Monday, May 11, 2015
Deuteronomy 8:1-10; Psalm 115; James 1:1-15; Luke 9:18-27
Moses warns the people that, when they come into the land of promise, not to forget the Lord or, in their prosperity, fail to do his commandments. Look at how the Lord has cared for them these forty years in the wilderness, while he was humbling them, testing them and teaching them to trust him. The clothes on their backs did not wear out, their feet did not swell, he gave them manna daily, all to teach them that “one does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” The land the Lord is bringing them into is rich in resources, filled with good things, where they will be able to eat bread without scarcity and will lack nothing. The land is filled with iron and copper and all that they need. They are to eat their fill and bless the Lord for the good land that he has given them. How quickly, however, humans take God’s good gifts and turn them, not only into our own possessions, but also of our own doing. And, of course, that is precisely what Israel will do. But rather than judge them, we are to learn from them and their experience. Looking at our possessions as our own doing leads us into a form of exile as well.
Psalm 115 was probably written for use communally and reflects on the greatness of God as the Sovereign One in heaven who rules over the earth. The psalm calls on God to act on the worshippers’ behalf, lest their enemies, the foreign nations, say, “Where is your God?” Where? In heaven, and God does whatever God pleases! The psalm then levels an attack on the idolatrous enemies, probably fellow Jews who worship idols—things of silver and gold, made of human hands that have mouths, but do not speak; have eyes, but do not see; have ears, but do not hear and so on. Those who make them are exactly like the sightless, deaf and speechless idols they craft; so too are those who worship and place their trust in them. The psalm then calls on the people of Israel to trust in the Lord! The Lord is their help and shield. The exhortation is repeated, probably antiphonally, another two times, followed by a reminder that the Lord has been mindful of his people and will bless them all, great and small—all who fear the Lord. There is then a blessing, perhaps offered by the priest, praying that the Lord give them and their children increase. The heavens are the Lord’s, the earth has been given to humans, and the netherworld belongs to the dead. There, the dead do not praise the Lord. The psalm concludes with the communal affirmation and promise to bless the Lord from this time on and forevermore, ending with “Hallelujah!”
The Book of James is another “Pastoral Letter” sent to churches with general teaching on appropriate behavior—this one “to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion,” those beyond the boundaries of the Jewish-Christian community in Palestine. The letter begins by discussing various trials the believers are experiencing. They are not to be vexed by them, but consider them “nothing but joy,” because in such testing their faith is producing both endurance and assurance, so that, in the end, they will be lacking in nothing. Now, the subject turns to wisdom—a frequent concern for James—and he reminds readers that, if they are lacking in wisdom, then they should simply ask God for it, for God is the source of all wisdom. God will ungrudgingly and generously give it to them. But, ask in faith, never doubting, for doubt is faith’s enemy. Doubt makes the faithful like waves of the sea that are tossed about by the wind, making the doubter double-minded and unstable, and therefore unable to receive anything from the Lord. From the testing of faith, we now come to the subject of resources or the lack of them. The believer who has little is being “raised up,” while the rich are being “brought low,” because, in the end, the rich will become like the flowers of the field who though, for a moment, are splendid, finally wilt under the heat of the sun. It is an interesting reversal of Jesus’ words about the lilies of the field. But James’ point is not unlike Jesus’: those who spend their time in life busy trying to make more, rather than trusting God to provide, will ultimately wither away. Finally, James turns to the subject of temptation—a trial of its own. Never say, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted by evil and himself tempts no one (had James read Job?). James’ point is that, for us, the temptations emerge out of our own desires that lure and entice us to things that when they come to birth in us create sin, a sin that if allowed to grow to fullness will bring death.
