enrich themselves at the people’s expense. But upon Jesus’ arrival in Zacchaeus’ house, a remarkable thing happens: Zaccheaus has a change of heart. He promises to give half of his possessions to the poor, and “if [he has] defrauded anyone of anything [he] will pay back four times as much.” Jesus announces to Zaccheaus, “Today salvation has come to this house….” But then, the pronoun moves to third person, meaning Jesus turns from talking to Zaccheaus to addressing the crowed that despises Zacchaeus, saying: “… because he, too, is a son of Abraham.” John the Baptist, in calling the people to repentance, had warned against relying on their ethnic heritage as their means of security, saying “God is able from these stones to raise up for himself children of Abraham” (Luke 3:8-9). Zacchaeus’ behavior reveals not only his repentance but his true identity. Notice that the concept of salvation here has to do with a change of heart that results in wholeness in life for both Zacchaeus and those around him. Still turned to his critics Jesus says, “The Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost.” A lost son of Abraham has been found and has become the blessing Abraham’s children are meant to be (Genesis 12:3).

Posted November 26, 2014
Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Zechariah 11:4-17; Psalm 124; 1 Corinthians 3:10-23; Luke 18:31-43

Following upon the oracle of restoration, there is this chapter with its decided change. Following three verses warning of the destruction of the forest and the wail of the shepherds who are leaders of the people, today’s lesson is, what some call, as difficult a passage in scripture that exists. In the second half of Zechariah, “shepherd” usually means a political figure, as formerly, it meant “king.” But here the prophet himself is told to be shepherd of a flock “doomed to slaughter.” Those who buy them kill them without punishment, and those who sell them become rich in profit. Their shepherds have no pity on the sheep because the Lord has given up pity for the inhabitants of the earth. Each will fall into the hand of the neighbor. So, Zechariah becomes the shepherd of the flock doomed to slaughter and takes two shepherd’s staffs, one he names “favor,” (or “delight”) and the other he names “unity,” (or “concord’). He breaks the first in prophetic action to reveal the fact that God is annulling the covenant made with the people—they are no longer favored and God’s delight. As the sheep merchants watch, they know it is the word of the Lord. The prophet then requests payment for the sheep from the merchants, who pay him thirty shekels of silver, the amount in Exodus 21:32 that is paid to the owner when his slave is gored by another’s ox. The Lord tells the prophet to throw the money into the treasury in the house of the Lord. At that, the prophet breaks the second staff. The unity of Israel is destroyed, symbolizing the breech between Israel and Judah. Then, God speaks again of worthless shepherds who are corrupt and care nothing for the perishing or the wandering sheep, shepherds not interested in healing the maimed, much less nourishing the healthy. Their only interest is to devour the flesh of those who are fat. The text ends on a plea that the worthless shepherd, whether a religious or political leader, loses his strength and sight—the only optimistic words in the text.

Psalm 124 gives thanks for the Lord’s deliverance saying, “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. The Lord is blessed for not giving them 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.

There is a dispute brewing among the Corinthians concerning their leaders, in which a significant group is highly critical of Paul and his teaching and behavior among them. Some look to Paul, some look to Apollos and some to Peter (Cephas) as the “real” leader of the community. Paul writes back that he did what he did among them according to the grace God gave him for his task. He then goes on to cite principles of church leadership: each builds on the work of the other, and must choose with care how one builds, since the foundation that has been laid is Christ himself. Those who build with precious resources and workmanship will find that in the test of fire their work will stand and they will receive a reward. Those who build with wood, hay and straw will find their work consumed in the fire and left in ashes and only they will survive. Just verses before, Paul has said, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” Paul then leaves the subject of leaders to speak to the congregation: do they not realize that they are God’s temple and that the Spirit of God dwells in them (the “you” here is plural—Paul is speaking about the church, not believers individually). If any of them destroys God’s temple, God will destroy them, for God’s temple is holy. They are not to deceive themselves in their wisdom, it can lead to destruction. Rather they should seek the foolishness of God, who catches the wise in their craftiness (Job 5:13) and knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile. So, let them not boast about their human leaders, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, much less their wisdom or any other gift, for that matter, save that they belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God.

Jesus takes the twelve aside from the crowd and tells them what is to happen to him once they reach Jerusalem. The adulation of the crowd and the esteem in which they currently hold him will change and he will become their enemy. The religious establishment, of whom he has been so critical, will rise up against him and hand him over to the Romans for flogging and crucifixion, and on the third day he will rise again. If the former things seem hard to understand, the latter is absolutely incomprehensible to them, and Luke tells us, “They did not grasp what he said.” But as they approach Jericho, a blind man sitting at the roadside begging hears that it is Jesus of Nazareth who is passing by, and the man begins to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Others may be blind to who Jesus is but this blind man sees! The crowd sternly orders the man to be quiet; who does he think he is? But, he will not remain silent and repeats what he has said. Jesus stops, this is precisely who he has been saying are heirs of the kingdom. He turns toward the man and orders him to be brought to him. When the man is brought to Jesus, Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” The man says, “Lord, let me see again.” Jesus says, “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.” Immediately, the man regains his sight and follows Jesus, glorifying God. When the people see it, they praise God as well.

