Daily Readings for the 16th Week after Pentecost

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

Reading guide for the 15th Week after Pentecost

Monday, September 7, 2020Psalm 121; Exodus 12:14-28; 1 Peter 2:11-17

Psalm 121: This well-known and much-loved Psalm in one of the treasures of the Hebrew Bible. The opening verse has been much misunderstood from the time of the King James Bible, in which the first and second lines are separated only by a comma and there is no question mark at the end of vs 1b. In fact, the two lines are completely separate sentiments: I look out to the hills; and I ask where will I find help? 

Personally, I have always been reminded to read this verse very carefully by the story of a trainee minister in Wales who preached his first ever sermon in Welsh on this text: I will lift up my eyes (Welsh: llygaid pronounced chlugg-eyed, with the ‘ch’ as in ‘loch’) to the hills. The only problem was he mispronounced it as another Welsh word (llygod pronounced chlugg-od) meaning “I will lift up my mice to the hills”. For months afterwards whenever it was his turn to preach anywhere his friends would come along and sit in the back row of the church dangling plastic mice in the air by their tails!

To read the Psalm aright we need to note several things: the heading tells us it’s ‘a pilgrimage song’ or, as the NRSV expresses it, ‘A Song of Ascents’. A pilgrimage journey is the perfect context for all this talk of feet slipping (vs 3), of one who doesn’t need sleep (unlike the weary pilgrim – vss 3b,4), of a provider of shade (vs 5) and protector against the sun and the moon (vs 6). The protection from all evil, he will keep your life (vs 7) is an overarching and comprehensive promise of safety. In vs 8 your going out and your coming in are the beginning and the end of a pilgrim’s walking day.

A second clue is that vs 1 poses a question: where will my help come from?  This question is asked (literally) in view of the mountains – probably the view of the mountains that surrounded Jerusalem, especially the mountains to the east that were dangerous to travel. The departing pilgrim looks to the journey she is about to start and asks the question every traveller asks: how will it go? Where will I find the resources for this challenge?

A third clue is that vs 1 is in the first person (I will lift up, my help…) whereas vss 3-8 are in the second person – they are all addressed to you /your. So the Psalm is a dialogue. The departing Pilgrim poses the questions in vs 1 and the answer comes – possibly from a priest in vss 3-8 which take the forms of a blessing on the traveller. Some have even seen in this psalm a father’s blessing on a son about to set out on a journey.

The puzzle is vs 2: This is still in the first person: My help comes from the Lord…. Is this an affirmation by the traveller, a self-answer to the preceding question? Or is it a personal testimony by the priest, or the one who gives the blessing? On this second reading the one responding gives their personal experience (My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth) and then expounds what this means for you (the traveller) (vss 3-8).

An interesting New Testament connection here is Matthew 17.15, where a man seeks healing of Jesus for his epileptic son. The word for epilepsy is from the Gk word for moon (selene) and literally means ‘my son is moonstruck’ (seleniazomai). While we interpret the couplet of vs 6 (The sun shall not strike you by day, / nor the moon by night) as an almost poetic expression of divine care, to the ancient travelling worshippers coming to, and leaving from, Jerusalem, it was all about the dangers of the sun on desert roads and the terrifying night-scape of mental injury and illness.

Exodus 12.14-28:  This passage tells of the foundation of the Passover, a key festival of ancient Israel, commemorating annually the liberation from Egypt. The passage outlines two main elements – the eating of unleavened bread (vss 15, 17-20), and the sacrifice of the Passover lamb (vss 21-27).

The festival was to last a week with a solemn assembly on the first and seventh days (vs 16). This structure of a week-long observance has carried over into the Christian practice of Holy Week, which begins on Palm Sunday and ends on Easter, although many Christians observe an abbreviated three-day festival (Good Friday – Easter). Because of the differences between the Gregorian calendar (a solar calendar – based on the sun) and the Hebrew calendar (a more ancient lunisolar calendar – based on movements of both sun and moon) the days for the festival are set differently. In the Jewish calendar Passover always begins on the 15th day of the month of Nisan (typically in March or April of the Gregorian calendar). The date of Easter is usually ‘the first Sunday after the first full moon after the March equinox’ thus combining both movements of the sun and the moon in setting the great Christian Feast of the Resurrection.

