Wednesday, June 25
Numbers 16:36–50; Psalm 15; Romans 4:13–25; Matthew 20:1–16
The bronze censers—round bowls containing hot coals upon which incense was placed to raise a pleasing aroma to the Lord—used by the rebels, who have now been destroyed, are recycled and transformed into a covering for the altar. They have been made holy though the death of the 250 encroachers, they must now be used only for a holy purpose. But, this is also to be a warning sign: only the Levites who are the descendants of Aaron can approach the altar to offer incense and live. The authority and superiority of the Aaronic priesthood is validated. The next day, rebellion breaks out again against Moses and Aaron. The people accuse them, saying, “You have killed the people of Yahweh,” an unusual phrase for the people who normally are spoken of as “the whole congregation of Israel.” Moses and Aaron retreat to the Tent of the Meeting with the people following. When at the tent, the glory of the Lord appears, and a second time God’s wrath is exposed as God prepares to destroy the entire company of people, telling Moses and Aaron to “stand back, get away from this congregation,” the Lord is about to destroy them in a moment. Moses and Aaron fall on their faces in intercession. Moses then fills a censer with burning coals, places incense upon it, gives it to Aaron and dispatches him to move among the people in order to make atonement for them. Already a plague has broken out among the people. Aaron does as Moses says, and with the burning censer, stands between those who have already died of the plague and those who are still alive, and the plague stops. But, before it is stopped, 14,700 die. But, quick action by Moses, dispatching Aaron into the midst of the people with incense to make atonement, has limited the plague’s destruction.
Psalm 15 was written as a liturgy of entrance to the temple, but may also have been used to teach the way of life expected of those who want to live within God’s presence. Once the question is asked as to who may dwell in God’s tent, eleven answers are given: walk blamelessly, do what is right, speak the truth, do not slander, do no evil to friends, do not shame a friend, despise the wicked, honor those who fear the Lord, stand by your oaths, even at the cost of your own hurt or loss, do not charge interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent. Those who do these things shall never be moved. Then, as now in the Islamic community, charging interest on a loan was strictly forbidden, because it takes advantage of another’s need.
Paul continues to make the point about the superiority of faith over the observance of the law. He argues that God’s promise to Abraham, that he would inherit the world, did not come through the law but though Abraham’s faith based upon God’s grace, a grace guaranteed to all of Abraham’s descendants, not only the Jews (adherents of the law) but also those who share the faith of Abraham (Gentile believers). Even when all of the external signs pointed away from the fulfillment of the promise, Abraham hoped against hope, trusting that God was able to do what God had promised and that it would be fulfilled. Such unwavering hope is faith in action that put Abraham in a right relationship with God who consequently reckoned Abraham righteous. Such righteous is also reckoned to those who believe God raised Jesus from the dead—the one who was handed over to death for our sin and was raised for our own justification. None of this was accomplished by keeping the law, but by faith that believes God keeps God’s word.
Jesus now tells the well-known and often misunderstood parable of the laborers in the vineyard. The vineyard is, of course, a common symbol for God’s kingdom. A day’s wage in Jesus’ day was sufficient for all of one’s needs. A landowner goes out early in the morning to find laborers for his field. After agreeing with them for the usual day’s wage, he sends them into the vineyard. The landowner goes out again about nine o’clock and sees workers standing idle in the marketplace. He tells them, “Go to the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” And so they go. The owner goes out again at noon and again about three, and he does the same. About five in the afternoon, he finds others standing around and asks, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They respond, “Because no one has hired us.” And so, he sends them into the vineyard as well. When evening comes, the owner gathers all of the workers in order to pay them for their labor, beginning with those who came to the field last and ending with those who came early in the morning. To those who came last, at five o’clock, the owner gives a full day’s wage. When those who had been in the field since early morning see this, they assume they will receive more than they initially bargained for, but no; he pays them a day’s wage as well. At that, the workers from the first morning shift begin to grumble saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” The owner replied, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong: did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I gave to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am gracious. Again, the parable closes with those same challenging words: “the last will be first and the first will be last.” There is no special reward for getting to the kingdom first beyond that of living in it, and that should be sufficient. There is no special payoff for seniority. God gives life to all who enter the kingdom, no matter when they do it, and those who have gotten there earlier than others and stand around grumbling about this, probably have never really experienced the joy and power of living in the kingdom and having everything that they need. Why is it they want more? Why is it we thirst after more than we need? But notice: what the first workers were promised is given to them. It is not taken away.