The question of “Who this is?” has dominated Luke’s gospel thus far, asked most recently by Herod. And so, while alone with his disciples, Jesus asks them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” The answer to that question is consistent in each gospel that tells of this event: John the Baptist raised from the dead; Elijah, who never died, but was taken up into heaven; and others say, one of the ancient prophets who has risen from the dead. None of those answers is correct and Jesus implies as much when he asks, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter, by now the spokesperson for all of them, answers Jesus saying, “The Messiah of God.” Rather than congratulate Peter on getting it right, Jesus sternly orders and commands all of them to not tell anyone—notice he does not deny it! Rather, utilizing the public name he prefers to Messiah—in part, because there were so many different understandings of who and what the Messiah might be and do—Jesus tells them that “the Son of Man must undergo great sufferings, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” This is the first of three such passion warnings by Jesus in Luke, and it is specific in naming the elders, chief priests, and scribes—the religious leaders who made up the Sanhedrin that ruled over Israel from Jerusalem who will be responsible for his death. It was not the Jews who killed Jesus, but their religious leaders. This is where Jesus will meet the hostility that will ultimately take his life. Stepping by the objections we are accustomed to hearing from Peter, Luke simply continues to quote Jesus who tells them the conditions for following him: say “no” to yourself, take up your cross daily (“daily,” is Luke’s unique addition here), and follow him. If he, the Messiah is to suffer thus, can those who follow him not expect to suffer as well? But to this Jesus adds his promise/warning: those who want to save their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives for his sake will save them. Notice that losing one’s life is about doing so in witness to Jesus—martyrdom, which was becoming a threat in the church for which Luke writes this gospel. Then, Jesus asks the rhetorical question about gaining the whole world but losing or forfeiting oneself in the process—a timeless truth whether one follows Jesus or not, but all the more central to those who want to be his disciple. This is followed by a warning against being ashamed of him and his words. For those who are, of them Jesus will also be ashamed when he comes in his glory and that of his Father and the holy angels. He then promises that some of them standing there with him will not taste death before seeing the kingdom of God. It is not simply a promise that they will be witnesses to his resurrection, but a preparation for what happens in the next portion of Luke’s gospel: Jesus’ transfiguration before Peter, James and John’s eyes.
Readings for the Sixth Week of Easter
Sunday, May 10, 2015
Deuteronomy 15:1-11; Psalm 117; 1 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Matthew 13:24-34a
In the midst of recounting regulations for the yearly tithe of produce to support the Levitic priests and temple establishment, today’s lesson provides laws for the remission of debts among the Hebrews. Every seventh year, all debts are to be forgiven fellow members of the community. Foreigner’s debts may still be claimed, but any Hebrew who is in debt to another Hebrew, for whatever reason, will have that debt forgiven. As they do so, the Lord will bless them, so that there will never be any in need among them. They may lend to nations, but they may not borrow from them, lest they become financially dependent and, in the end, the foreign nation rule over them. Rather, they will rule over many nations. Understanding that the remission of debt every seven years will be unpopular in some circles, Moses is more direct still: “Do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor.” Rather, those of means are to open their hand willingly, lending enough to meet the neighbor’s need. Take care not to entertain mean thoughts, because the seventh year is near and the borrower may not be able to return what has been loaned. For, if you entertain such hostility, your neighbor may cry out against you to the Lord and you will incur guilt. “Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all you undertake.” There will never be a time on earth when there are not those in need. Therefore, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”
Psalm 117 is the shortest psalm in the collection of 150 and is a call to worship addressed to everyone, followed by a brief hymn of praise. It easily comports with the theology of Second Isaiah: the Lord is God, there is no other. But more, the Lord is steadfast love and faithfulness, and endures forever. Hallelujah!
First Timothy begins the section of epistles we call “Pastoral Letters.” They were written to churches to provide instruction in the midst of continuing dissident teaching and influence from outsiders bringing with them new rules and regulations. Whether written by Paul, as the letter suggests, or by one of Paul’s associates in his name, as some of the internal evidence would suggest, it is addressed to Timothy, Paul’s “loyal child in the faith” (1:2), a Pauline convert and close traveling companion of Paul’s whom Paul thought of as one of his most trustworthy colleagues, and his child in the faith. The letter assumes Timothy has now been left in Ephesus to exercise his authority in the church there that is being troubled by those teaching deceitful things. The letter makes the point that the church is God’s household and that those vested with authority to oversee it, must do so with integrity and diligence, withstanding those who would come in from the outside to corrupt it. Paul expresses the desire to come to Ephesus soon, but is writing now because of the urgency of things. Affirming the church as the household of the living God and pillar and bulwark of the truth, Paul then quotes what appears to be a hymn or confessional statement, being used in the churches of Central Asia, to summarize that truth. He goes on to remind Timothy that the Spirit has expressly warned that, in latter times, some will renounce the faith, turning instead to deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons that come to the churches through hypocrites. The liars’ consciences have been seared with hot irons—branding them like slaves—to show that they belong to the demons. These outside teachers are forbidding marriage, and demanding abstinence from certain foods. Paul rejects both their insistence on celibacy and their ascetic standards. Both are inappropriate to followers of Christ, for everything created by God is good and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by God’s word and by prayer.
