Welcome to another week of daily readings. This week we are trying some gentle changes. First, I am trying to be more succinct and make the notes brief (we will see how it goes!) This is because of both the time to research and write them, and the time to read and use them.  Especially during the long series on Romans, I have been quite analytical and detailed. That sometimes works against regular use.

A second change is a shift of focus from analysis and scholarly background to a more devotional, interpretive focus. In this time of profound personal challenge and deep uncertainty, a more applied perspective may be more pastoral.

Thirdly, as September and Spring draws near, we will embrace the discipline of the Season of Creation and explore our stewardship of Creation as a key element of our discipleship. This will limit our Romans readings to the next two weeks (until Sunday 30th August, i.e. we will explore Romans Chapters 12 (23/8) and 13 (30/8) before taking a break from Romans). Our Season of Creation will be shaped by a Zoom conference the church shared many weeks ago where we reflected on the ancient worldview built around four ‘elements’ – earth, air, water and fire. The last day of the Season of Creation comes on October 4th, the Feast of St Francis of Assisi. We did this last year also, discussing possible coming catastrophic disruptions of nature without knowing that before Spring returned we would experience the bushfires of the Australian summer and the disaster of a global pandemic.

Monday, August 17, 2020Psalm 130; Genesis 43:1-34; Acts 15:1-21

Psalm 130 vss 1-6 are all in the (anguished) first person singular (it is an ‘I-song’). This would lead us to classify it as ‘a prayer song of the individual’. It has a strongly penitential tone, with iniquities and forgiveness the focus of vss 3 and 4, without ever naming the nature of the sin(s?) involved. That the distress of the singer is profound is indicated by vs 1. Because of this the Psalm has also been included among the ‘penitential psalms’ (cf. Ps 51). Vs 6 suggests that the original life-setting may have been a night vigil of penance.

However, in vss 7-8, the focus shifts to an ‘exhortation to Israel’. While there is no announcement of salvation or God’s forgiveness, this seems to be assumed in vss 7-8. The individual is able to place their own suffering (and implied deliverance) within the context of the community and moves from anguish and petition to encouragement and praise. It is possible that the psalm was ‘performed’ by an individual whose testimony comes in vss 1-6, followed by a priestly voice that calls the people in vs 7, with a shared communal response in vs 8 that affirms and celebrates the forgiving, saving power of the Lord.

Genesis 43 continues the Joseph saga. Vss 1-10 tell of the discussion between Jacob and his sons regarding a second envoy to Egypt. The motif of surety for someone else recurs here (vs 9) just as all the brothers had been held as surety in Egypt for one (42.16), then one held as surety for the other nine (42.19), Rueben offering his two sons to Jacob as surety for Simeon and Benjamin (if Jacob let Benjamin travel to Egypt to recover Simeon (42.37).  Throughout chapter 42 Jacob believes that all his ‘absent’ sons are dead (Simeon, Joseph) and refuses to risk Benjamin.

Then, in vss 11-15, Jacob relents, but adopts a strategy not of surety but of gift (vss 11-13). Also significant is Jacob’s acceptance of the risk of great loss – a sign of courage and personal growth from which any of us can learn: “… as for me, if I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved” (vs 14).

Vss 16-25 tell of the first stage of the ‘reunion’ of all the brothers and the resolution of the puzzle of the ‘reappearing money’ that had so terrified the brothers (42.27-28) and their father (42.35).

In vss 26-34 the second stage of the re-union is narrated. Details are the separation of Hebrew from Egyptian ethnicities and Joseph from both in the meal (vs 32) and the double portion of the meal given to Benjamin, a continuation of the subversive Genesis narrative of younger sons overshadowing their older brothers.

