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. 

Thursday, October 26, 2023

October 29, 2023 -- 22nd Sunday after Pentecost

                                        Biblical Words                                           [851] 

Deuteronomy 34:1-12Psalm 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.

Deuteronomy 34:1-12. 

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 Numbers.] 

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” (verses 10-12). 

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 pilgrimage. 

These quotes (from the entire psalm, not just the listed reading) are from the New Jerusalem Bible translation. 

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. 

Matthew 22:34-46.  

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 (12:28-34), 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 12:33-34, NRSV). 

Thus, Mark represents Jesus’ controversies in the temple as ending in a harmonious agreement about the most important things. 

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 19:18). 

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 40). 

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. 

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

October 22, 2023 -- 21st Sunday after Pentecost

                               Biblical Words                                                     [850]

Exodus 33:12-23Psalm 99; I Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22. 

Israelites wondered how God was present to Moses, and Jesus expected us to distinguish God’s stuff from the Emperor’s. 

Exodus 33:12-23. 

The Torah reading is a set of reflections on the assurance of God’s presence to Moses—and thus to the Israelites—during the transit from the holy mountain to the promised land. 

God’s Presence is speculated on in terms of three daring images:  God’s Face, God’s Back, and God’s Name. 

God’s Face.  Those who shaped Israelite tradition did not hesitate to speak of God in very physical terms, to speak about God’s body.  When God promises that his presence will accompany them, he says, literally, “My faces will walk (along with you).”  (In Hebrew idiom “face” is plural, probably because we have both a left one and a right one.)  When Moses says, “you have not let me know whom you will send with me” (verse 12, NRSV), God’s reply is, “My Face will go and I will give you rest” (verse 14, literal from the Hebrew). 

This is a rather daring way of insisting that Moses truly had access to the great God’s own self.  In a later summing up, Moses was the unique prophet, “whom the Lord knew face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10).  Moses’ link with the Holy One was so direct that God’s own Face was present to him.  This was the basis of Israel’s confidence that it was exceptional among the nations. 

God’s Back.  The later part of the reading (verses 18-23) presents an equally physical elaboration on God’s body. 

Moses asks to see God’s “glory,” which is a bit like asking to see God naked!  God’s “glory” can be physically present to the Israelites as a fiery column by night and as a bright pillar of cloud by day (first introduced into the Torah narrative in Exodus 13:21-22).  When assured of his special status with God, Moses says, “Show me your glory” (verse 18).  What he is asking for is to see what is inside that nocturnal glowing column and that daytime cloud pillar. 

For those speculating in these stories about the divine nature, there is a dilemma here.  Just how nakedly can any human actually behold the Most Holy One?  Moses may be a unique human and thus have some claim to special divine favor, but there ARE limits!  (A very daring visionary treatment of what is inside the cloud of glory is presented in Ezekiel 1:4-28.) 

God arranges a compromise.  The first principle is firm:  “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live” (verse 20).  But, God will make his “glory” pass by Moses as he is shielded in a cleft of the rock—further protected by God placing his hand over the cleft at the most intense moments.  And just when God has passed, Moses may glimpse God’s back!  “…You shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen” (verse 23).  Thus the keepers of the traditions understood that some extremely supernatural things were granted to Moses—never to be conceived for later people—but even for him there were boundaries and limits to intimacy with God. 

These passages reveal a craving on the part of Israelite sages to conceive God in human terms.  They desperately needed to revere a great God who empathized with being human in the world.  God’s body was a daring envisionment for them.  Only Moses, of course, could have experienced it, but it was terribly important to be assured of the human-like-ness of the Holy One of Sinai. 

God’s Name.  The great revelation to Moses did leave behind one lasting feature of the divine presence:  God’s name.  God’s name remained with Israel, and not just with Moses.  “I will…proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord [Yahweh],’ and [as a continuation of the name] I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (verse 19, NRSV). 

That the Holy One bears a name that defines God as gracious and merciful is what Israel takes with it on the long journey after Sinai. 

Psalm 99. 

