Wednesday: Ezra 6:1-22; Psalm 49; Revelation 5:1-10; Matthew 13:10-17
Darius received the communique from Tattenai, the governor of the western province beyond the river, and makes a decree to research the question. The archives are searched and the documents ultimately found in Ecbatana, the capital province of Media. The record confirms that Cyrus had not only commanded that the temple be rebuilt, but that it be paid for out of tribute resources for the empire. In addition, it confirms that all of the gold and silver vessels that Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple in Jerusalem must now be restored. Tattenai is instructed not to interfere with the temple’s building, and even the dimensions are set forth. Further, Tattenai is to give the Jews whatever it is they need to build the temple and then to support the sacrificial system within it, and all of it paid for by revenues and tributes paid to the empire. The edict includes a curse for any who would attempt to alter its instructions. Darius has made the decree and it is to be done with all diligence. And so, the temple is rebuilt under the leadership of Haggai and Zechariah. The building is finished by the command of the God of Israel and by the decree of Cyrus, Darius, and King Artaxerxes of Persia. The mention of Artaxerxes here, as earlier, is a time warp, as the time is 515 BCE, and Artaxerxes does not come to the thrown for another 50 years. It may simply be an error in chronology by someone editing Ezra at a later date, wanting to show that the kings were united in supporting the temple—for Artaxerxes did provide financial support for the temple—and, therefore, the Persian kings were to be honored without attempts at revolt. At the completion of the temple, the people gather for its dedication. The number of animals offered in sacrifice is huge, but still pale in comparison to the number of sacrifices when Solomon dedicated his temple. The priests and the Levites are front and center and now firmly established as part of the temple system, according to instructions in the book of Moses. The twelve goats offered as a sin offering are on behalf of the twelve tribes of Israel, though by now only Benjamin and Judah remain. On the fourteenth day of the first month, the returned exiles kept the Passover. Everyone who had returned, celebrated, along with others, whether residents in the land during the exile or those who had joined them from other places. And by now, Passover and the festival of unleavened bread have become a single celebration. We are told the Lord had made them joyful and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria—mentioned because all of Israel’s troubles had begun there—toward the Jews and aided them in building the new temple. Jerusalem is again the center of Israel’s life and the temple the center of a purified worship of the Lord.
This wisdom psalm addressed to all the inhabitants of the earth—both high and low, rich and poor—warns against placing trust in one’s wealth, or boasting in the abundance of one’s riches. Why fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of your persecutors surrounds you—those who trust in their wealth and trust in their riches? There is no ransom one can pay for one’s life; death comes to everyone. The rich and the poor alike, the wise and the foolish die together and leave their wealth to others. Mortals may be pompous, but like all animals, we perish, whether foolhardy or prudently pleased with ourselves. Like sheep appointed for Sheol, death is their shepherd. In the midst of all of this doom and gloom, there is a surprising, even startling word—“God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.” Here is one of the unusual places in the Hebrew Scriptures that witnesses to the belief that communion with God does not end at death (see also Psalm 73:24). And now the psalm turns to comforting those who see others gaining riches while they do not. Do not be afraid; they will die and carry nothing away. Though they count themselves happy because of their riches—for those who do well for themselves are praised in this world—when they die, they will never again see light. Again, we are reminded that in spite of our pride and pomp, we are no better than the animals that perish.
In the midst of the vision of worship in heaven, God is seen, seated on the throne with a sealed scroll in hand. Interpretation as to what the scroll is differ: the Law, the Prophets, the table of destiny revealing God’s future plans, the Book of life, the record of human deeds, God’s last will and testament for the world—or perhaps all of this. Regardless, the scroll is central to all that is taking place, and an angel appears asking who is worthy to open it. No one appears and John weeps bitter tears of disappointment. However, one of the elders interrupts him saying, “the Lion of Judah has conquered”; he can open the scroll. Immediately John sees between the throne and the four living creatures, one standing among the elders—a Lamb, once the Lion of Judah, but now slaughtered but again alive, who through his death has conquered and possesses all power (seven horns), all knowledge (seven eyes), and all spiritual authority. He takes the scroll from the hands of God and as he does, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fall in worship before him, offering their incense (prayers) and singing a song of the New Creation. The Lamb alone is worthy to open the scroll, for by his blood he has ransomed all people for God, and made them a kingdom of priests who will forever serve God as they reign upon the earth. Suddenly, the angels join in the song—thousands upon thousands—singing, full voice: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.” Then all creation is drawn into the song, singing praise to the One on the Throne and to the Lamb, drawing the scene to a close, portraying God’s act of redemption of all creation. Hymns play a large role in the Book of Revelation. It may well be that they are the very hymns that were sung in the worshipping community John served. We know these hymns at a popular level, because of how there were incorporated into Handel’s “Messiah.”
