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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Esther 5:1-14; Psalm 78:1-39; Acts 18:12-28; Luke 3:15-22

Esther completes her fast and, on the third day, prepares herself and goes to the king unbidden, who is sitting on his throne opposite the site in the inner court where Esther stands. He extends his royal scepter, Esther touches the top of it and is admitted into his presence, and he asks what is troubling her. Why else would Esther risk her life in this way? Something very serious is afoot. What is her request? She may have up to half of the kingdom if need be. Notice that rather than blurt out a request, Esther asks that the king and Haman come to a banquet she has prepared for them. In that day and age, one took time and did not press the issue immediately (diplomacy is not a new science!). The king agrees and the three sit down to eat and drink. Again, the king asks Esther what it is she desires. Again, she postpones the request, asking for a second banquet the next day. If so, then she will tell the king. He agrees. Haman leaves that banquet filled with confidence; he has just dined with the king and queen, and is invited to return tomorrow. As he passes Mordecai, who again fails to acknowledge Haman’s presence, he is filled with anger and rage but contains himself. Rather, he goes to his home, knowing that his plan will soon mean he is rid of not just Mordecai but all his people. At home he calls for his wife and friends to join him and recounts to them the glories of his position with the king and queen and his importance not only to the king, but now, even to the queen, who has invited him back to a second banquet. But, in spite of all this importance, Mordecai, “the Jew” who sits at the city gate still fails to acknowledge his greatness. What to do? Haman’s wife, Zeresh and his friends, recommend building a gallows 50 cubits high (approximately 150 feet), and ask the king to hang Mordecai from it in the morning before the banquet. Haman is pleased with the advice and has the gallows built overnight.

Psalm 78:1-39 is both a psalm of praise for God’s saving actions, but it also recounts for later generations their ancestors’ continuing fickleness and faithlessness, in spite of God’s gracious responses to their needs. It begins as a wisdom psalm, much of it built on two-strophe Hebrew parallelisms—the second line repeating, by way of synonym, what the first line has introduced. It celebrates the gift of God’s instructions to Israel, starting with Jacob, and encourages the people to teach God’s Torah and God’s wondrous ways to their children, so that they not forget God and God’s ways as their ancestors have done. The tribe of Ephraim is used as the primary example of unfaithfulness, having turned back when called to battle. Though their ancestors witnessed God’s power during the plagues in the fields of Zoan, in the Egyptian Delta, and then the division of the sea, the cloud by day and pillar of fire by night, and water coming forth from the rock, still, they were rebellious. “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?” they asked. But of course; that is precisely what God did. In spite of God’s anger at their lack of faith in him, still, God continued to provide the things the psalm recounts in magnificent imagery—bread of angels, water gushing from the rock, birds falling at their feet around their camps—reciting God’s acts of provision during Israel’s time in the wilderness. Still, the people sinned and did not believe in the wonders God did. And so, God made their days vanish like a breath—reference to God’s judgment of the generation coming out of Egypt. Yet, in spite of all of that, God remained compassionate and did not kill them all. He restrained his anger and wrath, remembering that they were but flesh; a wind that passes over and does not return.