1 Peter 2.11-17 comes from a letter written to a group of exiles or migrant workers (1 Peter 1.1) living scattered through the region we know as modern Turkey. In this passage their life-situation is reflected in vs 11. The status as aliens and exiles has sometimes been spiritualised as referring to earthly life contrasted to our heavenly ‘home’, but the letter should be read against the context of a migrant/refugee/alien group living in the midst of a suspicious and even oppressive culture.

This, then provides the context for reading the ethical teaching of political submission in vss 13-17 – a passage of teaching very similar to Romans 13.1-7 we explored some weeks ago and will read again tomorrow. One of the issues in both passages (Romans and 1 Peter) is whether we can build an overarching theology of ‘submission to authority’ as a totalising Christian position applicable in every situation, or whether Paul’s words to the Romans and Peter’s to the ‘exiles of the dispersion’ are directed to specific people in particular contexts. We are reading these passages in a context where widespread restrictions on civil liberties have been imposed in an attempt to control a spreading pandemic. Many of us would see the words of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 as very applicable to our context and agree with what Peter says about our governors, sent by him [God] to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right (vs 14). However, I suspect that very few of those currently protesting the lockdown or flouting health regulations have read either Romans 13 or 1 Peter 2 and would be hard pressed to mount a reasonable theological defence of their resistance.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020Psalm 121; Exodus 12:29-42; Romans 13:1-7
For the Psalm, see Monday.

Exodus 12:29-42 tells of the tenth and final plague, the death of the firstborn, described in vs 29-30.  In vss 31-32 Pharaoh finally relents and grants the release of Israel. A telling reference to the previous struggle of wills over the terms of release (whether the herds and flocks would go with them as Moses insisted – Ex 10.25-26) is seen in Pharaoh’s words Take your flocks and your herds, as you said, and be gone (vs 32).

Vss 33-39 narrate the departure of the people, and vss 40-42 summarises the time that Israel had been living in Egypt.

From an ethical perspective, there are three ‘troublesome’ passages in Exodus that describe how the Israelites plundered the Egyptians. They are Exodus 3.21-22; 11.2-3; and 12.35-36; cf Psalm 105.37. For Jewish and Christian expositors these passages have presented ethical concerns about the spoliation of Egypt’s wealth. To place the issue in more recent context we might consider the plundering of art works from Jewish families by the Nazi regime of 1930’s Germany, or the plundering of Australian indigenous artefacts and even human remains by settlers and scientists. Even in my own family we have two or three indigenous artefacts that have come down to the present generation from a 19th century settler ancestor. We are now seeking to restore them to representatives of the traditional owners.

Through the history of exegesis the ethical difficulties have engaged the minds of commentators since Tertullian and Marcion, Josephus and Augustine. Sometimes (as with Marcion) the polemical aim has been to contrast the ethics of the God of the Old Testament (who commands this pillage) with the God of the New Testament. Others have sought to justify and explain the action. Commentator Brevard Childs lists 7 types of explanation/justification that have been offered over the centuries but invites us to see the event in the original context of the book of Exodus before we do our ethical reflection on the passage. 

Childs writes: The closest Old Testament passage to this … usage is II Chronicles 20.25, which signifies the taking of spoils from a defeated army after a military victory. The point of the tradition focusses on God’s plan for the Israelites to leave Egypt as the victors from a battle. In striking contrast to the entire history of exegesis, the Old Testament makes no attempt whatsoever to justify the act. Rather the concern of the text is to explain how it came about …  (Brevard Childs, Exodus, 1982: 177)

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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?

What would we say about a ruler who actually IS a terror to good conduct (cf. vs 3a) and encourages both vigilantes and law enforcement officers to attack peaceful protestors?

