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Monday, March 17, 2014

Daily Readings for Monday, March 17

Genesis 41:46–57; Psalm. 119:73–80; 1 Corinthians 4:8–20 (21); Mark 3:7–19a

Joseph is now thirty years of age and Pharaoh’s chief officer. The next seven years are years of enormous abundance, just as Joseph has said they would be. And so, Joseph goes throughout the land collecting and storing grain in every Egyptian city. Soon, the store houses are full beyond measure, so much, so that Joseph no longer measures, but simply stores the grain away. It is like the sand of the sea—beyond measure. During those seven years of abundance, Joseph and his Egyptian wife, As’e-nath, have two sons. The first, Joseph names Manasseh, from the Hebrew word that means “to cause to forget,” saying that God has made him forget all of his hardships and all of his father’s house. The second son he names Ephraim, from the Hebrew word for fruitful. The abundance in the fields has also been apparent in Joseph’s own household. God has made him fruitful in the land of his misfortune. The seven years of abundance end, and the seven years of famine begin, just as Joseph had said. It is not simply a localized famine but one that spreads “in every country,” but, within the land of Egypt, there was bread. When the famine began to affect even the people of Egypt, they came to Pharaoh for bread and he sent them to Joseph. Only then did Joseph open the storehouses and sell grain to the Egyptians. Soon, “the world” was coming to Joseph to buy grain, for the famine ‘became severe throughout the world.”

Psalm 119:73-96 is the portion of this acrostic wisdom psalm that begins with the letter yod (y), and recognizes God as the one who has created him and fashioned him as he is, giving him understanding of God’s commandments. Those who fear the Lord rejoice in him. He knows God’s judgments are right, and, even in moments of humbling, it is God’s faithfulness at work. God’s steadfast love, promise and mercy are his comfort as he delights in God’s law. As for the arrogant, let them be put to shame. As for him, let him be blameless as he meditates on God’s precepts. Let those who fear God turn to the psalmist that he may teach them God’s decrees. In doing so he asks that his own heart may be blameless with regard to God’s statutes, that he may not be put to shame.

Paul now begins to use irony and sarcasm to chide the Corinthians for their theological misunderstanding: some think the kingdom has come in its fullness and they are now reigning with Christ as kings and can do anything they please. For these, they have all they want or expect, and, with that, has come the denial of a future resurrection, as we will later learn. But, for now, Paul mocks them, already, they have become kings. Already they have all that they want. He wishes they had, so he might become a king with them. Rather, he thinks that God “has exhibited [him and the other apostles] as least and last of all, as though sentenced to death, because [they] have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to mortals.” Piling on more sarcasm, Paul says that he and his fellows have become fools for the sake of Christ, whereas the Corinthians are wise. The apostles are weak, but the Corinthians claim to be strong. The Corinthians are held in honor while the apostles are held in disrepute. Paul then goes on to list the apostles’ real hardships and troubles, using them as counterpoints to shame the Corinthians into a change of heart. For when the apostles are reviled, they bless; when persecuted, they endure, when slandered, they speak kindly—just as is happening now in this letter written to those who have reviled and slandered Paul. Paul and his friends have become like the world’s rubbish. Now turning pastoral, Paul says that he is not writing this to make the Corinthians ashamed. Rather, he is writing like a father admonishing his beloved children. And, though they might have ten thousand heavenly guardians in Christ, they do not have that many fathers in Christ, for Paul became precisely that—their father in Christ—through the gospel. And now, Paul appeals to the Corinthians to imitate him. As I have written before, to the modern ear this injunction sounds conceited, boastful and arrogant, but in the first century Roman-Greco world, it was expected that students would imitate their teachers and children their fathers. To help them in this, Paul had sent to them Timothy, Paul’s beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind them of Paul’s ways in Christ Jesus—the ways that Paul teaches everywhere in the church. But, some of the Corinthians, thinking that Paul is not returning, have become arrogant. And so he now tells them, “But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills,” and he will find out, not the talk of those arrogant people, but rather their power in Christ. “For the kingdom of God depends not on talk but on power.” Which would they prefer that he come to them with, a stick or with love in a spirit of gentleness?