Paul’s time in Corinth is coming to an end. After about a year and a half there, the Jews rise up and bring charges against Paul with the governing authority of Acacia, Gallio, falsely accusing Paul about matters of worship. As Paul is about to defend himself, Gallio announces that if this were about a wrong or a vicious crime, he would “put up” with them. But since this is about words, names and their own worship life, he will not listen. They need to judge it themselves. Outraged at the rebuff, the Jews take the leader of their own synagogue, Sosthenes, and begin to beat him in public—we know not why. Is he the one who designed the plot to take the accusation to Gallio, and they have now turned against him? Or, is he also a follower of the Way still active in synagogue leadership? We do not know. However, Gallio pays no attention to them. But it is clear to Paul it is now time for him to leave Corinth. Taking Aquila and Priscilla with him, they leave from the port of Cenchreae for Syria. Before leaving, Paul has his hair cut, for, we are told, he has been under a vow, which is likely related to a spiritual vow like that of the Nazarites who did not cut their hair while under the vow (remember Sampson and Samuel). Paul stops in Ephesus along the way, disembarking in order to visit the synagogue—his first time in Ephesus—and reasons with the men in there, who asked him to stay. He refuses but notes that if it is God’s will, he will return to them, as, indeed he later will. But for now, Paul sets sail for Caesarea, leaving Aquila and Pricilla behind in Ephesus. When Paul lands at Caesarea, he “goes up” to Jerusalem to “greet the church” there and then heads north (“down”) to Antioch, his old home and the base of his first two missionary journeys. Thereafter, he heads north and west, embarking on a third missionary journey, going back into the Galatian region to visit the churches of his first missionary journey to see how they are doing and to strengthen them in faith. The account now cuts away to Ephesus where a man from Alexandria (center of high learning in the ancient world), named Apollos, who was both eloquent and highly versed in the scriptures and who was a believer who spoke forcefully and rightly about Jesus as the Christ, is introduced into Luke’s narrative. However, we are told that Apollos only knew about the baptism of John and not baptism in the name of Jesus. As Apollos began to teach in Ephesus, Aquila and Priscilla take him aside to more deeply instruct him in the faith—“The Way of God.” Remember, early Christians were called “the people of the Way.” Thereafter, Apollos wants to cross over to Acacia, and more specifically, Corinth, so Aquila and Priscilla write letters of introduction to the church there, asking that they welcome Apollos. When he arrives, he immediately demonstrates his spiritual and intellectual gifts and begins to confront and refute the Jews in Corinth, demonstrating by the scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.

Luke presents the people in a state of wonder about John the Baptist; is he the Christ? John responds that he is not. He baptizes with mere water. The one coming after him, whose sandals John is not fit to untie, baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire. John presents this coming one as an apocalyptic figure coming in judgment, as he preaches the gospel to the people. But John has also been critical of Herod, who has married his brother’s wife, which John considers a grievous sin. As John publically pronounces judgment upon the relationship, Herod has John arrested. With John off the scene, the story turns to Jesus’ baptism. He has joined the others coming to be baptized, but not by John, but, presumably, by John’s disciples. And when Jesus emerges from the water, the Spirit descends upon him bodily like a dove, and a voice from heaven announces to him, “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Notice that this is different than the other accounts of Jesus’ baptism. Luke has taken pains to make the point that Jesus was not baptized by John, in all probability because, during Luke’s day, there were serious arguments about who was the greatest, Jesus or John. To have been baptized by John would have been a sign of Jesus’ inferiority to John in the eyes of many for whom this story is recounted.

Posted September 23, 2014
Monday, September 22, 2014

Monday, September 22, 2014

Esther 4:4-17; Psalm 80; Acts 18:1-11; Luke (1:1-4), 3:1-14

Word comes to Esther, through her maids-in-waiting and the harem eunuchs, that Mordecai lies at the city gates in sackcloth and ashes and can come no further. She orders that new clothing be sent to him in order that he might enter, but Mordecai refuses to give up his penitential state. And so, Esther sends the king’s eunuch assigned to attend her, Hathach, to go to Mordecai and learn the reason for his distress. When Hathach returns with the news and the huge bribe paid by Haman to the king for the destruction of her people, the written decree from the king for the destruction of all the Jews, and Mordecai’s request that Esther go to the king and plead on behalf of her people, Esther writhes and shudders in deep anguish. She cannot go to the king unbidden, for the law states that any who approach the king unbidden shall die, unless, in that moment, the king stretches forth his golden scepter, a sign of his acceptance of the visit. She instructs Hathach to take this word back to Mordecai, who does. Mordecai reminds Esther that she too is a Jew and ought not to think that her place in the royal palace will spare her. If she remains silent at this time of relief, another will rise on behalf of the Jews (a faint reference to providence), but she and her father’s house (including Mordecai), will perish. She should consider that it may just be that she has become Queen for this particular time. Esther responds, asking that every Jew in Suza fast, as she and her maidens in waiting will fast, for the next three days. Thereafter, she will approach the king. If she perishes, she perishes.

