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Daily readings for the 18th Week after Pentecost

Monday, September 28, 2020Psalm 42; Exodus 18:1-12; Philippians 1:3-14


Psalm 42 actually forms a unit with Psalm 43. This can be seen from the identical refrain which appears in 42.5, 42.11 and 43.5. Seeing that refrain gives us a guide to the structure of this three strophe Psalm. Today we look at the first two strophes. It is a beautifully poetic Psalm that has inspired devotion and been the stimulus for many hymns and Christian songs.

It is a prayer song. However, it is not until 42.9b and especially 43.1 in the third strophe that we can see the cause of the singer’s suffering. Psalm 42 expresses the brokenness, sadness and longing of the singer. The refrain is an exhortation to quieten oneself, to address one’s spirit with a call to patience and hope.

The location of the singer would seem to be the headwaters of the Jordan (vs 6) which may also inform the longing for flowing streams (vs 1) and the remembrance of thundering waterfalls (vs 7a) and either the sea or a raging inland flood (vs 7b). Vs 4 remembers the good times of attending worship in the house of God (literally, the archaic word for tabernacle) so it is clear that the singer is at a distance from Jerusalem.

Vss 7-10 speak not so much of distance and loneliness as of deep sadness (vs 7) and possibly illness (vs 10). My enemies taunt me is reminiscent of Job in his suffering. In the midst of this suffering vs 8 sings of assurance and peace.

This is a powerful and much-loved psalm that has encouraged and sustained many in times of suffering and spiritual drought. It is one to which we can return over and over for renewal and peace.

Exodus 18.1-12: This passage brings Moses back together with his father in law, Jethro, the priest of Midian (vs 1), and his family – wife Zipporah and his sons Gershom and Eliezer (vss 3-4). The text has been silent to this point on Moses sending his wife and sons away (vs 2). When they are all reunited (vss 5-7) Moses tells what the Lord has done (vs 8). Jethro acknowledges the Lord and offers sacrifice (vss 9-11). Vs 12 suggests that Jethro has assumed some status in the eyes of all Israel because Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God. This sets the scene for the next part of the Jethro cycle.

Philippians 1.3-4 comprises the thanksgiving and greeting for the church at Philippi (vss 3-10).  Vs 7a includes one of the lovely ambiguities of the New Testament Greek text. The words for ‘your’ and ‘our’ in Greek are even more alike than in English: the letters are the same and the only difference is a small apostrophe (or breathing mark) over the first letter, leaning one way for ‘our’ and the other way for ‘your’. In the days of hand-written letters who can be sure which way an apostrophe is leaning? Is the writer ‘holding’ them in his heart? Or are they holding him in their hearts? We don’t know – and it doesn’t matter! In the church we should always be holding each other in our hearts and confident that we are held, even as we hold others in remembrance and love.

Vs 7b introduces two linked themes: my imprisonment and the defense and confirmation of the gospel. The relationship between these two is then explored further in vss 12-14.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020Psalm 42; Exodus 18:13-27; Philippians 1:15-21
For the Psalm, see Monday.

Exodus 18.13-27: This is a very significant passage. Jethro observes Moses sitting as judge for the people (vs 13) and then offers both a critique of Moses’ practice (vss 14-18) and a suggested new way of judging (vss 19-23). Moses accepts Jethro’s advice and institutes his suggestions (vss 24-26). After these changes have been established Jethro departs to his own country (vs 27).

The significance of the passage from a theological perspective is profound. The law will not be given until chapter 20, but here in chapter 18 Moses is already ‘judging’ and acknowledges his role in both hearing disputes and making known to them the statutes and instructions of God (vs 16). Jethro proposes that Moses refines his role to i) you should represent the people before God, and present their cases to God (vs 19); and ii) Teach them the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do (vs 20); and iii) look for able men (vs 21) and Let them sit as judges for the people at all times; let them bring every important case to you, but decide every minor case themselves (vs 22).

What is being described here is the origins of a legal system, and the beginning of a ‘theology of law’. There are several things to note: the first is that all this is happening before the law is given to Moses by God. The primary act of justice is that of rendering judgement. Before law is codified or legislated Moses is rendering judgement, deciding cases, settling disputes. The second is that this act of judgement is grounded in Moses’ relationship with God. The third is that the formulation of laws and statutes is derivative of the first two.