Acts 15 is one of the most critical passages of the whole New Testament. In this meeting the Gentile and Jewish factions of the early church made their peace and established a broad compact of ethics and morals within which the church lives to this day. The two delegations came together from Antioch and Jerusalem. Note that in both places there had been argument and dissension (vss 1-2 – Antioch, vs 5 – Jerusalem). Peter opens the debate with support for the Gentile ministry (claiming for himself a primary role – vs 7!) even though in reality he seems to have vacillated and switched sides on this matter (see Galatians 2.11-14). Paul and Barnabus bear witness (vs 12) and then James makes a wonderful statesman-like speech (vss 13b ff)!

James affirms Peter (using his Hebrew name) (vs 14) and then quotes scripture (vss 16-17) – all good tactics to mollify the home faction! Then (in a breath-taking rhetorical move) says Therefore I have reached the decision … (emphasis added!)  Now that’s the way to run church meetings: oh, the joys of episcopacy!

The resulting moral framework lifts from the Gentile churches the entirety of the ceremonial and moral law with only four exceptions: things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. (vs 20).   Within many western cultures we have avoided foods made from blood (haggis, blood sausage and some smallgoods notwithstanding). We do not have major issues with things polluted by idols (although some would argue that we need to revisit our understanding of idolatry in view of modern consumer capitalist and celebrity cultures). We have largely forgone strangulation a means of killing animals for meat.

Perhaps the one continuing stricture that causes us the most anguish in the contemporary church is the prohibition of fornication. We still struggle with sexual ethics: some would interpret the concept of fornication as applying to a very wide range of sexual behaviours all of which are to be regulated  and many of which are to be prohibited. Others see this in a more restricted sense of faithfulness to our publicly expressed relational and family commitments. While this single issue remains a source of conflict and disagreement within the Christian church, we must not lose sight of the sweeping nature of Acts 15 in reframing for Christians the law – all ancient Hebrew moral codes and the ceremonial and ritual requirements of the Old Testament.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020Psalm 130; Genesis 44:1-34; Romans 12:1-8
For the Psalm, see Monday.

Genesis 44 is a reprise of the ‘money in the sacks’ ploy of chapter 42. If only Joseph’s brothers had had access to one of those luggage-wrapping machines we see in modern airports! This time the plot is complicated by Joseph hiding his silver cup in Benjamin’s sack (vs 2). After their distress and fear after discovering the hidden money last time, one might think the boys would have checked the sacks this time around. Far from being cautious, they offer the life of anyone found with the silver cup, little knowing Benjamin would be found with it.

Vss 14-17 are the negotiation as to penalty, and vss 18-34 is the extended explanation and pleading offered by Judah, complete with is offer to ‘stand-in’ as surety/slave for Benjamin so as to protect Jacob from losing yet another son.

Romans 12: 1-8 brings a change in the tone and the substance of the book of Romans. From chapter 1.16 up to the end of chapter 11 the book has been extended and complex theological reasoning around the righteousness of God, the nature of justification and salvation, and the destiny of both Israel as the people of God and the Gentiles.

Now Paul switches to the consequences of all this teaching. How are we to live as Christians? What are the ethical implications of what we have learned about God’s righteousness and fairness, of God’s mercy freely offered to all?

Vss 1-2 are a well-known piece of teaching that I have heard preached often. As always, whenever we have a ‘therefore’ in Paul’s writing, this means that this teaching is grounded in whatever went beforehand. In this case it is the teaching for God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he might be merciful to all (11.32).  This is reinforced by Paul’s appeal by the mercies of God (emphasis added) in 12.1. 

present your bodies as a living sacrifice includes both the circumcised, law-disciplined bodies of those of Israel, and the grace-filled, ethically liberated (see Acts 15 yesterday) bodies of the Gentiles. In fact, if we read 11.32 as a statement of universal salvation, 12.1 is a call to all people everywhere – to those male and female bodies (and those who fit in neither), to all races, and classes, to all who find themselves defined by their embodied humanity before language or culture or religion.

