Monday, February 1, 2021Psalm 35:1-10; Numbers 22:1-21; Acts 21:17-26

Psalm 35 is a complex Psalm that has been simplified by only including the first 10 verses. It is a prayer song in which the petitioner her innocence in the face of her enemies and accusers.  The situation of the singer is made very clear in vs 1 – she is in a serious dispute or fight with others. Further details are provided in vs 7. The singer has been trapped and falsely accused.

The Psalmist appeals with calls for help in vss 1-3 that originally belonged to the institution of holy war. Yahweh is appealed to as the great warrior and deliver who brings salvation to the oppressed who are dependent solely on him.

Vss 4-6, (and then  vs 8) are petitions for the punishment and destruction of the singer’s enemies.

Vs 7 describes what the singer’s enemies have done and vs 8 seeks to turn back the traps and net they laid for the singer on their own heads.

Vss 9-10 prefigure the song of thanksgiving that is found at the conclusion of the Psalm in vss 27-28.

The Psalm as a whole is a lament of one who is falsely accused and engaged in a legal case, even a war with her enemies.  It shows similarities to Psalm 7. While still engulfed by dangers the singer breaks into songs of thanksgiving.

In these days of cyber-bullying and our relentless exposure to communication technology we can feel as if we are harried, threatened, overwhelmed. This ancient psalm is a source of both comfort and wisdom in the challenges of modern times.

Numbers 22 presents the story of Balaam. A bit like the after-dinner speaker circuit of today in which celebrities demand high prices for short addresses, Balaam was a diviner for hire. The situation of Israel’s rise is outlined in vss 1-5. Balaam is engaged (vs 7) by Balak son of Zippor [who] was king of Moab at that time (vs 4b).

In vss 7-14 the first round of negotiations ends in Balaam’s refusal to take the job. But a second round of negotiations (vss 15-21) appears to be more successful. Note however, two key triggers for the action that will come in tomorrow’s reading buried in the today’s text: but do only what I tell you to do (vs 20c) and So Balaam … saddled his donkey (vs 21)

Acts 21.17-26 is a follow-up to the Council of Jerusalem (in Acts 15 – note today’s text vs 25 cf. Acts 15.19-29). The meeting of Paul with James is a meeting between the leaders of the Gentile and Jewish factions of the early church. Vss 20-21 make clear that the ‘settlement’ of Acts 15 between these factions is still controversial among the Jews and vs 22 expresses the problem. Vss 23-24 propose a strategic action that will placate the Jews (see vs 24b), which Paul then agrees to do (vs 26).

Tuesday, February 2, 2021Psalm 35:1-10; Numbers 22:22-28; 1 Corinthians 7:32-40

For the Psalm see Monday.

Numbers 22.22-28 is a lovely story, although we only have the first half of it here. Why has the lectionary ‘spoilt’ such a good story by leaving out the ending? There are several interesting points to note. The first is that, in vs 20 the Lord has commanded Balaam to go, but in vs 22 God’s anger was kindled because he was going and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the road as his adversary. These inconsistencies are sometimes a part of Scripture – seemingly contradictory narratives about what God says and does. There are other examples of this in the OT. It may be that different traditions have been conflated. Whatever is happening, we cannot smooth over these difficulties but must simply accept the sovereignty of God. Whatever the case, that is what the text says. 

The donkey sees the angel, while Balaam cannot. When the donkey saves him from disaster, Balaam starts to beat it, until the donkey finally finds the power of speech and queries the actions of his owner. We are not given the rest of the chapter in which Balaam’s eyes are opened and he sees the danger he is in and goes on to bless, rather than curse, the Israelites.

This truncated story is perhaps appropriate for this moment in human history. Who knows what avenging angels stand in the path of humankind in this age of climate change? Nature itself might be bucking and rearing, seeing the looming disaster and resisting, but many human beings want to wield the staff of human power and continue to bend Nature to our will. The Lectionary has focussed for us very crisply the crisis of this moment, and it is up to us to determine whether we will listen to the voices of nature, and of science, or keep trying to force our way. We cannot yet see how the story will end. That is in our collective power, and the ending is not yet known!

1 Corinthians 7.32-40: I want you to be free from anxieties (vs 32). What a comforting and reassuring thought! Here Paul engages with issues about relationships – and the lack of relationships. There is no doubt that human relationships remain a key source of anxiety for many people. Paul engages with the anxieties of a) being in sexual relationships (vss 32-35), of b) whether to get involved in sexual relationships (vs 36-38) and of c) managing life after the end of sexual relationships (vss 39-40). Now Paul, consistent with his day, speaks of married relationships. There were also relationships under the structures of slavery in his day of which he does not here speak. I have generalised his comment  because in our day we have legal marriage, common-law marriage (cohabitation) and we also live in an age when many people choose casual relationships.

