Monday, September 14, 2020Psalm 77; Joshua 3:1-17; Hebrews 11:23-29
Psalm 77: This psalm has a ‘restless song-like beginning’ (H-J Kraus) (vss 1-2), a main section in doublet form (two lines in each verse – vss 3-16), a final section in an archaic triplet form (three lines in each verse- vss 16-19) and a closing doublet (vs 20).

The form of the Psalm seems to change: vss 1-9 are the prayer song of an individual – clearly a lament. Vss 1-2 invoke the Lord and describe a pervasive distress, experienced especially at night (vss 2b, 4a, 6a). The distress is elaborated in vss 3-6. In vss 7-9 we discover that the cause of this distress is not just personal: the theme moves from the individual’s experience to the corporate cause – God’s rejection of Israel.

 Vs 10 brings a transition from lament to a looking back and a consoling remembrance. This determination to remember is affirmed and repeated in vss 11-12.

Vss 10-15 are in the classic form of Hebrew poetry called parallelism– two lines, in which the second line reinforces the first by either repetition (synonymous parallelism), contradiction (antithetical parallelism: eg. the righteous are blessed… but the wicked are punished…) or development (taking the idea further). At vs 12 lament turns into a song of praise and the following verses refer to the deliverance of God’s people through the Exodus.

Vss 16-19 are different in structure (three lines) and go beyond the Exodus theme. They are evocative of ancient theophanies (descriptions of God’s appearing) that may have initially been derived from the Canaanite weather gods (the Baals). The first line of each verse states the theme and the second and third lines either repeat or develop it. The waters saw you, God (vs 16) invokes the creation story of Genesis 1. Vs 19a may return to the Exodus motif, but vs 19c introduces a fascinating and quite deep thought – that God’s action and presence is entirely without footprint or trace.

Joshua 3.1-17 takes us ahead in the story of Israel’s Exodus, wilderness wandering and entry into the Promised Land. Here the people cross into Canaan. The Wilderness narratives begin with the Crossing of the Red Sea and end with the Crossing of the Jordan River. They mirror one another, in delivering the people (vs 5), in authenticating Joshua (vs7) just as the Lord used the Red Sea to authenticate Moses. We see here the structure of the people in their twelve tribes emerging (vs 12), the recurring promise of the land (vs 10) and the central role of the Ark of the Covenant (vss 3, 5, 8, 11, 13, 14, 15, 17) which had been revealed in the encounter at Sinai and built in the desert.

Hebrews 11.23-29:  Here we have another recounting of the miracle of the plagues by which Israel was delivered and the miracle by the Sea, this time from the letter to the Hebrews. Just as Stephen referred to this event in his sermon to the Jewish Council (see Friday last week on Acts 7), here we have another early Christian witness to the role of the Exodus narrative not only in Jewish but in Christian thinking. Note however, the way the story has been assimilated to the Christian faith: Moses … regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt (vs 26 – emphasis added), the acts of God are not related to the covenant, or to the call and the might of the Deliverer: every stage of the process the writer describes has happening by faith (vss 23, 24, 27, 28, 29).

Tuesday, September 15, 2020Psalm 77; Nehemiah 9:9-15; Romans 14:13-15:2
For the Psalm, see Monday.

Nehemiah 9.9-15 comes from the time of the rebuilding of Jerusalem in the mid 5th century BCE following the Exile in Babylon. Here we see again a recitation of the key events of the crossing of the Red Sea. The core of the tradition is told at vs 11: dividing the sea, crossing on dry ground, but you hurled their pursuers into the depths. Vs 12 recounts the pillar tradition and then vss 13-15 recount the Sinai tradition tied together in vs 15b by a recounting of the covenant to Abraham.

We stopped short of Romans 14 in our extensive exploration of Romans. Today’s passage deals with what was clearly a vexed issue in the early church – that of diet. Eating was a challenge for the early Christians on two fronts: 1) the demand of some Jewish Christians that food should be kosher and in strict accordance with OT laws; and 2) the availability of food (mainly meat) that may have been offered to idols as part of pagan worship. For another treatment by Paul of this latter theme see 1 Corinthians chapters 8-10.

We need to remember that most animals in the first century were butchered as part of a religious ceremony of one kind or another.  Following the religious event, the meat would then find its way into marketplaces. For those of a strict conscience, partaking of such food was offensive. 

Paul’s basic position is given in vs 14b – … that nothing is unclean of itself. (Note the strength of his holding of this position expressed in vs 14a:  I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, … But there is a countervailing principle – our obligations to each other in love (chapter 15.1-2).

Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians on food offered to idols can be summarised as a version of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ (see 1 Cor 10.27-30), and here in vs 22 he seems to counsel a similar approach – whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.

While arguments about kosher and halal foods can sometimes arise in our communities, we are more likely to be scandalised by other Christians’ positions on sexual morality or gender identity issues. Previous generations argued over ‘women in ministry’, or the Christian view of divorce. We are more likely to take different sides on issues like same sex relationships or gender fluidity. 

Some people have suggested to me that the teaching of Paul that We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not please ourselves (Rom 14.1) means that those of us who accept marriage equality should pull our heads in and not scandalise those ‘of more tender conscience’. My reply is that if opponents of marriage equality are willing to acknowledge that their position is that of the weak, and that the grace we know in Jesus Christ really has swept away all human distinctions and embraces everyone in love, but they can’t in conscience quite accept that, then I am very happy to respect their weakness and be as accommodating as I possibly can. But they tend to insist that they are the strong, grounded in Scripture and righteousness, and that I am weak and foolish. Surely, if that is the case, the boot should be on the other foot, and they should not be scandalising me?

Another way forward would be for us to accept Paul’s advice in vs 22 and encourage all: whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.  It would be a great step forward if the churches simply said “Marriage equality and gender identity are matters of individual conscience and we will not take a public position on these issues. Let every person make their peace with God on this, and the Church shall remain silent”. Unfortunately, I do not think this is likely to happen.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020Psalm 77; 2 Kings 2:1-18; Mark 11:20-25
For the Psalm, see Monday.

2 Kings 2.1-18 was dealt with on May 22nd, around the Feast of the Ascension. It tells the story of the succession from Elijah to Elisha, and was probably included then because of the ascension of Elijah in a whirlwind after a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them in vs 11. It’s a lovely story because of the devotion and commitment of Elisha, and the thrice repeated pattern of Stay here / I will not leave you, on each occasion with a ‘company of prophets’ to act as a Greek chorus!

The story is told today because of vs 14: just as Moses parted the waters of the Red Sea, and Joshua the waters of the Jordan, here Elisha strikes the waters with the mantle of Elijah, invoking the Lord and proving his authority in the lineage of Moses, Joshua and Elijah (see the response of the company of prophets in vs 15).

The company of prophets is attested in this time of Israel’s history. Sometimes translated a band of prophets or a school of prophets it seems to have been a kind of religious collective with a social function around ‘prophecy’ (whatever the content of that term meant in the early days of ‘prophecy’) and possible service to ‘the community’ (see 2 Kings 6). We don’t know very much about them as their work appears to be related to diverse towns and places rather than the centre of worship, scholarship, learning and chronicle writing (!) in the temple at Jerusalem.

Mark 11.20-25: is the original version of the story we read last Wednesday in Matthew’s version. To understand this passage we must realise that Mark has split the story into two parts – Jesus cursing the fig tree (11.12-14) and the disciples discovering it withered the next day (11.20-24 – our reading today). Between these Mark has inserted Jesus ‘Cleansing the Temple’ (11.15-19). Clearly the fate of the fig tree is meant to prefigure that of the Temple: Jesus is not so much Cleansing the Temple as Cursing the Temple!

As I wrote last week, this episode from the life of Jesus has caused some to wonder about Jesus wisdom and goodness: cursing a fig tree that didn’t bear figs, even though it was not the season for figs? (Mk 11.13). When the fig tree is seen as an allegory of the Temple, the meaning is much clearer.

Thursday, September 17, 2020Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Exodus 15:22-27; 2 Corinthians 13:1-4
Psalm 105 is a long psalm of 45 verses.  We dealt with different sections from this Psalm on July 23rd and August 27th. 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. Today, the reading gives us the introduction (vss 1-6) and then the final section (vss 37-45) culminating in 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!

The last section of the Psalm recounts the drama of the Exodus starting with the departure from Egypt (vss 37-38), God’s deliverance of the people in the wilderness (vss 39-41), and the grounding of all these actions in God’s remembrance of the covenant with Israel (vss 42-45).

Exodus 15.22-27 continues the story of the wilderness wanderings that followed the Exodus. The drinking of bitter water made sweet at Marah reflects the bringing of water from the rock retold in vs 41 of the psalm for today that we have just read. The wilderness tradition has two loosely connected cycles of stories separated by the giving of the law at Sinai. There is a general parallelism between the two cycles. A story of miraculous provision of water being told here at Marah in the wilderness of Shur (Exodus 15) occurs again in the wilderness of Sin at Meribah (water from the rock – described before Sinai in Ex 17, and after Sinai in Numbers 20).

