Readings for the 22nd Week after Pentecost

Monday, October 26, 2020Psalm 119:41-48 ; Numbers 33:38-39; James 2:8-13
We have dipped into Psalm 119 at various times this year.It is the longest of all the Psalms and at 176 verses it is the longest single chapter in the Bible. It is an extended poem modelled on the Hebrew alphabet of 22 letters in acrostic format of 22 eight-line stanzas, each starting with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet (22 x 8 = 176 verses). The theme of the extended poem is the Torah, the Law, the ‘commandment’ of God. The poem is firmly rooted in the Wisdom Tradition of Israel with a strong element of Torah piety – devotion grounded in the love of the Law. Psalm 119 brings together many sayings and themes from the Torah piety tradition.

As we found when reading Psalm 19.7-14, there are similarities between Psalms 1, 19 and 119 in focussing on the Torah. As Christians we need to take care in reading these Psalms. We have been conditioned by the New Testament polemics about the limitation, shortcomings and powerlessness of ‘the law’. The Torah in the Old Testament was not associated with a strictly nomistic (= legalistic) conception. According to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Torah is Yahweh’s merciful expression of his will, which is an ‘instruction’. It comes to human beings and marks out a way for them as guide. It is a working power that radiates light and brightness in which human beings experience ‘joy’, ‘love’ and ‘cheerfulness’ (Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 1-59 (1993): 273). Kraus goes on to say: ‘the translation ‘law’ should be avoided as much as possible… we ought to consider presuppositions that exclude every thought of nomism, Judaism and narrow observance’ (Kraus, 1993: 274).

This stanza of the Psalm reveals a particular life-setting which can be seen in vss 42-43. The singer is being taunted (vs 42a) and accused of lying (vs 43a). In the face of this attack the Psalmist makes her petition to God (vs 41). In vss 44-48 the psalmist takes hold of her delight in the law as the outworking of the Lord’s deliverance. This takes the form of 5 statements of a common structure: line 1: I [an action related to the law], Line 2: with this result. Note the reversal of the order in vs 45 where the result I shall walk at liberty precedes the saving function of the law: for I have sought your precepts. Note again the series of synonyms for the Torah (law / precepts /decrees / commandments (twice)).  Vs 46 is a powerful statement: if the taunting and critique of the psalmist has been that they have born false witness (vs 43a) then this has been answered in I will also speak of your decrees before kings, and shall not be put to shame.

Numbers 33.38-39 tells of the death of Aaron. This small story is located within a wider narrative  of chapter 33 in which the stages by which the Israelites have travelled from Egypt are recorded by Moses (33.2).

There are marked similarities between the deaths of Aaron and of Moses, although the death of Moses is recorded at the end of Deuteronomy. Both went up a mountain (Num 33.38 cf. Deut 34.1) either at the command of the Lord (Num 33.38) or because the Lord showed him the whole land (Deut 34.1). Moses died at the Lord’s command (Deut 34.5). The ages of both are recorded (Aaron: one hundred twenty three years old (Num 33.39) Moses: one hundred twenty years old (Deut 34.7a).

James 2.8-13: The book of James has a fascinating history within the New Testament canon. It was only gradually accepted as Scripture in the early church. As late as the Reformation, Martin Luther wrote that it was ‘an epistle of straw’ and sought to have it excluded from the NT. The letter has many Jewish elements and has minimal references to Jesus Christ (1.1, 2.1). This passage follows the opening to chapter 2 which teaches on the importance of not showing partiality.

This theme is then picked up with reference to the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (vss 8). Vs 9 (…if you show partiality…) makes the link to the preceding passage clear. The passage is framed by references to the royal law and the law of liberty (vs 12). The first term would appear to reflect Jewish usage, and the meaning of the last is indeterminate: it is hardly a statement that Paul would make as it is affirming of the concept of law of which Paul was deeply sceptical. Vss 10-11 make the point that the law is a whole and whoever fails in one point has become accountable for all of it (vs 11). Vs 13 echoes a point of Jesus – that mercy will be shown to the one who shows mercy.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020Psalm 119:41-48; Exodus 34:29-35; James 2:14-26
For the Psalm, see Monday.

Exodus 34.29-35 tells of Moses’ face shining after his time speaking with God and the fear this engendered in the Israelites (vs 30). The answer was to veil his face after speaking with the Lord and to remove the veil whenever he went in to speak with the Lord.

Exodus 34 describes the renewal of the Covenant. This part of the chapter describes the mysterious mask or veil that Moses wore. Scholars tell us that the prose form of this story changes between vss 33 and 34. The earlier verses (29-32) are told as a straight historical recitation, but from vs 33 the tenses change and the text seems to be describing not an event but a repeated process. The veil is mysterious in that it is only put on when Moses is NOT in his role as mediator with God or divine spokesperson. In both vss 31-32 and in vs 35 Moses speaks with unveiled face the words of the Lord. When he finishes speaking he puts the veil on again.

Some analysts see here a reversal of the ancient Near Eastern figure of the shaman-priest who donned a mask or headdress to assume his cultic role. His priesthood was donned along with the costume and his human features hidden by the terrifying mask. Here the teaching is the opposite: Moses is masked or veiled in his role as private citizen. When he is with the Lord as mediator and intercessor he beholds God face to face and the skin of his face shone in the reflected glory of that encounter.

This passage forms the basis of teaching developed by Paul in 2 Corinthians 3.7-18. Paul does ‘spin’ the story somewhat. Where Exodus makes clear the veil was to hide the shining glory so that the people would not fear (vs 33), Paul writes that the veil was there to hide the fact the glory was fading away (2 Cor 3.13). Paul develops a contrast between the old, fading glory of the ministry of death (2 Cor 3.7) and how much more the ministry of justification abound[s] in glory! (2 Cor 3.9)

There are ethical issues in every act of exegesis and interpretation. Are we being fair to the original text and what it was trying to convey? Are we bound to the authorial intention of the texts we invoke or do we have a freedom to use them in the service of our own meanings and interpretations?