Matthew gives us three well-known parables of Jesus: the wheat and the tares (weeds), the mustard seed, and the yeast of the kingdom. All three speak about the dynamics of life in God’s reign. Jesus has sowed the seed of the gospel among them and it has taken root. But somehow, the field is always hosting weeds; how can this be? Jesus says that, while everyone slept, an enemy came and sowed the seeds of weeds, so that the weeds have come up among the wheat as well. (Notice the subtle suggestion of what happens when we are “asleep” in life.) The slave wants to know if his master wants him to go into the field and pull up the weeds. He is told, “No, for in doing so, you would uproot the wheat as well.” Wait until harvest time; then gather the weeds first, bundle them, and throw them into the fire. The wheat then can be gathered into the master’s barn. So much for the presence of good and evil in the kingdom as it continues to unfold—patience and trust in God are required. The kingdom is also like a mustard seed—the tiniest of all seeds—but when planted in one’s life it grows to become one of the greatest of shrubs, like a tree the birds of the airs can nest in. What begins in small ways, ultimately, becomes life-sustaining; so too, for our faith in God’s reign. Even in its smallness, God’s reign is like yeast. It does not take much to leaven three measures of flour. Do not underestimate the power of God’s reign in life, even when, at first, you do not think you can see it. It is at work, like yeast, transforming everything it touches. In these days, when churches anguish over declining membership rolls and participation in worship, it is important to remember that the church is to be yeast, not the dominant presence it has enjoyed in this country for almost 350 years. A secular culture will find it hard to resist the power of true yeast within it, and such leaven will have its impact and witness.
Saturday, May 9, 2015
Deuteronomy 32:34-43; Psalm 114; Romans 15:1-13; Luke 9:1-17
In the verses between Deuteronomy 32:15 and 42, Moses continues to make the case against Israel, repeatedly quoting the Lord as God expresses his anger at his people and the reasons for punishing them through Israel’s enemies. At the same time, the suit points out that the protectors of Israel’s enemies are false gods and insufficient as “rocks” to support and sustain them. Today’s reading foretells the Lord’s vengeance against those enemies. It is stored up and sealed in God’s treasuries; their foot will slip! Moses’ voice returns, announcing that the Lord will vindicate his people and have compassion on his servants, but only after their power is completely gone. Then, the Lord will say of their enemies, “Where are their gods, the rock in which they took refuge?” Those false gods who ate and drank the sacrifices of their people, let them come to help those who oppress Israel. They will learn that the Lord is God and that there is no other god but the Lord. What follows is a description of God’s sovereignty in military might—flashing sword in hand, taking vengeance on his adversaries and those who hate him. God’s arrows will become drunk with the blood of Israel’s “long-haired enemy.” The song ends with a psalm of praise, calling upon heaven, all people and all gods to “worship the Lord, who avenges the blood of his children, takes vengeance on his adversaries, repays those who hate him, and cleanses the land for his people.”
Psalm 114 is a hymn praising God’s power, and recounts the wonders God did in claiming the house of Israel as his own, when bringing them out of Egypt to make them God’s own dwelling place in the land of promise. The psalm uses various images from creation to emphasize God’s sovereignty at critical points in Israel’s life—the sea looked and fled; the river Jordan turned back to allow the people to cross over. At God’s presence, the mountains skipped like rams and the hills like lambs. Why? Because it is the Lord, the one who turns rocks into pools of water and flint into a gushing spring, a reference to Moses striking the rock in the wilderness. The hymn is a remembrance of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and was later sung at Passover on the 8th day of that celebration, just as it still is today.
