Tuesday, November 28, 2023

December 3, 2023 -- First Sunday of Advent

                                              Biblical Words                                                 [856] 

Isaiah 64:1-9Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; I Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

The suffering ones cry out, How long O Lord?  Advent begins with God’s judgment on a world of violence, greed, and oppression.    

With the first Sunday in Advent, a new year now begins.  Unlike the secular New Year on January 1st, however, it is not an exuberant celebration of new beginnings. 

Advent begins with a world-sweeping view of the suffering, oppression, and sinfulness that dominate the human condition.  But it also gives voice to the desperate, agonized cry for God to bring peace and justice in place of violence and oppression.  In the midst of this hurting and yearning, it also glimpses a world-shaking divine intervention by the Son of Man. 

Isaiah 64:1-9.  

The last eleven chapters of the book of Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66) are a mixed bag of amazing visions of hope, of agonized pleas for relief from suffering, and of confessions of sin.  This confused mix is probably a fair representation of the ups and downs of early post-exilic life in Yehud (Judah), at least in prophetic circles. 

Judah was then a poor and marginal sub-province of the Persian empire when that empire was at the peak of its power, 520 to 460 BCE.  (This was the time of the Persian wars with Greece [499-479 BCE], famously memorialized by Herodotus’ Histories.)    

Our reading is a desperate prayer for God’s intervention, a prayer from a people of rather low self-esteem:  

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…” (verse 1, NRSV; verse 63:19b in the Hebrew text). 

This is an appropriate opening cry for Advent.  The suffering and oppressed—perhaps even outcasts (see 63:16)—raise their distress to a cosmic level.  God should rip open the old canopy of the created world—that is, God should initiate a return to chaos—in order to be rid of the disastrous mess that the human world has become!  Such is the speaker’s desperate outburst. 

The speaker knows God has done wonderful things in the past—referred to in verses 3 to 4—but the present is truly abysmal. 

            We have become like one who is unclean,
                  and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
            We all fade like a leaf,
                  and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.  (Verse 6, NRSV.)  

As is often the case in the psalms of lament, God is indirectly blamed for allowing this miserable condition.  “But you were angry, and we sinned; / because you hid yourself we transgressed” (verse 5). 

Advent begins with a cry for deliverance.  The deliverance called for so desperately is partly from external enemies—God should come down “so that the nations might tremble” (verse 1)—but it is mostly the confusion, transgressions, and iniquities of the community itself that require divine relief. 

They need the forgiveness of sins, and the external signs that wholeness and peace have been restored. 

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19. 

The Psalm reading voices another plea to God to take notice of the suffering of people who were favored by God in the past but now suffer oppression and humiliation. 

The people speaking are the tribes of the old northern kingdom—Joseph, divided into his sons Ephraim and Manasseh, and his brother tribe Benjamin (all mentioned in verses 1-2).  These are now praying to the God of Zion (“enthroned upon the cherubim,” verse 1) to save them. 

There has been a period of alienation between these now humble peoples and God—“how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?” (verse 4).  They have long suffered with “the bread of tears”; their neighbors hold them in scorn, and their enemies laugh at them (verses 5-6).  Each stanza of the psalm ends with its fundamental message, the urgent plea:  “Restore us, O God (of Hosts); / let your face shine, that we may be saved” (verses 3, 7, and 19). 

Near its end, the psalm hints at a human deliverer.  Their real hope is for a king who will recover their old glory and make the nations hold the Israelite tribes in respect and awe again (as in the days of David). 

But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,
      the one whom you made strong for yourself.  (Verse 17.)  

There is a yearning for a new figure, a king, who will arise and save Israel. 

I Corinthians 1:3-9.  

The prophecy and the psalm plead for God’s saving intervention, but the Epistle reading gives thanks that it has come. 

It has come to the people of the assembly of God in Corinth, the major commercial city of Greece.  The thanks is given by their founding apostle Paul.  From Paul’s letters, we have more information about the inner life of this earliest of Christian communities in the non-Judean world than any other such community. 

One of the things these well-heeled citizens of a merchant city prided themselves on was their education and their learning.  Paul goes with this.  “I give thanks…for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind…so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (verses 5 and 7, NRSV). 

We are still in a world that is waiting for the final divine intervention for the righteous, but the agony and uncertainty of the old prophecy and psalm are gone.  Now joy and a sense of confidence in the salvation are in process.  The waiting is now easy, and the apostle is confident that the elect ones will be found “blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (verse 8). 

Mark 13:24-37.  

The ultimate Christian version of the answer to the Advent prayer—“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down”—is Jesus’ vision of the final cataclysm accompanying the coming of the Son of Man (the Human One, in the CEB translation). 

Mark 13 is Jesus’ instructions to an inner circle of disciples about the last things.  Jesus emphasizes that there will be much turmoil in the world before the real end comes.  There will also be false messiahs (christs) popping up here and there (13:6).  The really real ending, however, will be unmistakable! 

When the real time comes the cosmos will come unraveled (as the Advent prayer, Isaiah 64:1, requested):  the sun and moon will go dark, stars will fall, casting all horoscopes and astrological charts into chaos. 

In those days, after the suffering of that time, the sun will become dark, and the moon won’t give its light.  The stars will fall from the sky, and the planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken (verses 24-25, Common English Bible translation.) 

These images come from prophesies of doom on the day of the Lord.  For example, when Babylon would finally fall, the whole world would be involved, as prophesied in Isaiah 13. 