James 2.14-26: This is perhaps the best known passage in James where he balances a justification by faith theology with a defence of justification by works – explicitly expounded in vs 24: You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. That the writer is here arguing with Paul can be seen most clearly in his quotation of the same text that Paul uses in Romans 4.3 (“Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” cf. James 2.23) but used to support a very different conclusion in vs 24.  The focus of the passage is expressed succinctly in the repeated conclusion of vss 17 and 26: So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020Psalm 119:41-48; Deuteronomy 26:16-27:7 ; Matthew 19:16-22
For the Psalm, see Monday.

The Lectionary is about to take us beyond the Pentateuch into Joshua and the story of ‘the Conquest’. Today’s passage from Deuteronomy 26 and 27 is our farewell to the long narrative of Exodus and Wandering that we have journeyed over many weeks. Vss 16-19 express the essence of the Covenant: obedience and diligent observation of the law (vs 16) serves the Lord’s agreement: to be your God; and for you to walk in his ways (vs 17), re-expressed again in vs 18: to be his treasured people, as he promised you , and to keep his commandments; before the results of this covenant for Israel are revealed in vs 19:  high above all nations…, in praise and in fame and in honour.

Having declared the essence of the covenant, Moses and the elders then outline how it is to be cultically expressed in a monument at the [future] crossing of the Jordan to possess the land which has been promised (vs 1-7 of chapter 27). The structure is strange with the repetition of the instructions of the memorial in almost contradictory terms.

Vss 2-3 prescribe a monument of stones covered in plaster with the words of the law written on them – presumably inscribed into the monument. Vss 4-7 prescribe a different memorial: stones and plaster as before, but this time on Mt Ebal and an altar of stones on which you have not used an iron tool (vs 5b). Vss 2-3 outline a memorial on which text of the law was to appear, engraved on large plastered stones. Vss 4-7 prescribe an altar of unworked stones (still plastered) on which sacrifice, rather than words of law, were to be the focus. There seem to be two traditions preserved here. The former seems linked to the Torah tradition of instruction and writing, and the latter to the cult of sacrifice and priesthood.

Do we find similar variant framings of faith in our own world? For instance, there are some people who treasure worship and singing and the drama of public liturgy (in whatever music tradition) while others are more engaged with issues of justice and ethics. I imagine the ‘worship’ fans might be drawn more to the vss 4-7 tradition, while the ‘justice and ethics’ crowd resonate more with vs 1-2.

Where do you feel more at home?

Matthew 19.16-22: This is a contentious story in the gospels. We really have only a third of it here – the story of the rich young man’s questioning and Jesus’ answers. The full teaching is Matthew 19.16-30. The parallels are found in Mark 10.17-31 and Luke 18.18-30.

Here the encounter of Jesus with the rich young man is allowed to stand on its own – with the ‘open’ ending of the young man going away grieving, for he had many possessions (vs 22). Left out from our reading today is the following debate about the ‘impossibility’ of Jesus’ teaching (vs 25) and the dialogue about relinquishment and blessing (vss 27-30).

Perhaps the simplest and truest reading of this text is the truth that clinging to our possessions is nothing but a source of grief!

Thursday, October 29, 2020Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37; Joshua 1:1-11; Romans 2:17-29

Psalm 107 has been called a “Liturgy of a Festival of Thanksgiving for the Liberated”. It has an interesting structure in which two ‘refrains’ or repeated statements recur throughout the Psalm:

The first is a statement of deliverance (found at vss 6, 13, 19, 28):

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he delivered them from their distress.

This alternates with a call to thanksgiving (found at vss 8, 15, 21, 31):

Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,

    for his wonderful works to humankind.

The psalm as a whole comprises 43 verses but we are only given 12 of them in two sections:

Vss 1-7 are the introduction to the Psalm. Vs 1 is an imperative calling the people to thanksgiving. Vss 2-3 might have been included within a much earlier Psalm after the deliverance from exile. Vss 4-5 reflect the desert wandering experience.

Many scholars think the second section (vss 33-37) is a separate song appended to an older Psalm. If you read vss 8-32 there is a different vocabulary and a very graphic style. Vs 32 almost seems a natural end point. Vss 33-37 show a clear connection to the work of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) with the metaphors of ‘waters in the desert’. The Psalm probably reflects the evolution of Israel’s worship in which the older strata of the tradition (vss 1, 4-32) were expanded by later poetry (vs 2-3, 33-43) reflecting further experience which were integrated together into narrative of historical deliverance which called forth praise and thanksgiving.

Joshua 1.1-11 begins the new narrative of entry into the promised land. In this passage we hear the announcement of Moses’ death and the succession of Joshua (vs 1), the voice of God recommissioning Joshua (in vss 2-9) and Joshua’s first exercising his new authority (vs 10-11).

Note the description of the territory I have given you as I promised to Moses (vs 3b). The Great Sea in the west is the Mediterranean (vs 4b) but the landside boundary is given as from the wilderness and the Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites (vs 4a). This includes Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and much of Iraq. If you look at the flag of modern Israel you will see two bands of blue on a white background: the blue bands represent the territory from the river (the Jordan? the Euphrates?) to the great sea (the Mediterranean).

One of the mysteries of modern Israel is that we are all asked to acknowledge Israel’  ‘right to exist’, but I have never found anyone who can clarify just which set of borders we acknowledge Israel as ‘existing within’. Is it the partition borders agreed by the United Nations in the late 1940’s? Or the borders taken by conquest in the 1967 War? Or the current borders of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories taken together? Or the ‘ambit claim’ of Joshua 1.4 of all the territory from the Euphrates to the Mediterranean?  Unfortunately, the status of debate today is such that to even politely ask that question is to risk being labelled anti-Semitic.

Two elements of the commission are significant: the injunction to Be strong and courageous, repeated in vss 6a, 7a, 9a. The second is the repeated mention of the linked themes of the promise of the land (vs 2-4, 6) and the keeping of the law (vss 7b, 8).