After Jesus tells the parable of the sower, the disciples draw him aside and ask why it is he speaks to the people in parables, as though they could not understand their meaning. Jesus tells them that to them, his disciples, has been given the privilege of knowing the secrets of the kingdom that he is imparting in parables. More, to those who have, even more will be given and they will have in abundance; but those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. And now, he answers their question by quoting the prophet Isaiah who condemned the people for listening but never understanding and looking but not perceiving. It is the general condition of a perverse and rebellious generation whose hearts have become dull to the ways of God. But that is quickly followed by a blessing: the disciples see, and hear correctly. Jesus then tells them that many prophets and righteous people have longed to see what they are seeing, and hear what they are hearing, but did not.
Tuesday: Ezra 5:1-17; Psalm 47; Revelation 4:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9
We return to Ezra for a report on the political dynamics taking place in the western portion of the empire that belongs to Darius, an attempt by his governor of the western province, Tattenai, to determine if this rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem has royal sanction or not. Tattenai goes with some of his officials to the elders of Israel to ask by what warrant they are building this temple, as well as the names of the men engaged in the building of it. Ezra tells us that, because the eye of Judah’s God was upon them, Tattenai and the other officials did not stop the building project, but rather filed a report with Darius and awaited his instructions. Ezra now tells us of the contents of that report send to King Darius. They tell him that “the house of the Great God” is being built with great stones and timbers and is being done diligently and is prosperous in the hands of its builders. Tattenai tells of having gone to the elders to ask them who gave the royal decree and permission to build this temple, as well as the names of the men involved, and the answer that the elders gave to him. They answered that, as the servants of the God of heaven and earth—notice the total sovereignty, even over the kings of Babylon and Persia—they are rebuilding that house that was built and finished years ago by one of their great kings. But, because their ancestors angered the God of heaven, he gave them into the hands of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, who destroyed the temple and carried the people away to Babylon. However, when King Cyrus came to the throne, he made a decree that the temple in Jerusalem should be rebuilt. Not only did he give such permission, he also allocated all of the gold and silver vessels and other implements that had belonged to the former temple, to those dispatched to rebuild it under the leadership of Sheshbazzar, who Cyrus made the governor of Judah. And so, the Jews returned and, under Sheshbazzar’s leadership, began the rebuilding of the temple. Notice that earlier in Ezra (3:8-10), the rebuilding work is credited to the leadership of Zerubbabel, but here, for whatever reason, is credited to Sheshbazzar. Also, notice that it is presented as one continuous rebuilding project, rather than one that moved forward in fits and starts, until prophets like Ezra and Zechariah called the people back to the task. And so Tattenai reports in his letter, noting that the work is not yet finished. He concludes by asking King Darius to search the royal archives to see if what he has been told by the Jewish elders is true and, thereafter, sends word back to them, according to the king’s pleasure in all of this.
This psalm celebrates God’s reign over all the earth. It is a hymn of praise that may have been used during a festival commemorating God’s covenant with Israel, and calls on the people to celebrate God’s ritual enthronement. It remembers how the Lord, the Most High, is God of the gods, awesome and king over all the earth—not just Israel. Not only has God subdued the nations, the Lord has chosen Israel as his heritage, “the pride of Jacob whom he loves.” “God has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of the trumpet.” All are called upon to sing praise to God as king. “Our King is King of all the earth.” The phrase, “God has gone up with a shout,” caused the church to associate this with Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, while “with the sounds of a trumpet” suggests this was used as part of the liturgy for Rosh ha-Shanah, when the ram’s horn is blown to announce the new year.