See, the day of the Lord comes,
      cruel, with wrath and fierce anger,
to make the earth a desolation,
      and to destroy its sinners from it. 
For the stars of the heavens and their constellations
      will not give their light; 
the sun will be dark at its rising,
      and the moon will not shed its light. 
I will punish the world for its evil [God speaking],
      and the wicked for their iniquity;
I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant,
      and lay low the insolence of tyrants.  (Isaiah 13:9-11, NRSV.)

The final wrath is God’s judgment upon all the forces of evil, to reestablish a cosmic balance of justice for the wicked and the righteous. 

When that cataclysm has occurred, Jesus, in our reading, tells us that the ancient prophecy of Daniel will be fulfilled.  This is the prophecy of the heavenly Son of Man (“the Human One,” as opposed to the four “beasts” of Dan. 7:1-8) who will bring in a new world dominion to save and vindicate the suffering righteous. 

Daniel’s vision was of God setting up the heavenly judgment, and then of transferring to the Son of Man dominion over all the earth.  

As I watched,

thrones were set in place,
      and an Ancient One took his throne, …
The court sat in judgment, 
      and the books were opened. ... (Daniel 7:9-10, NRSV.)

[After the judgment of the world beasts, representing the progressively more violent old empires described earlier in the vision, Daniel continues,]

As I watched in the night visions,

I saw one like a human being [a son of man]
      coming with the clouds of heaven. 
And he came to the Ancient One
      and was presented before him. 
To him was given dominion
      and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
      should serve him. 
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
      that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
      that shall never be destroyed.  (Daniel 7:13-14.)

This was the old prophecy that guided the major expectation among Jesus’ early followers.  Mark puts it directly on Jesus’ lips.  “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26NRSV). 

In his own or in later teaching, Jesus was identified as this Son of Man, this Human One.  It was he who was expected to reappear finally and set all things well with—if not the whole world—at least those who waited and “watched” faithfully, as the rest of the Mark reading instructs the hearers to do (verses 28-37). 

Advent, as presented by the readings, is not good news.  It knows that even for the righteous there are continuing hardships and suffering.  It knows that for the present the arrogant, the oppressors, the workers of evil, prevail in an agonized world.  The opening message of Advent is that there definitely IS a judgment.  There is a world-shaking assize near at hand. 

As Advent goes forward, we will gradually hear more and more about what there is BESIDES that judgment!  


Friday, November 24, 2023

November 26, 2023 -- Reign of Christ Sunday

                                                Biblical Words                                                      [855]

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1:15-23Matthew 25:31-46

God’s special care is for the lost sheep, “the least of these,” to whom God sends the good shepherd, Christ the King. 

This Sunday, the 25th Sunday after Pentecost, is the last Sunday of the liturgical year.  This day is traditionally called the festival of the Reign of  Christ (formerly the festival of Christ the King).  It caps the year by acclaiming the royal figure through whom God’s care and justice are exercised. 

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24. 

The last fifteen chapters of the book of Ezekiel are devoted to prophecies of Israel’s future restoration – after thirty-three chapters of judgment and doom on Jerusalem and its enemies.  Our first reading this Sunday is the beginning of this restoration prophecy. 

The whole prophecy, all of chapter 34, concerns Israel’s kings, spoken of as the “shepherds of Israel” (34:2).  (Overall Ezekiel did not care for kings very much; he was a man of the temple, a priest.  He did, however, grudgingly admit the “prince” into his vision of the future glory of the restored Temple, Ezekiel 44:3.) 

God first indicts and judges the past kings for their exploitation and abuse of the people (34:1-10).  The shepherds had turned into predators.  This part of the chapter is worth noting, even though it is not in the Lectionary, because it is a direct parallel to today’s Gospel reading about the judgment of the nations. 

Ah [Woe to], you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves!  Should not shepherds feed the sheep?  … You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.  … my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them (Ezekiel 34:2-4 and 6, NRSV). 

After these false and corrupt shepherds have been eliminated, what is to happen?  The prophecy announces that God, in person, will become the shepherd of the people. 

I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.  … I will bring them into their own land; …and I will feed them with good pasture.  …I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy.  I will feed them with justice (verses 11, 13-14, 16). 

Even among restored flocks there are innocent ones and there are trouble-makers. 

Therefore…I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.  Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock… (verses 20-22). 

God’s own judgment, however, needs some specific implementation.  That is where God’s representative comes in, a renewed Davidic king. 

I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them:  he shall feed them and be their shepherd.  And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them (verses 23-24). 

God’s appointed representative, continuing the good shepherding work of the great king David, will shepherd—and maintain justice among—God’s restored sheep, the people of God’s hand. 

Psalm 100.  

The psalm is an exuberant summons to praise and worship, appropriate to folks who have just celebrated a civil Thanksgiving.  The psalm is a series of imperatives: 

“Make a joyful noise…”

Hey, wake up!  Time to raise the holy howl and prostrate yourself before Yahweh!

“Know that Yahweh is God… “

Get straight in your head:  God is God – and our Lord!

“Enter his gates with thanksgiving…”

Join the procession!  You are those privileged to access the really holy precincts!!

Acclaim with all:  “His steadfast love endures forever!”

Ephesians 1:15-23.  

In the Epistle reading the speaker is engrossed in a long, convoluted thanksgiving (actually a report of what he prays concerning the Ephesians).  This thanksgiving first includes the faith, love, and hope of the Ephesians’ new life (faith and love in verse 15, hope in verse 18). 

The thought of the glories of what Christians have to hope for carries him on to an ecstatic vision of God’s great power working through Christ. 