Psalm 80 is a community lament at the time of national disaster brought on by an oppressing super-power. Some scholars think it can be traced to 722 BCE when Assyria destroyed the northern kingdom—note the specific reference to Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh, all northern tribes. It is directed to God as the “Shepherd of Israel” the one who leads Joseph’s flock, enthroned in the heavens. “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” This classic call for God’s presence to rise up and destroy the enemy is repeated at the conclusion of each of the psalm’s three sections. The first, the initial plea for salvation, the second, a description of Israel’s troubles, and the third, a beautiful allegory of Israel as God’s vine—uprooted from Egypt, brought into a new land and firmly planted there, but now in jeopardy of full destruction. “How long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?”—their worship. From this psalm comes the memorable phrases “bread of tears,” and “tears to drink in full measure.” Near the end, it prays for God’s presence and strength for the king, the one at God’s right hand who God has made strong for God’s purposes. Later, this phrase will take on Messianic tones. For the psalmist, it is a plea for God to rise up and restore his people.

Paul moves south from Athens to Corinth, one of two very busy and important seaports in Greece. There, he encounters fellow Jewish Christians, Aquila and Priscilla, members of the church in Rome who have recently been forced to leave Rome and relocate, because Emperor Claudius had issued an edict expelling Jews from Rome. History records such an edict by Claudius because the Jews were “constantly making disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus”—a likely reference to controversies similar to those Paul had occasioned in visiting synagogues on both of his missionary journeys. At any rate, Paul went to meet them, and because Aquila was also a tent maker, settled with them, and worked together. This partnership will bear much fruit and will help lay the foundation for Paul’s later letter to the Romans. Paul has taken up his old trade of tent-making in order to support himself and be free from the charge that he is preaching for hire, a habit of many traveling spiritual preachers of the day and something his opponents will later accuse him of doing. And, as has been his custom, every Sabbath, Paul goes to the synagogue and tries to convince the Jews and Greeks there that Jesus is the Christ. When Silas and Timothy arrive from Macedonia, they go to work even more intentionally. When opposition and protest become too great, Paul, in turn, shakes the Corinthian Jews’ dust from his clothing—an act of protest and disclaimer—making the point that he is no longer responsible for their blood. Having heard the gospel and having rejected it, they no longer have any excuse. In leaving the synagogue, he goes to the house of a convert named Titius Justus, a Greek God-fearer who had become a believer, whose house was right next door to the synagogue. In addition, Crispus, the official of the synagogue, also has become a believer, along with his household. We are told that many in Corinth who hear Paul become believers and are baptized and enter the house-church that gathers in Titus Justus’ home. Tensions continue to rise in the city, so much so that the Lord appears to Paul in a vision and tells him to not fear, but speak and not be silent, “for I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city who are my people.” Consequently, Paul stays on in Corinth a year and a half, continuing his work with Silas, Timothy, Aquila and Priscilla.

We leave John’s gospel for a while and take up the Gospel according to Luke. Luke is most noteworthy for its long introduction to and careful narration of Jesus’ birth—two chapters in length, as well as a long travel account, deep interest in the poor, marginalized and disposed, as well as the role of women. He is also the writer most interested in dates and names of rulers, giving a historic context to the gospel entering the world. Luke is also the repository of many parables and musical fragments and hymns, which we suspect came directly out of the worshipping community for which this gospel was written. In addition, Luke is the only gospel writer who feels the need to continue the story after Jesus’ ascension and writes a second volume we know as the Acts of the Apostles, which I have earlier said, could have as easily been named, “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.” After the prologue, in which Luke explains to his literary patron, Theophilus (a common name in the Roman world which means “God lover”), we jump the well- known birth narrative that concludes with Jesus’ Bar Mizvah in Jerusalem, and after a lengthy historical setting, we turn to the ministry of John the Baptist. Luke has already given considerable time to John, son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, as not only cousin, but as the forerunner of Jesus. By now, both John and Jesus are adults, and John has taken up his ministry in the wilderness (reminder of the place God formed Israel into God’s people), and he is proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Luke then quotes the prophet Isaiah who opens his 40th chapter, often called “The Book of Consolation,” speaking of a voice crying in the wilderness, “Comfort,” and “Prepare the way of the Lord,” as biblical warrant for John and his ministry. However, John’s words are hardly comfort: “brood of vipers, who warned you to repent from the wrath to come?’ “The axe is lying at the root of the tree of Abraham, to cut off all who do not bear good fruit.” The crowd comes out to John and responds with a phrase we will hear in Luke/Acts again, “What then should we do?” John does not tell them to repent and be baptized. Rather he tells them that any who have two coats, must share one with someone who has none; so too with their food. The tax collectors who come to him are told to collect only what is prescribed, rather than gouge those subject to them, and soldiers are to abandon their abusive ways among civilians. It is not quite clear why John has chosen baptism as the sign of response. Was it the washing ritual Jews used on proselytes when they converted? Was it simply the rite of purification one went through after becoming ritually unclean, not unlike the mikvah? It was probably a bit of both, but first and foremost it is an act witnessing to submission, a way of realigning to the ways of God as proscribed in the Torah and the prophets.
Posted September 22, 2014
Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Esther 3:1-4:3; Psalms 93; James 1:19-27; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

