Monday, August 24, 2020: Psalm 8; Exodus 1:1-7; Romans 13:1-7
(Psalm 8 was our text for June 4th-6th and the notes have been adapted from the earlier notes). Psalm 8 has been one of my favourite Psalms since I was a child. Having been brought up on Australian ballads (…where he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended/ and at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars…) and appreciating the beauty of nature, I find this Psalm has a great beauty and power of expression which always moves me.
Psalm 8 is a praise song of an individual. The structure has an opening and closing refrain that is largely the same, (vss 1, 9) except that (unusually) the second half of the opening refrain (you have set your glory above the heavens) is not repeated in the ending – possibly because the focus of the Psalm appears to be humankind and the ordering of the earthly creation rather than the heavens. This refrain may have been intoned by the whole community whereas a lone cantor spoke vss 2-8.
The setting of the psalm may well have been a night ritual of some kind (cf. Ps 134, Is 30.29 ff, 1 Chron 9.33). Anyone who has spent time in the rural regions of poorer countries without electricity will know how the night brings deep darkness to such societies – with the exception of full moon nights. This is why many Buddhist countries in Asia have a monthly night worship festival that coincides with the full moon. Within Israelite society there appear to have been minimal night festivals. Compare that with our own societies where in the 19th and 20th centuries evening services became common – although the Protestant night ‘gospel service’ has diminished in recent times.
The voice of the Psalm is framed first and last in the second person (you / your – vss. 1-2, 5-9) with a first person voice in vs 3 – leading into the critical verse which expresses the overarching theme of the psalm – vs 4 – what are human beings that you are mindful of them?
Vs 2 is unique in all the Old Testament – there is no other text that expresses a similar theme. What is the bulwark that is founded out of the mouths of babes and infants? One possible interpretation of this verses is that if there were a night setting for a cultic ritual, children may have played a role in the event. This verse is quoted by Jesus in Mt 21.16 at the end of the day of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
Vss 3-8 echo the creation story of Genesis 1, (especially the creation of humankind and the granting of ‘dominion’ over creation to humankind). Vs 3 evokes the setting and the sense of wonder that viewing the night heavens creates in a person, before the artful segue into the main theme of the psalm – the place of human beings in the created order (vs 4).
This is explored in vss 5-7. What is interesting here is the distinction made between sheep and cattle (vs 7a) and the beasts of the field, birds and fish and whatever passes along the paths of the sea (vss 7b-8) – a distinction between the animals of domestic farming and the realm of the wild. In the Genesis account there is mention of cattle in the intra-divine dialogue about the creation of humanity (Gen 1.26) but not in the commission given to humanity by the voice of God (Gen 1.28). The Psalm recognises a distinction between the realms of ‘farmed/husbanded’ nature and wild nature.
The creation stories of Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 arose in a world of scattered nomads and primitive societies with limited technology. Despite the poetic and powerful evocation of the beauty of the night sky and humankind’s exalted place within the ordering of creation – poetry we can and should savour and celebrate – can we blithely accept the teaching this Psalm in a world where human technology and lifestyle is threatening the existence of the rest of creation? It is not just the living elements of creation (the plants and animals – the biosphere), but the very foundations of creation in oceans and atmosphere (the geosphere) than are at risk. Can we read Genesis 1 without remembering Genesis 2 and 3, let alone Genesis 11? Can we sing Psalm 8 without also singing Psalm 51 at the same time?
Exodus 1.1-7: The Lectionary now takes us into an extended exploration of the book of Exodus (with occasional excursions into other books). This will extend from now until the latter part of October. The opening 7 verses of Exodus anchor the narrative in the end chapters of Genesis – rehearsing the names of the twelve tribes of Israel (vss 2-4). If you ‘do the math’ you’ll find only 11 names. Joseph and his descendants are not included. From Genesis 50.22-23 we know Joseph’s sons were Ephraim and Manasseh. So the ‘twelve tribes of Israel’ are actually 13 when named in the OT because ‘Joseph’ is actually the two sub-tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. Vs 7 is the plot foundation for the tale of oppression and deliverance that follows.