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.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020Psalm 121; Exodus 13:1-10; Matthew 21:18-22
For the Psalm, see Monday.

Exodus 13.1-10: This passage brings to an end the Passover Narrative that began in 11.1. At first it appears that vss 1-2 are disconnected from vss 3-10 in that the earlier verses introduce the law of the consecration of the firstborn whereas the latter deal with the feast of unleavened bread. This apparent disconnection derives from the lectionary excising verses 11-16. If you read on through verses 11-16 you find detailed exploration of the consecration of the first born. The structure of these verses (vss 11-16) mirrors the structure of vss 3-8 and makes clear how the Feast of Unleavened Bread (repeatedly annually) and the Consecration of the firstborn (a once in a lifetime event for every animal or person that gives birth) are joined together in commemoration of the final plague in the deliverance from Egypt. This common structure between vss 3-8 and 10-16 can be seen:

  • both are related to the entry into the promised land – vss 5 // 11
  • both focus on the answer to the son (or ‘child’ in our translation) – vss 8 // 14
  • both require the visible signs of remembrance on the hand vss 9 // 16
  • both end with the Exodus formula – vss 9 // 16.

When this structure is revealed it is clear that vss 1-2 are the heading and introduction to the whole section.

The consecration of the firstborn reflects an ancient cultic claim, related to the offering of the “first fruits” of the harvest which was widespread in ancient cultures (see Exodus 23.16, 19). A full exploration of these rich and evocative concepts is beyond the scope of these notes, but it central to Christian reflection on a wide range of subjects from stewardship in Christian life, to the management of the economy, to our understanding of family dynamics.

Matthew 21.18-22 is a puzzling story from the gospels. At least one great Western philosopher (Bertrand Russell) has quoted this story in support of his considered atheism:  how could one venerate someone who went about cursing fruit trees without fruit, especially if (as Mark carefully tells us) for it was not the season for figs (Mk 11.13b)?  In taking the story from Mark, Matthew appears to recognise the ethical issue in that he quietly deletes Mark’s comment about it not being the season for figs. Comparison of the versions of Mark and Matthew reveals 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). Between these Park has inserted Jesus ‘Cleansing the Temple’ (11.15-19). Clearly the fate of the fig tree is meant to pre-figure that of the Temple: Jesus is not so much Cleansing the Temple as Cursing the Temple!

Matthew has brought the two halves of Mark’s fig tree story together, made the withering instantaneous (vs 19b) and it is the rapidity of its withering that astonishes the disciples (vs 20 cf. Mark 11.21). In both Matthew and Mark the miracle supports the effectiveness of prayer, but in Matthew it has lost the overtones of modelling the fate of the Temple that it clearly has in Mark.

Thursday, September 10, 2020Psalm 114; Exodus 13:17-22; 1 John 3:11-16
Ps 114: (We last read this Psalm on April 20th this year. These notes come from that time.) This beautiful, polished little Psalm does not have the responsive, hymnic form found in many Psalms that were designed for public praise in the liturgies of the Jerusalem temple – apart from a call-response pattern appearing in vs 8.  Scholars have discussed (without resolution) the original setting of the psalm suggesting three alternatives 1) the enthronement of Yahweh festival 2) the extended festival of the Passover and 3) the early Gilgal festival associated with the alliance of the 12 tribes in the time of Joshua (thus H-J Kraus – see Joshua 3-5). 

The mention of Judah as ‘God’s sanctuary’ and Israel as ‘his dominion’ (vs 2) has some scholars situating this Psalm within the post-exilic context of the divided kingdoms of Judah and Israel. ‘Dominion’ in this context carries the same sense that Australia and Canada had as ‘Dominions’ when they were seen as subservient to Great Britain as the centre of Empire. Those who locate the Psalm first within the early Gilgal tradition read ‘Israel’ (vs 2) in the incorporative sense of ‘all the twelve tribes’) and read vs 2a and 2b as an identical parallelism. They then see the Psalm in a later age being adapted into the Passover liturgies.