We have an interlude between the controversy in the synagogue, over Jesus healing on the sabbath, and his official call of the twelve apostles. Jesus’ fame is spreading, so much, so that people are coming to him, at the Sea of Galilee, from every corner of Palestine, and as far north as Sidon and Tyre, and as far south as Idumea (now Gaza), bringing their sick and demented with them. He cures many. And when the unclean spirits that are the source of illness see him, they fall at his feet shouting “You are the Son of God!” but Jesus silences them. Because of the press of the crowd, Jesus tells the disciples to have their boats ready in case he needed to get away from the crowd, lest it crush him. The scene shifts, curiously, not to the sea or the boats, but to Jesus going up the mountain, probably because mountains were “thin places” of revelation and divine action. He calls to himself “those whom he wants, and they come to him.” The twelve are named “apostles”—the word means “sent out with a commission” and appears only once again in Mark 6:30—sent out to proclaim the message with him. To them he gives authority to cast out demons (which also means authority to heal). The twelve are named. Simon is listed with the note that Jesus also gave him the name Peter (for the event is not otherwise reported in Mark). He also gives a nickname to John, the brother of James, “Son of Thunder.” Is he giving us an insight into John’s temperament? Interestingly enough, Levi son of Alphaeus, the tax collector, who Jesus called in 2:13 is not included within the list, of the twelve apostles unless he is the one now named “James son of Alphaeus.” Commentators differ as to whether Levi was included in the twelve or part of the larger circle of those following Jesus. Finally, Judas is named and identified as the one who will betray him. Remember, this story is known in it major parts. Mark is telling it as the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Posted March 17, 2014
Sunday, March 16. 2014

Daily Readings for Sunday, March 16

2nd Sunday in Lent

Genesis 41:14–45; Psalm 84; Romans 6:3–14; John 5:19–24

Pharaoh sends for Joseph, who, once properly bathed, shaved and clothed, appears before the king. Pharaoh explains that he has had the two disturbing dreams and none of his magicians or wise men can discern it. He has heard of Joseph from his cupbearer; can Joseph interpret the dream? Joseph replies that interpretation of dreams belongs to God alone, and then asks Pharaoh to tell him the two dreams—God, and not Joseph, will give a favorable answer. Pharaoh tells Joseph of the two disturbing dreams, which Joseph rightly understands and tells Pharaoh that they are one and the same. Seven years of great abundance is about to come upon Egypt; a time of exceptional plenty. But they will be followed by seven years of such blight and famine that no one will remember the years of plenty. The fact that God has given Pharaoh this message in two different dreams is simply confirmation that this is about to begin. Now, Joseph steps beyond dream interpretation to providing Pharaoh counsel, though under the guise of still interpreting the dream. Pharaoh is to appoint a wise and discerning man and set him over the land of Egypt. In addition, Pharaoh is to appoint overseers over the land, and take one fifth of the produce of the land during each prosperous year and set it aside in the cities under Pharaoh’s protection in preparation for the coming seven years of famine. This will keep Egypt from perishing during the famine years. The counsel pleases Pharaoh and his servants, and Pharaoh asks them where they can find such a wise and discerning man. Perceiving that God is with Joseph, Pharaoh appoints him, and gives Joseph absolute authority over the land—over everything save Pharaoh’s throne itself. Joseph is lavished with gifts: Pharaoh’s signet ring with which Joseph can sign and issue edicts, linen clothing, which was that of royalty, a chain of gold to wear about his neck as a sign of his authority, and permission to ride in the chariot of Pharaoh’s second in command. Joseph is set over the entire land, and without Joseph’s consent “no one shall lift up a hand or foot.” In addition, Pharaoh gives Joseph an Egyptian name: Zaph-e-nath-pa-ne’ah, which means “the god speaks and he lives.” In addition, Pharaoh gives Joseph As’e-nath, the daughter of the priest of On, as Joseph’s wife, a woman of very high standing in the Egyptian culture. Thus, Joseph has gone from prisoner in Pharaoh’s dungeon to the most powerful and prosperous man in Egypt, save Pharaoh himself, with Pharaoh placing in him absolute sovereignty over the land and its peoples.