Romans 13.1-7: Here we have one of the most difficult and even contentious passages in Romans. To quote Brendan Byrne at length in his reflections:
The unqualified injunction to be submissive to worldly authority, along with the rationale accompanying it, has been one of the most influential passages of Romans down the ages. Theologies of Church-State relations have been erected upon it, and autocratic governments or those who have supported them have demanded civil obedience in its name. Believers who have found it necessary to resist or seek to overthrow civic power in certain of its historical manifestations have found the passage at best an embarrassment, at worst something to be rejected in the name of the broader claims of the gospel. For some it represents the “most hateful” passage in scripture. (Byrne, 1996: 389)
This passage is to be understood within the historical context to which it is addressed – the city at the centre of a great Empire. That city experienced in the late 50’s CE civil unrest caused by abuses in the collection of taxes. Things became acute in 58 CE when Nero seriously considered abolishing all indirect taxes but was persuaded by his advisers to undertake reforms in how they were collected. Given that we know there were tensions in the early Christian communities about paying taxes (Matt 22.15-22), perhaps Paul suspected the Roman Christian community was divided on the matter. He may have been trying to guide a weak and vulnerable community away from contentious social/political positions. Given the persecution of the Christians that emerged under Nero in the decade after 58 CE, Paul’s teaching was wise. He may also have been trying to reassure the Roman authorities that he was not an agitator or a threat.
There is little to differentiate it from other Hellenistic teaching on attitudes to government and similar (but independent) teaching can be seen in 1 Peter 2.13-17, 1 Timothy 2.1-3 and Titus 3.1-3. However, there are three things we should note that are important ‘balancing principles’ that mitigate the message of complete submission.
- Vss 2-4 make clear that the power of the state or civil authority is not supreme or untrammelled – it is appointed by God and accountable to God. There is no teaching here of an independent or supreme authority of human rulers.
- Vs 5 introduces, alongside the obligation to ‘be subject’ (not ‘be obedient’!) because of wrath (i.e. the fear of retribution) another reason: but also because of conscience. Alongside submission, Paul also introduces conscience, with the assumption that they will align. When they do not align (as Dietrich Bonhoeffer found in the days of Nazi Germany), we must obey God rather than any human authority (Acts 5.29).
- This whole passage presses towards teaching about paying ‘what we owe’: taxes, revenue, respect, honour (vss 6-7). Whether we can take the teaching to a wider context of Christian attitudes to government is debatable.
Taking all this into account, I think Romans 13.1-7 does not apply (for instance) in the contemporary context of Belarus, where the people are arising against a dictator who has dominated them for decades. However, I think it does apply to modern Australia, and Great Britain and United States, where in a situation of a public health emergency we have people claiming to be ‘sovereign citizens’ who don’t owe anything to anyone, who will not obey public health guidelines, who will disrespect and resist authority whether it be in the form of police, or health workers, or political leaders trying to manage a complex situation.
What do we think about those who, defending the rights of racial minorities or refugees, or the urgent need for climate reform, protest in defiance of health advice/regulations limiting public assembly? How would you explain Romans 13.1-7 to them?
Part of what Paul is trying to teach (I believe) is a measure of civic engagement, of shared or mutual commitment to the work of being a community together, of seeking to resist and control wickedness or wrongdoing, and promote or encourage what is good. To build a ‘totalising’ theology of complete submission to whatever form of civic authority might exist at the time is naïve, and even abusive.
Tuesday, August 25, 2020: Psalm 8; Exodus 2:11-15a; Romans 13:8-14
For the Psalm, see Monday.
Exodus 2.11-15a: Our reading has jumped over the narrative of the gradual oppression of the Israelites in Egypt (Ex 1.8-22) and the birth of Moses (2.1-10). We meet Moses as a grown man who witnesses the forced labour of his people (vs 11).
Here we have to carefully listen to the Bible and not Cecil B. de Mille: Moses is given back to his mother who raises him until the child grew up (vs 10) with the implication of him at least being weaned, but perhaps growing to an even later age. From vs 11 it is not clear that Moses was aware that he was a Hebrew, but this is possible: is a Hebrew, one his kinsfolk an editorial aside to the reader or the narration of Moses’ consciousness? He looks around (self-consciously) before he kills the Egyptian beating the Hebrew (vs 12). Unlike Cecil B. de Mille’s reading (in The Ten Commandments) which has an elaborate back-story of Moses’ Egyptian identity and prominent social position, the Bible tells us nothing of Moses’ career prior to his murder of the Egyptian. Far from his being a favourite of Pharaoh, we know that Pharaoh sought to kill Moses (vs 15).