Paul continues to make the case that the unity of the body is more important than any of the things that are dividing the congregation in Rome. Those among them who are strong must put up with the failings of the weak, rather than the strong pressing their own agenda. Each of us must please our neighbor—notice the exhortation for both sides to put up with one another in peace! Christ is used as an example: he did not seek to please himself, but bore the insults of others on our behalf. In verse four, Paul quotes Psalm 69:9 and then makes an extraordinary move: this was written not simply for those who in those days used it for praise, but is also for “our instruction, so that by steadfastness on our own part and by the encouragement of the scriptures, we might have hope.” It is the interpretive principle that will shape the church, as it searches ancient texts and sees in them the foreshadowing of Christ. Scripture is more than history or law. Paul now prays that God’s steadfastness will encourage them and enable them to live together in harmony, so that, with one voice, they may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, they are to welcome one another as Christ has welcomed them. The point of unity is not unity for its own sake, but for witness to Christ and God’s action and glory in him. Christ became a servant of the circumcised on behalf of God’s truth to confirm the promises God gave to the patriarchs that even the Gentiles would glorify God for his mercy. Then, with a series of quotations from the Old Testament, Paul reviews those promises, ending with a grand benediction: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit, you may abound in hope!”
The gospel reading today is packed with three or four major events; each deserves significant reflection that is not possible here. Jesus now gives the apostles power to heal and cast out demons and dispatches them to proclaim the kingdom of God. Notice the instructions he gives them for personal provision, as well as what to do if they are not welcomed. Herod is perplexed: who is this Jesus—John raised from the dead, Elijah returned, or another of the ancient prophets? Herod wants to see Jesus. The feeding of the five thousand comes in two stories. First, the twelve return from their apostolic venture and report on all they had done. Withdrawing privately to Bethsaida, Jesus takes them alone with him. But the crowd finds out and follows Jesus there. He welcomes them, speaks to them about the kingdom of God and heals those who need to be cured. Notice how casually Luke will say that, again and again; and consider the vast number of people who were healed. As the day draws to a close, the apostles urge Jesus to send the crowd away to the surrounding villages and cities to find their evening meal, for the place where they are is a deserted place. But Jesus says to them, “You give them something to eat.” The apostles have only enough to feed the thirteen of them. How can they feed the crowd without going to buy more food? Jesus now expands the responsibility beyond the apostles to all of his disciples that are with him. He tells them, “Make them sit on the ground in groups of fifty each.” They do. Jesus then takes the five loaves of bread and two fish, looks to heaven, blesses and breaks them (hear, again, the Eucharistic words being employed in the narrative), and gives the meal to the disciples to set before the crowd. All eat and are filled. When the disciples gather up what is left over, they have twelve baskets of the broken pieces. There is provision here, not simply for the crowd, but as the crowd’s needs are met, so are the needs of the disciples. The twelve baskets point to the churches that will come from their apostolic ministry in Acts, and Jesus’ presence in and among them to provide for them as well.
Friday, May 8, 2015
Deuteronomy 31:30-32:14; Psalm 49; Romans 14:13-23; Luke 8:40-56
Moses assembles the people for his final speech before leaving them. Through the singing of a hymn, known now as the Song of Moses, he recalls for them again the covenant God made with them. In the first half of the hymn, Moses sets forth a lawsuit against the people and their behavior with God. Moses calls on heaven and earth to serve as witnesses to the suit, and listen to his words as they fall upon them as drops of dew that refresh the earth, watering grass and plants. As he would in any public lawsuit, Moses proclaims the name of the Lord as his authority, and he speaks of the Lord as a Rock, the giver of justice and righteousness, who is always faithful and upright. Yet the people have abandoned the Lord, turned from his revealed ways and behaved as rebellious children. Does one treat one’s parent in such a way? How foolish they were! Have they forgotten how the Lord made them? If so, ask their human fathers; go to their elders and listen as they hear again the story of how “the Most High”—the God of gods—appointed the nations of the earth to their own places, according to the number of their people, and gave them land, and, in doing so, appointed Jacob his own people. The Lord found them in the wilderness during their nomadic wanderings, long before coming to Egypt--encircled and protected them, and rose up like an eagle stirs its nest to hover over its young. As an eagle spreads its wings to catch its young, so the Lord spread his wings and carried them on his pinions. It was the Lord who guided them; there was no foreign god among them. The Lord alone guided Jacob and set him in a good and fat land, a land in which honey could be drawn from the rock and oil from flint. He gave them curds from the cows, milk from the flocks and the fat of the lambs. The blood of grapes gave them wine to drink.