Time has passed and Queen Esther is firmly established. In that time, King Ahasuerus has promoted Haman the Agagite, descendent of King Agag of the Amalekites--the historic enemies of the Jews whose hatred goes back centuries (Exodus 17:8-16; Numbers 24:20 and 1 Samuel 15:8-33). Haman has become the king’s Chief Operations Officer, and, as such, is senior to all else. As Haman passes the king’s gate, all of the kings servants are to bow down to him. All do, but Mordecai. Why? It is not a religious prohibition, and, certainly, as one of Ahasuerus’ officials, he had to bow to the king. It seems rather to be the ancient ethnic hostility at work, since, when asked why he does not bow, he simply explains that he is a Jew. When this continues day after day, the others tell Haman, who though enraged at the insult decides it is beneath him to lay hands on Mordecai alone; rather, he will wipe out all of Mordecai’s people in Ahasuerus’ kingdom. He goes to the king with information mixed with half-truths and downright lies about the Jews: they are scattered all over the kings’ lands, their laws are different and they do not obey the king’s laws. It is true that they have their own laws—the Torah—but it is not true that they did not keep the laws of the land; they did. But, for the king it seems a minor irritation or distraction. He trusts Haman, and consents to his plan. He even signs a formal declaration that not even he, as king, can revoke. The amount of money in the bribe from Haman to the king’s treasury (note, it is not offered directly to the king), is huge—10,000 talents is 375 tons of silver—remember this is a novel! Letters are sent throughout the provinces. And so, the entire bureaucratic apparatus of the Empire is put into motion to carry out Haman’s murderous scheme to be rid of the Jews—every man, woman and child, old and young, in one day will be destroyed—the day that emerges through the casting of the “pur”—the lots. Haman sits down in great personal satisfaction to drink while the city of Susa is thrown into confusion. When word reaches Mordecai, he responds with traditional Jewish acts of repentance, tearing his clothes and donning sackcloth and ashes. He goes through the city wailing a bitter cry. He goes to the entrance of the king’s gate, but no further, for no one can cross it clothed as he is. Mordecai’s behavior is replicated in every city where the king’s edict is read, and the people fast as well.

Psalm 93, probably used during the annual enthronement of Israel’s king, has been appropriated by the church for Easter because, in his resurrection, Jesus has become King of kings and Lord of lords. The psalmist praises the majesty, strength and holiness of the Lord—Israel’s true king—and recalls how all creation has been fixed by God and shall not be moved. So, too, is God’s throne firmly fixed from of old and is “until everlasting.” Even the floods join their voices in praising God’s majesty. God’s reign is eternal, God’s decrees are sure, and only holiness is suitable for God’s house. In the enthronement, this psalm reminds Israel’s king of who it is who truly reigns in Israel, and to whom he is accountable—the Lord.

Be quick to hear, slow to speak, and even slower to anger for none of this produces righteousness of God. Put it all away, along with other acts of filthiness and remnants of wickedness, and, in humility, receive the word implanted in us that can save. Here, James may be referring to a special word spoken to new converts at their baptism, or the charge that is given in baptism. The point is, we are to be doers of that word and not merely hearers who delude ourselves into thinking that hearing and agreeing is enough. The image of looking at ourselves in a mirror is employed for those who hear but do not do. It is like seeing ourselves there in the mirror, then walking away and forgetting what we look like. What we see there, after all, is not truly real, but an image, itself a distortion (this was especially true of the polished bronze mirrors of the day). The Law, on the other hand, is perfect. Those who look on it—the Law of liberty as the rabbis spoke of it—and persevere will be blessed in their doing. Those who think themselves religious, but do not bridle their tongues, only deceive themselves; such religious behavior is worthless. True religion is then defined: it cares for the poor—widows, orphans and the homeless—and it separates itself from the false values of the world.