Romans 13.8-14: As the layout of this passage suggests it falls into two sections. The first (vss 8-10) focusses on the centrality of love – mentioned five times. Having ended his previous section enjoining his hearers to pay to all what is due to them (vs 7) Paul transitions into this passage by naming the one debt which cannot be discharged but which continues to be owed to all: love. Love is presented as the fulfilment of the law (vss 8, 10). There is a translation issue in vs 8b which can be translated for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law (thus NRSV), or for the one who loves has fulfilled the other part of the law. The majority of scholars opt for the first translation, but a minority for the second, which is possibly a reference to the second ‘table’ of the ten commandments – the last five (Exodus 20.13-17). Four of those five commandments are then quoted in vs 9.
Having spent so much of Romans critiquing any human trust in law as an adequate or effective approach to moral or spiritual life, Paul can hardly mean this section as an endorsement of law: the fulfilment of the law of which he speaks is that the way of love is a far more effective and empowering way of engaging with others and with the spiritual life than the way of law.
In the second section (vss 11-14), the eschatological tone again predominates. The exhortation to know what time it is reflects Paul’s teaching throughout Romans of the kairos (‘the right time’ – see 3.26, 5.6, 8.18, 9.9, 11.5). Vs 11 includes a reference to salvation as future – a consistent doctrine in Paul who taught that we are ‘justified’ by faith, but ‘salvation’ lies in the hands of God for the future judgement.
The contrast of darkness/light and night/day and the awakening from sleep that marks the transition between the two is the underlying metaphor. For a similar passage with similar metaphors see Ephesians 5.6-20. Eph 5.14 quotes what we think is an early Christian hymn which may also underly Romans 13.11-12.
The metaphor of ‘putting on’ (as in ‘putting on clothing’) is then invoked in vs 12c (put on the armour of light – cf. Ephesians 6.10-17) and again in vs 14a (put on the Lord Jesus Christ – cf. Gal 3.27). This ‘putting on’ of armor/Christ is contrasted with a list of sins (vs 13) that come from the flesh, to gratify its desires (vs 14b).
Wednesday, August 26, 2020: Psalm 8; Exodus 2:15b-22; Matthew 26:6-13
For the Psalm, see Monday.
Exodus 2.15-22: Here we have yet another ‘meeting at a well’ between a leading patriarch/prophet/leader and women, including the future wife (cf. Isaac and Rebekah (Gen 24 – Beer-lahairoi vs 62), Jacob and Rachel (Gen 29)). This probably reflects the social rituals and centrality of ‘the well’ to the social and political life of nomadic (Bedouin) societies. One cannot but think of the parallel with ‘water-cooler’ interactions/romances(?) in the context of modern office environments (pre-Covid!)
Note the name Reuel (vs 18), Moses’ future father-in-law who is known as Jethro in the later narrative (see vs 3.1). Moses is identified by Zipporah as an Egyptian in vs 19 and then identifies himself as an alien in vs 22. As the narrative unfolds Moses lives between these three identities: Hebrew / Egyptian / alien.
Matthew 26.6-13: The anointing of Jesus is known to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. We last read this story in the Monday of Holy Week, from the gospel of John 12.1-7. The gospel writers do not all give the woman’s name, and the venue is variously given as ‘the house of Simon the leper’ (Mt/Mk) or the house of a Pharisee (Lk) or the house of Lazarus (Jn). In Matthew and Mark it is Jesus’ head that is anointed. In Luke and John, it is Jesus’ feet that are anointed. In Luke, ‘the sinful woman’ wipes them with ‘the hair of her head’.
This is clearly a very significant and powerful story that was widely remembered and celebrated in the early Christian community. In the various versions we see an evolution from a nameless woman, then ‘a woman of the city who was a sinner’, to Mary, one of the inner circle of the followers of Jesus. Luke presents it as an event that happened sometime in the ministry of Jesus, but for Mt, Mk and Jn it was associated with Holy Week and Bethany and finally with the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha (Jn). The early church came to ‘own’ this event in deeply committed and devotional ways. An act of love that Mt, Mk, and Lk ascribed to someone (apparently) outside the household of faith (the nameless woman), has become something experienced in the heart of the Jesus network.
Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, a feminist theologian, has insightfully recognised that Jesus said Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her (vs 13), but by the time the story was written down in the gospel (we think about 30 years after Jesus) the community and its oral tradition had forgotten her name! (This assumes that Mark was the earliest record of the tradition – Mk, Mt and Lk do not name the woman – and that John has assimilated this earlier story to Mary of Bethany.) Lest we defend ‘the oral tradition’ by saying ‘of course details would be lost’, Fiorenza points out that ‘oral tradition’ remembered that the incident happened in the house of Simon the leper (Mk and Mt). So the property-owning man is remembered, and the woman who Jesus said will be remembered wherever the gospel is preached in all the world has been forgotten: the dynamics of sexism have impacted even the very writing of sacred Scripture!