Psalm 84 is a meditation on the wonders and gifts of abiding in God’s dwelling place. The well-known psalm celebrates the beauty of the temple as God’s home among the people, as well as the psalmist’s longing and desire to be in God’s presence there. In the temple all are cared for—even the lowly sparrow and swallow are welcome at God’s altar. It is worth the dangerous and difficult journey as they go from “strength to strength” on their pilgrimage to Zion and its temple, for a day there in its courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. Better a life of modest service at God’s threshold, than a life of luxury and ease among the wicked. For, the Lord is light and protection, the source of all good for those who walk in God’s ways, and the source of happiness for all who trust in him.

Paul’s theology of baptism comes front and center here to remind us that baptism is more than an external act which we do; it actually incorporates us into Christ and his death. Because we have been baptized and buried with Christ in death, so too, just as he was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too have been raised from the power of death so that we might walk in newness of life. More, this is not just about a new way of life now. If we have been united with him in his death through baptism, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. For in baptism, we know that our old self has been crucified with him, so that the body of sin might be destroyed and we might no longer be enslaved to sin—we are now dead to it in Christ. Christ, being raised from the dead will never die again for death has no dominion over him. And the death that he died, he died to sin, once for all—everyone! The life that Christ now lives, he lives to God. So too, then, we must consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. For this reason we are to no longer let sin exercise dominion in our mortal bodies or be controlled by its passions. Rather than present ourselves to sin as instruments of its wickedness, we are to present ourselves to God as those who have been brought through death to life, offering ourselves to him as instruments of righteousness. We can do this because sin no longer has dominion over us, since we are not under the law, but under God’s grace.

The Jewish leaders are shocked and angered by Jesus’ claim of relationship with God and consider it blasphemy, a sin punishable by death. Jesus, for his part, simply elaborates on what he means by having just said, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” He can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; what the Father does, he does. The Father, for his part, loves the Son and, therefore, shows him all that the Father is doing. Greater works than these will Jesus do and they will see, to the point of their astonishment. Just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so the Son gives life to whomever he wishes. The Father, rather than act as judge, has given that authority to the Son, so that the Son may be honored. Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father. Their judgment against the judge is, in fact, judgment against themselves. But all who hear Jesus’ words and believe the One who sent him have eternal life and do not come under judgment, for in believing, they have passed from death to life.

Posted March 16, 2014
Saturday, March 15, 2014

Daily Readings for Saturday, March 15

Genesis 41:1–13; Psalm 43; 1 Corinthians 4:1–7; Mark 2:23–3:6

Two years have passed and Joseph is still in jail. One night, Pharaoh has a disturbing dream. Standing by the waters of the Nile, Pharaoh sees seven healthy, fat and beautiful cows emerge. Shortly thereafter, an additional seven emerge, but they are ugly and gaunt. The latter eat the former, and Pharaoh awakens much disturbed. Falling asleep again, Pharaoh dreams and sees one stalk with seven good and plump ears of grain. Again, a second stalk appears, this one thin and blighted. And again, the latter consumes the former. The next morning, Pharaoh gathers all of his magicians and interpreters to him and tells them of the dream, but none can interpret it. In the midst of the coming and going, the cupbearer whose dream Joseph had successfully interpreted, remembers Joseph and his request, and how the cupbearer had failed to honor it. Reminded of his faults, he tells Pharaoh of Joseph, with whom he and Pharaoh’s baker had been in prison, and how both had dreams that Joseph rightly interpreted, the cupbearer being restored to his office and the baker being hanged.Joseph's fortunes are about to change.