Much the same theme is picked up in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Piety is a good thing, but beware of the dangers of practicing it in public—note he said, “Beware” not “don’t”—for it has the capacity to cause us to do the right thing for the wrong reasons. Piety practiced in public for the right reason can be a very good thing. But, if you are doing it to be noticed by others, you have already received your reward. Rather, when you give to the poor, do so secretly, and don’t trumpet it about, as the two-faced hypocrites do (that is what the word hypocrite means—two-faced), in order to be seen by others. Do your giving in secret, not letting your left hand know what your right is doing, and the Heavenly Father, who sees in secret, will reward you. The same is true for fasting. When you do it, do not walk around with a miserable look on your face, uttering complaints about how hungry you are because you are fasting. That is simply drawing attention to yourself for your own sake. Rather, wash your face, anoint your head, and move through the crowd as though you know nothing of hunger, and your Heavenly Father will fill your own hunger with abundance.

Posted September 21, 2014
Saturday, September 20, 2014

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Esther 2:5-8, 15-23; Psalm 75; Acts 17:16-34; John 12:44-50

With Queen Vashti vanquished, it is time for another queen. Word is sent out through the provinces to gather every beautiful female virgin to Susa, there to enter into the king’s haram and be prepared to be presented to him, a process that takes a year. The one who comes to him and pleases him will become the new queen. Within the citadel of Susa is a Jew named Mordecai who had come in the initial exile from Jerusalem in 587. With him had come his ward, a younger cousin, an orphan named Hadassah (the name for the Jewish women’s’ organization within modern Jewry), whose Persian name is Esther, which means “star.” When the gathering of virgins takes place, Esther is among those who are taken into the king’s haram, something considered a high honor. As she goes, Mordecai tells her not to reveal her true identity as a Jew, and she complies. In the Haram, she quickly gains the favor of Hegai, the eunuch in charge of the Haram, and successfully settles into life there, gaining the friendship and respect of all. In the meantime, the cosmetic and other forms of instruction take place as she along with all the other young women are prepared for the night they are invited into the King Ahasuerus’ bed. Each of the women is given one night with the king to prove her ability to please and satisfy him sexually. Thereafter, neither she nor any of the other women will be able to return to the king unless he calls for one of them by name. When Esther’s time comes, armed with advice from Hegai, whose favor and friendship Esther had earned, she goes to the king. The result is he loves her more than all the others and places the royal crown upon her head and holds a celebratory banquet. The text now does a flashback to Mordecai, whose courtly responsibility enables him to sit at the king’s gate. During the time of Esther’s preparation, Mordecai discovers a plot against the king’s life by two of the eunuchs who guard the Haram threshold. After she becomes Queen, Mordecai tells Esther about the conspiracy and she tells it to the king in the name of Mordecai. After investigation, the two eunuchs are found guilty and are therefore hanged. However, Mordecai goes unrewarded for his act of loyalty.

Psalm 75 is a prayer of praise and thanksgiving for God’s justice, especially in dealing with the wicked. It begins as a communal thanksgiving, which is interrupted by an oracle from God. God promises at the appointed time to establish justice and preserve a tottering earth and its inhabitants. God will rebuke the boastful for their boasting and command the wicked to abandon their ways (“lift up their horn” means to exert their strength) and insolent speech. This is followed by a commentary on God’s justice: the cup of foaming wine is here a cup of God’s wrath poured out on the wicked. This is followed by the psalmist’s individual vow of trust that is followed by a final oracle from God: “All the horns of the wicked I will cut off.” “Horn,” in the Ancient Near East could be a musical instrument, a vessel holding oil for anointing, or, as it is in this context, a symbol for human power. The strength (horn) of the wicked shall be cut off, while the strength (horn) of the righteous will be exalted.