Thursday, August 27, 2020: Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45b; Exodus 2:23-24; Ephesians 5:1-6
Psalm 105 is a long psalm of 45 verses. We dealt with the first 11 verses on July 23rd. Like Ps 106, it recounts the history of God’s people, albeit in very different terms. Both psalms belong to the category of history psalms presented in hymnic style. On July 23rd the Lectionary gave us the first 11 verses of this psalm which falls into two parts: vss 1-6 – introduction, and vss 7-11 – statement of the theme. Today, the reading gives us the introduction (vss 1-6) and then a summary of God’s dealings with his people in Egypt (vss 23-25) and the sending of Moses (vs 26). We then have the final verse of the psalm which states the purpose and end of all God’s actions in Israel’s history: that they might keep his statutes / and observe his laws. / Praise the Lord! (vs 45).
Scholars have discussed over the years just how the elements of history and hymn have comingled in this psalm. Earlier generations emphasised the telling of history, whereas later scholars have emphasised the singing of a hymn. The setting for such a hymn can be seen in the establishment of the Ark of the Covenant in the temple described in 1 Chronicles 16 which involved the singing of psalms (outlined in 1 Chronicles 16. 8-36) glorifying the God of Israel and proclaiming all his wonders. Ps 105 is older than Chronicles but did not originate earlier than the Exile (Kraus).
In the introduction (vss 1-6) imperatives predominate. The mood is one of ‘commanding’ people to give thanks, praise, sing, seek, remember and glory in his holy name (vs 3). Kraus writes that there are ‘admonitions to recall, inwardly to appropriate, and urgently to explore the great wonders of Yahweh in the history of his people’ – which I think is a fine definition of what happens in worship!
Exodus 2.23-24 is a short – but absolutely critical – part of the Exodus narrative. It tells of the suffering of the Hebrews and that the Israelites groaned under their slavery and that out of their slavery their cry for help rose up to God. And God heard their groaning and remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (vs 23-24).
This is one of the foundational texts of the whole Old Testament. It links the patriarchal narratives of Genesis with all that follows. It establishes two critical concepts that are foundational to much of the OT – to psalmist and prophet, chronicler and king. Those are that God hears, and God remembers [the Covenant].
When I was at theological college, I well remember a student discussion we were set on this passage. The study notes we were given spoke of the Israelites praying to God and God hearing their prayer. One of the most theologically conservative trainee ministers simply said, “What rubbish! The text doesn’t say they prayed. It says they groaned. And God heard their groaning.” What followed was one of the richest and most helpful discussions about prayer that I have ever been part of!
Ephesians 5.1-6: This brief passage of ethical teaching opens with a general principle (vss 1-2), expounds some moral principles (vss 3-5) and ends with a warning (vs 6).
The general principle is one of imitation. Sometimes this imitation (as is the case here) is of God. Sometimes Paul says imitate me. It is a common theme in NT exhortation (see 1 Co 4.16, 11.1; Phil 3.17; 1 Thess 1.6, 2.14; 2 Thess 3.7; Heb 6.12, 13.7; 3 John 1.11). In an age of fierce independence and ‘self-actualisation’, it seems very old fashioned to imitate other people – perhaps an older, wiser Christian person. Personally, I increasingly take inspiration from the great saints of the church and try to learn from them. As a younger person I was privileged to have wonderful role models of Christian leadership, and as a minister I have been enormously blessed to work with inspiring and gifted colleagues – both fellow ministers and lay leaders. Imitation, and the wise of choice of role models, is a much-overlooked Christian pathway to maturity.
Take time today to reflect on, and give thanks for, those who have inspired you and been role-models to imitate!
Friday, August 28, 2020: Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45b; Exodus 3:16-22; 2 Thessalonians 2:7-12
For the Psalm, see Thursday.
Exodus 3.16-22: With clear focus, the Lectionary jumps over all the theatre of burning bushes and un-sandaled feet and divine voices (vss 1-15) and presents the urgent and commanding word of the Lord to suffering Israel: Go and assemble the elders of Israel, and say to them… I have given heed… (vs 16) I declare that I will… (vs 17) they will listen to your voice … (vs 18) I know … (vs 19) … I will stretch out my hand … I will perform it (vs 20) I will bring this people into such favour … (vs 21).