What is worship like in heaven? John, while in the Spirit, is given a vision of that worship and sees God enthroned over the whole creation as Lord and Sovereign of the entire cosmos. The passage is rich with symbolic imagery that is biblical to its core: 24 elders, twelve for the tribes of Israel, 12 for the apostles of the church, dressed in white (symbol more of victory than purity), golden crowns reflecting their exalted status (it was Caesar alone who wore a golden crown in the empire that was persecuting them), the flashes of lightening and peals of thunder, witness to God’s sovereignty over even the elements of nature and traditional symbol of theophany, the sea that was the ancient symbol of demonic chaos, now smooth, like glass, before God’s throne. But it is not just the elements of creation that do obeisance, all living things, represented by the four creatures constantly singing the praise of God that Isaiah overheard in his vision of God (Isaiah 6), the trisagion—Holy, Holy, Holy, the Lord God Almighty (the three names for God in the Old Testament), who was and is and is to come (the full meaning of the word God gave to Moses at the burning bush when asked for his name, Exodus 3:14). As the living creatures offer their worship, so too, the 24 elders fall down before God, casting their crowns back to the one who has given them, singing the hymn of creation: “Worthy are you Lord, God, to receive glory, honor and praise, for you created all things and by your will they existed and were created.” This is the text that was the inspiration for the last phrase of Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” “Till we cast our crowns before Thee, lost in wonder, love and praise.”
Matthew now leaves the controversy about who is and is not a member of his family behind and tells us Jesus, whether the next day or sometime thereafter, left the house in Capernaum and went to sit beside the sea. Such a great crowd gathers around Jesus that he must get into one of the fishing boats, and push it out into the water a bit, so that he can teach the crowd gathered on the beach. Herein is the introduction to Matthew telling us seven different parables that Jesus used to teach the people. Each is taken from some event or practice in common life and used to reveal the dynamics of the kingdom Jesus is announcing. Today, it is the parable of the sower who casts seed almost randomly and as wide as possible—this kingdom is being offered to everyone! Some of the seed falls on the hard path, and soon, the birds come and eat it. Other seed falls onto rocky soil, and though it initially takes root, without depth of soil, when the sun comes out and beats upon it, the plant withers and dies. Some fell among thorns, and again, it took root and began to grow, though ultimately, the thorns chocked out the young plants. But some fell on good soil and, in the end, brings forth grain, some a hundred-fold, some sixty and some thirty—an abundance that more than covers the failure of the other three forms of soil upon which the seed fell. The soil is, of course the four forms of discipleship that Jesus is encountering on the way to Jerusalem, and is as true about discipleship today as it was when he first told this parable.
Monday: Zechariah 1:7-17; Psalm 44; Revelation 1:4-20; Matthew 12:43-50
There are two sections to the prophetic work of Zechariah, the first during the time of the rebuilding of the temple and the city making Zechariah a contemporary of Haggai. Zechariah is given a vision of different colored horses patrolling the earth on the Lord’s behalf, and asks the angel who speaks with him what it means. The angel of the Lord replies that, having patrolled the whole earth and seeing it at peace, he said to the Lord, “How long will you withhold mercy from Jerusalem and the city of Judah, with which you have been angry these seventy years?” The Lord replied with gracious and comforting words that the angel has now passed on to Zechariah. He is to proclaim the message that the Lord is very jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion and angry with the nations that have exploited the time of the Lord’s punishment. Though the Lord was only “a little angry,” the other nations made the disaster even worse. Therefore, the Lord has returned to Jerusalem with compassion. The temple shall be rebuilt, and a measuring line shall be spread over Jerusalem so that it too is rebuilt. Cities shall again overflow with prosperity, and the Lord will both comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem as his own.