It has a simple but elegant structure: vss. 1-2 tell the story of Exodus and establishment in the promised land with power and brevity.

Vss 3-4 tell of the parting of the Red Sea and the crossing of the Jordan and the skipping of the mountains and the frolicking of the hills.

Vss 5-6 ask why this was so, what it was that seas, rivers, mountains and hills have ‘seen’.

Vss 7-8 call on the earth to make thunderous reply, trembling at the presence of the Lord (vs 7) and then almost reversing the actions of vss 3, 5 (the waters becoming dry land) with the declaration of vs 8 that the Lord makes the rock become a pool of water, the flint into a spring of water.

Vs 3 has a simple but very powerful poetic form in which ‘the sea’ ‘sees’ and ‘flees’. ‘Seeing’ and ‘fleeing’ (the latter with an almost military overtone) presents the sea with almost human characteristics – simple, brief but very powerful use of imagery.

Exodus 13.17-22 introduces the beginning of the long march to the Promised Land. Vss 17-18 indicate the Lord was worried about the prospect of battle with the Philistines and so did not lead them by the way of the Philistines. This border remains closed even today for the country named in this passage is actually the Gaza Strip. If Egypt and its Pharaoh have been the enemy to this point in the narrative, the future enemy of the people of Israel is here ominously prefigured. Etymologically there is a link between the names Philistine and Palestine and the ancient enmity here named is surprisingly contemporary.

The readiness of the people for battle is noted (vs 18b). Why then was the Lord concerned at the prospect of fighting the Philistines? The dramatic protection of the Lord is identified in the twin pillars of cloud and fire that led them (vss 21-22).

1 John 3.11-16: The letters of John are a development of the Johannine school of theology that gave us the gospel of John. 1 John explores and expounds the place of love in Christian living, especially in this passage and in chapter 4.7-21. 

This passage anchors its teaching on love in the example of Cain from the Hebrew Scriptures (vs. 12 cf Genesis 4.1-16. See also the discussion of firstborn and first fruits yesterday because it was matters of sacrifice and ‘first fruits’ that led to Cain’s sacrifice being rejected.) It then refers to the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (vs 15 cf. Matthew 5.21-22).

Vss 23 brings these two streams of ethical thinking together in a clearly Christological foundation for self-sacrificing love in the example of Jesus!

Friday, September 11, 2020Psalm 114; Exodus 14:1-18; Acts 7:9-16
For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Exodus 14.1-8 brings us with the fleeing Israelites to the sea – the site of the final and decisive defeat of the Pharaoh and his armies. Scholars believe the narrative from 3.17 – 4.30 is a closely worked compilation of at least three ancient sources. This reflects how important this story was to the ancient Israelites – it was remembered in different traditions and sources and re-edited at various times in their history. To the ancient source writers (known to scholars by names like the Yahwist, the Elohist, the Deuteronomist etc) we must add another – the Filmist – who has influenced reading of this story perhaps more than any of the others. The Filmist, of course, is Cecil B. de Mille who produced, directed and narrated the 1956 classic film The Ten Commandments. This movie, far more than the Bible, has shaped how we read and understand this story.

Perhaps wisely, the Lectionary has given us only the first half of chapter 14. The second half of the chapter introduces some confusing themes – for instance whether the rescue is effected by the Lord or the angel of God (see vs 19), whether the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind and turned the sea into dry land (vs 19b) or whether the waters were divided (vs 19c). Did the Egyptians panic (vs 24) so that (literally) ‘the wheels fell off’ (vs 25a – see note) or were they drowned when the split waters reunited (vs 26b) or was it that As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea (vs 27b). None of these are contradictory plot elements, but they do suggest a range of narrators with different emphases and narrative details that have been worked together.