The end of vs 1 presents an issue in translation. There is a footnote to the text that alters spiritual worship to reasonable worship. Without going into the Greek I think the reasonable worship reading is to be preferred, or as Byrne translates it the worship you owe as rational beings which is more in accordance with what follows in verses 2, a call to forsake the usual human logic and categories of life and be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern what is the will of God. Now, given the challenges of chapters 9-11 and the way Paul has been shaking up the certainties of both Jews and Gentiles ‘about what God thinks’ what is the transformation he has in mind?

It is a useful exercise to reflect on who you think is being addressed in these crucial verses: is it either of the factions of the Roman church? Is it all the members of the Roman church together? Is it humankind collectively called to a change of mind-set in response to the great mercy and grace of God?

Vss 3-8 present an exhortation to humility and sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned (vs 3). The Pauline metaphor of the members of the body is then repeated (cf 1 Corinthians 12) with a slightly different ordering of ‘gifts’ within the church. While the earlier gifts in the series seem to relate to identifiable roles (prophet, minister, teacher, exhorter) the latter are more general in nature (giver, leader, ‘the compassionate’).

Wednesday, August 19, 2020Psalm 130; Genesis 45:16-28; Romans 12:9-21
For the Psalm, see Monday.

Genesis 45.16-28 takes as read Joseph’s revealing of himself to his brothers (vss 1-15). Perhaps the Lectionary is trying to keep us focussed on Jacob and his other sons rather than Joseph himself.

Vss 16-20 tell of the Egyptian’s response to the news that these are the brothers of Joseph. It is a generous and promising offer of a new start in Egypt. However, it also has a sting in the tail – as we will learn when we start to read to the book of Exodus.

Vss 21-24 depict the sending-off by Joseph complete with an assurance to be not agitated (vs 24 – footnote) on the way – possibly a reference to the ‘money in the sacks’ trick that he had played twice now. The joyous news is brought to Jacob in vss 25-28. He was stunned and disbelieving of the news (vs 26) but … when he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him, the spirit of their father Jacob revived (vs 27). Speaking as a father and grandfather, I must agree it’s wonderful how much the gift of a new car will revive one’s spirits!

 Romans 12.9-21:  I am very old-fashioned, but I just love the Antiques Roadshow. My favourite segments are the jewellery experts Joanna Hardy and John ‘Turquoise’ Benjamin. They take a piece of sparkly jewellery and explain how intricately and skilfully it has been put together.

This passage of Romans deserves a similar expertise to explain just how polished and ‘faceted’ is the pastoral artistry that Paul has worked into these verses! It is densely and beautifully woven with references and links to the Hebrew Scriptures, allusions to concepts he has used earlier in the book and the poetic use of alliteration and common word-roots that can only be appreciated in the Greek. It is well worth extended study with a good commentary, not just for the depth of the moral teaching involved but the beauty of the language and the power of the logic.

After the initial summary statement (vss 1-2) that marks the transition from the theological explorations of the preceding chapters Paul begins the paraenesis (exhortation, moral teaching) that comprises chapters 12 through to 15.13. The early church used such lists of ethical principles or behaviours as can be seen in texts like 1 Thess 5.12-22 and I Peter 3.8-12. Paul may have used a pre-existing Christian ‘table of ethics’ for these verses.

Today’s ‘slice’ falls into three sections.  Vss 9-13 express genuine love (vs 9,10) as the heart of life in the Christian community, and the spiritual virtues that surround it (vss 11-13). Vss 14-16 describe the ethical behaviours that characterise Christians’ dealings with each other. Vss 17-21 describe the ethical behaviours that characterise Christians’ dealings with outsiders.

Vss 9-13:   In vs 10b the notion of ‘showing honour’ reflects the family context of 1st Century Palestine where families would have defended one another’s honour and worked together co-operatively rather than in competition.