Psalm 49 is a wisdom psalm addressed to all the inhabitants of the earth—both high and low, rich and poor—and warns against placing trust in one’s wealth, or boasting in the abundance of one’s riches. Why fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of your persecutors surrounds you—those who trust in their wealth and trust in their riches? There is no ransom one can pay for one’s life; death comes to everyone. The rich and the poor alike, the wise and the foolish die together and leave their wealth to others. Mortals may be pompous, but like all animals, we perish, whether foolhardy or prudently pleased with ourselves. Like sheep appointed for Sheol, death is their shepherd. In the midst of all of this doom and gloom, there is a surprising, even startling word—“God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.” Here is one of the unusual places in the Hebrew Scriptures that witnesses to the belief that communion with God does not end at death (see also Psalm 73:24). And now, the psalm turns to comforting those who see others gaining riches while they do not. Do not be afraid; they will die and carry nothing away. Though they count themselves happy because of their riches—for those who do well for themselves are praised in this world—when they die, they will never again see light. Again, wisdom reminds us that, in spite of our pride and pomp, we are no better than the animals that perish. Trust in God, the only true source of confidence.
Continuing to address the strife in the Roman congregation, because of their very different former religious backgrounds and the “hangover” from those days, Paul urges them to put away all judgments against one another. He goes on to say that, for his part, he is sure in the Lord Jesus that nothing the Lord has made is unclean; that, in fact, it becomes unclean for those who think it so. So, if your brother is offended by something you are eating, and you continue to do so before him, you are no longer walking in love. Yes, you have the freedom to do so, but why abuse that freedom to destroy another in the faith? Do not let what you know to be good be spoken of as evil. But more, the kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness (right relationships), peace and joy in the Spirit. The one who serves Christ in this way is acceptable to God and has human approval. Consequently, pursue the things that make for peace and build up the body. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food or drink. Regardless of your freedom, it is good to not eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble. Rather, have regard for their concern. The faith that you have, gives you conviction before God that you have no reason to be condemned. But, those who have doubts are condemned if they do eat, because they are not acting from faith. Whatever does not come from faith is sin.
Jesus returns from casting out the demons of the Gerasean, and immediately encounters a crowd waiting for him. Among them is a leader of the synagogue named Jairus, whose young daughter, and his only child, lies ill at the point of death. He begs Jesus to come and heal her. Luke uses the context to give us a second healing story within a healing story—a regular literary device Luke uses, telling us of another in the crowd in deep need who has come to Jesus for healing. She has been hemorrhaging for twelve years, and, though she has spent all that she has on physicians, none has been able to help. Pressing through the crowd and coming up behind him, she gets close enough to Jesus to reach out and touch the edge of his robe and, immediately, her hemorrhaging stops. Jesus asks, “Who touched me?” and all deny it. Peter thinks the question a bit disingenuous—“In this crowd you are going to ask such a thing?” But there is more going on here than touch. Jesus insists on knowing, for he has felt the healing power leave him. The woman realizes that she can no longer remain hidden, and, so, she comes forward trembling and cowering before Jesus. Knowing that she has rendered him unclean by her touch, she now fears what he will do—take the healing away? Jesus looks on her and says, “Daughter (notice the familiarity and affection), your faith has healed you. Go in peace.” At that very moment, servants from Jairus’ household arrive to tell him that his daughter is dead; do not trouble the teacher any longer. Overhearing it, Jesus says, “Do not fear, only believe and she shall be saved.” Coming to the house they encounter the mourners, but ignoring them, Jesus takes Peter, James and John, Jairus and his wife, and goes to the child saying, “She is only sleeping.” The people break out in laugher at Jesus’ words. Once inside, Jesus takes the little girl by the hand and says, “Child, arise!” and she does. Jesus immediately instructs them to give her something to eat, to assure them that this is not an apparition—ghosts do not eat. Her parents are astonished, but Jesus tells them to remain silent about what has happened; the official answer is, “She was asleep.”