Tuesday, June 24
Numbers 16:20–35; Psalm 123; Romans 4:1–12; Matthew 19:23–30
The rebellious group of Levites gathers at the Tent of the Meeting. The Lord appears, angered by their rebellion, and is prepared to wipe out the entire nation. Moses pleads forbearance: should an entire people be destroyed for one man’s sin? God consents, but warns, “Get back from the tents of the three elders, Korah, Datham, and Abiram”, God is about to act. The scene is dramatic: Moses warns the people, who withdraw. Datham and Abiram appear at the door of their tents surrounded by their families. Moses pronounces God’s judgment on their rebellion. He then says to those standing by, “This is how you shall know the Lord has sent me to do all these works; it has not been of my own accord. If these people die a natural death or fate, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord creates some new thing, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up, with all that belongs to them…, then you shall know that these men have despised the Lord.” The words are just out of Moses’ mouth when the ground opens up beneath Dathan and Abiram, swallowing them, their households, and all their possessions. It is a vivid demonstration that God has chosen Moses to lead the people. At the same time, fire descends upon and consumes the 250 Levites who had gathered at the Tent of the Meeting to offer incense and hear God’s adjudication of their complaint against Moses.
In Psalm 123, the psalmist comes before the Lord in humility asking for God’s gracious mercy in helping her contend with the scorn and contempt of her enemies. As the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress for help, so the psalmist looks to the Lord for mercy amid the abuse and degradation of the proud. Those who live in ease, remain not only oblivious to her need, but blame her for it as justification for doing nothing to help. Does that sound familiar?
Paul illustrates his point about justification through faith rather than works of the law by pointing out that Abraham was justified by his trust in God and God’s promise before he was circumcised. His circumcision was simply a sign of the righteousness that came to be in him through his faith. Now, if Abraham could be made righteous by faith before he was circumcised, so too can the Gentiles. For God’s promise that Abraham would be the heir of the nations (Gentiles) came not through his keeping the Law—it did not yet exist—but through his trust in the One who made the promise. Thereafter, Abraham received circumcision as a sign of his righteousness, so that he might be the father of both those who believe without circumcision as well as those who believe with it. Both are brought into right relationship with God through faith.
Jesus continues his teaching on the burden of wealth with his famous illustration of the impossibility of a camel getting through the eye of a needle. Forget the travel guide’s explanations that “the eye of the needle” was an opening in the door of the western gate of the temple that a camel, stripped of any baggage, might get through if it knelt down. Yes, I have heard guides give such explanations as they point to a small opening in the massive door. But it misses the point Jesus is making. It is impossible! The disciples get the point and ask, “Who then, can be saved?” Jesus says that only God can do such a thing, and is, in fact, doing it with those who follow him. He also says that whatever of value they have given up to follow him will be restored “at the renewal of all things”—a wonderful image of the coming kingdom—when the twelve will be the heads and rulers of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Monday, June 23
Numbers 16:1–19; Psalm 135; Romans 3:21–31; Matthew 19:13–22
We step by chapter fifteen, with its various offering prescriptions once they enter the land, the consequences of violating the sabbath and the demand that they wear fringes on their garments, and instead, turn to chapter sixteen. Jealousies existed, not only in Moses’ immediate family, but within the larger tribes as well—especially the priestly tribe of Levi. 250 of the Levites rise up against Moses and Aaron, challenging their leadership, claiming for themselves the same priestly privilege that is Aaron’s, and charging Moses with lording it over them and bringing them out of a land flowing with milk and honey, into the wilderness to die. The rebellion is fierce and beyond Moses’ control—only the Lord can decide this one. Each man is to appear, the next day, with censer and incense in hand, at the Tent of the Meeting. The Lord will reveal who it is that has been chosen to serve him in such a way. The next day they do and stand at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting with Moses and Aaron. Then Korah, who has been a ringleader in the rebellion, assembles “the whole congregation against the entrance of the tent of meeting. And the glory of the Lord appears to the whole congregation.”