This is one of the theophany psalms proclaiming Yahweh’s Enthronement as King, over-ruling the powers of chaos and establishing order and justice in the world.  The other such psalms are 93 and 95-98, each adding its own special touch to the common glorification of the Lord as King. 

Here there is a three-fold proclamation of God as holy

Holy is he!  (Verse 3.)

Holy is he!  (Verse 5.)

The Lord our God is holy.  (Verse 9.)

These declarations divide the psalm into three parts:

Verses 1-3.  The Lord is king in POWER.  When he is seen enthroned (“on the cherubim,” that is, on the Ark), the earth quakes.  Great is he in Zion, and the peoples are summoned to praise his “awesome” name.  “Holy is he!”

Verses 4-5.  The Lord is king in JUSTICE.  By his appearance he has “established equity” and “righteousness in Jacob.”  “Holy is he!”

Verses 6-9.  The Lord as king was PRESENT through times past.  He was present to Moses, Aaron, and Samuel – exercising judgment, responding to pleas, forgiving them but also punishing wrongdoing.  “The Lord our God is holy!”  

I Thessalonians 1:1-10.  

The Epistle reading is the apostle’s thanksgiving for the Power of God that broke out at the Great Revival in Thessalonica. 

…because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit… (verse 5, NRSV). 

This spirited movement among the newly saved Thessalonians was itself the proof that they were the called of God.  “For we know, brothers and sisters beloved of God, that he has chosen you, because our message…came to you…in power…” (verses 4-5). 

Clearly some dramatic things happened in Thessalonica the year or so before this letter was written (51 CE).  According to Acts, which, as far as it goes, seems to be confirmed by references in the letter, there was lots of uproar caused by the evangelists Paul and Silas.  Paul had started his preaching about Jesus as the Messiah in the synagogue, and after three weeks some of the Judeans had accepted his message, but even more people “of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women” also joined the new faith, taking it well beyond only Judean circles (Acts 17:4). 

Then, however, “the Jews became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the marketplace they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar” (Acts 17:5).  Jason, one of the prominent citizens who had accepted the faith, was jailed and then released on bond to keep the peace.  The court settlement probably included the condition that Paul and Silas had to get out of town, and they headed down the road to cause more trouble in Berea. 

Paul thanks God constantly that the Thessalonians have persisted in the faith and have grown in “the work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope” (verse 3).  The message that Paul and Silas brought had obviously caught fire and was sustaining a growing community of faith in that capital city of Macedonia. 

This very survival and growth was to Paul proof that it was the work of God.  

Matthew 22:15-22.  

The Gospel reading continues the series of challenges or tests put to Jesus as he took his stand in the Jerusalem temple in his last days.  Here, the Pharisees and the Herodians ask Jesus if, in his teaching, it is permitted to pay taxes to Caesar. 

A little background may be helpful.  Jesus is now in Judea, not Galilee.  The two regions were under different administrations in Jesus’ time (from 6 to 41 CE).  Galilee was ruled by Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great.  Antipas ruled over Galilee for forty-three years (4 BCE to 39 CE), and it was he who collected the taxes in Galilee. 

Judea (and Samaria) had originally been ruled by another of Herod’s sons, Archelaus, but Archelaus was a thorough foul-up, and the Romans (at the request of the Judeans) fired him in the year 6 CE.  They then put Judea and Samaria under the direct rule of a Roman prefect (later called a procurator).  This was the first direct Roman rule over Judea since Rome conquered the area almost seventy years earlier.  In order to implement the new Roman administration, and the collection of its taxes, they took a census of all the population (of Judea and Samaria) around 6 CE.  Then they implemented a per capita tax, requiring one denarius per year for each person.  (A denarius was one day’s pay for an agricultural laborer.) 

This census of 6 CE prompted a resistance movement, initiated by a certain Judas of Galilee.  (Judas was from Galilee, but his resistance movement was mainly active in Judea where direct rule was going into effect.)  As the historian Josephus saw it, Judas’ movement turned into the Zealots, who precipitated the Jewish War of 66-73 CE. 