Vs 11c presents a fascinating textual issue (see footnote). The alternate readings are ‘serve the Lord’ or serve the (opportune) time. The reason for the two readings is that ancient Greek manuscripts give the text as either serve the kyrio (Lord) or serve the kairo (time – with the emphasis on a particular or special time). The former is fairly bland, the latter is hard to understand/interpret. In the later Pauline tradition (i.e. the work done by those inspired by Paul, but not by Paul himself) we find the expression making the most the time (Colossians 4.5, Ephesians 5.16) so there was clearly an early Christian ethical principle of how we engage with time. This reading of the text is very appropriate to our context with the enormous challenge to our experience of time arising from our enforced isolation and the uncertainty of the post-Covid future – the ancient lament of the Hebrew Scriptures How long, O lord? echoes within us, and we need to hear and embrace the exhortation of the early Christian writings: serve the time! Make the most of the time!

Vss 14-16 bring a restatement of one of the most confronting of Jesus’ teachings about blessing those who persecute you, emphasised by the repetition of vs 14a and 14b. Vs 16c presents us with another textual issue, this time not related to variant manuscripts but to the intrinsic challenges of translation. The Greek for the lowly can be translated as either masculine (meaning lowly people) or neuter (meaning lowly things). Those who remember and honour St David of Wales (Dewi Sant) will think of his dying words to his brothers: Do the little things.

Vs 16 has another hidden treasure: the other three phrases of the verse are all based on a common Greek root for ‘thinking’ – the same Greek root that has been used four times in vs 3, neatly marking off vss 3-16 as a common unit, all embodying the meaning of the renewing of your minds that was the overarching theme of vs 2!

Vss 17-21 take us into the realm of relating to outsiders. Again, it is ‘framed’, this time by the use of the word evil (Gk kakon) in vs 17a and twice in vs 21. In a lovely contrast and pun we are urged not to repay evil for evil (kakon/kakou) but think about what is noble (kala) in the sight of all (vs 16).

Vs 18 recognises that peaceable relations are not always possible, a helpful pastoral principle for those whose scrupulous consciences fret over difficult or unresolved relationships. Vss 19-20 are a challenge: what is the meaning of you will heap burning coals on their heads? Is this a loving motivation for action? The general context is the prohibition of vengeance – something again earthed in the teaching of Jesus. Paul’s statement is a quotation of an OT principle from Proverbs 25.21-22a.  Some scholars see the burning coals as a form of enhanced punishment by God in the end time (as did St Chrysostom and some modern commentators), but others see a sense of shame and remorse that will lead to a change of heart (so held Origen, Augustine, Pelagius and Jerome).

Thursday, August 20, 2020Psalm 124; Genesis 49:1-33; 1 Corinthians 6:1-11

Psalm 124 is an unusual psalm. Although it was categorised as a ‘collective song of thanksgiving’, the scholar Crüsemann was able to show that ‘not a single idiom, not a single word or figure of Psalm 124 is typical of Psalms of the people or the community, not to mention the song of Thanksgiving of Israel, but many of them are expressly typical of Psalms of an individual. For a number of them it is significant that they are applied also to external enemies only in prophetic language.’ (F. Crüsemann, Studien zur Formgeschichte von Hymnus und Danklied in Israel, WMANT 32(1969): 161ff).

From this we can conclude that the psalm began from elements of form and language that arose originally in the prayer – or even the everyday speech – of an individual. From this, a community psalm has evolved in a derivative way, influenced also by prophetic speech. This is a psalm which has been placed into the mouth of the people, and Israel has been invited to ‘own’ the insights and sentiments herein expressed.

Again, the title suggests it is ‘a pilgrimage song’. Vss 1a and 2a repeat the overarching theme, with vs 1b forming a ‘stage whisper’ or even a direct ‘call to worship’ by the worship leader:

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side [announces the leader]

– let Israel now say – [says the leader in a prompt to the community]

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side …etc [say all the people in response]

Vs 3 suggests the metaphor of some form of primal monster ‘swallowing’ the people (cf. the Lord who has not given us as prey to their teeth in vs 6b). Vs 4 may be a reference to the sudden and dangerous flash floods in the wadis of Palestine after rain, or it may refer to the primal waters of chaos that were a part of Jewish cosmology.