This power of God, the source and means of salvation for all humans, has established Jesus Christ as the kingly ruler over all powers—cosmic, demonic, human—that can threaten or in any way determine the lives of the elect who are gathered in the church. 

God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at [God’s] right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named not only in this age but also in the age to come.  (Verses 20-21, NRSV.) 

This whole passage is probably guided by early Christian use of Psalm 8 in their liturgies, where the “son of man” (= Son of God) exercised such rule over the created realm. 

…what is man that you are mindful of him,

the son of man that you care for him?
[Yet] You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings,
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You made him ruler over the works of your hands;
you put everything under his feet…

(Psalm 8:4-6, NIV; the NRSV translation loses the reference to the son of man.) 

The closing words of our Ephesians reading pick up this Psalm’s theme:  “And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church” (verse 22). 

This is the celebration of the Reign of Christ in the apostolic church. 

Matthew 25:31-46.  

The Gospel reading for this Sunday is the last of the eschatological teachings reported by Matthew in Jesus’ final discourse to the disciples. 

Though often thought of as a “parable,” technically it is not one.  It does not begin, “the kingdom of heaven will be like this” (25:1), or “For it is as if a man…” (25:14).  Here Jesus tells the disciples what will take place in that transcendent time when the final judgment has in fact come and there will be a final settlement of God with “all the nations.” 

The scene could be modeled on Ezekiel’s indictment of the wicked kings and their replacement by the Davidic king as the good shepherd (see the prophetic reading above).  Here, however, it is the chosen king who carries out the judgment on the nations.  “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory” (verse 31, NRSV).  And a little later, “Then the king will say to those at his right hand…” (verse 34). 

All the nations are judged according to how they treated the needy ones, “the least of these.”  (In the Greek text at verse 40 they are, literally, “to my brothers, the least ones,” which the NRSV gives as “the least of these who are members of my family.”  At verse 45, they are simply “the least of these.”). 

The interpretation of this vision turns decisively on the anonymity of “the least of these.”  If the needy LOOKED LIKE they would be important in the last days, folks would care for them and run after them eagerly.  If those who ministered to the anonymous needy did so because of some great reward in it, they would have disqualified themselves as true servants.  It is precisely the improbability, the cast off and unimportant nature of these neglected ones of the nations that makes them so important to God and God’s royal representative.  (The Ruling Lord is ruled by compassion!) 

The least of these are precisely those ignored by the “important people” of the world! 

[The following is now ancient history, but I let it stand in memory of good things done!] 

This Biblical passage was a kind of charter text for Protestants for the Common Good (now carried on in Community Renewal Society’s Policy work).  From its organization in 1996, PCG held its mission to be rousing awareness of and advocating for “the least of these.”  We understood “the least of these” to be the neglected, invisible, poor and excluded ones hidden within our abundant society—those so often lost in the systems of this world.  We understood the Biblical message to be that these are the special concern of God and God’s representative, Christ the King. 


Saturday, November 18, 2023

November 19, 2023 -- 25th Day after Pentecost

                               Biblical Words                                                        [854] 

Judges 4:1-7Psalm 123; I Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30.

People of faith live in times of Waiting – in oppression, in repentance, in newly awakened hope, in responsibility for time and talent.  

As the season of Advent begins to enter our awareness, we hear messages about waiting for the coming work of the Lord.  Such Waiting is both a burden and a creative challenge. 

Judges 4:1-7.  

This reading from the Former Prophets appears in the Lectionary as a continuation of selections from the Hebrew Scriptures.  We have heard a couple of readings from the book of Joshua, and now we get one (and only one) from the book of Judges. 

This reading is a kind of prĂ©cis of the whole book; it states succinctly the whole cycle of apostasy-oppression-lament-deliverance that structures the book of Judges. 

                  The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord…

                  So the Lord sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan

                  Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help…

                  At that time Deborah, a prophetess… was judging Israel

And then we get the fascinating story of how Deborah and Barak defeated the chariot army of the Canaanites, and how its commander was killed in his sleep by an Israelite heroine. 

It is said that the Canaanite king Jabin “oppressed the Israelites cruelly twenty years” (verse 3, NRSV).  For half a generation the Israelites lived as an oppressed people.  In the up-and-down cycles of the book of Judges this may not seem long, but in terms of living through it, twenty years is heavy. 

As it wore on, the burden of waiting — waiting for some movement in their history to bring relief — was the challenge and task of their time.  Since our reading stops short with the promise of deliverance (verse 7), its emphasis is on the period of suffering because of unfaithfulness, upon enduring until a good time might come again to a repentant people. 

While thus waiting, the people needed the words of a community lament.  

Psalm 123. 

What the Israelites said as they waited in their misery under King Jabin might have been Psalm 123.  (This is not a statement about the date of the psalm.)  It is a community litany, and we may suppose that the speech of the leader was backed by the crescendo of the urgently involved worshippers:

As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master,
(softly "How long?")

as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,

(louder "How long?")

so our eyes look to the Lord our God



In more resigned pleading, the people declare,

Our soul has had more than its fill

      of the scorn of those who are at ease,
      of the contempt of the proud. (verse 4). 

The weariness and burden of waiting drags on. 

I Thessalonians 5:1-11.  

The Epistle reading is also about waiting, waiting for the Final day that will be deliverance for the faithful and judgment for the godless.  Paul indicates (verse 1) that his hearers already know a lot about that Day, presumably because it was often talked of in the original evangelization that formed the church. 

Israel’s prophetic tradition had spoken of the Day of the Lord as a day of darkness (for example in Zephaniah 1, an alternate First reading for this Sunday).  Paul here expands on that theme.  “But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day” (verses 4-5, NRSV). 