I think Paul’s point is that whether you are in relationship, thinking of getting into relationships or have just come out of relationship there are challenges and anxieties. I think what he says is true not just for the married, but for anyone negotiating the paths of active relationship, or singleness, or separation.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021Psalm 35:1-10; Jeremiah 29:1-14; Mark 5:1-20

For the Psalm see Monday.

Jeremiah 29.1-14: This letter of Jeremiah to the Exiles in Babylon is one of the treasures of the Old Testament. Having spent twenty years preaching that Jerusalem was going to be overrun and destroyed by the Babylonians – and being rejected and mocked and abused for his trouble – Jeremiah might have been entitled to a big spray of “I TOLD YOU SO!”  But he goes exactly the opposite way, He guides and encourages and consoles and gives hope.

The essence of his message is the encouraging and hopeful words of  vss 4-7, and summarised and encapsulated in the final exhortation But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (vs 7).

In vss 8-9 is the explanation for these words. Many others are prophesying a quick turnaround, a miraculous deliverance. ‘False hope!’ shouts Jeremiah. ‘Set yourself for the long haul. Knuckle down and build a life in the circumstances God gives you!”

In vss 10-14 the prophet of doom becomes the prophet of hope. This oracle may have been proclaimed by a later prophet in the tradition of Jeremiah who saw the imminent restoration of Jerusalem.

Mark 5.1-20: This fascinating exorcism is rich in detail and poses many questions. What is a herd of pigs (unclean animals) doing in the story?  “My name is legion; for we are many” (vs 9) what is all that about? Why did the people beg Jesus to leave their neighbourhood (vs 17)?

Some modern commentators have seen in this exorcism a very political message given by the gospel writer. In this part of the country some historians have found evidence of a large Roman garrison (‘our name is Legion’). Is the exorcism some kind of symbolic expulsion of Rome?

Why did they reject Jesus and ask him to go? Was it that the sending of the demons into a herd of 2000 pigs might look like a condemnation of Roman soldiers in the minds of those suffering under their occupation? Was the entreaty for Jesus to leave because of the destruction of the local economy (thousands of dead pigs is a big economic price in this Gentile community)? Or was it a stylized request for the Romans to leave? Or is it a fear of retribution from Rome should the story of this exorcism be seen as an anti-Roman parable? 

We are only just beginning to read the Bible against the political and social realities of the time. This story is one that is assuming an increasingly central role in our evolving understanding of how Mark was presenting the teaching and action of Jesus in the context of his time. 

Thursday, February 4, 2021Psalm 147:1-11, 20c; Proverbs 12:10-21; Galatians 5:2-15

Psalm 147 belongs to the category of songs of praise. Is is a smoothly crafted song of three strophes or stanzas: vss 1-6, 7-11, 12-20. So consistent is the structure that some commentators have suggested it may be three separate psalms! The lectionary has given us the first two stanzas of this song or poem. The psalm is situated within the worship of the OT cultic community. It is dependent on more ancient hymnic traditions and has similarities to Ps 33 and has some individual figures of speech from Ps 104.  The statements from vss 2 and 13 give a hint that the date is post-Exilic, from the time of the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem.

The psalm calls the people to worship the Lord (vs 1). Framed by statements of the saving activity of the Lord (vss 2,3,6), vss 4 and 5 proclaim the creative power of God. The psalm suggest that Yahweh’s creative and salvific powers are as one and the same thing.

In vs 7 a new beginning is made with a call to thanksgiving (the keynote of the first stanza has been praise!). Vss 8-9 declare that God is the Lord of creation. Vs 9b suggest the cry of the ravens is a form of prayer that is answered by the Lord – a lovely thought that the bird song that surrounds is a part of nature’s prayer, ceaselessly raised by all things.

So great is the Lord’s power that he takes no delight in the usual sources of strength that humans respect and admire (see the footnote to verse 10b – ‘the legs of a person’). Instead the delight of the Lord is in those who fear him. Note that the parallelism of  vs 11 a & b here equates the fear of the Lord with hope.

Proverbs 12.10-21: Proverbs is at the heart of the Wisdom literature of the OT. Here we have a series of Wisdom reflections and insights. I mused yesterday why the lectionary cut short the story of Balaam and left us with the donkey’s accusation but not the later narrative resolution.