Psalm 43, a wonderful little psalm, is a petition for God’s help in times of trouble asking for God’s vindication against the ungodly ones who have behaved in deceitful and unjust ways against her. Affirming her trust in God, she asks why this has happened: “why have you cast me off?” Then she prays, “Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me!"--what we most need when besieged by deceit and injustice. Once led through the treachery of injustice, let God’s light and truth bring her to God’s holy hill in Jerusalem and to God’s dwelling there, the temple. There she will worship God with exceeding joy and praise him with the harp. After reaffirming her commitments to God, the psalmist turns reflective and asks herself, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?” Her counsel is that universal word that continues to resound throughout scripture: “Hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” Yes, this is a difficult time, but God is present within it as her help and will be triumphant. There will come a time beyond this when she will again be filled with joy and praise.

One of the controversies behind Paul writing this letter now becomes clear: part of the division in Corinth over “spiritual fathers” has to do with the fact that Apollos is evidently far more eloquent than Paul, and perceived to be far more gifted in the wisdom tradition of the Greeks. We know that Apollos was schooled in the Greek fashion in Alexandria, was a gifted orator, and would have naturally resorted to a more philosophic approach than Paul, whose style is rabbinic. Here, Paul steps more deeply into the controversy, telling the Corinthians to think of both him and Apollos as servants of Christ who are “stewards of God’s mysteries”—one of the ancient titles for pastors. As such, like any steward, it is required that they be found trustworthy. As far as Paul is concerned, it is “a very small thing” that he should be judged by the Corinthians or, for that matter, any human court. His sole judge is the Lord. Further, Paul does not even judge himself—he leaves that to the Lord—though that does not acquit Paul or make him blameless. However, judgment is not for the Corinthians to pronounce. That will happen at the appointed time, when the Lord comes and brings to light all of the things that are hidden, including, not only his own work, but also, the purpose of each heart in judging him. It is then that each will see commendation from God. Paul has applied this to Apollos and himself, though take note of Paul’s pastoral wisdom in not speaking directly of Apollos being judged or among those judging Paul, which may well have been taking place. How readily dissidents in the church attempt to co-opt their leaders to join them in their criticisms. Paul has done this for the Corinthians’ benefit—who again, pastorally, he now addresses as brothers, the “sisters” being added here by translators as recognition that the term in Paul’s day was meant to be inclusive. He has done it so that they may understand the meaning of “Nothing beyond what is written,” a somewhat cryptic phrase that seems to have been a maxim of the day that here refers the Corinthians back to the scriptures that Paul has previously quoted against boasting, or to the basics that Paul employed when initially proclaiming the gospel to them. Either way, the issue is the false pride that is “puffing them up.” Paul has used himself and Apollos, and the workings of their building partnership, one following the other, as a means of demonstrating how the Corinthians are to regard their current status—as servants of Christ who have nothing except what they have received, and who will be judged by what they do with it. “What,” after all, “do [they] have that [they] did not receive as God’s gift.” And, if they received it, why are they boasting as if it were their own accomplishment? More, what are they doing with it—building up or tearing down? 

Having spoken of the danger of putting the new in the old, Jesus and his disciples are walking through a grain field on the Sabbath, on their way to synagogue, and his disciples begin to pluck the heads of wheat, roll them in their hand to remove the chaff, and eat the grain. The Pharisees see this and complain that his disciples are violating the Torah’s prohibition against working on Sabbath. Jesus reminds them of the time David violated holy sanction surrounding the Bread of the Presence in the tabernacle, which only the priests were permitted to eat (1 Samuel 21:1-6). Famished, David took the bread and gave it to his companions to eat. There is something more important than religious sanctions—life, and when the sanctions get in the way of life, they are to be violated. The Sabbath sanctions were, after all, made for the sake of humans, not the other way around. In light of that, “the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” He has come to give and restore life. But, see how this new thing among them is tearing up the old? He then enters the synagogue where there is a man with a withered hand. Everyone is watching to see what Jesus will do. If he cures this man on the Sabbath, that will not be an action of self-preservation, which was allowed on the Sabbath. This man’s life is not at risk; Jesus can cure him tomorrow. If he does heal now, it will be real work, which is prohibited. Jesus seems to know what they are thinking and asks the man to come forward. Turning to those scrutinizing him Jesus asks, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill? Everyone remains silent. Filled with anger, Jesus looks around at them, and grieved by the hardness of their hearts says to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” The man does and, and as he does, his hand is restored.  Who has done the healing?  But this is too much for the on-looking Pharisees. Immediately they go out and conspire, together with the Herodians, an unknown group of Jews who seem to have been another religious party with connections to Herod, looking for a way to destroy Jesus before he and his new ways destroy them.