Night time is when people pay no attention — when they are asleep — or when wicked things go on.  That is when thieves are about.  That is when people get drunk.  The new believers are called to a life of daylight virtue:  stay awake, stay sober, and put on armor for defense against the coming wrath. 

The armor is a breastplate with two sides (right and left), faith and love.  These protect one’s body.  On one’s head is the helmet.  That is hope — the hope of salvation (all this armor in verse 8). 

The prophets had spoken of the day of wrath.  The believers know that it is near at hand.  Paul brings them good news:  “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” — a salvation available “whether we are awake or asleep” (verses 9-10). 

Matthew 25:14-30. 

The great Waiting that challenged the early Christians was that time between the first and the second comings of the Son of Man. 

The first coming of the Son of Man was related by Matthew in chapters 1-23 and 26-28.  It resulted in his rejection as the Messiah by the leaders of the Judean people and led to the crucifixion.  The resurrection, on the other hand, vindicated Jesus’ identify as Messiah and started the clock ticking until he would return in power to judge the quick and the dead. 

This second coming of the Son of Man is the subject of Matthew 24-25.  

The main events are repeated from Mark’s Gospel (Matthew 24:1-36 = Mark 13), but Matthew’s community dwells much more on the period of waiting that precedes the Second Coming.  (The longer the Jesus communities survived, the more they got used to living in the world.)  Thus Matthew adds (from the Q source, found also in Luke) the warning examples of the careless people of Noah’s time (24:37-39 // Luke 17:26-27) and the household slaves who are either Faithful or Unfaithful while the master is away (24:45-51 // Luke 12:42-46). 

Faithfulness while the Master is away — that is what the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids (25:1-13, last Sunday’s Gospel reading) and the Parable of the Talents (25:14-30) are about.  The Bridesmaids is about wise use of resources at home; the Talents is about wise use of resources in worldly transactions.  We should be clear:  the message of these parables is aimed at the Waiting Church in Matthew’s second-generation community. 

The Parable of the Talents is not primarily about the money! 

In Western languages the word “talent” came to mean skills and abilities, because of this parable.  What started as a term for weight (50 to 70 pounds) and money (about $600,000 per gold talent in our labor market), became “talent” in our sense of gifted people.  (Luke’s alternate version of this parable uses “pounds” instead of “talents,” a dramatically lower monetary value, showing that the money is not the essence of the parable, Luke 19:12-27.) 

The parable makes clear that people are of unequal talent — some have five, some two, some one of whatever you are measuring.  The parable also makes clear that the unqualified expectation of the Lord is that everyone will INCREASE the talents they started with. 

The terms of the Parable refer to increasing resources by commercial activities.  Five talents could be used to pay for some large caravans of goods moving between southern Arabia and the Mediterranean, or between Mesopotamia and Greece or Rome.  Successful caravans could easily double one’s investment.  Failure was also possible — through raids on the caravans or shipwrecks.  Financial investment (putting out money to “bankers,” i.e., money changers) as opposed to commercial investment comes into play in this parable only in the case of the one-talent slave.  Putting out money to bankers was only a little better than doing nothing at all with it (verse 27). 

These commercial matters, however, are only the terms of the parable.  The meaning for the Church was not commercial; the increase in goods in the parable stands for something else in the life of the Church.  


Probably an increase in baptized believers.  “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them … and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (28:19-20).  This was the final word of the Gospel to Matthew’s community. 

The Increase that mattered to God and the Son of Man, who would judge these very nations (next Sunday’s reading), was the winning of souls, not (weighed out) talents! 


Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Novenber 12, 2023 -- 24th Sunday after Pentecost

                             Biblical Words                                               [853] 

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78:1-7; I Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

After God’s great redemptive acts, the faithful live on in the world, challenged to keep the faith and be prepared. 

The Lectionary texts for this Sunday share a concern for the continuity of the generations — the present with both past and future. The texts speak to human situations when God is absent, either because God’s work in the past is done, or because it is still ahead. 

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-24.  

If the farewell speech of Moses (the book of Deuteronomy) does not yet represent the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham and Jacob (the giving of the land), the farewell speech of Joshua does declare that the promise is fulfilled, and states the consequences for the fortunate people. 

Joshua 24 is a great hinge passage.  It presents a time of turning, when the mighty acts of promise and deliverance are done and the Israelites are challenged to live from now on by faith in the God of those past redemptive deeds.  Joshua makes it a time of radical choice:  choose the gods by which you will live (and take the consequences)! 

There are three alternatives:  the ancient gods of the ancestors (from whom Abraham separated himself), the gods of the natives of the land (keepers of local lore and customs), and the God who brought them out of Egypt and gave them this land (verses 14-15).  Joshua then utters his great ancient equivalent to Luther's “Here I stand!”: “As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD” (verse 15, NRSV). 

At this point, God's works of redemption are done.  The Israelites have only to live faithfully to this God in order to dwell securely as the heirs of the divine promise to Abraham and Jacob.  The people avow emphatically that they will so live.  “…we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God. …The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey” (verses 18 and 24). 

An impressive avowal!  

However, we know that following Joshua there is a book of Judges.  We know that the original story of Israel came to have sequels, stories of failure, judgment, and entangling involvements with the power structures of the world. 

We know that the Torah and Joshua were followed by all the later prophets. 

Psalm 78:1-7.  

The Psalm reading is the introduction to a long psalm of historical review, looking back at past generations.  This introduction is explicitly directed to the succession of the generations, affirming a divine ordinance that the past deeds of God be transmitted to each new generation (verses 5-8).  The sage who speaks, representing the current generation, celebrates this tradition process. 