In vs 7 the metaphor changes to that of a bird escaping a snare, before final expression of faithful trust is affirmed by the whole community in vs 8.

Genesis 49. 1-33:  Again, the Lectionary jumps over three whole chapters in the story of Jacob and brings us to Jacob’s last words to his sons. These words are a poetic/prophetic depiction of the future of the ‘twelve tribes’. I will offer no detailed commentary, other than to point out these would have been difficult words to actually hear from your dying father – especially vss 5-7 and 14-15 and 27 – the words to Benjamin perhaps a reference to Judges chapters 20-21.  The role of Judah as a separate kingdom is depicted in vs 10. Rather than a literal ‘last words to his sons’ we can interpret this as a much later historical survey placed on the lips of Jacob.

Vs 18 is a word of prayer interposed into the ‘blessings’ (?) offered to Jacob’s sons.

Vss 29-33 affirm again that the Patriarchs are buried in the cave of Machpelah (modern Hebron).

Note the reference to the Mighty One of Jacob, / because of the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel in vs 24b. In the context this would be an appropriate description of Joseph, in whose ‘description’ it falls, especially when we read of the journey back to Canaan to bury Jacob in Gen 50.4-14. This reference to ‘the Rock’ is applied in 1 Cor 10.4 to the later (Exodus) journey from Egypt to Canaan where it is interpreted as a reference not to Joseph, but to Christ.

 The passage from 1 Corinthians 6.1-11 relates to the principle of Christians seeking recourse to civil law which Paul sees as a failure in principle: The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? (vs 7). The inclusion of the passage here perhaps reflects the OT reference to Dan in Genesis 49.16-17 where Dan shall judge his people as one of the tribes of Israel…followed by a puzzling reference to the essence of the legal function:

Dan shall be a snake by the roadside,
    a viper along the path,
that bites the horse’s heels
    so that its rider falls backward.
(vs 14)

The passage vss 9-11 includes a list of sinners. It includes male prostitutes, sodomites (vs 9 – NRSV). I clicked the various translations in Bible Gateway to see the variety of translations of the Greek words. The translations indicate some of the issues with how we understand sexuality, especially sexual expression between men, and the teaching of the Bible about it. The variety of translations reflect the background values of interpreters and expositors as much as it does what the Bible is saying. There is a big difference between consensual, loving, same-sex relationships and male prostitution, yet different translations of this verse render the same word with both these meanings.

A related matter is the inclusion of fornicators as a separate class of sinner in vs 9. As we saw on Monday when we read Acts 15, fornication is one of the four classes of behaviour that was to be prohibited under the decisions of the Council of Jerusalem. Here it is listed separately to male prostitution, sodomites.  While that does not necessarily make male prostitution, sodomites ethically acceptable to Christians, it does suggest that such behaviour is not included within a narrower definition of fornication consistent with Acts 15.

As always, the church’s engagement with matters of sexual ethics and responsibility is both complex and contested: it is not a matter of simple proof-texting but of careful exegesis and balancing the whole Biblical witness.

Friday, August 21, 2020Psalm 124; Genesis 49:29-50:14; 2 Corinthians 10:12-18

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Genesis 49.29-50.14 repeats from yesterday 49.29-33 as a connecting ‘hinge’ between the two passages. Joseph and his bothers then go through the mourning rituals (vss 1, 10) and then ask Pharaoh for permission to bury Jacob in accordance with his wishes(vss 4-6). Vss 7-14 tell of the burial.

Note that Jacob was embalmed in Egyptian style (vs 2). The Egyptians also had their own mourning rituals (vss 3b, 10-11 – see footnote to Abel-mizraim). The burial (vs 13) brings together the three generations of the Patriarchs who had wandered over the ancient Near East from modern Iraq to Egypt and throughout Canaan.