Josephus described this “fourth philosophy” as follows: 

This school agrees in all other respects with the opinions of the Pharisees, except that they have a passion for liberty that is almost unconquerable, since they are convinced that God alone is their leader and master. (Jewish Antiquities, xviii (23), Loeb Classical Library translation.) 

Judas the Galilean, and those of his followers who were around during and after Jesus’ active years, were certainly opposed to paying taxes to Caesar.  Thus, if the Pharisees put this question to Jesus it was an explosive one, for at least a minority of the population. 

Jesus’ famous answer to the question was to hold up a Roman denarius—the coin with which the head tax had to be paid.  On this coin was an engraving of the emperor’s head and a text that identified him as “Caesar [emperor] Tiberius Augustus.”  Jesus said, “Give … to the emperor [literally to Caesar] the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (verse 21, NRSV). 

A Roman Denarius, Tiberius head on the front, “High Priest” on the reverse. 
Photo from the rare coin market.  

In part this is a trick answer.  It doesn’t tell you how to distinguish between the things that are Caesar’s and the things that are God’s.  Deciding what is God’s is especially difficult.  If everything is God’s, then Caesar has nothing (presumably this was the Zealots position).  On the other hand, what belonged to God also included a tax—a tax that was paid to God (that is, to the priests).  Every Judean in the world was obligated to pay this temple tax every year.  (Matthew has Jesus agreeing to pay it in 17:24-27.)  This annual religious tax was, in fact, twice as much as Caesar’s tax. 

However, the bottom line of our text is this:  Jesus insists that YOU CAN MAKE A DISTINCTION.  It IS possible to separate what is owed to the government from what is owed to God.  (At the very least, Caesar’s coin belongs to Caesar.) 

This is an answer that rejects the revolutionary’s totalitarian platform.  At least until God changes the earthly regime by bringing a divine reign to earth, there are worldly taxes to be paid. 

The Pharisees, who hoped to force Jesus to show himself as either a lackey of Rome or a supporter of rebels, are frustrated, and Jesus’ disciples are directed to live at peace with the Roman administration. 


Saturday, October 14, 2023

October 15, 2023 -- 20th Sunday after Pentecost

                                     Biblical Words                           [849]

 Exodus 32:1-14Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9Matthew 22:1-14. 

The chosen people may commit great sin, but God’s purpose still prevails in spite of called ones who lose their chance. 

Exodus 32:1-14.  

The Torah reading presents the greatest sin the people of Israel could commit — idolatry. 

The people of Israel had just heard the Lord’s Ten Commandments from the mountain, and Moses had left them for forty days to get more instructions for their future life.  Becoming impatient, they yearned to have a religion of their own — immediately. 

The initiators in this drama are “the people.”  They call upon Aaron to give them religion. 

As presented here, Aaron is not the leader.  He is the technical expert.  If the people want religion, he has the know-how.  He can create a full-fledged religious establishment – as all the world has always known such things!  Through his artisanship the people can see their gods, make their offerings and sacrifices, and enjoy their ecstasies and devotions in festivals and dances. 

Following the people’s demands, Aaron collects their gold, crafts a golden calf as the great idol, gives it a sacred story by claiming that these are the gods that brought the people from Egypt, and builds an altar for their sacrifices to these gods.  The establishment is completed by appointing a time for a festival, and the feasting and revels fill the religious craving of the people. 

[Historically, the “golden calf” episode in Exodus is a deliberate perversion, by Judean writers, of the cultic establishment of the northern kingdom of Israel.  That northern cultus was established when that kingdom broke away from the Davidic (Zadokite) establishment of Jerusalem.  Jeroboam the First established (or re-established?), in about 931 BCE, such golden calves at Bethel (Aaron’s sanctuary) and Dan (Moses’ sanctuary), the southern and northern borders respectively of that kingdom.  In the earlier times, of course, these calves were not idolatrous; they were pedestals for the appearance of the High God; they were counterparts to the Ark, with its cherubim, in the Jerusalem temple.  (Jeroboam the First’s religious establishment is described in I Kings 12:25-33; the Mosaic priesthood of Dan is referred to in Judges 18:30.  See also Psalm 99:6, "Moses and Aaron were among his priests...)  The Jerusalem custodians of the traditions eventually made their arch rivals at the sanctuary of Bethel ironic practitioners of idolatry!]