Posted March 15, 2014
Friday, March 14, 2014

Daily Readings for Friday, March 14

Gen. 40:1–23; Psalm 105:1-22; 1 Cor. 3:16–23; Mark 2:13–22

Many days pass with Joseph exercising administrative supervision of the jail where he is imprisoned, and, one day, both the king’s cupbearer and baker displease Pharaoh, and they end up in jail and under Joseph’s care. One evening, both the cupbearer and baker have dreams that disturb them. The next morning, Joseph recognizes that they are troubled and asks what it is. They tell him they have had disturbing dreams and there is no one in the jail to interpret them. Joseph responds confessionally: “Do not interpretations belong to God?” And so, he asks the two servants of the king to tell him of their dreams. The cupbearer tells of seeing a vine with three branches, each of which blossom and then produce grapes, which he squeezes in to Pharaoh’s cup and places the cup in Pharaoh’s hand. Joseph responds that the three branches are three days, and following that, the cupbearer will be released from prison and restored to serving Pharaoh. Then Joseph pleads with the cupbearer that once he has been restored to Pharaoh, that he remember Joseph. For Joseph has done nothing deserving prison. He was stolen from the land of the Hebrews and sold into slavery, and has done nothing to deserve this. When the baker hears the cupbearer’s good news, he decides to tell Joseph his dream as well. Three baskets of baked goods are on his head, but the birds keep coming and eating from the top basket. Joseph replies that the baskets are three days, and thereafter, Pharaoh will lift up his head—take it from him!—and hang him on a pole where the birds will come and eat his flesh. Sure enough, three days later, Pharaoh has prepared a great feast for his servants, and “lifts up the heads” of his cupbearer and his baker, the former returned to his role as chief cupbearer to the king, the latter hanged, just as Joseph had said. However, the cupbearer, now restored to his station, forgets Joseph, who remains in prison.

The first portion of Psalm 105 is a hymn of praise that calls everyone to make known God’s deeds among the people. The language of acclaim dominates the first portion of it: “give thanks,” “call,” “sing,” “glory” and “rejoice.” It then recounts the reasons for this praise: God’s faithfulness to Israel. It begins citing God’s initial covenant with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and the children of Israel—a covenant made forever—making them God’s “chosen ones.” Then the psalm remembers their past: few in number and of little account and nomads in the land.  A famine took them to Egypt, where God had, beforehand, sent Joseph. Joseph’s trials are remembered until he gained the king’s pleasure and became Lord over all of Pharaoh’s house, not only to govern, but to teach his elders wisdom.

Paul continues to use the image of building, but now applies it to the Corinthians. They are God’s temple—God’s dwelling place, for the Spirit of God dwells in them. Though this has, in later interpretation, been personalized to make the point that each of us is a temple and bearer of God—something Paul would not disagree with—Paul here is not talking about individuals so much as the church collective in Corinth. If anyone attempts to destroy that temple of the faithful, God will destroy that person—especially one who teaches or preaches. God is the protector of the church, for it is holy, and they are God’s holy gathering. However; and now he returns to his theme of the two wisdoms in the world, they are not to deceive themselves by thinking themselves or seeking to be wise with the worldly wisdom of “this age.” Rather, they are to become “fools,” so that they may become wise in the ways of God. For the wisdom of this world, which they are warned against seeking, is foolishness with God. Quoting Job 5:13, Paul harkens back to the things dividing them—their loyalties to their leaders. Let no one boast about human leaders, for “all things” are the Corinthians, regardless of whether they came to faith through Paul or Apollos or Cephas. All things—the world, life, death, the present or the future—belong to them, because they belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God, and all of that, of course, is God’s.