Psalm 135 calls on everyone within the precincts of the temple to praise the Lord and praise his name, for the Lord is good and gracious, and has chosen Israel as his own possession. God’s sovereignty is celebrated over all the other gods. At this point the Israelites were not yet a monotheistic people, but henotheistic, practicing what is called “monolatry” (the restriction of worship to one god alone), recognizing many, but taking the Lord as their own tribal god. That later transitioned into the belief that the Lord is the God of gods, as is expressed here. Only later, during the period of the latter prophets of the Exile and following, would that fully develop into monotheism, the Lord saying, “there is no other beside me” (Isaiah 45:5,8). Here, the struggle against worshipping other gods is still present, and so the psalmist confesses that the Lord is sovereign over all creation (not Baal!), “doing whatever God pleases.” God’s action on behalf of Israel is recalled, beginning with striking down the first born in Egypt to God’s actions in the conquest of Canaan. The temple in Jerusalem was unique in antiquity in that it possessed no representation of God, only the ark of the covenant in its Holy of Holies. The psalm, therefore, mocks the silver and gold idols of the gods of other nations—their ears that do not hear, their eyes that do not see, and their mouths that do not speak—and warns that those who trust in them shall become like them. It concludes calling on all of Israel, beginning with the priestly families of Aaron and Levi, to bless the Lord who resides in Jerusalem.
Apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, a righteousness attested to by the law and the prophets and revealed through faith in in Jesus Christ. Because the Law is powerless to do anything about human sin and our bondage to it, God has acted in Jesus Christ to deal with it. Sin here is more than human transgressions; it is a condition in life that constantly causes everyone to fall short of the goal and object of life—living out of the gracious power and presence of God. Consequently, God has done what we cannot do for ourselves, and has done it for everyone—Jew and Gentile alike. God, in Christ, entered into that breach, coming to us when the void kept us from coming to God, to redeem us from such captivity. Publically displayed on the cross, Christ established a life-giving, righteous connection between us and God, which we enter into and live out of when we place our trust in the grace and gift of him. Passing over previous sin, God has done this for everyone—he is not simply the God of the Jews (or Christians!). So, what reason, then, might there be for boasting in the law or in works of it? (Today, I suspect Paul would add the word “faith,” since for so many it means “what we believe” in order to acquire or earn God’s grace). Developing a play on words, Paul coins the phrase, “law of faith,” which excludes human work of any kind—even faith!—insisting that this righteousness in Christ is God’s gift that is received in trust, whether Jew or Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised. Does accepting God’s gift in faith nullify God’s Law? On the contrary, it upholds it, for both the Law and the Prophets have borne witness to this and are fulfilled in Christ.