Here we have a clue as to what the lectionary is doing! The righteous know the needs of their animals… (vs 10) is the hint. The lectionary has juxtaposed the truncated Balaam story with these insights. Read through and prayerfully reflect on them in the context of Balaam and his ass, of Israel and Moab, of the great question as to whether we should bless or curse the movements of history as they pass before our eyes.

Galatians 5.2-15 is helpfully headed The Nature of Christian Freedom. The letter to the Galatians was written to a community that had been living under the Gentile ‘minimalist’ understanding of what the gospel requires, but had ‘turned back’ (in Paul’s understanding) to a fuller observance of the Jewish law. We saw on Monday in the Acts reading how Paul might occasionally undergo Jewish rites to placate the Jewish wing of the church. In Galatians he writes to a church that wants to opt for a fuller Jewish observance and identity.

The circumcision mentioned in vss 2, 3, 6, 11 is a shorthand way of referring to the full gamut of Jewish ceremonial and law. We can see some of the issues that may have drawn the community to this path in vs 13b and in vs 15. Obviously, the freedom of which Paul speaks has led to problems.

In vs 12 we have perhaps the most bitter condemnation of the Judaizers that Paul offers anywhere.

In vss 4b to 6 Paul elegantly and simply expresses the relationships between grace, faith, hope, righteousness and love, the core aspects of his understanding of Christian life.

Friday, February 5, 2021Psalm 147:1-11, 20c; Job 36:1-23; 1 Corinthians 9:1-16

For the Psalm see Thursday.

In the book of Job we find an extended poetic engagement with issues of justice and theodicy (whether God is fair and acts justly). The narrative framing is the fortunes of Job (described in chapters 1 & 2, and 42.) The remaining 39 chapters are an extended dialogue between Job, three of his friends (Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar). Later, Elihu joins the dialogue, angry with Job and with the three friends. Elihu offers an extended commentary (chapters 32-37) on the whole drama before the Lord answers Job and brings the argument to close.

Today’s passage (Job 36.1-23) comes from the middle of Elihu’s long speech. Elihu’s role is almost amicus curiae – a ‘friend of the court’ (see vs 2b).  Against Job (who has argued he is innocent), and Job’s friends (who have argued that God is fair and manages the minutiae of life – so Job’s suffering shows he must have sinned), Elihu offers a bigger picture of how God works in the world. 

He defends his authority to speak (vss 2-4) describes God and God’s advocacy/protection for the righteous (vss 5-12). He describes the godless in heart (vss 13-14) and then focusses on Job’s situation describing God’s goodness and purpose in general (vs 15) and specific-to-Job (vs 16) terms.

In vss 17-23 Elihu engages the nub of the issue: you are obsessed with the case of the wicked; judgement and justice seize you (vs 17). These 7 verses are a treasury of wisdom for those who feel aggrieved, or who have experienced injustice or affliction.

1 Corinthians 9.1-16: The key to this passage is declared in vs 3: This is my defence to those who would examine me. Paul is in conflict with some in the church who are critical of him. Here he defends his bona fides – that he acting in good faith. Vss 1-2 emphasise his apostleship with the Corinthian church, if not with others.

Vss 4-7 outline his rights to food and companionship, rights he has not taken up.  Vss 8-12a explore the biblical foundation of those rights.  Vss 12b asserts that he hasn’t used this right before giving another foundation for his rights in vss 13-14.

Vss 15-16 declare that he has not used these rights and his obligation to preach the gospel is not a matter of right but of compulsion.

Saturday, February 6, 2021Psalm 147:1-11, 20c; Isaiah 46:1-13; Matthew 12:9-14

For the Psalm see Thursday.

Isaiah 46.1-13 comes from the work of Second Isaiah who prophesied in the time leading up to the return from Exile in Babylon. The imminent rescue of Israel is declared at the end (vss 12-13). The earlier part of the oracle is built on a contrast between the idols which must be carried on beasts and cattle (vss 1-2) and the living God who isn’t carried, but in fact carries you (vss 3-4)!

Vss 5-7 carries on the contrast between the living God and the idols and vss 8-11 are a declaration of the power of this living God.

Matthew 12.9-14: Here is a controversy story, an argument between Jesus and his enemies, built around a healing. Their question in vs 10 is a taunt, almost a dare. And Jesus takes up the challenge. He draws on an exception to the law of the Sabbath (If your sheep falls in the ditch on the sabbath, pull it out…) and then uses the greater value of a person to a sheep as his rationale for authorising healing on the Sabbath.

The response of the Pharisees (vs 14) indicates that the die is set, Jesus must die!

At the heart of this passage is the caring, loving, liberalising message of Jesus in conflict with the spirit of religious rules. Those who defend the rules are still conspiring against the Spirit of Love, how to destroy him (vs 14).

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