Jesus goes back to the shore of the Sea of Galilee and sees Levi sitting in his tax collecting booth, calls him to follow, and Levi does. The scene shifts to Levi’s house where Jesus and his disciples are dinner guests, along with a larger group of tax collectors. When the scribes and Pharisees discover this, they ask why he is eating with sinners and tax collectors. Jesus responds that those who are well do not need a physician, but those who are ill do. Jesus has come to call, not the righteous, but sinners. Mark shifts again to the subject of fasting. Is it the Pharisees asking the question at the same dinner party? Probably not. This is simply Mark’s style. But the issue is why is it that John the Baptist and his followers fast, as do the Pharisees, but Jesus and his disciples do not. Jesus responds that, while the bridegroom is present, the wedding guests do not fast. But the day will come when he is taken away from them, and then they will fast (Mark is reinforcing the practice of fasting in the infant church). Mark follows this with two well-known sayings of Jesus—first, one does not sew a patch of un-shrunk cloth on an old garment. For if one does, when the garment is laundered, the patch will shrink and tear the garment. Likewise, one does not put new wine into old wineskins. For if they do, when the new wine begins its fermentation, it will expand and split, destroying the old wineskins. Notice the compression of events and sayings that are part of Mark’s rapid style.

Posted March 14, 2014
Thursday, March 13, 2014

Daily Readings for Thursday, March 13

Genesis [38:1-30] 39:1–23; Psalm 102; 1 Cor. 2:14–3:15; Mark 2:1–12

[The lectionary steps over chapter 38 and the humorous story of Judah and how he gets involved with his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar. The story interrupts the flow of the Joseph narrative, and is included here because this is a story involving the house of Judah, from which king David will come. Judah’s oldest son marries Tamar, but is wicked and so the Lord punishes him with death. Judah then orders his second son, Onan, to perform the obligation of levirate marriage, and have a child with Tamar that will not only be hers but also regarded as Er’s son rather than Onan’s. Onan resists, but still, goes to Tamar to have sexual relations with her, but always withdrawing before ejaculation, thereby preventing Tamar from becoming pregnant. God is displeased and strikes Onan dead. There is yet another son, Shelah, but still young. Judah promises him to Tamar and asks her to remain a widow until Shelah grows up, but in truth, has no intention of giving him to Tamar. Shelah, for his part, grows up, but is afraid of Tamar. After all, her two former husbands have both died. He does not want to be given to Tamar as a husband. After a time, Tamar returns to her father’s house. When she learns that Judah is coming to Timnah to sheer his sheep, she abandons her widow’s clothing, dresses and puts a veil over her face, and sits on the side of the road awaiting Judah. When Judah, now a widower himself, sees her, he assumes she is a prostitute and propositions her for sex. She asks what he will give her in return and he promises a kid. They have sex, and as Judah is leaving, she asks for some form of security until the kid arrives, taking Judah’s signet, cord and staff. Tamar goes her way with the pledge and returns to her widow’s clothing, but she has conceived. Judah sends a friend with the kid to pay Tamar, but she is no longer there. Judah says, “Let’s keep this to ourselves, lest we become a laughing stock among the people.” Three months later, Judah learns that his unwed, widowed daughter-in-law is pregnant and assumes she has played the whore. Therefore, he demands that she be brought forth and burned. As Tamar is brought out, she brings the signet, cord and staff with her, and tells Judah that the father of her child is the owner of these. Judah acknowledges them and that Tamar is more right then he, for Judah should have given his son Shelah to her. But Judah does not go to Tamar again. When Tamar gives birth, it is twins. The humorous story of the two struggling to emerge first becomes the source of their names, Perez, named for the breech birth and the first born who will be the line through which king David comes, and Zerah, named after the crimson cord on his finger.]

