4:1-7; Psalm 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.
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 précis 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…
the Lord sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan…
the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help…
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
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.
waiting, the people needed the words of a community lament.
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
UNTIL HE HAS MERCY UPON US! (verse 2, NRSV)
In more resigned pleading, the people declare,
Our soul has had more than its fill
the scorn of those who are at ease,
the contempt of the proud. (verse 4).
The weariness and burden of waiting drags
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
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
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 -27) and the
household slaves who are either Faithful or Unfaithful while the master is away
(24:45-51 // Luke -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 WaitingChurch
in Matthew’s second-generation community.
The Parable of the Talentsis 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!
24:1-3a, 14-24; 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.
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
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
We know that the Torah and Joshua
were followed by all the later prophets.
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
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!
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.
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 -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.)
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
(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.
3:7-17; Psalm 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 –
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
(For some later history of the
Final Israelite Story – the Torah – see below, Special Note:The Torah in Later
This Joshua passage presents the
key moment in Israel’s
crossing the Jordan River into the promised
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 ), 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
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,
(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,
they reached an inhabited town” (verses 4-7, NRSV).
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”
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
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,
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
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.
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.)
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 .)
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 ).
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 ).
(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
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
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) TempleState.
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.)
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
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.
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 MountGerizim
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,
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 thenew 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
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
All later Judaism is based on this
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 -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.
34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6,
13-17; I Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46
Moses was an awesome servant of God.Later generations would revere him and the Commandments he delivered.
After many weeks the Lectionary
readings have completed the selections from the books of Moses.This final Torah reading relates the death of Moses and extols his unique place
among humans.The reading includes the
following four topics.
1) Moses was given a final view of the Promised Land. Moses goes up Mount Nebo/Pisgah and gets a
panorama of the promised land.(The
“view from Pisgah” became a proverb for such a panoramic vision.)A few place names in the land are mentioned,
but many others are omitted.The land
extends from Dan in the north to the Negeb in the south.God is present with Moses on the height and
assures him that this is the land that Abraham’s and Jacob’s descendants will
get.Moses can gaze upon it, but he
cannot enter it.Unspoken, but
understood, is that there is too much negative history for Moses to enter the
land.(This mystery of Moses’ sin is
treated [or veiled] in Numbers 20:2-13.)
2) Moses died and was buried. Having seen the promised land, Moses (“the
servant of the Lord”) dies.The text then
says, literally, “And he buried him in the valley…”The “he” who did the burying is apparently
God.Thus it should be no surprise that
“no one knows his burial place to this day” (verse 6, NRSV).Unlike Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and Joshua,
Moses had no tomb in the promised land, no memorial site within the lands of Israel,
where he could be revered.This was a
symbolic way of saying that Moses was more directly related to God than to the
humans he had delivered from oppression.
3) Moses was mourned for a month. The Israelites mourned for Moses thirty days. This was the last month of the forty years of
wandering in the wilderness.The great
sermon given in the book of Deuteronomy had been delivered during the eleventh
month of the fortieth year (Deuteronomy 1:3), the 30 days of mourning took up
the twelfth month, and Joshua led the people into the land in the first month
of the forty-first year (Joshua 1-5, where the Passover was observed on the 14th
of the first month, 5:10-12).[Such was
the time-scheme provided by the final editors who fitted the book of
Deuteronomy into the complex mass of the Priestly Work, Genesis to
4) Moses was uniquely great. The Torah ends with a great eulogy of
Moses.“Never since has there arisen a
prophet in Israel
like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to
perform in the land of Egypt…and
for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses
performed in the sight of all Israel”
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17.
There is only one psalm that is
attributed to Moses, and it is the Psalm
reading for this Sunday.It is
the voice of one who has lived long and suffered much with his community.It verges on disillusionment and despair, but
it IS a prayer and looks to God for what grace may accompany a long and tough
These quotes (from the entire
psalm, not just the listed reading) are from the New Jerusalem Bible
Lord, you have been our refuge from age to age…. You bring human beings to the dust, by saying, ‘Return, children of Adam.’
A thousand years are to you like a yesterday which has passed, like a watch of the night….