The heading of the passage beginning in vs 10 is instructive: Preparations for the Invasion. How do we understand what this whole exercise is about?  An invasion? A ‘Conquest’? A reclaiming of what was Israel’s by right? An uprising by marginalised social outcasts of the rural and wilderness areas against the settled and relatively prosperous towns of the region? Was it ethnic cleansing by one racial group of others? Or an uprising of the poor against their oppressors – perhaps led by an incoming group of desert-hardened wanderers with a new vision of God?  All of these theories have been applied to the story we are about to read, and each in turn can be argued from the evidence within the book itself. It is helpful to suspend judgement for a while and keep asking the question ‘what is this all about?’ The chapters ahead include violence, ethnic cleansing and perhaps even genocide. Can we really say “This is the word of the Lord?” to everything in the book of Joshua?

Romans 2.17-29 addresses directly those who pride themselves on their Jewish heritage and value their relationship to God and to the law. It falls into two main parts.

Vss 17-24 stresses the law. Vss 17-20 tease out the self-understanding of the skilled practitioner of the law. The hinge of the argument is vs 21 – you that teach others, will you not teach yourself? The assumption of vss 21b to 23 is that a teacher is a hypocrite, committing the sins against which he is teaching. Here Paul is re-asserting the point of vs 13 – that it is not the hearing (or the teaching!) of the law which matters, but the doing of the law. Commentator Brendan Byrne says of this passage:-

Within an established rhetorical pattern, he is attempting to drive home the point that possession of the law has not prevented Jews from failing to abide by its key moral precepts as formulated in the Decalogue (Byrne, 1996, 98)

The passage ends with the statement that such failure to perform the doing of the law leads to the Gentiles blaspheming the name God because of you (vs 24).

Vss 25-29 deal not with ‘the law’ as such but with circumcision, the sign of the covenant between God and God’s people. Again, the contrast is made between circumcision being not an outward sign but something embodied in the keeping of the law. The clearest statement of Paul’s thesis is vs 27 where the physically uncircumcised who keep the requirements of the law will condemn you that have both the written code and circumcision but break the law.

The possessing of the law, and the status of the circumcised, mean nothing in the eyes of God: what matters is the doing of the law. In the final verse Paul redefines Jewish identity as matter of the heart, an inward, spiritual reality.

Friday, October 30, 2020Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37; Joshua 2:1-14; 2 Peter 2:1-3
For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Joshua 2.1-14 tells of the heroism of Rahab the prostitute and her faithfulness to the Israelite spies. We are not told of how the King of Jericho discerned that the spees had come to Rahab (vs 3), but Rahab gave the classic Holywood misdirection “They went that-a-way!” (vss 4-5) getting the pursuers out of town with the gate locked behind them (vs 7).

In vss 8-14 Rahab tells of how the dread of the invaders has fallen on her people and even rehearses the events of the Red Sea and the escape from Egypt (vs 10). Acknowledging the Lord God (vs 11b) she negotiates a contract, a treaty: I will protect you now, if you protect me and my family in the future.

If the name Rahab seems familiar, she is remembered in our reading from James on Tuesday this week where she is remembered as an example of someone justified by works (James 2.25). Other New Testament witness to Rahab is found in Hebrews 11.31: By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish… and in Matthew 1.5 where in a long list of the forefathers of Jesus she is remembered as one of only four women (apart from Mary) honoured in the genealogy of Jesus.

2 Peter 2.1-3 is a succinct treatment of an issue treated in various parts of the Bible – that of false teachers. Vs alludes to the phenomenon of false prophets in Jewish history and their counterpart in the Christian community false teachers. They are characterised by secrecy, destructive opinions and even denying the Master who bought them (vs 1). Added to the charges against them are licentious ways, deceptive words (vs 2) and greed and exploitation (vs 3).

The impact of such teaching is that the way of truth will be maligned (vs 3b) but their condemnation and destruction are assured (vs 3c).

Are we conscious of false teaching in the church of today? How do we test for the truth? In the Baptist tradition especially, because we treasure liberty of conscience and the freedom of faith, we do need to be vigilant in defending good teaching, discerning false teaching and holding to truth.

Saturday, October 31, 2020Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37; Joshua 2:15-24; Matthew 23:13-28
For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Joshua 2.15-24 is the sequel to the night treaty agreed by Rahab and the spies. In vs 16 she gives further aid, and in vss 17-21 the spies outline her obligations to co-operate in sparing her family in the coming siege. In vss 22-24 the spies report back to Joshua and hearing their report Joshua is reassured that Truly the Lord has given all the land into our hands (vs 24).

Matthew 23.13-28: Following the warnings against false teachers yesterday in 2 Peter, today’s reading lists the six woes Jesus proclaimed against the scribes and Pharisees. The first denunciation (vs 13) is against their ‘blocking up the doorway’ – for not entering the kingdom themselves and preventing others to do so. The next denunciation is actually missing from our text – vs 14 is now generally not held to be a genuine part of the text (see footnote).

The second denunciation is one that I as a preacher feel acutely: for you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves (vs 15 – a text that every evangelist should take very much to heart!)

The third Woe is extensive and has to do with the ordering of values and the technicalities of swearing oaths (vss 16-22).

The fourth denunciation is against how the Pharisees have finely graduated calculation of the tithe and yet have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith (vss 23-24).

The fifth and the sixth Woes are directed against a ritual cleaning of the outside not the inside vss 25-26) and the similar but summary Woe uttered against those who are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but on the inside…. (vss 27-28).

Readings for the 21st Week after Pentecost

Monday, October 19, 2020Psalm 63:1-8; Exodus 40:34-38; Revelation 18:1-10, 19-20
Psalm 63:1-8: The lectionary has given us just the first 8 of the 11 verses of this Psalm. Why the truncation? It probably reflects the view of many commentators that the final three verses do not belong to the first eight.

However, some scholars see the setting as important and understanding the setting aright is the key to understanding the Psalm as an integrated whole. It is a prayer song as can be seen in vss 1-2 which outlines the exhaustion and ‘dryness’ of the petitioner (vs 1). However, the true theme of the Psalm is found in vss 3-5 which are a song of thanksgiving. Vss 6-8 are what one commentator has called thoughts of comfort.  