Careful reading will reveal a change in style in the transition between vs 25a and 25b. A more narrative voice in the earlier passage is replaced by a more teaching/didactic style. At the end of vs 26 there is a revelation of I am the Lord who heals you, or I am the Lord your healer. The healing power of God is seen in the contrast between the fates of Israelites and Egyptians in the plagues predating the departure from Egypt.

2 Corinthians 13.1-4 continues Paul’s dialogue with the church at Corinth. That relations were tense can be seen in the semi-legal language of vs 1b, the ‘warnings’ of vs 2, and the mention of the Corinthians’ desire for some kind of authenticating proof of Paul’s relationship with Christ (vs 3). In Paul’s reflections of weakness and power (vss 3b-4) we glimpse a common expression of his understanding of the gospel (see also 1 Corinthians 1.25-31).

Friday, September 18, 2020Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Exodus 16:1-21; 2 Corinthians 13:5-10
For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Exodus 16.1-21:  As yesterday’s lesson told us of the story of God’s miraculous provision of sweet drinking water, today we read of God’s provision of food. Common to both stories is the undertone of ‘murmuring’ or grumbling against Moses by the people. Just as the ‘water from the rock’ stories are found before and after Sinai, so the manna story is also found after Sinai in Numbers 11.

The ‘murmuring’ is a common theme across the wilderness traditions. If we have understated and largely ignored the pastoral power of the Bible’s laments to give voice to our sorrows, we have also under-estimated how grumbly and complaining the people of God can be. Disciplined and prayerful attention to Scripture, really hearing the accusation of vss 2-3 as expressive of our own ingratitude and poor memory, can be a humbling and transformative experience.

A beautiful song by Noel Paul Stookey (of Peter, Paul and Mary) that understands and expresses so beautifully the grumbling at the heart of this story and the grace of God for the journey is Then the quail came. It’s a wonderful song, very appropriate for a people locked-down, grumbling and suffering. If you don’t know the song, please click the link and take 4 minutes to listen.

1 Corinthians 13.5-10 builds on yesterday’s reading. Paul challenges his listeners to Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith (vs 5). Paul plays throughout this passage with ‘we’ and ‘you’, linking how we may seem to have failed with that you may do what is right (vs 7b). The contrast of weak and strong recurs in vs 9 within the we/you structure. Vs 10 includes a veiled threat about having to be severe and the hope that he will use his authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down

Saturday, September 19, 2020Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Exodus 16:22-30; Matthew 19:23-30
For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Exodus 16.22-30: These 8 verses tell of how the otherwise perishable manna was always good to keep overnight for one night of the week only – to provide for the needs of the following Sabbath day. It reflects a life lived each day close to the edge, in utter dependency but in neither want nor need. 

Do our lives reflect a familiarity with blessing, and a corresponding sense of trust and gratitude, or do we live with different approach closer to the mindset of vs 27a?

Matthew 19.23-30: This passage comes from a chapter in Matthew (chapter 19) that follows closely a chapter in Mark (chapter 10). The chapter in both Mark and Matthew contains teaching on divorce, on children, and on wealth. Here we have the three great disparities of power in domestic life: of men over women, of adults over children, of the rich over the poor. In each case Jesus takes the side of the weak (women, children, the poor) against the rich (men, adults, rich people).

Much has been made of Jesus’ saying it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God (vs 24). By altering one letter in the Greek word for ‘camel’ we can get ‘rope’, which, if the rope is fine enough and the needle large enough, gets the rich (with difficulty) into the Kingdom. Some preachers follow a suggestion arising in a 9th century(!) commentary about a small gate into Jerusalem called the Needle’s Eye. A kneeling (i.e., humble and penitent) camel can just squeak through! Against this, we read of the clear astonishment of the disciples and their recognition of the sheer impossibility of the rich getting into the kingdom if what Jesus has just said is true (vs 25). Their response proves how silly are such fanciful interpretations that pander to, and console, the rich.

One difference between Matthew and Mark can be readily seen if you read closely this passage alongside the parallel in Mark 10.23-31. Compare vss 28-29 in our passage in Matthew with Mark where the promise is that there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age – houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life (Mark 10.29-30, emphasis added).

Matthew transfers all these promises to a future time: at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory (vs 28). The Markan reading presupposes sharing of wealth and kinship the new community of Jesus in this world – note that Mark’s hearers have only one house (singular) to leave! Matthew assures his community of future blessing in the age to come – and note that at least some of Matthew’s hearers were rich enough to have forsaken houses (plural)!

Jim Barr

13th September 2020

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