Friday, July 4
Numbers 24:1–13; Psalm 88; Romans 8:12–17; Matthew 22:15–22
Balaam now understands, fully, God’s blessing on Israel and moves beyond what he was brought to do. As he looks out upon them and their tents stretched out in vast array, he utters another oracle of blessing on Israel. This third blessing is more than Balak can take. He threatens Balaam and orders him back to his home, refusing to pay him as he had promised, but blaming it, not on his own fault, but on the Lord, saying, “the Lord has held you back, and denied you any reward.” Balaam again reminds Balak that he is not free to speak other than what the Lord has commanded him to speak. But, Balaam is not yet through speaking; there is more to come!
Psalm 88 is a psalm of lament of one at death’s door, pleading with God for recovery. The psalmist is in the deepest of despair, isolated and feeling besieged from all sides, most of all from God himself. The psalmist laments that God has not only abandoned him to his detractors and tormentors, but actually is behind the fact his friends and neighbors are shunning him. It is God who has brought him to the Pit, God who refuses to answer; God who hides his face and rejects his soul. It has been like this since he was a child—surrounded by ills and troubles like water. Unlike so many other laments, this one does not turn the corner to praise, revealing God’s intervention. Rather, it ends where it begins—in the Pit, facing the land of the dead. Can God be praised in Sheol? Yet even there, the psalmist continues to reach out to God and waits for redemption, the experience of many who have suffered through the ages. Here is the Psalter probing the dark mystery of God’s ways.
Because there can be no condemnation for we who are in Christ, we are no longer under obligation to anyone but God. It is true, if we live as slaves to the flesh—our fallen human nature—we will die. But having been freed in Christ to live otherwise, if, by the Spirit, we put to death the works of our fallen human nature, we will live. For all who are being led by the Spirit are no longer slaves, but adopted children of God. How can we know this is true about ourselves? Our very ability to cry out “Abba, Father,” is witness to the presence and power of the Spirit in us, leading us back to God and more deeply into our status as heirs of God and joint heirs of Christ.
Now determined to do away with Jesus, the Pharisees must first discredit him among the crowd. So, in the temple courtyard they confront him. Beginning with a disingenuous compliment, they try to set him up by asking one of the blood-warming questions of the day: is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? You know his famous answer. But, what you may be missing are the internal dynamics. Jesus asks for a coin, and the Pharisees produce a Roman denarius. Remember, they are in the Temple, where having such coinage was prohibited (the reason for the money changers). But here, the religious elite, trying to trap Jesus, produce the coin revealing their own hypocrisy. His answer has another dimension to it: the coin clearly belongs to Caesar—his image is printed on it. But God’s image is printed on us. Therefore, the issue is less paying taxes to Caesar, and more, to whom are we rendering ourselves? In trying to keep themselves within the balance of power in Palestine, they reveal that they belong to Caesar more than to God. What are the issues in daily political life that reveal our allegiance to country or political party more than to God?
Thursday, July 3
Numbers 23:11–26; Psalm 143; Romans 8:1–11; Matthew 22:1–14
Balak still does not understand and tries to get Balaam to deliver a curse against Israel from a different vantage point. The cycle of altars and sacrifices is repeated, Balaam withdraws to receive the word from the Lord and returns to bless Israel even more completely. There is nothing about this people to fear except the Lord who has blessed them and will bless them. At his wits end, Balak says to Balaam, “Neither bless nor curse them,” but Balaam responds, ‘Did I not tell you? Whatever the Lord speaks, that, I must do!”
Psalm 143 is the cry of one who has suffered defeat and turns to the Lord for help, recognizing that no one is righteous before the Lord, yet the Lord is merciful. He remembers the old days of victory, the days when the Lord was at hand. And so, he stretches out his hand in search of God lest he go down to the Pit. Pleading for God’s steadfast love, he has asked God to deliver him from his enemies, teach him his ways, and let God’s Spirit lead him on level paths. He is but God’s servant, and pleads no right of his own. Rather, he asks God to do all this for God’s name’s sake.