Many commentators have sought to make sense of the Psalm by rejecting vss 9-11 and then transposing vss 3-5 and vss 6-8 so that the structure is prayer call out of distress (vss 1-2), words of comfort (vss 6-8), and an answering/concluding song of thanksgiving (vss 3-5).

Another way to understand it is to take it just as it is and include the last three verses: vss 9-10 announce the confounding and destruction of the enemies of the petitioner and vs 11 affirms the king who is set over the temple where the petitioner finds justice. This would mean that vs 11 is the actual answer to vss 1-2, as a result of the judgement on his accusers delivered in vss 9-10 and 11b. All of this is prefigured in the thanksgiving of vss 3-5 and the comforting affirmations of vss 6-8.

Kraus writes: the statements of Ps 63 circle about the mystery and wonder of the deliverance of God. … The psalm is filled with expressions of thanksgiving and trust, for in nearness to God the oppressed person is permitted to be sure of his deliverance “under the shadow of the wings” of God. … This profound high esteem of the communion with God forms the actual centre of this profound psalm. (Kraus, Psalms 60-150 (1989: p.21)

Exodus 40.34-38 are the closing words of the book of the Exodus. They describe the culmination of the building of the tabernacle when the glory of the Lord enters the tent following its construction. A surprising detail is that Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it and the glory of the Lord of the Lord filled the tabernacle (vs 35). Chapter 39 has detailed the arrangements for the priestly vestments and in vss 12-15 of chapter 40 Moses has consecrated a perpetual priesthood throughout all generations to come (vs 15b). Moses’ exclusion from the tabernacle is part of a transition in cultic leadership arrangements.

Revelation 18:1-10, 19-20 is a section of the dramatic chapter which describes the fall of Babylon that comes in the climactic judgement of the world at the end of Revelation. It is one of the most dramatic, almost theatrical, chapters of the Bible with a script that presents various ‘Greek choruses’ who raise lament over the great city (vs 19b) as sector by sector, industry by industry, the judgement of God is unfolded in stages. 

Vss 1-3 outline the angelic voice announcing the judgement to be followed by another voice calling Come out of her, my people (vs 4) and inviting God’s people to render to her… repay her double… give her a double draught  (vs 6) and give her a like measure of torment and grief (vs 7) and outlining her sudden punishment (vs 8).

Vss. 9-10 give the lament of the first chorus who lament her fall: the kings of the earth who committed fornication and lived in luxury with her.

Then follow (although not in our reading) laments from the merchants of the earth (vss 11-17a). The descriptive list of the wares sold by the merchants (vss 12-13) reads almost like an advertisement for the wonders of the modern marketplace until we reach the grizzly conclusion of the inventory: chariots, slaves – and human bodies and souls (vs 13c – see note).

The particular lament of vss 19-20 is raised by all shipmasters and seafarers, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea (vs 17b) 

Tuesday, October 20, 2020Psalm 63:1-8; Numbers 12:1-9; Revelation 18:21-24
For the Psalm, see Monday.

Numbers 12.1-9: If our reading yesterday hinted at the marginalisation of Moses through a structural transition in spiritual leadership, here we have another story of struggle among the three leading figures of the Exodus movement. We read of Aaron and Miriam rising against Moses in criticism (vss 1-3), and the Lord intervening (vss 4-9). If you read on (vss 10-16) you will see the aftermath of the story.

Vss 6-8 are a poetic oracle depicting the usual prophetic form of authority (vs 6b) but the contrasting peculiar and intimate relationship between the Lord and Moses (vss 7-8). Note that here the Lord stood at the entrance to the tent of meeting (vs 5b)  – the older ‘tent of meeting’ tradition in contrast to the tabernacle tradition.

Struggles within the leadership of the people of God have been with us from the beginning and will be with us to the end. As in human politics, the disruptions often involve who we marry – or form partnerships with (see the current controversies regarding the Premier of NSW). Jealousy also often plays a part: Has [the Lord] not spoken through us also? (vs 2b).

Unfortunately, we do not have the word of the Lord audibly spoken from a pillar of cloudy glory to resolve matters for us. We must rely on prayer, and wisdom, and discernment, and courage to resolve such challenges within the community of faith!

Revelation 18: 21-24 is the climax of the judgement of Babylon. Many references to OT sentiments of judgement are here listed but the whole litany of misfortune and bereavement is framed by calls to rejoice over her addressed to God’s people immediately before this passage (vs 20), and immediately after we hear the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying, Hallelujah! ….(Rev 19.1ff).

Wednesday, October 21, 2020Psalm 63:1-8; Numbers 13:1-2; Numbers 13:17-14:9; Matthew 17:22-27
For the Psalm, see Monday.

Numbers 13.1-2, 13:17-14.9: is a long passage describing the spying out of the land. The command of the Lord comes in vss 1-2, Moses’ instructions in vss 17-20 and the activities of the spies described in vss 21-24.

Their report is delivered in vss 25-29. Despite Caleb quieting the people and urging an occupation of the land (vs 30) the other spies bear a negative report (vss 31-33) so that the people again complain and urge a return to Egypt (14:1-4). This rebellion culminates in the mutinous “Let us choose a captain, and go back to Egypt.” (vs 4)

Noteworthy here is that Moses and Aaron do not seek the Lord but fell on their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of the Israelites (vs 5). In the face of this capitulation it is a new generation of leaders, Joshua and Caleb, who take over and sway the people, warning them about rebelling against the Lord and urging them to occupy the land (vss 6-9).

Sometimes it is a great crisis that shows the limitations of existing leadership and stimulates the emergence of a new ways of leading and new people to do that leading. What is the current pandemic and the disruption of this time teaching us about leadership? Is the Lord raising up even now, a modern Joshua or Caleb we must recognise, empower and follow?