Thursday, May 7, 2015
Jeremiah 33:1-13; Psalm 68; Romans 14:1-12; Luke 8:26-39
While still under palace arrest, the word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah in a mixed oracle that first describes the devastation coming upon Jerusalem, and then speaks of its restoration—both at the hands of the Lord. Jeremiah is told to again call on the Lord in supplication, and the Lord will answer, telling Jeremiah great and hidden things that he has not known. Is this the Lord reversing himself? Remember, earlier he told Jeremiah not to pray for the people, and that even if Moses and Samuel stood before him pleading, the Lord’s heart would not be turned to the people (Jeremiah 11:14; 15:1). Or is this simply the Lord continuing to console Jeremiah, affirming that, after the punishment, there will come the Lord’s forgiveness and his blessings? It is the latter message that dominates today’s lesson. Jerusalem is about to fall, not because of the Chaldeans’ strength and might, but because the Lord has turned his face away from Jerusalem. The houses and palaces that have been torn down to build defenses within Jerusalem against the siege ramps will remain desolate. All will fall before the sword because of the Lord’s wrath against the people. Because of the wickedness of the people of Judah and Jerusalem, the Chaldeans are coming to fill the city with the dead bodies of its people. But, as soon as that is said, the Lord adds, without so much as one word of transition, “I am going to bring [the city] recovery and healing; I will heal them and reveal to them abundance of prosperity and security.” God promises to restore not only the fortunes of Judah, but also of Israel, and rebuild them as they were at the first. God will cleanse them from their sin, forgive their guilt and rebellion, and make the city such that its name is a joy to the Lord, bringing praise and glory to the Lord before the nations of the earth. At first reading, verses 10 through 13 sound like a repeat of what has just been said. However, a closer look reveals the emphasis upon the desolation and waste of the city “without human beings or animals in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem,” followed, again, by words promising restoration of mirth, gladness, brides and bridegrooms. Once again the people shall bring thank offerings to the Lord in his dwelling place, singing the beloved words of praise. The psalm that is quoted in verse 11 appears in nine other places in the Old Testament—five in the Psalter, here, in 1 & 2 Chronicles and in Ezra. It is Israel’s “Doxology.” The emphasis upon emptiness and desolation returns, with a final promise of restoration so complete that the nation’s initial boundaries shall be restored. Commentators point out that because the land was never truly a wasteland or uninhabited, verses 10 through 15 may be a later addition of propaganda to give legitimacy to the returning exiles’ claim of exclusive right to the land. Indeed, the hostilities between Jews and Samaritans will, in part, grow out of this conflict, as well as the support the Samaritans gave to the Chaldeans in their siege of Jerusalem. The little book of consolation is nearing its end.
Psalm 68 is a battle hymn remembering and celebrating the victories of the Lord on behalf of his people. It is complex in that it uses virtually all of the biblical names for God: Elohim, El, Yah, Adonai, El Shaddai, Yah Elohim and Yahweh. It opens with the plea that those who hate the Lord will be driven out like smoke driven by the wind, as wax melts before a fire, that the wicked may perish. The righteous will be glad and rejoice in God and will sing to the Lord a new song. The prayer then turns to extolling God’s justice and righteousness—a father to the orphan, an honest judge for the widow, a home for the lonely, one who leads prisoners to freedom. It is a mixture of high praise for the Lord who dwells in his sanctuary among his people, executing justice. It is also a description of various moments in Israel’s life when the Lord has intervened to give them victory—from their release from captivity in Egypt, their travels through the wilderness, to their settling into the land of promise, and the various wars and skirmishes thereafter. The land quaked at Sinai at the presence of the Lord. Rain clouds opened to give drink to his people. Kings fled before the Lord, giving the people peace and prosperity among the sheepfolds. The mountains of Bashan are celebrated (a place in the Transjordan, famous for raising cattle). The number of God’s chariots is myriad—thousands upon thousands—and the Lord leads the people and is among them, while he imprisons those who have been taken captive. Ascribed to David, the psalm recalls a moment when the Lord has given the enemy into his hand. Verses 21 to 23 indulge in that language of battle that is graphic (evidently why those who developed the daily lectionary excluded it from today’s reading), but it reminds us of the brutality of war in any age. It then returns to blessing the Lord as a festival procession makes its way to the temple to celebrate God’s presence in Jerusalem. Envoys come from far and wide to pay tribute. The kingdoms of the earth sing praises to the Lord, who rides above Israel with strength and victory. The psalm ends with one final ascription of praise: the Lord gives strength and power to his people. Blessed be God.