This psalm is a national lament, the first to appear in the Psalter, and is occasioned by some severe military defeat which is understood as having happened because God had abandoned them. Why? At this time of humiliation and great distress, it calls on God to rouse himself and come to their aid. The psalmist begins by remembering what they had been told about God by their ancestors, the deeds he performed for them early on, driving out the nations, planting them in the land, afflicting those who oppressed them, keeping their own people free. It was not with their own swords that they took the land, or by their own arm that they were victorious. It was God’s right hand and arm and the light of his countenance that did this for them, because he delighted in them. Having recounted their history, the psalm now reminds God that he has been the nation’s King and God and, as such, commanded victories for Jacob. It was through him that they pushed down their foes and tread down their assailants. Neither their bow nor their sword was the source of their victory, but God who put those who hate them into confusion and saved them. In this and the rest of God’s works they have continually boasted, giving thanks to God’s name forever. But even so, now, they have been rejected, abandoned and abused by God. God has not gone out with their armies, but made them turn back from their foes, making them like sheep to be slaughtered and scattered among the nations. They have become the taunt of their neighbors, a byword of scorn among the nations, and a laughingstock among the peoples. And though all of this has come upon them, yet, they have not forgotten God or been false to God’s covenant. Their hearts have not turned back, nor their steps departed from God’s ways. Still, God has broken them in the haunt of jackals and covered them with deep darkness. Special appeal is made to God’s ability to know all things as a means of establishing their innocence. Had they forgotten God’s name, had they worshiped a strange god, would not God know? God even knows the secrets of hearts. It is because of God that they are being killed all day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter—he is permitting it (a verse Paul quotes in Romans 8:36 to speak of their own hardships). Having said all of this, the psalmist utters this demand: “Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Notice, that for the first time, God is named. “Awake; do not cast us off forever. Rise up; come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.” Remarkably and quite uncharacteristically, the psalm ends here. There is no resolution or divine response, as is so often the case with personal lament. This is God’s fault and only God can fix it.
Stepping over the introduction and salutations of this letter written to the seven churches of central Asia, John introduces his revelation with greetings from the One who is and who was and who is to come—God the Father—and from the seven spirits who are about his throne and assigned, each one, to one of the churches being addressed, and from Jesus Christ, “the faithful witness, the first born of the dead, and the one who rules the kings of the earth. That is followed by an ascription of praise to Christ, “the one who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, to make us a kingdom, priest serving his God and Father, to whom be glory and dominion forever.” The churches are told to “Look; he is coming with the clouds and every eye will see him.” The church is given the assurance of Christ’s triumphal return, whereby all the tribes of the earth will wail in repentance. The voice changes back to that of God the Father, the Alpha and Omega (first and last letters of the Greek alphabet symbolized the totality of God), again, “who is, who was, and who is to come.” This image plays off of the ineffable name of God given to Moses and the burning bush—the verb, “I am”—which can be translated past, present and future. The Lord (which is substituted for the divine name), is all of this and more. John now tells his readers that he shares with them in the persecutions they are experiencing as a church, as he is now exiled to the island of Patmos because of his testimony to Jesus and the word of God he has been proclaiming. He tells his readers that he was “in the spirit” on the Lord’s day” worshipping when he heard behind him a loud voice, like a trumpet, commanding him to write in a book the words that he was about to receive and send them to the seven churches, who are now named: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. When John turned toward the voice, he saw seven golden lampstands (symbols of the seven churches), and one standing among them “like the Son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest.” It is the risen Christ. His hair is white, as white as snow, his eyes burn like a flame of fire, and his feet are like burnish bronze, with his voice like the sound of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars (all the cosmos as well as the churches), and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edges sword, with his face shining like the sun at its full force. This is the Word of God, and John knows it, and falls on his face at his feet as though dead. But Christ placed his right hand on John saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one (claiming for himself the divine name!). He was dead but is now alive forever more, and possesses the keys of Death and of Hades—he is lord over life and death. John is commanded to write what he has seen and what it is that is soon to take place. The mystery of the seven stars and lampstands is this: the stars are the angels assigned to each of the churches being addressed, and they all are being held securely in Christ’s right hand.