Up on the mountain, the Lord interrupts the work with Moses to inform him that the people have already proven hopelessly disloyal to their real Lord.  God becomes angry and decides to wipe out this rabble from Egypt and start a new chosen people with Moses as the new father of the people.  “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation” (verse 10, NRSV).  Moses is offered the same promise that earlier started things off with Abraham — making of him a great nation. 

For the first time — but not the last — Moses places himself between the people and the wrath of the Lord. 

He argues against destroying the people.  First, God’s reputation is at stake.  Think what the Egyptians would say, that God took the people into the wilderness to kill them.  Secondly, remember the promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (Jacob), the promises to take THIS people out of bondage and to a promised land (see Genesis 15:13-14). 

After Moses made these arguments for the defense, “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on the people” (verse 14).  Moses has been the means of saving the disobedient people — and, incidentally, saving the original enterprise of the exodus. 

Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23.  

The Psalm reading is selections from a long psalm that is a combination of praise of God and confession of sins, using as examples Israel’s repeated unfaithfulness from their time in Egypt, through their history in the land, right down to their captivity in foreign lands. 

The psalm is spoken by one who identifies himself with Israel’s sinfulness. 

Both we and our ancestors have sinned;

      we have committed iniquity, have done wickedly (verse 6, NRSV). 

The speaker also expects, however, that God will forgive, will restore the sinful people. 

Remember me, O Lord, when you show favor to your people;

      help me when you deliver them (verse 4). 

In the second passage from the psalm we have a short poetic version of the golden calf sin at the holy mountain.  The people “exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox…”  And the role of Moses is also prominent: 

he said he would destroy them — had not Moses, his chosen one,

      stood in the breach before him,
      to turn away his wrath from destroying them (verse 23). 

Israel’s greatest sin did not prove entirely fatal — because there was a mediator who put his life on the line for the people. 

Philippians 4:1-9.  

The Epistle reading is a passage near the end of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, one of his dearest and most loyal churches in his mission field.  In this passage Paul urges certain leaders in the church to get along better, to iron out their differences. 

I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.  Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.  (Verses 2-3, NRSV.) 

We have passing references to people we do not know about otherwise.  We also do not know whom Paul is talking to directly -- " loyal companion"!  What an interesting group these Philippians must have been! 

Paul then dictates a kind of theme sentence:  “Let your gentleness be known to everyone” (verse 5). 

Gentleness (Greek epieikes and epieikeia).  For our meditation on this reading, let’s explore this quality of gentleness as it appears in other passages. 

Titus is told to remind fellow Christians “to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone” (Titus 3:1-2, NRSV). 

Timothy is told what the qualities of a church leader should be.  “Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money” (I Timothy 3:2-3). 

The letter of James describes the gifts of wisdom.  “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (James 3:17). 

Finally, Paul ascribes this quality supremely to Christ himself.  “I myself, Paul, appeal to you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ” — he appeals that he not have to be other than gentle with the Corinthians when he next visits them (II Corinthians 10:1). 

The Philippians are urged to let such gentleness as this be known to all around, to show in their lives the gentleness of Christ. 

Matthew 22:1-14.  

In Jesus’ encounters with his opponents in Jerusalem in his last days, Matthew has him tell several parables.  Today’s reading is the third parable in a row about accepting and rejecting God’s coming kingdom. 

The coming kingdom has been represented as God’s vineyard, taken from the wicked tenants and given to new people who will produce righteousness (last week’s reading).  Now there is a parable about a wedding feast given by a king for his son.  As we have it before us, this parable is also a severe condemnation of the former privileged people of God’s favor and their displacement by other people. 