Paul continues to insist upon the rule of love among the members of the Roman church where the differences between Jewish and Gentile Christians are creating tension, dissention and even divisions. They are to stop quarreling about their opinions over food regulations, over festival days, and even over matters of faith. Whether weak or strong in faith, they are to welcome one another. Imagine one who had been well versed in Jewish law and tradition, who subsequently became a believer, having to deal with a new Gentile convert to Christ, whose former religious tradition had been poly-theistic and pagan. Can you hear the frustration and arguments that must have emerged? And whether they believe they must still maintain kosher food laws of Torah, or were free to eat and drink anything and everything—even food sacrificed to Roman gods in their temples!—they must not judge others by their own standards. Rather, to the extent that they can give thanks to God for what they are eating and drinking or abstaining from, their behavior is made holy and acceptable to God—it is giving thanks to God for it that sanctifies it! Some come with a calendar of religious days that still bear significance to them and argue that they must be kept. Others have no such tradition and think that trying to hang onto the past is a mistake. Paul, probably in deference to both sides, does not name the days. Was this sabbath observance, the fast days of Tuesday and Thursday, the move of worship from Saturday to Sunday, arguments over Passover observance and the like? We do not know. But the point is this: “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?” Those whom God has welcomed, you must welcome as well. You are, after all, not the judge (and here the “you” in verse 4 has moved from its plural form in Greek to the singular, as if to make it more personal still). In all of this, if we live, we live to the Lord. If we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s! It was for this that “Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.” Therefore, stop holding your sister or brother in Christ in despising judgment. Have you forgotten that each of us must stand before the judgment seat of God—a message too easily forgotten in a church that has grown soft on cheap grace, producing members who presume upon it rather than become reformed by it? We are and will be held accountable for what we do and do not do.
Just as the demonic powers were silenced at sea at Jesus’ word, the same takes place as they reach the shore of Gerasenes. As Jesus steps ashore in Gentile territory, he is met by a man infamous for being possessed by demons. He is naked and has been living in the surrounding tombs. Upon seeing Jesus, he falls before him, shouting in demented fervor, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.” Now, Luke tells us that even before the man had spoken to him, Jesus had commanded the demons to leave the man. Luke then tells us of the demons’ power over the man and how it is that he had been driven into the wilds—believed to be a suitable haunt for the demonic. Jesus asks his name and the man responds, “Legion.” A Roman legion consisted of between four and six thousand soldiers—this is not just a few demons hanging out in the man. But,with one voice, they beg Jesus not to send them back to the abyss from which they first emerged—even they find it a place of torment. It is, after all, the dwelling place of “the Beast” in Revelation, where Satan is sent, or Leviathan, the sea monster. On the adjacent hillside there is a large heard of swine feeding and the demons beg to be allowed to enter them (notice, they can’t even leave the man without Jesus’ permission; they are in service and bound by another!). Jesus gives them permission, trumping the authority of their other master, and the demons come out of the man and enter the swine. Thereupon, the herd dashes headlong down the steep bank into the lake and is drowned. One commentator has noted that one way or another, they all ended up in “deep water anyway.” Those herding the swine immediately run into town to tell what has just happened, and the townspeople come out to see for themselves. When the people arrive, they find the healed man sitting at Jesus’ feet, clothed and in his right mind. Predictably, the townspeople respond in fear. When those who actually see the exorcism explain how all of this happened, the people of the surrounding country ask Jesus to leave. After all, what more might he do to them? Jesus obliges—he will not force himself on anyone—and gets back into the boat to return to Galilee. The newly-healed man begs to go with him, but Jesus refuses—one of the few times in any of the gospel narratives that Jesus says “no,” to someone. Rather, Jesus tells him to return to his home—the house he has not lived in since his possession began—and declare how much God has done for him. In obedience, the man does, telling everyone he meets how much Jesus has done for him!
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.