2 Corinthians 10.12-18: This rather dense passage reflects the context of 2 Corinthians. Paul has a rather vexed relationship with the church and is carefully putting forward his credentials and his authority to speak/preach. Some of the deep background can be seen in 1 Cor 3-4 which speaks of the various ministers who had played a role in forming and growing the Corinthian church.

He contrasts himself with unnamed ‘others’ who commend themselves (vs 12) Paul will keep himself within limits but will keep within the field that God has assigned to us, to reach out even as far as you (vs 13). Not boasting (vss 13, 15, 16, 17), respecting limits (vss 13, 14, 15) and respecting our sphere of action /someone else’s sphere of action (vs 15, 16) are the moral principles involved in earning the commendation of the Lord (vs 18).

These principles are still foundational to the professional ethics of ministry!

Saturday, August 22, 2020Psalm 124; Genesis 50:15-26; Matthew 16:5-12

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

In Genesis 50.15-26 we have the last words not only of Joseph, but of the patriarchal narrative as a whole. In vs 15-21 we have the welling-up anxiety of his brothers that Joseph may still bear them ill-will but has foresworn vengeance until their father had died. The reassurance Joseph offers is touching and real.

Vss 22-23 tell of Joseph’s peaceful older age and the arrival of three more generations (the children of Machir would be Joseph’s great-grandchildren (vs 23)).

Vss 24-26 tell of the end of Joseph’s life and the promise he made the Israelites swear, saying, “When God comes to you, you shall carry up my bones from here.” (vs 25). Thus is the stage set for the drama of the Exodus which follows in the next book of the great narrative!

Matthew 16: 5-12 is a parallel to Mark 8.14-21 and Luke 12.1-3. It is helpful to read all three side by side and compare their editorial changes. Remember that we think that Mark was the first of the three and Mt and Lk made changes to reflect the message they were giving to their communities. Both Mt and Lk have shortened the passage, Lk quite considerably. Mt stays close to Mk’s original but removes Mk’s reference to the hardness of heart of the disciples. Most interesting (to my mind) is the way that Mk leaves the question open as to what the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod [ or the Herodians] (Mk 8.15) actually means and even leaves open the question as to whether the disciples understand (with the strong suggestion that they do not). Luke on the other hand has Jesus name the yeast of the Pharisees, that is their hypocrisy (Lk 12.1 – emphasis added). In a further twist Matthew says of the disciples Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Mt 16.12 – emphasis added).

In the differing identifications of the opponents – Pharisees + Herod/Herodians (Mk); Pharisees + Sadducees (Mt); Pharisees (Lk) – and in the specific nature of what to beware – unspecified ‘yeast’ (Mk); ‘teaching’ (Mt); ‘hypocrisy’ (Lk) – we can glimpse the complexity of the polemic against ‘opponents’ in the early churches.

We sometimes use the term ‘Pharisee’ as a catch-all term or as a criticism of others. There is no doubt that the early church engaged in polemic against Pharisees/Sadducees/scribes/ ‘teachers of the law’/priests(?)/Herodians etc. Who were these groups? Are they just historical groups who were opposed to Jesus? Or do the terms refer to groups in contemporary Judaism with whom the early church may have contested/argued? Or were they opponents from within the churches?

On Monday we read Acts 15 and it’s clear from vs 5 that there were some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees (emphasis added) – so in this verse at least Pharisees are clearly a group within the Christian community.

It would be a worthy study to thoroughly investigate how the ‘enemies of Jesus’ or ‘enemies of the community’ are depicted in the New Testament. Who were they? Were they inside the church or outside it? What strategies were recommended to deal with them?

And what about them was so dangerous or objectional? In terms of today’s reading, was the danger their hypocrisy (Luke)? Or was it their teaching in general (Matthew)? Or was the real problem not just the ‘yeast’ of the Pharisees and Herod, but also the hardness of heart and stupidity of the disciples (Mk)?

In an age of conspiracy theories, social media and a general crisis in ‘truth-telling’, these are important questions for the church to engage!

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