We are at the high water mark of Paul’s argument: there is no condemnation for those who are joined to Christ, because God has done in Christ what the Law, weakened by human flesh, could not do for us. Sending his son in the flesh, Christ dealt with sin and condemned it in his own flesh, so that what the Law was designed to produce might be fulfilled in any who walk, not by the flesh but by the Spirit. It is then, a matter of mindset! Set the mind on the flesh (sin and its ways) and the result is always death. Set the mind on the Spirit (God and God’s ways) and the result is life and peace. The former is hostile to God, cannot possibly submit to the Law, much less keep it, and, therefore, simply cannot please God. But in Christ, we are not of the flesh but of the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in us. And though our bodies are dead because of sin and still susceptible to its power, the Spirit is alive in us because of God’s righteousness. Then Paul says, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit which dwells in you.” It is not just a promise about the future beyond death; it is a promise for life now. God is doing in us what you and I cannot do for ourselves, in and through Jesus Christ.
Jesus tells a third parable: the king and his wedding feast. Those invited are so caught up in their own pursuits, in their own cares and schemes that they not only ignore the invitation but mistreat and even kill the servants who have delivered it (read “the prophets”). Enraged, the king sends his army to destroy the murderers and burn the city (as the Romans did to Jerusalem in 70 AD). Then the king sends his servants out into the highways and byways to gather all who will come—good and bad alike—and so the wedding hall is filled with guests of every kind and stripe. But when the king arrives, he discovers one of the guests is not appropriately dressed—he lacks the wedding garment. The king has the speechless man bound hand and foot and thrown into outer darkness, proclaiming “many are called but few are chosen.” Does it help to understand the wedding garment as a symbol of new life, the garment given to the newly baptized as a sign of their new beginning? The king’s generous invitation requires an appropriate response—lives dressed fit for the kingdom.
Wednesday, July 2
Numbers 22:41–23:12; Psalm 65; Romans 7:13–25; Matthew 21:33–46
Encouraged by Balaam’s presence, Balak sacrifices oxen and sheep and sends some to Balaam and those who were with him. The next day Balaam instructs Balak to build seven altars and sacrifice seven bulls and seven rams as burnt offerings. Notice the irony and mockery of the text: though Balak thinks he is sacrificing to his god Baal, Balak intends the sacrifice for the Lord. While Balak does as he is told, Balaam goes off to a high and barren place to see if the Lord will speak with him. The Lord appears and puts his word in Balaam’s mouth (note the suspense: we are not yet told what that is). Returning, Balaam looks out to see the Israelites spread out in the countryside before him and speaks God’s word: how can he curse and speak against these God has not spoken against or cursed? They are quiet, to themselves, do not challenge the other nations, and seem beyond number. When Balak hears this he is astonished. Did he not bring Balaam here to curse the Israelites? Now he has blessed them! Balaam simply responds, “Must I not take care to say what the Lord puts into my mouth?”
Psalm 65 celebrates God’s abundance as it appears on the earth; this is the God who forgives all our transgressions! This is the God who invited people into his presence to bless them. This is the God who is known to the ends of the earth—the one who makes “the dawn and the sunset shout for joy!”—what a marvelous phrase for the glory of the sunrise and sunset! It blesses God for his greatness, for he is the one who answers prayer and is abundant in forgiveness. It goes on to bless God for God’ lavish acts of provision: abundant rain and water for a plentiful crop of grain, the hills dripping with the fatness of the flocks. Even the pastures of the wilderness drip with such abundance. And so, the psalm blesses God’s deliverance as well as God’s good provision and abundant blessings from the earth. All praise is due to the Lord.
Did the good and holy Law bring death? Absolutely not! It was sin working in him through the Law to produce death, so that through the commandments he might become sinful beyond measure. (Note: as before, Paul is personalizing his argument for rhetorical impact, not making a personal confession. His “I” is his way of speaking for all humanity.) The law is spiritual, but he is flesh, sold into slavery to sin, so much, so that he does not understand his own actions. He then illustrates the power of such slavery: that which he would do, he does not, and that which he would not do, he does. The slavery to sin is such that no matter how good the law, he quite literally cannot help himself. And so, he has discovered another law: when he wants to do good, evil lies close at hand. He can delight in the Law in his mind, but discovers another law at war within him making him captive to sin. Not only is he wretched, the entire situation is truly wretched! And with, and for all who have truly grappled with the difference between willing and doing, he cries out, “Wretched man that I am; who will deliver me from this body of death?” Breaking into doxology, he confesses that with his mind he is a slave to the Law of God, but with his body he is a slave to sin and death. But, God, in Christ, has acted—thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ!