Jesus continues to talk about the evils of this current generation. Their exorcists cast our demons who then wander in the wilderness looking for a new home and decide to return to the house from which they had been cast out. When the demon comes, it finds the house empty—nothing has taken its place, though swept clean and put in order. Consequently, the demon can not only reenter, but also bring seven other spirits more evil than itself with him. The result is the person is worse off now than before the exorcism. While Jesus is speaking this way to the crowd, Jesus’ mother and brothers are standing at the door wanting to speak with Jesus. When Jesus is told this, he replies with a question: “Who are my mother and who are my brothers?” Then turning to his disciples he says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brothers and sister and mother.” It is less about believing who he is than doing his Father’s will. This has led to the theological notion of “anonymous Christians”—those who do not profess faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior but who seek to live as Jesus has taught us to live.
Readings for the Week of the Sunday closest to October 26
Sunday: Haggai 1:1-2:9; Psalm 103; Acts 18:24-19:7; Luke 10:25-37
Haggai, one of the minor prophets—“minor” because of its length, not its importance—had a very brief ministry, but lasting impact, earning is prophetic oracles a place in the canon. The time is 520 BCE and Darius is king of Persia. Those who have returned have found life hard. Their initial excitement about rebuilding the temple has flagged, in part because of the resistance they encountered from the Samaritans and others in the land, in part because of royal prohibitions such as we read about yesterday, in part by harsh economic conditions, and in part because the people became absorbed in self-interests and had no real zeal for rebuilding the temple. It is into this scene that Haggai arrives with the “word of the Lord” that has been given to him to deliver to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, the governor of Judah, and Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Haggai challenges them and their people for living in paneled houses while the house of the Lord lies in ruins. But what have they thereby gained? They sow abundant seed but reap very little. They eat but are never satisfied because they have too little. They drink but never have their fill, for the same reasons. They put on clothing, but no one is warm enough, and those who earn wages find themselves putting those wages in sacks that have holes in them—there is never enough money. All of this is because they have abandoned the work of rebuilding the temple. The oracle continues, telling them to go up to the hills and find wood and bring it back to build the temple, so that the Lord may again take pleasure in it and be so honored. Again, the people are reminded, “You have looked for much, and lo, it came to little.” Even that which they brought home, the Lord blew away. And why has the Lord done this; because his house lies in ruins while the people hurry off to their own houses. This is why the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its produce. It is the Lord himself who has called for this drought, and scarcity of grain, new wine and oil as well as upon human and animal reproduction. It seems the exiles have taught them something: Zerubbabel and Joshua gather the remnant of the people and obey the voice of the Lord their God that has come to them through the prophet Haggai. They realize that Haggai is the Lord’s prophet and listen to him, as they now fear the Lord. Having listened, the Lord speaks through Haggai yet again, saying, “I am with you.” The Lord then stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel and Joshua and the spirits of all the remnant of the people, and they came and resumed their work on the temple. However, the emerging temple was but a shadow of the one Solomon had built that Babylon destroyed. And so, discouragement begins to set in. Again the Lord speaks through Haggai, first to acknowledge this situation: who among them who saw the temple with its former glory can look on this new one with pride? Does it not look to them as though it is nothing? But again the governor, high priest and the people are told to take courage, for the Lord is with them, according to the promise that the Lord made to the people when leaving Egypt. The Lord assures them that “My spirit abides among you; do not be afraid.” And now the prophecy turns apocalyptic, and one of the texts that will later be transformed into messianic proportion: “Once again, in yet a little while, the Lord will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land,” and will shake all the nations of the earth so that they bring their treasure to this house in order to fill it with splendor. The lesson concludes with the Lord again claiming his sovereignty over all things: “The silver is mine, and the gold is mine. The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, and in this place I will give prosperity,” says the Lord.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless God’s holy name. Bless the Lord O my soul, and forget not all God’s benefits. The psalmist lists the many ways God is good, merciful, gracious and generous. In spite of the fleeting nature of human life, God’s steadfast love endures forever. The psalm ends calling on all in heaven to join in the song of blessing.