The sage also claims to speak in "a parable" and in "dark sayings" about that celebrated past (verse 2).  The full body of this long psalm makes clear what it is that is puzzling and "dark" in Israel's history with God — the inexplicable and irrational rebelliousness of the Israelites after God had done his mighty deeds. 

This psalm, more effectively than any other, dwells on the mixture of mighty deeds of deliverance by God with rebellious responses by Israel.  This radical alternation of grace and rebellion is a puzzle and a dark saying.  

It is the kind of ominous wisdom it is urgent to make known to future generations!

I Thessalonians 4:13-18.  

After celebrating the faith and perseverance of his fledgling assembly of God’s people in Thessalonica (chapters 1-3 of the letter), Paul turns, in our reading, to their concern about members of their generation who have died (using the euphemism “fallen asleep”). 

The people of this church expect the mighty coming of the Lord in glory almost immediately, an expectation apparently shared by Paul at the time.  But some family members and close friends have died before the end has arrived, and the present members do not want to be separated in the glorious future from their loved ones. 

Paul assures them that Jesus’ triumph over death means that the “dead in Christ” will be united with him in his glorious coming, even before the living believers.  

Paul, by “the word of the Lord,” gives details of the amazing events that will mark that end time — more details, one would think, than the occasion seems to require. 

For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever (verses 16-17, NRSV). 

The details of this passage have contributed much to Christian eschatology — belief about the end times.  It eventually provided one of the keys to the “Rapture” that dispensationalist Protestants have fantasized about so widely in the last hundred and seventy years. 

In the letters that have survived, Paul does not often go into such details about the end things, though II Thessalonians 2 and I Corinthians 15 are impressive highlights alongside our passage.  In general, his expectation that the end would come before his own death seems to have evolved toward his later view of life in the Spirit, in which also death is overcome (as in Romans 8:18-39). 

In any case, for Paul life in Christ gives the assurance of communion among believers that transcends the generations!  (Believers can expect to share a consummation with their loved ones who have passed.)

Matthew 25:1-13.  

The Gospel reading is a parable from Matthew’s impressive supplements to Jesus’ discourse about the last things. 

Following Mark, Matthew has Jesus deliver a long private address about the last things while he and the disciples sit on the Mount of Olives overlooking the Jerusalem temple (Matthew 24, following Mark 13).  In Matthew only, this “little apocalypse” is supplemented by several passages about that final judgment.  Two of these passages are parables about the waiting time before the judgment; the final one is a description of the judgment.  These passages make up chapter 25, and will be the Gospel readings for the last three Sundays of this Christian year. 

In the parable for this Sunday, the foolish and wise bridesmaids (the Greek is literally “virgins”) are charged with the responsibility of welcoming the bridegroom when he returns to preside over his wedding banquet.  The parable is about how these maidens spend their waiting time, the time when the bridegroom is still absent.  As the night wears on they fall asleep.  However, when the alarm is sounded, the wise maidens are prepared.  They have reserve oil in flasks separate from the lamps they all carry.  The foolish maidens have no reserve oil and their lights go out.  They are excluded from the wedding banquet. 

The “wise” maidens here are not sophai, wise women in a philosophical sense.  They are phronimoi, prudent, practically-wise persons.  

What makes them wise here is that they do not count on the bridegroom’s return in a short time.  They allow for a much longer wait than do the “foolish” servants.  The joy of the bridegroom’s coming is certain – but it may be further off than thoughtless people recognize.  The wisdom of these bridesmaids is their preparation for their service to extend over the long haul. 

(The “foolish” bridesmaids are like the seeds that fall on shallow soil in the parable of the Sower, Matthew 13:5-6, 20-21 – they receive the word joyfully but have no depth and fall away before the harvest comes.) 

At the coming of the “bridegroom,” a new age begins for those who have had foresight to prepare for the contingencies and uncertainties of its coming. 


Monday, October 30, 2023

November 5, 2023 -- 23rd Sunday after Pentecost

                                   Biblical Words                                                   [852]

Joshua 3:7-17Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37; I Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12. 

God’s awesome deeds create leaders, but titles and pomp are not for the Lord’s humble servants. 

The Israelite Story – continued. 

The original Israelite Story did not end with the death of Moses (last week’s Torah reading).  The promise to Abraham was not yet fulfilled at Moses’ death.  The story IS completed (at least in its first incarnation) in the scroll ("book") of Joshua. 

The scroll of Joshua relates how the Israelite tribes entered Canaan with awesome signs from God, defeated the coalitions of city-states that opposed them, and settled in their tribal lands, which are described in detail in the last half of the scroll. 

This was the “original” Israelite story because the purpose of the entire saga – from Abraham through exodus, Sinai, wilderness, and conquest – was to articulate and celebrate how Israel, by divine destiny, had come to possess this land.  That was the Israelite story during the five hundred years that included the kingdoms of Israel and Judah (roughly 1100 to 550 BCE). 

Only in its post-exilic version (completed around 450 BCE) did the Israelite story assume the shape of the present Torah (the Pentateuch). 

In this version, for the first time, the story ended with Moses’ final sermon in Deuteronomy.  This gave the basic Israelite Story a new shape:  The Pentateuch, ending with the death of Moses, did not include the conquest of the land!  The story ended, not with a fulfillment in the land, but (in Deuteronomy) with the challenge of how to live WHEN the people pass over into the promised land. 