Matthew 17.22-27: Mark has structured his gospel around three predictions of his passion by Jesus. Matthew maintains the three predictions and this passage is the second of them (cf Mark 9.30-32). Where Mark says the disciples did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him (Mk 9.32) Matthew says simply And they were greatly distressed (vs 23).

The point of the controversy story that follows (vss 24-27) is to provide a context for the saying “Then the children are free” in vs 26b.  The logic would appear to be that as we are the children of God who is the king of all the earth, therefore the temple tax is not payable by us – but to avoid offending the authorities a fish (part of the creation over which God is king) is caught with a coin in its mouth – so the king provides the tax for us.

In some parts of the world religious taxes are still paid (notably in Lutheran countries but also in some others). Just who should pay these taxes as a matter of justice can still be controversial.

Thursday, October 22, 2020Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; Deuteronomy 31:14-22; Titus 1:5-16
Psalm 90:  Today’s Psalm reading falls in two parts. The first part is (vss 1-6) are a lament in the form of a reflection on human mortality. The second part (vss 13-17) are a series of petitions that reveal something of the situation that has caused the people to lament.

Unusually, the psalm has been attributed to Moses. The tradition affirms that Moses sang songs (see Exod 15.1; Deut 31.19, 30; 32.1ff; 33.1 – passages we reading this week!) but this is the only psalm that is attributed to him. While some parts of the Psalm are very ancient, it is likely the final composition of this psalm dates after the Exile in Babylon (6th century BCE). One element of the Bible that seems very strange – or even dishonest – to modern minds is the way that writers attributed their work to previous prominent figures the tradition: a kind of ‘reverse plagiarism’. So this Psalm is seen as being in the tradition of Moses, just as others are attributed to David. This applies to some of the NT letters attributed to Paul (Colossians, Ephesians) or to John, and also to some OT prophets (notably Isaiah) where the oracles all share the themes and style of a common tradition but are so separated in their historical contexts as to not be the work of one historical person.

The dwelling place of vs 1 is actually the word for an animal’s den or hiding place and God is depicted as the hiding place or refuge of humankind. The cosmic implications of God’s presence and work are described in vs 2. In the context of that divine power and protection human beings become conscious of our proneness to death (vss 3-6). Vss 4-5 are a reflection on time (from divine and human perspectives) and memory, rather than mortality. Isaac Watts’ hymn O God, our help in ages past (Baptist Praise and Worship no. 389) is often misunderstood in this regard. The lines Time like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away are a reference to the years: it is years past, not human beings that fly forgotten as a dream dies at the opening day.

In vss 13-17 the petitions that are expressed give shape to the suffering of the community that has stimulated this psalm. Their suffering has been of long duration (vss 13, 15) and has disrupted human working activity (vs 17b,c). In the Australian rural context one thinks of the impact of prolonged drought. In an urban setting the impact of the pandemic lockdown has caused similar questioning: How long, O Lord? When we see the economic and social disruption, the debt that we as a community will have to pay down, well may we pray prosper for us the work of our hands – O prosper the work of our hands! (vs 17).

Deuteronomy 31.14-22: This week concludes with three readings from Deuteronomy, all of which relate in some way to the Song of Moses (Deut 32). Today’s reading treats the Deuteronomic version of the transition of authority from Moses to Joshua by the word of the Lord (vs 14-15). This contrasts with the Numbers reading yesterday in which that leadership was dramatically enacted before the people in a critical turning point in Israel’s history. How often does a leadership transition actually occur through events, before it is publicly ‘blessed’ by the religious authorities and then given divine approval?

Vss 16-21 give a classically Deuteronomic reading of Israel’s history, this time in anticipation. The Lord knows already what will happen and, in a rather insensitive way (to my mind), proceeds to tell the dying Moses just how little he has achieved and how little the people have changed. As we approach death, we hope that our leadership and our lifework might have achieved something and affected our communities, but the emphasis here is on the implacable rebellion of Israel, foreseen by the Lord and placed here at the centre of the transition of authority and leadership from Moses to Joshua.

Titus 1.5-16: This passage treats of an underlying theme in this week’s readings, that of leadership – its authority, transitions and management. Here Titus has a task to put in order what remained to be done (vs 5) which means appoint elders (vs 5b-6) and perhaps even a bishop (vs 7-9), assuming that the roles have been differentiated by this time. Notice that the bishop has a doctrinal mandate to be exercised in both teaching and refutation (vs 9).

A second element of Titus’ task is silencing rebellious people, idle talkers and deceivers (vs 10). We can see the identity and substance of those who are a threat through the naming of those of the circumcision (vs 10b) and the discussion of Jewish myths (vs 14) and the concept of purity (vs 15).

These related tasks of a. ordaining authorised leadership, b. teaching the truth and c. refuting error remain at the heart of Christian leadership today.

Vs 12 is an early expression of the liar paradox. The paradox arises from the fact that ‘All Cretans are liars’ was attributed by the writer to one of them, their very own prophet, known to history as  Epimenides, himself a Cretan. The essence of the paradox is: If a Cretan says ‘Cretans are always liars’, then by definition he is lying!’  The links will take you to further discussion of this intriguing paradox. At the very least, the verse is a salutary warning against making sweeping statements!

Friday, October 23, 2020Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; Deuteronomy 32:1-14, 18; Titus 2:7-8, 11-15
For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Deuteronomy 32.1-14,18: Here we have part of the Song of Moses that was alluded to in the last verse of yesterday’s OT reading. The scholar Gerhard von Rad divides the whole song of Moses into sections as follows:

Vvs 1-2: a didactic opening summons

Vvs 3-7: the subject of the poem, Yahweh’s perfect ways

Vss 8-14: Yahweh’s redemptive acts

Vss 15-18: Israel’s backsliding

Vss 19-25: the judgment

Vss 26-35: God’s argument with himself

Vss 36-38: announcement of Yahweh’s imminent coming to succour his people

Vss 39-42: Yahweh’s concluding words

Vss 43: a hymn-like ending

What this outline makes clear is that today’s reading comprises all of the first three sections, and the final verse of the fourth.