Jesus now moves on to the parable of the landowner who planted a vineyard and then left if in the custody of the vine growers. At harvest time he sends his servants to gather his produce, but the vine-growers beat one, stone another and kill a third. And so, the landowner sends his son, saying, “They will respect him.” But, when the son comes, they recognize the heir and decide to do away with him, seize him, kill him and throw his body out of the vineyard. When the owner comes, what will he do? Precisely—they have just pronounced judgment on themselves—he will bring the wretches to a wretched end and rent out the vineyard to others who will pay him his proceeds in proper seasons. Quoting Psalm 118:22-23, Jesus says that the stone which they have rejected is, in fact, the corner stone, and they will fall on it, be broken to pieces and scattered. The kingdom is going to be taken from them and given to those who will produce the fruit of it. The chief priests and scribes know Jesus is talking about them and from that point on they set out to seize and kill him—just as he has said they would! But for now, they are afraid to do so because the crowd regards Jesus as a prophet.
Tuesday, July 1
Numbers 22:21–38; Psalm 54; Romans 7:1–12; Matthew 21:23–32
Somehow, Balaam has not been listening to the Lord as carefully as he might. His enthusiasm for going with the officials back to Balak displeases the Lord who sets forth to stop him, appearing before Balaam’s donkey as an angel with sword in hand. Balaam, of course, cannot see the angel, and so when the donkey turns out into the field to avoid the Angel, Balaam strikes it with a stick until it turns back. Thereupon, the Angel stands in the narrow walled path within the vineyard and the donkey stops again, scraping Balaam’s foot against the wall. Again, he strikes the animal. A third time the angel appears, now in a narrow passage. Locked in, the animal simply lies down, refusing to move. A third time Balaam strikes the donkey. But wonder of wonders, God opens the mouth of the donkey to engage its master in conversation, insisting on its fidelity to Balaam and asking if ever before she has behaved this way. Of course not! And now the Angel opens Balaam’s eyes, to reveal that she has, in fact, saved Balaam’s life by her refusal to move. Balaam confesses his sin against the Lord, and is sent on to Balak with strict warning to speak nothing but God’s word. When Balak sees Balaam coming, he rushes out to Moab to meet him, chastising him for not coming sooner. Balaam responds that he is now here but will only speak the words that God puts in his mouth.
Psalm 54 is a psalm of trust and records a prayer from David when Saul was seeking his life (1 Samuel 23:19). It offers a model of prayer for any who are in trouble. “Save me, O God, by your name, and vindicate me by your might. Hear my prayer, O God; give ear to the words of my mouth.” The insolent have risen against him, the heartless seek his life; their disdain for God and God’s ways and judgments enables them to pursue the psalmist with such ruthlessness. Then, the psalm voices its faith and trust in God—“Surely, God is my helper, the upholder of my life.” Vengeance is left to God—“Surely he will repay my enemies for their evil.” Notice that this conviction is based upon God’s faithfulness! God not only rescues; God cuts off the enemy—the deliverance is complete. The psalm ends with the promise of a freewill offering in the temple, giving thanks to the Lord, for he is good. And now, what the psalmist sought has taken place: The Lord has delivered him from every trouble. The psalmist’s eye has looked in triumph on his enemies, for deliverance, for this psalmist, is not deliverance until it includes vindication.
Paul shifts the metaphor from slavery to marriage. A woman is bound to her husband for as long as he lives and is not free to marry another without becoming an adulteress. But, once her husband dies, she is free to be joined to another. Applying it, he says we have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that we might be joined to another—Christ himself—in order that from that union we may bear fruit for God. Before, while still bound in the flesh, the law aroused our sinful passions. But now, we are dead to the law so that we can live, not by the letter of the Law but out of the newness of the Spirit. But, is the Law then, the author of sin? Absolutely not! It is the Law that has enabled humanity to be aware of sin. (Paul’s first person here is a literary device and not a personal confession—we will see more of this in a few verses.) Sin has taken advantage of that which is holy and good to bring forth sin and death. Paul wants to honor Torah (Law), and is arguing that sin has taken something good and used it for its own purposes.