Thus, all later ages that accepted the Mosaic Torah were oriented to the future – what was yet to come.  Revelation led them to the border of the promised land and told them how to live in preparation for the fulfillment.  All else was living toward God’s future. 

(For some later history of the Final Israelite Story – the Torah – see below, Special Note:  The Torah in Later Developments.) 

Joshua 3:7-17.  

This Joshua passage presents the key moment in Israel’s crossing the Jordan River into the promised land. 

The story is told as a complement to the crossing of the Red Sea at the beginning of the wilderness period.  As the waters of the Sea stood up like walls for the Israelites to pass (Exodus 14:22), so the waters of the River are cut off on the north, “rising up in a single heap,” to allow the Israelites to pass on dry ground.  (The term “heap,” Heb. ned, is applied to these waters in Exodus 15:8 and Joshua 3:13 and 16.)  The whole Israelite wilderness experience is bracketed by the supernatural crossings of the waters.  (This correlation is celebrated in Psalm 114.) 

All of Joshua 1-6 is liturgical scripting.  The speeches, which make up much of the action, are formal and solemn.  The actions are stately and ritualistic—there is no scrambling in fear from the dammed up waters.  Time references are careful and deliberate.  “At the end of three days the officers went through the camp…” (verse 2, NRSV); “Sanctify yourselves; for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you” (verse 5). 

And most of all, the “ark of the covenant,” that sacred box of holy relics carried by the Levitical priests, dominates the scene.  It is the ark that goes before the people and makes the waters of the river obey God.  The ark is to be treated very cautiously.  “Yet there shall be a space between you and it, a distance of about two thousand cubits [one thousand yards]; do not come any nearer to it” (verse 4). 

All this liturgical action is the introduction to the divinely empowered conquest of the promised land.  The awesome crossing of the River is a sign of this.  “By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites…” (verse 11).  To assure that the event will live on in the memory of later generations, twelve men are selected in advance from the twelve tribes (verse 12).  They will later take twelve stones from the bottom of the river and set them up at Gilgal as a memorial (Joshua 4:2-3, 20-24). 

(For better or worse, the Revised Common Lectionary omits all the stories of the “Conquest” of Canaan, even the glorious seven-day parade that terminated Jericho.  The current readings skip from the opening of the book of Joshua to its final chapter.) 

To Abraham and Jacob God promised a land; through Moses God created a people; under Joshua (“Jesus” in Greek) God provided an entry into and conquest of the promised land. 

Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37.  

The selection from the Psalms is a thanksgiving for deliverance from dangerous places, especially the wilderness! 
“Some wandered in desert wastes,
      finding no way to an inhabited town;
hungry and thirsty …
[then God] led them by a straight way,
            until they reached an inhabited town” (verses 4-7, NRSV). 

Israel’s journey out of bondage and through wilderness trials was finally completed in an abundant and protected land. 

“And there he lets the hungry live,
      and they establish a town to live in” (verse 36). 

I Thessalonians 2:9-13.  

The Epistle reading refers to the “labor and toil” of the evangelists in Thessalonica while they were proclaiming the new good news to both Judeans and non-Judeans.  The words “labor” and “toil” occur together in Paul’s writings three times, twice in the Thessalonian letters.  In all cases he seems to refer to regular work for wages as well as the “labor” of advancing the gospel. 

Here, “You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God” (verse 9, NRSV). 

Much the same is said in the second letter to these Thessalonians.  “…[W]e were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with labor and toil [the words of the translation are reversed here to correspond to the Greek] we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you” (II Thessalonians 3:7-8, NRSV slightly modified). 

In a defense of his conduct as an apostle, written at a time of troubles with the Corinthian believers, Paul made a long list of his costs and troubles for the gospel:  “…in labor and toil [NRSV reads “in toil and hardship,” but the Greek is the same as in I Thessalonians 2:9], through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked” (II Corinthians 11:27, NRSV, modified). 

For Paul, the time of proclaiming the gospel and forming new assemblies of believers in the Greek cities was a time of hardship and trials corresponding to the wilderness time in the Israelite story. 

The results of such labor and toil in Thessalonica are seen by Paul as the mighty deed of the Lord, the beginnings of fulfilling the promise to the nations. 

Matthew 23:1-12.  

The Gospel reading continues the escalation of hostility between Jesus and the Judean leaders, which will lead to his death in Jerusalem. 

The whole of Matthew 23 is an emphatic declaration that a state of war exists between Jesus and his followers on one side and the scribes and Pharisees on the other. 

Two world religions were in the making when Matthew’s Gospel was written, and this chapter especially is a major step in their separation.  (The religion of Rabbinic Judaism that became dominant after 70 CE was significantly different from the religion of the Aaronite priest-state of 450 BCE to 70 CE, which was represented in Jesus’ time by the Sadducees.) 

Matthew 23 is campaign literature.  The tone and style of this chapter is accusation and condemnation.  The purpose is not to be balanced and fair to the opponents’ views.  It is to declare that the opponents are a danger to the world and to warn all prospective followers away from them. 

As a matter of historical reality, the scribes and Pharisees undoubtedly had their share of insincere people-pleasers, but they were certainly not uniformly hypocritical, and probably none of them was unqualifiedly malicious.  Certain fundamental differences in religious values and styles had emerged by the second generation of Jesus followers.  Jesus was remembered as differing, sometimes sharply, from the Pharisees and scribes.  As the conflict between the followers intensified, so did the memories of what Jesus had said in the heat of conflict.  This chapter presents the Christian viewpoint in a struggle that got steadily more intense from 70 to 135 CE (end of the second Jewish revolt against Rome when Judeans were banished from Judea). 