One question in understanding the multiplicity of sources is whether the deliverance by the sea was originally part of the Exodus story – the escape from Egypt – or integrally linked with the wilderness traditions – the wandering in the desert. The desert wandering started with the crossing of the sea and ended with the crossing of the Jordan river. This would suggest that it belongs with the wilderness traditions. Supporting this is the unusual detail of 14.2 where the Lord says to Moses Tell the Israelites to turn back and camp. Chapter 13.17 has already told us that the Lord did not lead them by the easiest route: does the turning back of 14.2 reflect a switch from the obvious route to the wilderness way? Or is it a subterfuge to convince Pharaoh that the Israelites are wandering aimlessly in the land; the wilderness has closed in on them (vs 3)? The narrative ‘hiccup’ suggests that the writers were trying to fit the traditions into a coherent plot line.

However, in the later history of Israel, especially in post-Exilic Judaism, the Passover came to assume a greater role in the life of the people, and the dramatic rescue by the sea came to be less associated with the wilderness and much more connected with the plagues and Exodus tradition.

This is a multi-layered story that lives through the ancient remembered traditions of Israel, the written Scriptures of Jewish and Christian faiths and the various cinematic and video renditions that have so formed our modern consciousness. If one wished to understand the labours of the Biblical scholars, it might be interesting to watch Cecil B. DeMille’s two movies on this theme one after the other – his silent classic The Ten Commandments (1923) and the colour epic of the same name (1956) – and compare how the story has been told in those two moments of history with the skills of the story-teller’s art at each time.

Acts 7.9-16 is part of the sermon of Stephen. Stephen recounts the Joseph narrative which underlies the Exodus story. We have explored various aspects of this narrative in our recent readings from the Abraham, Jacob and Joseph cycles from Genesis.

The end of the Stephen’s recounting of the Joseph narrative leads into his telling of the Moses story (Acts 7.17-44) in which the narratives of the ten plagues that we have just reviewed, the crossing of the Red Sea and 40 years wandering in the wilderness are all told in just one verse (Acts 7.36)!

Saturday, September 12, 2020Psalm 114; Exodus 15:19-21; Matthew 6:7-15
For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Exodus 15.19-21 is the Song of Miriam. Here two ancient poems recounting the deliverance by the sea are recorded. Vss 1b-18 of this chapter are the Song of the Sea, sung by Moses and the Israelites (vs 1a). Vs 19 is a prose summary of the event separating the two songs. Vs 20 is an introduction to the Song of Miriam and vs 21 is the content of Miriam’s Song. This content is nearly identical to the opening of the Song of Moses (vs 1b). A question that is hotly debated is whether the Song of Miriam is the more ancient, original version of this song, and the Song of Moses is the later version (what we might call a ‘cover version’) or whether it worked the other way around.

Another possibility is that, just as in indigenous communities, there were traditions that were ‘men’s business’ and others that were ‘women’s business”. One of the things I miss is the tradition of parts singing – of SATB harmony in the hymns of the church. In some of the old hymns there were even completely different lines or ‘repeats’ for men and women. Does anyone else miss having distinctive traditions of music for men and women in the worship of the community?

Matthew 6.7-15 is the Lord’s Prayer – the best-known prayer in the Christian world. It is presented as part of the Sermon on the Mount. This prayer is part of the tradition shared by Matthew and Luke (see Luke 11.1-4). 

Matthew’s version of the prayer is slightly longer than Luke’s who had omitted vs 10b, 10c, and 13c. Matthew and Luke have different introductions to the prayer (Luke places a request for Jesus to teach them to pray in the mouths of his disciples, whereas Matthew has Jesus warning against piling up words – vs 7). Matthew has some teaching about prayer before this passage, whereas Luke includes different teaching about prayer in the forms of several parables after this passage (Luke 11.5-23).

 Jim Barr

6th September 2020

Daily Readings for the 13th Week after Pentecost

Monday, August 24, 2020Psalm 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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, 2020Psalm 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, 2020Psalm 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, 2020Psalm 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, 2020Psalm 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, 2020Psalm 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).