As Jesus is teaching in the temple, the chief priests and scribes come to him and demand to know by what authority Jesus is doing the things he is doing; who gave him this authority? If he answers, they will surely accuse him of blasphemy, and so he offers what sounds like a bargain but is really a trap. If they answer his question, he will answer theirs: “From whence did John’s baptism come, from heaven or from men?” Knowing that if they say, “From heaven,” Jesus will ask why they disregarded him, and if “From men,” the crowd will turn on them because they regard John as a prophet. They respond, “We do not know,” and Jesus likewise refuses to answer their question. Rather, he tells a story about a man with two sons, both sent to work the father’s field. The first refuses, but later, changes his mind and goes to work the field, while the second agrees to go, but never follows through. Who did the will of the father? It was the first son; the one who repented of his rebellion. “Absolutely,” says Jesus, which is why the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God ahead of them. John came and they ignored him, whereas the tax collectors and prostitutes listened and responded. In fact, having seen all of that, the chief priests and elders still did not feel remorse, repent or believe John.
Monday, June 30
Numbers 22:1–21; Psalm 57; Romans 6:12–23; Matthew 21:12–22
We begin the story of Balaam and his donkey: the Israelites continue to creep north, on the eastern side of the Jordan River, and now they are opposite Jericho in the plains of Moab. Balak, King of Moab, sees the huge number of Israelites and fears for his own land. Consequently, he sends for the prophet Balaam, who he will hire to pronounce a curse on the Israelites so that Balak might drive the Israelites from his land. When Balak’s people reach Balaam and make their request, Balaam says he must first consult with the Lord (notice that even Balaam, on the Euphrates, worships and serves “the Lord”). Balaam asks the emissaries to stay the night while he consults the Lord. God appears to Balaam that night and tells him not to go to Balak or heed his request to curse the Israelites, for they are blessed. Balaam rises in the morning, announces that the Lord refuses to let him go—notice that he says nothing about the Israelites being blessed—and sends Balak’s officials back to him with this message. Unwilling to take “No,” for an answer, Balak sends an even more distinguished group back to Balaam a second time, making the same request and promising even greater reward for doing so. Balaam staunchly refuses, noting that no matter the reward, he cannot go against the Lord’s command. Once more, he asks the officials to stay the night while he consults with the Lord, and this time, God tells Balaam to go to Balak, but only do and say what God tells him to do. And so, Balaam goes. The destiny of the Israelites is tied up with the nations around them, but the Lord is at work even there, through a prophet for hire, who recognizes and respects God’s voice when God speaks. The saga will continue tomorrow, and only gets better!
Psalm 57 is a psalm of trust from someone in the midst of personal trouble. Others seek his life and he finds that his only sure refuge is the Lord. So, he lifts up and strengthens his soul by praising God--one of the Psalter's eternal truths. It is attributed to David when he was fleeing Saul’s murderous rage, and contains lovely and classic expressions of trust and praise for God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. God is exalted as merciful, and will catch the psalmist’s enemies in their own trap. Would that Balak knew that; would that we could trust that promise as well.
Paul continues to press the case that the grace of God is not merely forgiveness of past sin, but a summons to live a new way, empowered by such grace. Our slavery to sin has been transformed into slavery to righteousness—a curious phase that means the process of sanctification—in which we, by God’s grace, participate. As slaves we have no other choice! What did our slavery to sin bring us but death? Freed from that slavery, we are now enslaved to God, who is making us holy as we live into such servitude. The ultimate gift of this is eternal life. Such are a slave’s wages: sin brings death, but the grace of God in Christ brings eternal life. There is no third option.
Jesus enters the Temple, sees what is taking place and drives out those “selling and buying”—those exchanging Roman coins for shekels so the Temple offerings could be made in the required form of currency. He disrupts both their business and their worship, quoting Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11, he labels the religious establishments corrupt. He then turns to those whose physical infirmities have kept them from the house of prayer—the lame and the blind—and cures them, restoring their Temple rights. The children respond, crying out, “Hosanna, Son of David”, which angers the chief priests and scribes who infer that Jesus should stop them. Instead, Jesus quotes Psalm 8:2 as justification for their praise and withdraws to Bethany. The next day, returning to the city, he approaches a fig tree, hoping to find fruit. Finding none, he curses it, and immediately it withers. The disciples marvel and Jesus talks about the power of faith. But don’t miss the meaning behind the cursing of the tree: it is God’s symbolic judgment on the Temple and its religious establishment that has failed to produce the fruits of faithful worship.
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.