The reading begins with what appears to be an approval of the opponents. 

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach” (verses 2-3, NRSV). 

This seems to approve the “teaching” of the scribes and Pharisees, which the rest of the chapter often denies.  What does this initial approval of the scribes mean for the Jesus followers? 

We should bear in mind that the Pharisees were the first major religious movement to believe in the resurrection – to teach that there is life after death, when the judgment of God comes.  Jesus and his followers shared this belief.  See especially Luke 12:4-5 = Matthew 10:28.) 

On the Pharisees, see the powerful essay by Ellis Rivkin, “The Pharisaic Revolution:  A Decisive Mutation,” in The Shaping of Jewish History, Scribners, 1971, pp. 42-83 – reprinted in The Unity Principle, Berman House, 2003, pp. 49-99.

In our passage, the key is probably the role of the scribes in providing the written scriptures. 

Sacred writings were not off-hand objects, as they are in our society.  It took five large scrolls to contain the torah of Moses, and twenty to twenty-five such scrolls to provide the whole scriptures in Hebrew.  “The scriptures” were not a “book”; they were a whole cabinet of scrolls, each in its cubby hole.  And they were expensive, produced by hand only by experts who could assure nearly correct copies of the ancient writings.  Most people could not read and only listened to the scriptures being recited.  

The scribes provided all the scriptures for the communities. 

Jesus certainly insisted that his followers listen to and accept the writings of Moses and the Prophets.  Listen to the scribes recite the torah of Moses!  All starts from there, is Jesus’ meaning.  Jesus may differ from the scribes in INTERPRETING the scriptures, but that you start by HEARING the scriptures read was a matter of complete agreement.  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). 

Concerning the negative examples for which the scribes and Pharisees are condemned in our passage, they fall into three types of activities. 

(1) The scribes and Pharisees lay “heavy burdens” on the shoulders of others without offering any relief.  These burdens consist of the refinements upon the written commandments which the Pharisees elaborated in their oral law (claimed to be derived from Moses also).  The references later in this chapter to tithes, oaths, clean and unclean dishes, etc., (verses 23-26) were criticisms of detailed rules for correct religious practice as advocated by the Pharisees. 

In time, such details made up the contents of the Mishnah and other collections of Rabbinic halakoth (laws).  (The Mishnah is a six-part code of religious practice, longer than the Old Testament, fixed in writing around 200 CE.  The Mishnah is to Judaism approximately what the New Testament is to Christianity.  Both embody traditions by which the ancient Israelite writings—Tanak, Old Testament—are applied to new religious orientations.)  Such detailed developments of the oral law are the “heavy burdens,” which are to be contrasted with Jesus’ “light” burden (Matthew 11:30). 

(2) The Pharisees practice conspicuous consumption in their religion, according to Matthew’s Jesus.  They wear conspicuous religious objects (phylacteries), make their garments religiously elaborate, strive to get the most prominent seatings at services and public events, and they exchange loud and boisterous greetings with their brothers in public places.  Such conduct is self-condemned, as Jesus views it. 

(3) And the scribes and Pharisees have a big thing about titles.  They especially love to be called “Rabbi.”  This literally means “my great one,” but was becoming a title for a well-educated and publicly esteemed religious teacher.  A Pharisee could become a rabbi only after many years of being a disciple of another prominent teacher and acquiring a reputation as a judge of difficult religious questions.  (It should be noted, however, that this was a merit status only; there were no birth or class requirements for becoming a rabbi.) 

Jesus condemns this love of the title, and goes into detail in telling his disciples to avoid all titles.  (How long was that command heeded by the developing church?)  Don’t call each other rabbi, don’t call each other “father,” don’t call each other “instructor” (Greek kathegetes, equivalent to “doctor” in the academic sense).  You are all equal—“for you have one teacher, and you are all students”; “you have [only] one instructor, the Messiah” (verses 8 and 10). 

On this business of hypocrisy and public recognition, the passage closes with familiar wisdom.  “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted [in the final judgment]” (verse 12). 

Though quite unfair to the alleged opponents, Christians were shaping their own identity by holding up negative examples of the scribes and Pharisees—examples intended to lead them and their followers to walk humbly before God and their fellow believers. 

 Special Note:  The Torah in Later Developments. 

Though at one time “the scroll of the torah” was a single document capable of being read in a relatively short time (II Kings 22:8-13, “the book of the law” in NRSV), by Ezra’s time (about 450 BCE) the Torah had become a vast composition filling five large scrolls – thus the “penta-teuch,” five-scroll work – “five-fifths of the torah,” in later Rabbinic jargon.  This large work was “THE Torah,” the supreme revelation of God’s choosing Israel and the commandments that Israel was to obey. 

Sanction for the Aaronite (Zadokite) Temple State. 

This Torah, more or less as we have it, was brought to Jerusalem by the priest-scribe Ezra from Babylon around 450 BCE (Ezra 7:1-6, 11-14). 

Functionally, the Torah was a constitutional document, giving the Aaronite priesthood a complete monopoly on priestly privileges at the Yahweh sanctuary.  (The Torah is about “Aaron,” the ancestor of the only legitimate priesthood.  Zadok was Aaron’s descendant after the time of Solomon, and in the post-Exilic period.)  In the Torah that sanctuary is called “The Tabernacle” (Exodus 25-31, 35-40; Leviticus 1-16; Numbers 1-10), which in Jerusalem, of course, was the temple of Yahweh. 