As Paul waits in Athens for Silas and Timothy, he becomes agitated by all of the temples and statues depicting the Greek Gods. He goes to the synagogue and engages the Jews and the Greek God-fearers in argument, as well as those he meets in the market place. There, Stoic and Epicurean philosophers encounter and engage him in conversation. Some think him an “idle babbler,” dropping bits and pieces of information here and there, while others think him proclaiming a new god, misunderstanding the Greek word for resurrection as a feminine goddess or consort of Jesus. At any rate, eager to engage in philosophic talk, they take Paul up to the Areopagus—the hill overlooking the market place where the city council met, and there they ask to know more about this new teaching. We are told that the Athenians and foreigners living there spent their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new; they, like philosophers today, loved to talk about ideas. With that invitation, Paul launches into what is, for him, an extremely unusual sermon. Rather than a straight-forward proclamation of the gospel, because these philosophers have no Jewish background or context, he builds the sermon on the basis of a statue he has seen in his wanderings through the city, dedicated to “an unknown god.” From there he announces that what they worship as unknown, he will now proclaim to them as known. Adopting the rhetoric of an Athenian orator, Paul goes on to quote some of their philosophers in support of his own argument that God does not need shrines or temples or things made of human hands, since everything already belongs to God, and it is God alone who gives life and breath and all things. From one ancestor, God created the nations and allotted times for their existence and boundaries. And though they grope after God, they cannot grasp him, even though, “in him, they live and move and have their being,” and are, in fact, “all God’s offspring,” quotations Paul cites from two Greek poets, the first from the 6th and the second from 3rd centuries BCE. Therefore, they ought not to think God is like the images they have created. God has overlooked this folly on their part until now, but will do so no longer. God now demands repentance, and, in fact, has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man appointed to do so, a man he has raised from the dead. At that, some start to scoff at Paul. Others say, “We will hear you again about this,” and leave him. Paul’s methods and success as a Greek orator have largely failed, and so he, too, leaves in disgusted disappointment. Only a few join him, among them Dionysius the Areopagite—who tradition tells us later became the Bishop of the church in Athens and later a martyr, and a women named Damaris, about whom we know nothing more.

This chapter ends with Jesus crying out one last time, “Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me.” What follows is a summary of what he has said in the temple earlier about being the light of the world. He then makes a point first spoken in John 3:17: he has not come to judge the world but to save it. However, on the last day, his words to them will serve as judge of those who have heard and have not responded, for he speaks, not on his own, but at the commandment of the Father who has sent him. The Father has told Jesus what to say. That commandment is eternal life. What he speaks, then, he speaks as the Father has told him to speak.

Posted September 20, 2014
Friday, September 19, 2014

Friday, September 19, 2014

Esther 1:1-4, 10-19; Psalm 69; Acts 17:1-15; John 12:36b-43

We take up the Book of Esther, one of the most unusual books in the Bible, in part, because God is never mentioned. It is a work of humorous and ironic fiction, written to sustain Jews in times of exile, hardship and victimization—set during the period of the Babylonian exile—with the theme that God, though never mentioned, works through providence to ensure the survival of his chosen people. The book opens with Ahasuerus—the Persian emperor Xerses—holding a series of banquets for his nobility as a context in which to display all the riches and glory of his reign. The text jumps over descriptions of a second banquet, held in the courtyards for those who served the court as well as other people of Susa. The description of the banquet and its surroundings are lavish, including the drinking bouts, for which the Persians were famous. At the same time, Vashti, the Queen, is giving a similar banquet for the women of the palace. On the last day of the feasts, when the wine has done its full work, King Ahasuerus calls for his eunuchs—important court officials in Persia—and tells them to bring forth Queen Vashti, adorned with her crown—and possibly little else!—to display her beauty to his guests. The Queen refuses, which, of course, is unheard of! The King erupts in drunken rage. Turning to his sages, who are versed in the law of the land so that his decision will be consistent with himself, he asks what is to be done. Introduced here is the theme that Persian law was not biased or based upon the emotions of the moment, but consistent and unalterable—even the King could not reverse it. The sages respond that not only has Vashti wronged the King, she has also insulted his officials—she is to be banished, never to see the King’s face again, and another take her place. For, if the other women hear of her behavior and that it has gone unpunished, they too will begin to behave in much the same way, and there will be no end of contempt and wrath. (This is a novel; hear the women to whom it is told laughing out loud and the men groaning—inwardly, of course!) And so, Ahasuerus banishes her. Queen Vashti is no longer Queen and is never again permitted in the King’s presence. The road is prepared for another, a Jewish orphan girl named Esther.