Joseph has been purchased by Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. Because the Lord was with Joseph, all that he did was successful and soon Potiphar recognizes this and puts Joseph in charge of his household and all else that Potiphar has. God continues to bless Joseph, and therefore Potiphar. Not only was Joseph skillful and a good manager, he was handsome and strong, and after a while, Potiphar’s wife invites Joseph into her bed. Joseph refuses, reminding her that his master trusts him in all regards and he will not violate that trust. Everything that is Potipher’s has been given to Joseph except his wife; how can Joseph participate in this great sin against Potiphar, and more, against God? Yet, day after day, in Potiphar’s absence, his wife tries to seduce Joseph, who continues to refuse. The day comes when she is absolutely alone with Joseph, and approaches him, taking hold of his garment and imploring him to have sex with her. Joseph refuses, and runs out of his garment, leaving it in her hands. When she realizes she has evidence in hand, circumstantial though it might be, she runs outside to tell all the members of her household that her husband has brought among them “a Hebrew to insult [them].” She accused Joseph of approaching her to have sex, but she cried out with a loud voice, and when Joseph heard it, he fled, leaving his garment beside her. (The legal difference between rape and consensual sex was whether or not the woman cried out in resistance or remained silent—the latter being understood as consensual.) Having done this, she returns to the house and keeps Joseph’s garment until Potiphar returns, when she tells him the same story. When Potiphar hears her story, he becomes enraged and takes Joseph and places him in the prison where Pharaoh’s prisoners were confined, and there Joseph remained. But still, the Lord was with Joseph which quickly becomes apparent to the chief jailer who befriends Joseph. Soon, the jailer has committed all of the prisoners to Joseph’s care, and he ends up supervising the place. The chief jailer pays no heed to anything in Joseph’s care, because the Lord was with him and was causing him to prosper.

Psalm 102 is entitled “A prayer of the afflicted when faint and pouring out his soul to the Lord,” which is precisely what this psalm is about. Pleading for the Lord’s saving and reviving presence, the psalmist laments that God has hidden his face from the supplicant’s distress. He compares himself to a pelican in the wilderness or a lone owl in a waste place, like a single bird perched on a rooftop. He is so bereft and overcome that he has forgotten to eat. His flesh hangs on his bones. His enemies taunt him endlessly. His days pass away like smoke. His heart is withered like grass. Too stricken to even eat, his only food has been the ashes of penance and tears so abundant that they have diluted his wine. All of this is because, in God’s wrath, he has been singled out and cast away. Though his days are but a lengthened shadow, the Lord’s days are forever. And now, the psalm turns the corner from lament to intercession as he pleads for God’s presence and compassion, not on himself, but on Zion. The Lord, who lives forever, will arise and have compassion on Zion and on the Lord’s servants there who hold its stones dear. Perhaps he hopes to be included among those on whom God has compassion. God is called on to act so that nations and generations yet unborn will praise his name. God will regard the prayer of the destitute; he will not despise their plea. From here, the psalm turns to praise, declaring for generations to come that God did look down from his high place. God heard the groans of the prisoners and set free those doomed to die, so that the Lord’s name may continue to be declared in Zion when people gather there to worship him. Though God has broken the psalmist’s own strength midcourse, he pleads that God not end his life at its mid-point. Long ago God established the foundations of the earth and made the heavens. Though they will perish, God will endure. They will all wear out like a garment. God changes them like clothing, yet remains the Lord forever. A final note of affirmation and hope is spoken: the children of the Lord’s servants shall live secure, with their children established in God’s presence.