It is all about the action of God, and what will follow that action. It is the glorious counterpoint to God’s hearing the groaning of God’s people.
2 Thessalonians 2.7-12: It is well worth looking at this text in the Authorised version – difficult as it is to read! For those of us who stand in the Baptist tradition, the opening phrase, The Mystery of Iniquity, has strong resonance. In 1611-12 the Baptist pioneer, Thomas Helwys, published A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity, the first defence of the freedom of conscience and belief in the western tradition. That this was a significant part of the Baptist tradition as it was taught in this state was attested by the name of the Principal’s residence (since demolished) at Whitley College – Helwys House.
This passage is apocalyptic in form and tone – speaking of the end times. This is clear if you read chapters 1 and 2 in their entirety. What is unusual here is that Paul is writing not to encourage them that ‘the end is nigh’ (sometimes the focus of apocalyptic writing), but to reassure them that ‘it ain’t happened yet!’ (see chapter 2.1-3).
Often apocalyptic as a genre of Christian literature has been a happy hunting ground for ‘prophets’ and those who want to predict the future, and there is that feeling about these words of Paul. Placed in context though, Paul is hosing down their fevered and anxious speculations of the end, assuring them that a great deal has yet to play out and that God is in control (vss 8, 11-12).
Some of us may have smiled at such ‘prophecies’ in the past, but now we live in an age of plague and fire, and one where a range of world leaders, and some business leaders in our own country, seem to be ‘lawless ones’, people of lying wonders (vs 9) every kind of wicked deception (vs 10) and powerful delusion (vs 11).
Paul assures us that those who are troubled by such ‘lawless ones’ can take courage that all who have not believed the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness will be condemned (vs 12).
Saturday, August 29, 2020: Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45b; Exodus 4:1-9; Matthew 8:14-17
For the Psalm, see Thursday.
Exodus 4.1-9: The majestic, even imperious, series of statements that God issued in our reading yesterday (Go! … I have given heed… I will… I know… they will… I will … I will… I will …) is met by Moses’ feeble “Yeah, but suppose …” (vs 1) followed by a brief list of what could go wrong.
God answered him with three rather convincing (and portable) ‘proofs’ of divine power – turning his staff into a snake and back again (vss 2-5), making his hand leprous then whole (vss 6-8), and turning the water of the Nile into blood (vs 9)!
How often are our first responses to a word from the Lord “But suppose…”? I fear that, like Moses, I have said “But suppose…” often over my life. I can remember one significant decision Jane and I had to make about a ministry move which we thought might be a bit of a risk. We went for a walk from the old and rundown house we had recently bought, debating all the “but suppose…” things that were troubling us. We rested on a bench looking out over a sparkling blue sea, under fluffy, white clouds with mountains ranged in the distance across the bay. We were silent for a while and then I said, “If it doesn’t work out, we can always live here.” I extended my hand over the amazing view and said quietly, “This – is failure!” It was an Exodus 4 moment for us, when God reassured us that we were greatly blessed and could always venture forward -a turning point in our lives.
Have you ever “But suppose…d” with God? And what answer did you get?
Matthew 8: 14-17: Here is the Matthean version of Mark 1:29–31 (paralleled also in Luke 4:38–39). It is a healing miracle. What is very interesting is the subtle changes between Mark and Matthew. In Mark, they brought to Jesus all who were sick and possessed by demons and he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. In contrast, Matthew writes they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick.
These gospels present different theologies of Jesus’ healing ministry: Mark emphasises the wide appeal and inclusive reach of Jesus’ ministry, Matthew the power and effectiveness of his healing ministry.
On a trip to the Holy Land I visited the ruins of Capernaum. One of the ruins – over which a modern church has been built – is the remains of a first century residential building on which a very early (first century?) church had been built. The modern church is built on piers and ‘hovers’ over the ancient ruins, approximately 2 metres above the ground. Directly above the early house, the floor of the modern church is thick glass and you can look down into what is believed to be Simon Peter’s house, where this miracle of healing took place. It clearly has been a site venerated since the first century and I felt very powerful emotions as I looked down at the place where Jesus might well have done his first healing. Jane and I then wandered outside through streets Jesus walked and touched stones he may have touched (see Matthew 4.13).