Little children are brought to Jesus in order that he might lay his hands upon them, but the disciples sternly order those who brought the children not to do so. Jesus interrupts and says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” This is less an affirmation of children’s innocence than recognition that in that culture, they were considered the lowest of the low. It is to those who have no status, those the culture casts aside as without worth that the kingdom belongs. And so, Jesus laid his hands upon them in blessing. At that, someone in the crowd calls him “Teacher,” and asks what good deed he must do to have eternal life.” The word “good” riles Jesus who asks why the man has asked him about what is good, since only One is good. He then says that if the man wishes to enter eternal life, he must keep the commandments and quotes the second table of the law—the one dealing with interpersonal relationships—adding also, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Astonishingly, the young man claims to have kept all these; what else is lacking? Jesus tells him that if he wishes to be perfect, to “go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then, come, follow me.” It is one of the few times in the gospel when someone who Jesus has not already chosen is invited to follow. But, we are told, the man went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Sunday, June 22
2nd Sunday after Pentecost
Numbers 14:26–45; Psalm 19; Acts 15:1–12; Luke 12:49–56
The people’s rebellion seems to know no limits. God pronounces sentence on them: they will wander in the wilderness one year for each of the days the spies were in the land, and not a one of them over the age of twenty will live to see the land. Only their “little ones,” who they thought would become “booty,” will see the land. But for the rebellious, their dead bodies shall fall in the wilderness while their children are being shepherded there for forty years. In addition, the ten spies who turned the people against following God’s lead will die of a plague; only Caleb and Joshua will escape. The judgment is harsh to be sure, but necessary to cleanse the people of its rebellious ways. When told of God’s judgment, the people grieve. The next day, after acknowledging that they have sinned, they decide to go into the land. Moses warns that this is, once again, rebellion against the Lord that will end in disaster, for the Lord will not go with them. The people ignore Moses’ warnings and go up by themselves, only to be cut down by the inhabitants of the land of promise, the Amalekites and the Canaanites.
Psalm 19 begins celebrating the glory of God in creation, and then shifts, mid-point, to praising God for the gift of the Law—the two ways in which God has revealed himself and his glory. It concludes with a double petition: to be cleansed of hidden faults and be kept from presumptuous sins and their power to dominate life, especially sins of the mouth. It was from verse 11 that John Calvin developed his theology of the third use of the law: to lead us into righteous living.
We interrupt Paul’s discussion in Romans to look back to events described in the Book of Acts, which were formative to his theology—the Jerusalem Council. Upon completion of the first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch. While there, a group of Jewish Christians from Judea arrive insisting that circumcision is necessary for salvation. Paul and Barnabas enter into debate with them, and it is determined that they should return to Jerusalem to the Apostles and elders to resolve the controversy. They go and report along the way the conversion of the gentiles, news that is received with great joy. However, in Jerusalem, a group of Christians who are also Pharisees, insist that the gentiles must be circumcised and taught to obey the Law of Moses. After great debate, the issue is resolved as Peter recalls how, long before, the Spirit had sent him to preach to the Gentiles who had embraced the Gospel. Recognizing that God makes no distinction between Jew and Gentile, but has cleansed their hearts by faith, he asks, “Why then should we put God to the test by demanding of the Gentiles what the Jews have not been able to do?"—keep the Law perfectly. Peter concludes with words that sound like Paul: “We are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they are.” Peter’s words silence the detractors.
Those who look to Jesus to be a bringer of peace will be disappointed as he has come not to bring peace but first, to cast a fire to the earth, to cleanse it, as John the Baptist has said he would (Luke 3:17). Yes, Jesus has a baptism with which to be baptized that keeps him under stress until it is completed. The text then goes on to describe the divisions that Jesus brings, speaking directly to the conflicts, divisions and tribulation created within families in the church for which this gospel is written, because they have followed Jesus. This is but a sign of what is to come. Speaking to the crowd, Jesus says they are hypocrites; they know how to read the signs of the weather, why not the kingdom as well? With the breaking in of the kingdom, it is time for repentance and changed hearts that produce lives worthy of him.
Saturday, June 21
Numbers 13:31–14:25; Psalm 104; Romans 3:9–20; Matthew 19:1–12
In response to Caleb’s challenge, the other leaders reel in fear. Rather than trust God to give them the richness of the land and its potential, they focus on the dangers: its fortified cities, well entrenched inhabitants—some of them the descendants of giants!—and name it a place that devours those who dwell in it. They felt like grasshoppers among them. Rather than trust the One who has led them to the land and will go with them, if they enter it, they withdraw in fear and faithlessness. Only Caleb and Joshua are ready to trust God to give the land to them. Instead, the people are ready to appoint leaders to take them back to Egypt. Moses, Aaron, Caleb and Joshua respond in grief, and God appears, prepared to destroy the people for their testing lack of trust. Moses intercedes once again, reminding God of his ability to forgive and warning God of what the Egyptians will say about the Lord if he destroys the people—that God was unable to produce what God had promised. Once again, Moses puts God on the spot, reminding God that it is his name that is at stake here, as much as the future of the people, and God relents. However, everyone who came out of Egypt, who lived with the signs and wonders, yet continued to test God though lack of trust, will now wander for forty years, until the last member of that faithless generation has died. Only Caleb and Joshua will enter the land.