Paul continues with his themes of wisdom and Spirit by making the point that, by nature, humans cannot comprehend the work of the Spirit of God, whose ways seem foolish to them—even though they may think their thoughts about God make them “spiritual!” Humans, on their own, simply do not have the capacity to understand God or God’s ways, because they are discerned only through the gift of God’s Spirit. Those who are truly spiritual—who have been given the gift of God’s Spirit—discern all things and, as a result, are subject to no one’s scrutiny. Quoting Isaiah 40:13, Paul concludes by reminding the Corinthians that with him they, too, now have the mind of Christ. However, as true as this is, initially, Paul could not speak to the Corinthians as “spiritual people,” but rather as people of the “flesh”–Paul’s encompassing term for those who cannot comprehend the things of the Spirit or seek them. Rather, Paul spoke to the Corinthians as infants in Christ, and fed them, like all infants, with milk rather than solid food, for they had not yet matured to the point of being able to digest the solid food of spiritual wisdom. Even now, some of them are not yet ready and still reveal their “fleshly” rather than spiritual readiness. And now, Paul illustrates his point by subtly introducing another issue on his agenda: their jealousy and quarreling. They are behaving according to the flesh—their human nature and inclinations. When they argue over who baptized them, when they contend over belonging to one or another of the apostles or other evangelists as a means of claiming unique status, they are revealing their human rather than spiritual nature. “What is Apollos? What is Paul?” They are both merely servants of Christ through whom the Corinthians came to believe, and did so precisely as the Lord had assigned it to each one of them. This was not the Corinthian’s own doing any more than it was Apollos’ or Paul’s doing. It was the Lord’s doing, just as the Lord had designed it. And now, Paul puts his and Apollos’ ministry in chronological order making the point that he planted and Apollos watered, but through and behind it all was God, giving the growth. “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” Paul and Apollos have a common purpose, and each receive their wages according to their labor. He and Apollos are God’s servants, working together, and the Corinthians are God’s field, and now, shifting metaphors, Paul says they are “God’s building.” Preacher that he is, Paul will now work with this image, telling them that he worked among them according to the grace given to him like a “skilled master builder." He laid the foundation, and like the various construction specialists, it fell to another to come and build upon it. Each builder must use care, for no one can build on any other foundation than the one that has been laid—Jesus Christ. Now, if another builder comes along and “builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—the work of each builder will become visible. The Day of Christ will disclose it. How? With fire! That which is precious will not only survive, but be tempered and refined, while the wood, hay and straw will be consumed. And, if what has been built on the foundation survives, that builder will receive a reward. If the work laid on the foundation is consumed, the builder will suffer the loss of his work. That builder, however, because of God’s grace, will be saved, but only through fiery testing.

Jesus returns home from his missionary road trip (probably back to Peter’s house), and when word gets out that he is back, he is besieged, so much so that people cannot get in to see him but stand around outside just to listen. Some people have come, bringing with them a man paralyzed in hope of Jesus healing him. Unable to get into the house, they carry the man up the outside staircase to the flat roof, remove the tiles and thatch that form the flat roof/top floor, and lower the man down into Jesus’ presence. Jesus must have been quite amused, while all others were a bit astonished. Seeing their faith he turns to the paralytic and says, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” When it comes to healing and Jesus, first things first! The scribes that were inside witnessing this begin to question within themselves—notice, they have not yet started grumbling to one another—“Why does he speak this way? This is blasphemy!” Only God can forgive sins. Jesus, of course, knows precisely what they are thinking and so asks, “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk?’ But so you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sin….” And now, he turns to the paralytic and says, “Stand up, take up your mat and go home,” and the man does! The crowd goes wild with excitement as well as confusion, amazed and glorifying God, they say, “We have never seen anything like this.” Just as they had not heard teaching with the authority that Jesus taught, even authority over the unclean spirits, they have never seen anything like this. For now, the miracle has obscured the truth that Jesus is forgiving sin, something only God can do. Slowly, that will dawn on the religious leaders and they will move from being curious about Jesus, to being critics and finally openly hostile to him. For now, Capernaum is awash in excitement that Jesus is living among them.

Posted March 13, 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