Paul had left Ephesus and Prisca (Priscilla) and Aquila behind and had returned to Antioch, his home base. Sometime thereafter, he heads north and west, 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. While there, a man from Alexandria (center of high learning in the ancient world), named Apollos, one both eloquent and highly versed in the scriptures, and who is now a believer, speaks forcefully and rightly about Jesus as the Christ. However, he only knows about the baptism of John and not baptism in the name of Jesus. He begins to teach in Ephesus, and 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 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. While Apollos is doing this, Paul passes through the interior region of what is now Turkey and comes to Ephesus, where he finds disciples. He asks if they have received the Holy Spirit, and they reply, “No, we have not heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” Paul asks into what name they were baptized, and they reply, “John the Baptist.” Paul now draws the distinction between that and Christian baptism. John baptized with a baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was coming after him—that is Jesus. Hearing this, the disciples are baptized in Jesus’ name and, when Paul lays hands on them, the Holy Spirit descends upon them, and they begin to demonstrate manifestations of that Spirit through tongues and prophesy. Altogether there are about twelve of them.
Jesus has been talking about hearing and doing the word, and Luke inserts an episode in which a lawyer interrupts and asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks him what is written in the Law of Moses, and the lawyer responds with what we know as the summary of the Law: love the Lord with all you have and your neighbor as yourself. Jesus commends him for his correct answer and says, “Do this and you will live.” But unable to live with that, the lawyer equivocates and seeks to justify himself by asking, “But who is my neighbor?” It sets the context for the parable of the good Samaritan. Jesus begins, “A man was going from Jerusalem to Jericho….” The man is nameless, as an expression of all humankind. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was infamous for its dangers, and the man succumbs to robbers who strip him, beat him and leave him half dead. A priest comes along and, seeing the man, crosses over to the other side and passes him by—he is, after all, unclean. Commentators wonder if this was his way of protecting his status as one free from the taint of anything unclean, for the man certainly appears dead, but Jesus does not comment on it. So, likewise, the Levite, for perhaps the same reasons, but again, that is not Jesus’ concern. He is simply pointing to the fact that two of the most respected people within the community do nothing. If it is their concern for not becoming unclean, then their religious traditions are keeping them from fulfilling the greater demands of the law. When a Samaritan comes along—among the most despised people in Judah—he intervenes. Moved with pity he goes to the nameless man, pours wine to cleanse the wounds, and oil to help them heal, and then bandages them. The Samaritan then places the man on the Samaritan’s animal and brings him to an inn for care, staying the night. When the Samaritan leaves, he pays the innkeeper two days wages and says, “Care for him, and when I return I will repay you for whatever you spend.” Jesus then responds to the lawyer’s question with an oblique question of his own: who of the three behaved like a neighbor? Of course, the one who had pity and showed mercy. Jesus tells him to go and do likewise and shifts the definition of neighbor from that of someone living in close proximity, within one’s family or clan, to one who behaves in mercy toward others, whoever they may be.
Saturday: Ezra 4:7,11-24; Psalm 42; Philemon 1-25; Matthew 12:33-42
The returning exiles represented a significant threat to the Samaritans and others who had remained in the country of Judah and Israel after the exile. When work begins on the temple, they approach the heads of the families of Judah and Benjamin and offer to help in the building of the new temple. After all, they have worshipped the Lord as the Jews did, and have been sacrificing to the Lord since King Esarhaddon of Assyria brought them there sometime during his reign (681-669 BCE). The heads of the tribe of Judah and Benjamin refuse, and in the refusal earn the ire of the Samaritans who now write a letter to King Artaxerxes of Persia, alerting him to what is going on. If the people succeed in building the temple and reviving the city, they will cease to pay tribute to the king. They invite the king to search the annals of history to discover how troublesome the city Jerusalem has been. He discovers that Jerusalem once had powerful kings—David and Solomon—and later fell into rebellion. It was because of their insurrection and rebellious nature that Jerusalem was laid waste by Babylon. After the king has searched his annals, he writes a decree that the Jews should cease their building of the temple and reestablishment of the city. When the letter is received in Samaria, its officials quickly go to Jerusalem and stop the building by force. It will remain idle until the second year of king Darius of Persia.