All our days pass under your wrath, our lives are over like a sigh. The span of our life is seventy years—
eighty for those who are strong— but their whole extent is anxiety and trouble, they are over in a moment and we are gone….
Teach us to count up the days that are ours, and we shall come to the heart of wisdom…. Show your servants the deeds you do, let your children enjoy your splendour!
May the sweetness of the Lord be upon us, to confirm the work we have done!
An aged Moses knew the struggles
of human life but insisted on the one hope for grace and “splendor” that lies
with the Lord of the ages!
I Thessalonians 2:1-8.
The Epistle reading continues Paul’s delighted review of how the great
revival in Thessalonica had created a vital community of faith.
This revival was not a matter of
publicity stunts and hyper marketing.“For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or
trickery, but … we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests
our hearts.…we never came with words of
flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals…”
(verses 4-6, NRSV).
Impressive criteria by which to
judge a popular religious campaign!
The ultimate proof of the
sincerity and divine approval of the work of the evangelists was their special
care—their parental care—for the newly won believers. “…[W]e were gentle among you, like a nurse
tenderly caring for her own children” (verse 7; some translations give “nursing-mother”
instead of “nurse”).Later, a little
past the Lectionary reading, the pastoral care is compared to the other
parent.“…[W]e dealt with each one of
you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading
that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and
glory” (verses 11-12).
From altar call to the nurtured
life of the believer, the apostle and his fellow-workers minister to the
new-born community of faith in tenderness and love.
The Gospel reading is the last of the questions put to Jesus as he
taught in the Temple in his last
days.The question is about the
greatest commandment. This episode
is told by Mark also (-34), in
the same context as Matthew has it.However,
Mark’s version is twice as long and has a much more friendly tone.
In Mark, a scribe has been
impressed with how Jesus has answered the other challenges and proceeds to put
the question about the greatest commandment.When Jesus answers the question by quoting Deuteronomy and Leviticus,
the scribe agrees, repeats what Jesus said, and adds that the commandments to
love God and the neighbor are “much more important than all whole burnt
offerings and sacrifices.”
That is to say, the commandments
to love God and neighbor are more important than all the temple ritual![This scribe had to be a Pharisee rather than
a Sadducee, for whom the temple and its sacrifices were all important.]Jesus then replies, “You are not far from the
kingdom of God”
(Mark -34, NRSV).
Thus, Mark represents Jesus’
controversies in the temple as ending in a harmonious agreement about the most
In Matthew the mood is
different.There “a lawyer asked him a
question to test him” (verse 35).The
hostility of the previous episodes in Matthew is continued, and it will become
even more severe in the next chapter (next week’s reading).Jesus gives the classic answer to the question,
straight out of the Judean daily recitation, the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:5 is quoted)
about loving God, and out of Leviticus about loving the neighbor (Leviticus ).
Here there is no further dialogue
of the kind that Mark gives.
What did Matthew think the lawyer
expected?Or, where was the trap?However that was, Matthew’s Jesus does have
one additional comment, one very typical of Matthew’s interests.“On these two commandments [total love of
God, and love of neighbor as self], hang all the law and the prophets” (verse
In Matthew’s school
of Christian teaching, one would
learn the commandment to love God and the commandment to love the neighbor, and
then one would learn how to carry them out.That is to say, one would begin to learn the Sermon on the Mount, the
new law for the assembly (church) of Jesus’ disciples.
About the son of David...After
all the challenges from the Judean authorities, Jesus himself initiates a final shot at the Pharisees (before
the diatribe against them in the next chapter).This is a knit-picking question about the Messiah (verses 41-46).
Is the Messiah really to be a son
of David?Why then does David call him
“lord” in Psalm 110:1?Given what the
psalm says, the Messiah must be more than a son to David; he must be a heavenly
Lord (like the "son of man" of Daniel 7:9-14).
This proves that the Messiah is
not to be a typical militant leader, one seeking to restore the power of the
Davidic kingdom.On the contrary, Jesus’
comment suggests that the Messiah, this rejected “cornerstone,” may turn up in
some much more unlikely place—such as on a cross just outside of town.