The language of the first two section (vss 1-7) reflects the concepts and thought of the Wisdom tradition. Vs 3 announces the great theme: the name of the Lord. Vs 4 gives one of those names: the Rock (cf. vs 18, vss 30, 31). Vs 7 introduces a key theme of Deuteronomy, that one generation should transmit the story of the Lord and his faithfulness to another.

Vss 8-14 are built around a theology of election (vs 9) and God’s deliverance and sustenance of his chosen people.

Vs 18 is the sole fragment of the accusation against Israel, reiterating the ancient name of the Rock that occurs four times throughout the Song of Moses (cf. I Corinthians 10.4).

Titus 2:7-8, 11-15:  Sometimes the lacunae, the gaps, the bits that are missing from a reading are very interesting: why was this left out? What doesn’t apply, or might be embarrassing to leave in? 

From this passage of ethical paranesis the Lectionary has suppressed vss 9-10, an exhortation for slaves to be submissive to their masters, and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Saviour. Given that slaves were the property of their masters bound in all ways, and that their bodies could be used for sex, an exhortation to give satisfaction in every respect is deeply offensive today and could never be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Saviour. It is rightly “glossed over” in the text, but we should remind ourselves it is there, especially if we are prone to point out the offensive parts of the Holy Books of other faiths!

Saturday, October 24, 2020Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; Deuteronomy 32:44-47; John 5:39-47
For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Deuteronomy 32.44-47 returns to the prose narrative that tells the story of Moses and the people on their journey.  This narrative frames two elements of the tradition that are taught and enjoined upon the people: this song (vs 44) and this Law (vs 46). This is not an ‘empty word’ (or trifling matter)but rather your very life (vs 47). “There stands behind the sentence a long, mainly prophetic experience of the creative power of Yahweh’s word … (cf Isaiah 55.11)” (von Rad).

John 5.39-47: the key link between this passage and the OT lesson today is vs 40: Yet you refuse to come to me to have life (cf. Deut 32.47: this is no trifling matter … but rather your very life). As if he had the Deuteronomy passage in mind Jesus says, your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hope. 46 If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. 47 But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?” (vss 45b-47).

Deep Dive #2: Apocalypse and Eucalypts

In the second of our thought-provoking Deep Dives, join Assoc Professor Keith Dyer, New Testament lecturer at Whitley College and all round good bloke as he brings together an exploration of Revelation, AND environmental issues….. (Clearly one hefty topic wasn’t enough!) We’ll be joining together over Zoom on Wednesday morning to explore this topic together more, so just email if you want to get involved.

Daily Readings for the 20th Week after Pentecost

Monday, October 12, 2020Psalm 97; Exodus 32:15-35; Jude 17-25
The Psalms for this week (97 and 99) are both what have been termed ‘royal psalms’ in that they celebrate the kingship of Yahweh. Some scholars have seen these psalms as part of a cultic event called the ‘enthronement of Yahweh’ associated with the ancient Jerusalem traditions of God as king. Others see the tone of Ps 97 as more eschatological – reaching beyond the cult of Jerusalem to reveal Yahweh to all humankind. These scholars see echoes of Second Isaiah in this psalm. Whatever its setting, it is a praise song about Yahweh’s kingship and is structured in 4 clear sections.

Vss 1-2  acclaim Yahweh as king (vs 1a) and calls the whole world to rejoice in this (vs 1b,1c). Vs 2 offer two aspects of Yahweh’s greatness: the cloudiness and darkness that surround him (aspects of the thunderstorm theophany described in vss 3-6) and the foundations of righteousness and justice that support the divine throne (vs 2b).

Vss 3-6 describe a theophany – an appearance or revelation of Yahweh and the divine power. Vs 3 describes the fire of God which consumes his enemies and vs 4 focuses on the lightning – the form of that fire revealed in the storm. Vs 4b ascribes the thunder to the quaking of the earth at the sight of his lightnings. Vs 5 moves from the power of the thunderstorm to the presence of Yahweh in volcanoes and eruptions. Vs 6 describe the righteousness of God seen in the heavens and the glory all people behold there.

Vss 7-9 then outline the impact of all this revealed glory and power on humankind. Vs 7 relates the impact on worshippers of idols and on lesser gods. Vs 8 brings the focus clearly on Jerusalem and Mt Zion and Judah, before vs 9 zooms out and declares Yahweh’s universal supremacy.

Vss 10-12 then explore how this mighty, cosmic God cares for and protects the righteous who are called in vs 12 to rejoice and praise him.

Exodus 32.15-35: Exodus 32-34 were probably structured into the Exodus narrative late in the transmission of the tradition. The overall structure appears to be that chapter 32 relates the breaking of the Covenant in the worship of the golden calf, and chapter 34 relates its restoration. Chapter 33 is a composite of material that provides a bridge between breaking and restoration of the Covenant.

The earliest version of the tradition in chapter 32 can be seen in vss 1-6, 15-20 and 35. If you were to read the whole chapter these verses present a straightforward narrative. Vss 7-14 introduce a dialogue between God and Moses on the mountain that prefigure the narrative of vss 15-20 and vss 21-34 reflect on the role of Aaron and his failure of leadership, and Moses’ reasserting control through the organised violence of the Levites  (vss 27-29) and the calculus of sin and forgiveness that characterises the Priestly rendering of Israel’s story (vss 21, 30-34).

Jude 17-25: The letter of Jude shows marked similarities with 2 Peter, especially 2 Peter Chapter 2. Scholars have argued whether there was a direct dependence where one was a source for the other (with no consensus as to which was primary), or whether both texts may have depended on a common sermon tradition in the early church against false teachers. It was probably written late in the first century, around 90 CE. The late date can be seen in the retrospective reference to remember the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. (vs 17).

The passage set for today includes exhortation to vigilance against mockers (vs 17-19), faith, love and the hope of eternal life (vs 20-21), an exhortation to mercy towards non-christians (vss 22-23) and one of the best loved doxologies of the NT in vss 25-26.