This psalm opens the second of five sections of the Psalter that scholars generally view as a collection of psalms to instruct the community on how to live as it faces exile in Babylon after 587 BC. Its plaintive longing for contact with God (note, the divine name “the Lord” is absent here, and instead the Hebrew word for God, elohim, and variations of it are used throughout). God’s presence is sought and remembered, and God’s absence lamented. Has God forgotten the psalmist? Has God forgotten the people in Babylon? Why do his enemies persist with their taunts: “Where is your God?” What is the psalmist to say? Throughout the prayer, the persistent question is asked, “Why are you cast down, O my soul,” as if to keep himself from falling into despair, “and why are you disquieted within me?” In answer to his own question, the psalmist offers this refrain: “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” Troubles come and go, and within them, God may seem distant. But remembering God’s acts and support in the past, and hoping in God for the future, draws us near to God in the present through the conversation of prayer, and reveals that God is not only present, but a rock who is unchanging and worthy of our trust and praise.
This, the shortest letter of Paul is written to his friend and co-worker Philemon, while Paul is in prison, encouraging him to take back his runaway slave, Onesimus, and do so on the basis of Philemon’s love for Paul. Rather than command Philemon to take Onesimus back, Paul pleads with him to do so on the basis of love, for Onesimus has become Paul’s child during Paul’s imprisonment, having cared for Paul and his needs. Paul argues that formerly Onesimus was a useless slave, and as a runaway of no value to Philemon. But now Onesimus has become a believer, and has been useful to Paul, and as Paul argues will now be useful to Philemon. Paul is sending him back to Philemon and speaks of it as “sending my own heart, back to you.” Paul wanted to keep Onesimus with him, so that he might continue to serve Paul during his imprisonment for the gospel. But Paul will not do so without Philemon’s consent, in order that Philemon’s good deeds may be done voluntarily rather than out of force. And, in receiving him back, Paul urges Philemon to receive Onesimus, not as a slave, but more, as a beloved brother in Christ, not only to Paul, but more now to Philemon. If Philemon considers himself Paul’s partner, he must welcome Onesimus, not as a runaway slave, but as he would welcome Paul himself. And if Onesimus has in any way wronged Philemon, or if he owes him anything, all that is to be charged to Paul’s account. Paul writes this in his own hand, promising that if there is any debt, Paul will repay it, but quickly reminds Philemon that he owes Paul his very self in the gospel. And so, Paul asks to have “this benefit from [Philemon] in the Lord,” and in doing so will refresh Paul’s heart in Christ. Paul concludes that he is confident that Philemon will do as Paul asks. Finally, Paul asks that a guest room be prepared for him, as he hopes through Philemon’s prayers to be restored to him. In the final greeting section, Paul names his companions: Epaphras, a fellow prisoner, Mark Aristarchus, Demas and Luke—all Paul’s fellow workers. He concludes with the blessing, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”
The Pharisees and other religious leaders have attributed Jesus’ works to the devil rather than God. Using the illustration of a good tree producing good fruit, but the bad tree bad fruit, Jesus calls them “a brood of vipers” and asks how it is possible for them to speak good things. What comes out of the mouth of a person reveals who they are, the good bringing out good treasure, the evil bringing forth evil treasure. He warns them that, on the day of judgment, they will be held accountable for their words, even the careless ones. By their words they will either be justified or condemned. At that, the scribes and Pharisees ask him for a sign. This is too much for Jesus—how many signs have they already seen that they do not recognize? It is an evil and adulterous generation that asks for signs, but none will be given, says Jesus, except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights, the Son of Man will lie in the heart of the earth. On judgment day, the people of Nineveh will rise up in judgment against these adulterous religious leaders and accuse and condemn them, because the people of Nineveh repented at Jonah’s words. But see, something even greater than Jonah is among the Pharisees and scribes, but they do not recognize it. So too, the queen of Sheba will rise up in judgment against this generation and condemn it, because she came from “the ends of the earth” to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and once again, something greater than Solomon is here among them.
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.