Psalm 104 is a creation hymn and one of the “load stones” of the psalter. It speaks not only of God’s creative power, but also of God’s saving power and purpose throughout the universe. Though other religions of the day had their own creation psalms, and this one shows some significant influence from the Egyptian hymn to the sun god Rah, what makes Israel’s creation psalmody unique is that God is always at the center as creator and not dependent upon other factors, least of all, human intervention. What makes this psalm even more unique in the collection of creation hymns is that it is not anthropocentric—God does not create the world for human beings to be at the center of it. God creates each element of the created order for its own distinct and unique purpose: streams to water trees, trees for birds to nest in, caves to shelter wild beasts, grass to feed cattle, etc. It celebrates the Lord as creator, ruler, savior and sustainer of all that is fashioned, governed and sustained by the Lord’s wisdom. The Lord opens his hand and gives all good things, especially life and breath to all that live. Day is created for humans, night for wild animals. All have their place within the created order parceled out by God’s wisdom, that is visible throughout all of creation. Creation reveals the Lord’s glory, which the psalmist sings to and prays will last forever. Everyone and everything has its appointed place—except the sinner. This is one of the most beautiful and comprehensive creation hymns in the entire psalter. In addition, remember, the creation narratives in Genesis are among the last to be written and were deeply influenced by psalms such as this one, as well as those that appear in the book of Job.
Again, Paul asks, “Are Jews any better off?” Quickly, he says “No, not at all;” for as he has already said, both Jews and Greeks are under the power of sin. Paul then quickly laces together a series of biblical quotes to make his point: Psalms 14:1-3; 53:1-3; 5:9;140:3; 10:7; Isaiah 59:7f, and Psalm 36:1. “There is no one who is righteous, not even one!” The law speaks to those under the law, both in order to silence them—lest they falsely complain “but we didn’t know that was God’s standard”—and puts them on notice that they are being held accountable by God. Still, no human being will be justified in God’s sight by deeds of the law. What the law really does is make us aware of sin and its power over us.
Matthew gives us his version of Jesus’ words on divorce and introduces a new concept: eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven. After a normal Matthean transition that says, “he departed from Galilee and came into the region of Judea beyond the Jordan, where a large crowd was following him, and he healed those among them who were sick,” we read about another encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Pharisees, again testing Jesus, come to him asking if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. Jesus quotes to them the narrative from creation in which the husband and wife become “one flesh,” (Gen 2:24), and then says that since they are no longer two but one, what God has joined together must not be divided. The Pharisees respond by asking, why, then, did Moses give them permission to give a wife a writ of divorce (Deut 24:1-4)? Jesus responds that it is because of the hardness of their hearts that the law includes this provision. But, from the beginning it was not this way. He then goes on to say that whoever divorces his wife, except for “immorality,” in other places named “adultery”—the Greek word means “fornication, sexual immorality or unchastity”—and then marries another, commits adultery. Notice that Matthew has included this broader provision. Many scholars think that Jesus’ original statement did not include this provision. That helps better understand the disciples’ response that, if this is the case, it is better for men not to marry—a number of whom already were married, Peter in particular. Matthew now includes a saying of Jesus, unique to his gospel. Jesus says that not all men can understand this, but only those to whom understanding has been given. Some are born eunuchs, others are made eunuchs by men, and finally, there are those who make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Here is the text that the church has historically pointed to as the foundation of celibacy for monks, nuns and priests.
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.