Vss 22-23 are difficult to interpret, as indicated in the footnote. Are there three categories of sinners to be saved (as in this translation) or only two, as some translations have vs 23: save others with fear, snatching them from the fire, abhorring the very tunic spotted by the flesh.  The background to these verses would appear to be Zechariah 3.2, 3-5 which refer to the brand plucked from the fire and the wearing and taking off of filthy clothes.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020Psalm 97; Exodus 33:1-6; Philippians 3:13-4:1
For the Psalm see Monday.

Exodus 33 is a difficult chapter to interpret. There is agreement that separate stories have been rather loosely collected, but just what meaning the final redactor was intending to convey through this collection is harder to fathom. All the stories in the chapter revolve around God’s presence.

Through the catastrophic failure of Israel in the worship of the golden calf, Yahweh had decided not to accompany the people on their journey any further (see chapter 32.34). The critical verse is 33.3 where God decides to withdraw his presence, to be substituted by an angel (vs 2). God’s promise is preserved (vs 1) but God’s presence is ended (vs 3).

Now the structure of the chapter becomes clear, because after the interactions around the tent of meeting (vss 7-11 – see Thursday) in vss 12-23 the Lord repents and agrees that he will continue with the Israel on the journey).

Philippians 3.14-4.1: All our NT readings this week are of a paranetic character (advice, instruction). Following the Jude reading yesterday, this passage urges a forward looking, dynamic understanding of faith as a work in progress, of continuing in faith and growth (vss 13-16).

Vs 17 introduces a key spiritual principle: that of imitating our teachers and elders. Vss 18-19 include warnings of false believers before the note of forward looking, eschatologically focussed faith emerges again in vss 20-21. Chapter 4.1 is a final call to stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020Psalm 97; 2 Kings 17:7-20; John 6:25-35
For the Psalm see Monday.

2 Kings 17.7-20: This is a leap from the story of the Exodus – but not such a leap as we might first think. Exodus 32.34b (see Monday) says Nevertheless, when the day comes for punishment, I will punish them for their sin. This theology of sin-punishment-repentance is part of the Deuteronomic theology of Israel’s history. 

Here in this chapter we have just such a reading that looks back over Israel’s history with the same framework. In vs 10 we see the later failings of Israel in following the idols and religious symbols of Canaan, but vss 13-16 recount the past story, including they … made for themselves cast images of two calves (vs 16) which may be reference to the golden calf incident of Exodus 32.

Note that this comes from a time when Israel had split into Judah and the Northern Tribes (Israel – later Samaria) – see vss 18b-20). Just as Ex 32 had told of the sin of Israel, here in 2 Kings 17 the story is updated and reinforced!

John 6.25-35: Just as the Exodus narrative framed Israel’s experience through the ‘sin-punishment-repentance’ interpretation of Israel’s history, here Jesus takes the Exodus story and sees an abiding parable of grace and life, not sin and punishment. This encounter follows the feeding of the five thousand (Jn 6.1-15) and Jesus walking on the water (vss 16-21) – both miracles suggestive of the Exodus narrative in the crossing of the sea and the sending of the manna. John explicitly invokes the example of the manna in the wilderness (vs 31 – placed on the lips of the crowds) only for Jesus to reinterpret the bread from heaven (vs 32) as the bread of God … which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world (vs 33) before closing the interpretive chain and identifying himself: I am the bread of life (vs 35)

Thursday, October 15, 2020Psalm 99; Exodus 33:7-11; 3 John 9-12
Psalm 99 is one of the Psalms that affirm ‘Yahweh is King’ (Ps 96-99) but is slightly different to Psalms 96, 97 & 98. Here Yahweh is not presented as the King of all the nations (Ps 96) or the King of Creation (Ps 97) but as the King of Zion (vs 2), enthroned on the Cherubim (vs 1), which either refers to the figures atop the Ark of the Covenant or a metaphorical reference to thunderclouds. The whole Psalm seems to be anchored in the story of Israel, the origins and traditions of the priests and the cult of the Temple.

In determining the structure of the Psalm some commentators ‘cut it up’ into 1-3 / 4 / 5 / 6-9.

Vss 1-3 are a cry of homage and call to praise. Note that the holiness of God forms almost a refrain with its repetition in vss 3b, 5c, 9c. This would fit well with this structure, especially if vss 4 and 5 are linked.

Vs 4 (Mighty King – or a King’s strength) is a reference to military power (‘The Lord of Hosts’) but immediately links this power with the establishment of justice and equity. Vs 5 takes up the call to praise again but anchors that praise at his footstool – a reference to the Temple?  So the mentions of Zion (vs 2) the cherubim (vs 1) and the footstool (vs 5) seem to locate the focus of this Psalm within the Jerusalem cult.

Vss 6-9 would confirm this with the mention of Moses, Aaron and Samuel all of whom not only held priestly office but ‘talked with God’ (vs 6). The mention of the pillar of cloud in the context of obedience to laws and statutes could be reference to the early Exodus tradition of the Wilderness, or to Leviticus and Numbers passages about the cloud.

Vs 9 concludes with the return of the holy is he theme and a final call to extol the Lord and worship at his holy mountain (conflating Sinai with Zion).

Exodus 33.7-11 introduces a very old tradition about ‘the tent of meeting’. The Tabernacle as described throughout the Pentateuch was an elaborate structure (see Exodus 25-26) at the centre of the camp (see Numbers 2.2) with an extended staff of Levitical priests (see Numbers 3.5-10). In this passage ‘the tent of meeting’ is erected outside the camp (vs 7) which in the OT is usually a place of impurity and exclusion. Here there is only one attendant – [Moses’] young assistant, Joshua son of Nun, would not leave the tent (vs 11). It was a place where God met with Moses.

The Tabernacle held the Ark of the Covenant at its centre and was where God dwelled. In this passage, rather than residing in the Holy of Holies, the glory of God in the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent (vs 9). There is no mention of the Ark of the Covenant in the whole chapter.