That temple had been rebuilt after the exile (516 BCE) but was newly enhanced as the center of a fortified city around 450 by the Persian governor Nehemiah.  (Nehemiah was a Judean of the diaspora who had risen in favor in the Persian court during the reign of Artaxerxes I [465-424 BCE].  He received his appointment as governor of Yehud [Judah] as a personal favor from that king.) 

Ezra (backed by or building on Nehemiah’s work) bound the Judeans to observe this Torah (Nehemiah 10:28-39 describes the commitment).  Non-observant groups were excluded from citizenship in the new temple city-state created by Nehemiah.  The later prosperity of this temple-state is reflected in the Chronicler’s account of the temple establishment of David (I Chronicles 6, 16, and 22-29).  The Torah now was the divine sanction for that increasingly renowned pilgrimage center in late-Persian and Greek times. 

(Ellis Rivkin wrote a brilliant essay on the historical importance of the Torah as the divine sanction of the Aaronite priesthood at Jerusalem, “The Revolution of the Aaronides:  The Creation of the Pentateuch,” The Shaping of Jewish History, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971, pp. 21-41; also in The Unity Principle, Berman House, Inc., 2003, pp. 23-48.)

Torah Piety. 

In the course of the Persian and early Greek periods (450-175 BCE), the written Torah inspired a creative and very devoted movement of song and poetry about the Torah. 

  • The most famous expression of this movement has to be Psalm 1.  “Blessed is the person... whose delight is in the torah of Yahweh, and on the torah such a person meditates day and night” (Verses 1-2, RSV modified). 
  • Psalm 19 is a profound linking of the older psalm traditions (about the heavens and the sun) with the newer Torah piety.  The center of this psalm is an eight-line liturgy praising the glory and delight of the torah in rich approbation. 
  • The greatest monument to the ingenuity and persistence of this movement is Psalm 119, all 176 verses of it (22 times 8).  This is an alphabetic acrostic in which each letter of the Hebrew alphabet is given eight lines of praise and prayer of the Torah.  Each eight-line stanza employs a set of synonyms for “torah” constantly repeated throughout the psalm. 

Scholars usually assign these psalms to the wisdom literature, and there are no signs of close association of this Torah piety with priestly – or even prophetic – concerns.  Torah piety undoubtedly flourished where alternatives to sacrificial worship were developing.  One recited texts about sacrifice instead of bringing a lamb to a priest to be slaughtered.  Eventually, such piety would flourish in the synagogues rather than in the temple. 

Torah-Only Groups. 

The Torah became so authoritative for some groups that no other writings were accepted as on the same divine level.  This was true of the Samaritans (who, like the Judeans, called themselves “Israelites”). 

The Samaritans had the same Torah as the Judeans, though they applied the command for a single place of sacrifice to their sanctuary at Mount Gerizim instead of to the Jerusalem temple.  The Samaritans did not accept the prophetic books (histories and prophets) because they were all oriented to  Jerusalem.  When the Maccabean priest-kings of Judah became powerful enough, they destroyed the Samaritan temple at Gerizim (128 BCE, Josephus). 

Also accepting the Torah as the only inspired writings were the Sadducees, the religious-political party of the Greek period representing the priestly powers in Jerusalem.  (The name comes from the Zadokites, the priestly line of the Aaronite establishment.) 

The Sadducees represented the status quo and as such wanted no change, which prophetic texts were likely to precipitate.  They wanted no kings – themselves being the local agents of whatever imperial power prevailed at the time.  The Sadducees rejected the  new inventions of the Pharisees:  the resurrection of the righteous, angels from heaven, and an oral torah (a separate line of Mosaic law passed on only by word of mouth).    

The Two-fold Torah – Pharisees. 

The Pharisees accepted the prophets as well as the Torah.  However, for them too what really mattered was the Torah – only they needed the Torah applied to everyday life, not just to the temple establishment. 

But experience soon made it clear that all sorts of detailed questions are not answered by the written Torah;  judgments of best practice had to be made – for example, in defining “work” in keeping the Sabbath law.  Over time, a large mass of judgments were passed from one expert to another in deciding actual cases for the people, or for the practice of their own brotherhoods. 

Thus, over centuries a vast oral law grew up, which one disciple learned over several years from listening to masters before him.  This oral law was eventually organized by law topics, not as narratives or personal stories.  Around 200 CE, a master (Rabbi) of the time organized the collections of his predecessors  into the Mishnah, the Oral Law in written form! 

All later Judaism is based on this Oral/Written Torah. 

The Christians.  

The followers of Jesus shared with the Pharisees a belief in the resurrection (denied by the Sadducees), though they, like Jesus before them, did not accept the Oral Torah taught by the Pharisees.  Rather, Christians supplemented the Torah and Prophets with proclamations and narratives about the coming of a Messiah.  The Messiah had been foretold in those prophetic books not recognized by Sadducees and Samaritans. 

However, this Messiah had brought new revelations about a Reign of God that had begun in his work, and the old Torah was reinterpreted in light of this new reality of God’s Reign.  By the second generation of the Jesus movement, the Torah was beginning to be replaced by a new torah given by Jesus (Matthew 5:21-48, and the final commission to the disciples to teach “everything that I have commanded you,” 28:20). 

The former Pharisee Saul (Paul) found that the Torah was only a preparation for God’s new revelation, the gospel, and after him a growing number of non-Judean believers in Jesus were exempted from keeping most of the ceremonial commandments of the Torah, like circumcision and Sabbath observance.  (The Ten Commandments, however, remained part of “the law of Christ.”) 

Most of the devotees of the Old Torah, written and oral, would not follow this new revelation into its non-Judean wave of the future.