Psalm 69 is the prayer of one who suffers and calls on the Lord for rescue from enemies, and incorporates much of the vocabulary of Biblical lament: “the floods sweep over me,” “my eyes are weary with crying; my throat parched,” “I am hated without cause,” “have done no wrong,” and so on. “Do not hide your face,” “Answer me,” “Do not let me be put to shame,” are standard pleads in such laments. One unusual plea here is that “none will lose hope in God” because of the psalmist’s shame and condition, who claims that this suffering, shame, abandonment by family and friends and reproach are all being born for God’s sake. It is easy to see why writers of the New Testament so easily turned to this psalm as Old Testament prophecy of Jesus’ life and passion. Hated without cause, “he hoped in God, let him deliver him,” “zeal for [his Father’s] house has consumed [him],” “for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink”—all are images that were incorporated into the gospel narratives about Jesus. As a result, this psalm took on new Messianic understanding, after the fact, for the way in which it seemed to prophetically foretell Jesus’ innocent and vicarious suffering. However, the psalm takes a very human turn at verse 22 and leaves the Messianic dimensions behind and turns imprecatory, invoking suffering upon one’s enemies: “pour out your indignation upon them,” “May their camp be desolation,” “Add guilt to their guilt…, let them be blotted out of the book of the living.” The psalm then turns to one of praise as it anticipates the Lord’s faithful response to these pleas. Heaven and earth are called upon to join in praise as it affirms that God will save Zion, rebuild Judah, and God’s servants—those who love God’s name—will live there in prosperity and peace.

Paul and Silas and their companions move south and then westward until they arrive in Thessalonica, a prosperous sea-port town, where they find a synagogue. As was their custom, for three successive sabbaths, they go to the synagogue to proclaim the gospel, using the scriptures and reason to explain why it was necessary for Jesus to suffer and how it was that he is the Christ. Some in the synagogue are convinced and join them, as do a great number of the God-Fearers who had been attracted to the synagogue because of its monotheism and ethical standards, but who had remained Gentiles rather than proselyte converts. In addition, a number of leading women in the community became believers. Once again, such success on the part of the gospel strikes jealousy in the leaders of the synagogue, who go to the market place and recruit a group of ruffians to start a riot and set Thessalonica in uproar. They come to Jason’s house—evidently a believer where other new believers were gathering for nightly worship—looking for Paul and Silas. When they are found not to be there, the mob drags Jason and some fellow believers into the street and before the city authorities, blaming them for starting the uproar. “These men who have turned the world upside down” have come here acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor and claiming there is another king, named Jesus. Suddenly, the new movement finds itself in opposition to the Emperor, and a new form of persecution will emerge, not simply from its Jewish roots, but also by the Empire. The authorities get a pledge from Jason concerning his guests—he is, after all, responsible for their behavior as their host—and after he has posted bail to keep them out of jail, they released them to Jason’s care. Immediately, the fellow believers who have gathered at Jason’s home, decide to forfeit the bail and send the missionaries away. They move on to Beroea, where again, they go to the local synagogue. The people of Beroea are more “noble minded” and open to what Paul, Silas and Timothy are proclaiming, and receive their word with great eagerness, examining the scriptures to see if this is true. Many in the synagogue come to believe in Jesus along with the prominent Greek men and women of the city. But when word of this reaches back to Thessalonica, the leadership there sends men to Beroea to stir up a similar commotion in Beorea. Immediately, the believing community in Beroea sends Paul east to the coast, with others of their group accompanying him, and they board a ship and sail south to Athens. Leaving Paul in Athens, they take back his word that Silas and Timothy should join him there soon. And now the gospel has reached the center of the Greek philosophic world.

Jesus’ public ministry in Jerusalem is over. In an interlude, the author struggles with how it is Jesus should have done so many signs and wonders among them, yet the people do not believe in him. He reconciles this with words from Isaiah (52:1 and 6:10); something the author rarely does in this gospel, concluding that in the end, their rejection is part of God’s plan for the salvation of the world. After saying that Isaiah “saw this,”—a common phrase for the prophetic act—we are told that, nevertheless, many, even some of the authorities, believed in Jesus, but remained silent about it for fear of the Pharisees, who if they knew of it, would put them out of the synagogue (the way many in the church for which this gospel is written, were likewise put out of their synagogues because of their belief in Jesus). The final judgment on their silence is one on all who remain silent about Jesus in moments appropriate for witness: “they loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God.”

Posted September 19, 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