Early version.  However, this parable has been through some major reinterpretations on its way to its present form.  If Jesus actually told any such parable, it was like the story in Luke 14:16-24.  (This is one of the few episodes, found only in Matthew and Luke, that Matthew sets in Jerusalem.  It is presumably taken by both Gospels from the Sayings Source Q.) 

In the Luke version a great man invited noble guests to his banquet but they made trivial excuses and did not come.  The master then had his servants invite people off the streets and from the country roads to his banquet hall until it could be filled.  “For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner” (Luke 14:24NRSV). 

The meaning plainly is that those of the Judean establishment expecting to receive God’s great good time have missed it, and it will be enjoyed by “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” as well as people recruited from the highways (Luke 14:21).  

Such was the early parable about the Banquet at the time of God’s reign. 

In Matthew’s version, a Save-the-Date notice had already gone out to a prearranged list of honored guests.  The action that now takes place is when the time of the banquet has actually arrived (verse 3).  However, the privileged invitees have declined to come.  The king sends everyone a second more urgent summons saying the time is at hand, the food is fully prepared, and all things arranged.  The notables who had been invited, however, make trivial excuses and refuse to come (verses 4-5).  Eventually, the king tells his slaves, “those invited were not worthy.  Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet” (verses 8-9).  Thus far the Matthew and Luke versions of the parable are similar. 

However, Matthew’s story also has a jarring intrusion in the sending out of the slaves.  Some of the invited nobles “seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them” (verse 6).  This was certainly overkill (pun intended) on the part of the invited ones, going far beyond simply declining the invitation!  What could this excessive violence be about?  Matters are only made worse by the king’s reaction.  “The king was enraged.  He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city” (verse 7, NRSV). 

It is clear that something has derailed the original story, and a different agenda has been inserted here. 

The key is in the allegorical meanings of the parable.  In the allegorical code, the slaves sent to call the invitees were the Israelite prophets, perhaps including John the Baptist and Jesus.  Sent to the privileged Judean people, they were abused and killed, and the Judean leaders were punished by an army that came, slaughtered many, and burned their city, Jerusalem. 

This insertion into the parable knows of the outcome of the Jewish War of 66-73 CE, and interprets that great destruction and death as God’s punishment for rejecting the summons to them of John and Jesus to repent.  This insertion is not from Jesus, of course.  It is from the reciters of the Gospel in Galilee or Syria sometime after 70 CE.  The insertion was provided by someone who knew, perhaps through inspiration from the risen Lord, what fate was in store for Jerusalem and its leaders. 

And at the Banquet...  There is another major change in the original parable, also made in the light of later Christian experience.  In this parable, the final gathering of the people for the royal banquet includes all kinds of folks.  “These slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad” (verse 10). 

This leads to another very surprising turn.  The king visits the people who have been admitted to the banquet and finds one who has dishonored the event by not wearing a wedding robe (verse 11).  This person is severely condemned and banished to outer darkness (verse 13).  What a gross case of injustice is this to one who was simply brought in off the street! 

Once again, the original story is distorted for the sake of its allegorical meaning.  The guests who have been brought into the banquet are non-Judean (or at least non-Pharisaic) people, people who receive God’s invitation after the mainline Judean leaders have refused it.  Non-Judean people in the church have inherited, second-hand, the gift of the kingdom. 

The point of the wedding robe is that even the non-Judeans, the people of the nations, who have been brought in, must change their attire.  That is, even the former outcasts must change their lives to match the blessings of their new society. 

The Jesus followers of Galilee or Syria knew that acceptance into the church had its requirements.  The Messianic Banquet was an assembly of transformed people, dressed according to the conditions of the Society described in the Sermon on the Mount.  The wedding robe had to be put on, probably through baptism.  So Paul said to the Galatians:  “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:27NRSV).   

This whole parable episode, elaborated over some decades, contains messages from Jesus’ own proclamation of the kingdom, through the later actions of God in recent history (destruction of Jerusalem), to the final recognition that the new life in Jesus the Messiah also has its new law (its proper wedding garment).