Posted November 25, 2014
Monday, November 24, 2014

Monday, November 24, 2014

Zechariah 10:1-12; Psalm 106:19-48; Galatians 6:1-10; Luke 18:15-30

Though there has been a partial return of the people to Judah, God will bring all of them home, even those disbursed to the farthest places. When they are home, they are to ask the Lord for rain in due season; it is he that gives it and all the vegetation that comes forth from it. It is in vain that they serve the teraphim (household god)—they utter nonsense. Worse, they seek diviners, who only see lies, and dreamers whose visions are false and give empty consolation. It is for this reason that God’s people wander like sheep and suffer for lack of a shepherd. God’s anger is turned on their false shepherds. Instead, the Lord will care for his sheep, the house of Judah. He will make them proud warriors and fight among them on their behalf, trampling the foe in the mud of the streets, for the Lord is with them. God will strengthen Judah and Joseph (the former northern tribes) and bring them back because of the Lord’s compassion, to show that he has not rejected them. When God calls the people of Ephraim, who formerly had rejected battle calls, they will become warriors. Their children shall see it and rejoice and their hearts exalt in the Lord. The lesson ends with the promise of restoration. God will gather them in from the far places he has scattered them among the nations. God will bring them home from Egypt and from Assyria, to the land of Gilead and Lebanon, so much so that there will be no room for them. They shall pass through the sea of distress in a new exodus, but the sea shall be struck down and the depths of the Nile left dry. The sovereignty of Assyria and Egypt shall be no more for the Lord will make them strong in his name and they shall walk in it.

Psalm 106:19-48, continues the confession of sin, recounting 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 is the God who is 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 that generation to the wilderness, there to wander and die, and only then placed their descendents 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. Upon entering the land, the Israelites failed to destroy the nations, as God had commanded, and, instead, mingled with them, taking up their religious practices, sacrificing their own 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!”

This time of year, we seem beset with stewardship texts. But, before getting to that, hear what Paul says about dealing with a member who is failing morally. Those who have received the Spirit should restore such a one, but in gentleness not anger. Remember, “There but for the grace of God go I!” So be gentle with those who transgress, and take care yourselves, lest you too are so tempted. Bear one another’s burdens. In this way you fulfill the law of Christ. In other words, forgive one another as you have been forgiven! Even those who are nothing but think they are something (those who judge) deceive themselves. Each must test one’s own work; then that work, rather than that of the neighbor can be a cause for pride. Let each carry their own burden. (And remember, everyone carries a burden!). Now the subject turns to stewardship. Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with the teachers. It should not come as a surprise that even in the church of the New Testament, there were those complaining that they should have to be financially responsible for the support of the church and its leadership. But what may be surprising is how Paul links this complaint directly to mocking God, and the warning that whatever you sow you will reap. If you sow to your own flesh (your own pleasures, rather than needs) you will reap corruption. But if you sow to the Spirit and the things of the Spirit, you will reap eternal life. This thing called the gospel is consummately practical and physical. So, let us not grow weary in doing what is right, so that at harvest time, we may reap a harvest of righteousness. Whenever you have an opportunity, work for the good of all, especially those in your family of faith.

Jesus’ insistence that the infants be brought to him must not be romanticized by 21st century sensibilities. Children were, in Jesus’ day, a burden and possessed few rights. They were on the lowest rung of the social ladder. It is these latter, of any age, which Jesus is calling to himself. Then, the rich ruler asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. After reprimanding the ruler for calling him “good,” and reminding him that no one is good but God alone, Jesus refers him to the commandments (the table of the law dealing with human relationships.) But the ruler says he has kept all these since his bar mitzvah. When Jesus hears this he says, “One thing you still lack. Sell all you have and give it to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then, come follow me.” The rich man goes away sad, for he is very rich and obviously is unwilling to part with it! Jesus responds, “How hard it will be for those with wealth to enter the kingdom of God. It is much easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.” (Do not listen to those who try to symbolically do away with this absurdity. Jesus is talking about the power of wealth to distract and keep us from living as his disciples.) The disciples understand and ask, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus replies that with mortals it is impossible—full stop! We cannot save ourselves even by giving everything away. But what is impossible for mortals is possible with God. At that, Peter reminds Jesus of all they have left to follow him. Jesus’ response is an affirming reply, not only to Peter and the other disciples, but to all who hear this lesson, especially the church in which it was first read, where people had risked family relationships and wealth to follow Jesus. No one who has done so will fail to get back much more in this age, and in the age to come, even more—eternal life.

Posted November 24, 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