In this fragment of an ancient tradition – some early precursor of the later elaborate cultic tent at the centre of Israel’s corporate life – we see some key elements of a national engagement that leads to the reversal of God’s decision to abandon Israel we read in vss 1-6. Moses, having been rejected in chapter 32 in the national apostasy, is here respected and revered as the people stand by the entrance to their tents whenever Moses goes to speak with God (vs 8). The pillar of cloud (vs 9) attends Moses showing the continuing presence of God (vs 9). Seeing the theophany of the pillar of cloud the people are moved to worship (vs 10). Vs 11 presents the intimacy and power of the Lord’s interaction with Moses: in all these narrative elements from a very ancient and simple tradition we can see the freshness and vitality that will lead to the remarkable re-negotiation of the relationship between the Lord and his people that follows in the rest this chapter, and the chapters that follow!

3 John 9-12: These four verses from one of the shortest books of the Bible lead us into a dispute in the early church. The focus is a dispute with a powerful figure in the church, Diotrephes, against whom two charges are laid: vss 9b & 10a -that he does not acknowledge the authority of ‘the elder’ (the writer of the letter – see vs 1); and vs 10b – that he refuses to welcome the friends and even prevents those who want to do so and expels them from the church. Diotrephes is clearly a powerful figure within the church. Is he an office-holder or leader, perhaps even a bishop? Whatever his power base he is opposed by ‘the elder’. The reference in vs 9 I have written something to the church… may be a reference to 1 John 2. In both letters there is reference to coming to you (2 John 12, 3 John 10).

In contrast is the witness to Demetrius, perhaps the bearer of the letter, who is trustworthy and true. Between these two different men and their actions stands the injunction to not imitate what is evil but imitate what is good vs 11.

Friday, October 16, 2020Psalm 99; Exodus 31:1-11; 1 Peter 5:1-5
For the Psalm see Thursday.

Exodus 31.1-11: This is an interesting passage. We read on Monday and Tuesday of some of the difficulties of interpretation in Exodus 32, and on Thursday of Exodus 33.7-11, a very ancient tradition of ‘the tent of meeting’ which almost certainly predates the elaborate descriptions of the Tabernacle given elsewhere in Exodus. The design of the Tabernacle and its contents are described in Exodus chapters 25-35.11 (ending with today’s passage) in the context of the Lord giving detailed instructions to Moses on the Mountain at Sinai. Vss 12-18 (the remainder of chapter 31) are a re-statement of the Sabbath law. 

In chapter 35 we have another restatement of the sabbath law (vss 1-3) and then the detailed description of the building of the Tabernacle from 35.4 through to Exodus 39. The form largely recapitulates the earlier chapters 25-35 but sometimes in changed order. In between are the crucial chapters of 32, 33 & 34 discussed above.

The treatment of Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur and of Oholiab son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan is paralled in both Ex 31.1-11 (today’s passage) and Exodus 35.50-36.7. The name Bezalel means ‘in the shadow of God (El)’ and Oholiab means ‘the divine father is my tent’. There are similar ancient near-eastern names associating various divinities with tents reflecting a widespread background of tent shrines. The skill of these men is attributed to being filled … with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft (vs 3). 

This passage contributes to a biblical view of aesthetics and art but it also reflects the layering of a decorative and complex symbolic architecture over the more ancient and simple traditions of ‘the tent of meeting’. Part of the work of the authors of Exodus is to relate these traditions to each other, something that can be seen clearly in the detail of Exodus 40 where both terms (the Tabernacle / the tent of meeting) are used throughout the chapter either alternately or in combination.

1 Peter 5:1-5: This passage addresses a word to ‘the elders’ of the congregation and those who are younger. By the time of 1 Peter was written the ‘offices’ of ministry were beginning to take shape. Elders (or Presbyters) were one form of authority, as were Bishops or Overseers (episkopos). We can see in vs 2 that part of the role of these ‘elders’ was exercising the oversight – but note the question-mark over the text in the footnote: was the exact shape of leadership and the roles of ‘elder’ and ‘overseer’ (Bishop) still evolving?  Vss 1-5 are wise advice for anyone exercising leadership within a Christian community. 

Saturday, October 17, 2020Psalm 99; Exodus 39:32-43; Matthew 14:1-12
For the Psalm see Thursday.

Exodus 39.32-43: As we noted yesterday, there are two large blocks of material detailing the Tabernacle in Exodus: chapters 25-31 describing its design and chapters 35-39 describing its construction. Just as yesterday we read part of the last chapter of the first block of this material, today we read the last passage of the second block of this material. In this final summary of the structure you can see its complexity and grandeur, and sense its symbolism.

However, personally I long for the majesty and power of the description of ‘the tent of meeting’ of Ex 33.7-11 (see Thursday) and the simple dignity of the wandering tribesmen standing to honour Moses at the door of their tents as he went to meet with the Lord in the pillar of cloud and talk with him face to face.

Matthew 14.1-12: The fate of John the Baptist prefigures that of Jesus. This made very clear in the earliest strand of the gospel in Mark, where the author places the beheading between the sending out of the twelve disciples on mission (Mark 6.7-13) and their return with reports of what they had done (Mark 6.30-32). Matthew has simplified Mark’s account and changed some elements. Whereas Mark tells us that Herod feared John … and protected him (Mk 6.20) and attributed the desire to kill John to Herodias, Matthew says Herod wanted to put him to death (vs 5).

Luke’s gospel includes a long passage of John sending messengers to Jesus (Lk 7.18-35) but his treatment of this story omits the details of John’s execution, but has a reflective question from Herod about John’s death and Jesus’ ministry: ‘John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?’ (Luke 9.7-9).

Deep Dives #1: Toppling Statues

This week Box Hill Baptist starts a new weekly series, taking some deep dives into complex social, spiritual and environmental issues. Our first features Emeritus Professor Graeme Davison who is in discussion with Pastor Jim Barr on the topic of ‘Toppling statues’, and their perspectives on this global protest phenomenon.

Next week (7/10/2020) we’ll be running a Zoom webinar where you can join in questions and conversation with Graeme and Jim to take this even further. Just email and we’ll get you the information you need to join in.