In his book The Ways of Judgement, theologian Oliver O’Donovan writes of the primacy of judgement among the separated powers of government (the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary) so beloved of western political theory. He goes to far as to write that any act of governance (from exercising executive authority to drafting laws and regulations) is an act of judgement. As so many of the Psalms express it, the justice we seek from the king comes ultimately from God.

We are considering this passage at a time that the US is focussing on the appointment of a new member of their Supreme Court. If you are following the controversies surrounding that process you will know it is not proceeding nearly as smoothly as Exodus 18! One of the prime difficulties is actually theological in nature: the Republican Party seek a judge who feels bound to the understanding of Constitution that was in the minds of the original founders of the nation – bound, as it were, by the letter and ancient spirit of the law. This is not what is expounded in Exodus 18: Moses remains in relationship with the Lord and brings the tough cases him. There is room for change, for evolution, for a fresh word, a new insight!

Ironically, many of those most enthusiastic for a rigidly conservative or ‘originalist’ approach to the Supreme Court are evangelical Christians. However, when it comes to both justice and government, it is important to reflect on the Biblical teaching about these matters and to build a thoughtful and Biblical ‘political theology’. Some Christians disparage the term ‘political theology’, thinking it refers to party-politics, but it concerns far more than that. It is about how our states and our courts are to operate and how the philosophical and theological underpinnings of law and governance are understood and how they might guide our practices of statecraft & justice.

Philippians 1.15-21 outlines two possible motivations for proclaiming Christ: either envy and rivalry (vs 15) and selfish ambition … intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment (vs 17); or goodwill (vs 15) and love, knowing that I have been put here for the defence of the gospel (vs 16).

Paul doesn’t mind which it is and rejoices that all will be well for Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by my life or my death (vs 20).

This is a great way to live, if we can attain Paul’s assurance and calm, greeting life or death with equal satisfaction and confidence, knowing that to me, living is Christ and dying is gain (vs 21).

Wednesday, September 30, 2020Psalm 42; Exodus 19:9b-25; Matthew 9:2-8
For the Psalm, see Monday.

Exodus 19.9b-25 jumps over vss 1-9a, a poetic and artistic passage that now serves as an introduction to the chapter. We can also see that vss 20-25 forms a distinct unit with a different sense. Vss 20-25 prohibit completely the people going up the mountain whereas vs 13b states “When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they may go up on the mountain.” 

The passage reads more clearly if we break it at the end of vs 19 and see vs 20 as a new beginning of an alternate version of this ancient tradition.

The passage is about consecration. It is the background for the wonderful words of Hebrews 12.18-24 which contrast the worship of the Christian church with the worship experienced by ancient Israel in this profound formative moment of their tradition.

Matthew 9.2-8 is a combination of a healing story and a controversy with the scribes. My New Testament professor always taught that a healing story is like any ad for medicine or a health product. They always have three parts: i) this is how sick I was, ii) this is what I took or what happened or what I bought, and iii) look at me now!  Watch any TV ad for a health or diet product and you’ll see this basic format still working 2000 years later. We can see the structure of the healing story as follows: i) he was paralysed and had to be carried – vs 2a;  ii) Jesus healed through a pronouncement/healing word (vs 6c); and iii) he stood up and went to his home (vs 7). The original healing story that would have circulated in the early Jesus community would have been:

And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, …“Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.” And he stood up and went to his home. 

Into this straightforward healing is inserted a controversy with the scribes in vss 3-6a. The ‘seam’ between the two elements is vs 2c which adds to the original word of healing (vs 6c) a saying about sin which sets off the controversy (vs 2c). The other seam is the repetition of he said to the paralytic found in both vs 2b AND in 6b. So the interpolated controversy reads:

… he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” Then some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”— [he said to the paralytic] – …

Matthew binds the two stories together with the closing verse (vs 8) that emphasises the authority of Jesus over both sickness and sin.

Thursday, October 1, 2020Psalm 19; Exodus 23:1-9; Colossians 2:16-23

Psalm 19 is actually two Psalms. Vss 1-6 (Psalm 19A) praise God in nature. Vss 7-14 (Psalm 19B) deal with the glory of the Torah. Both the theme and the poetic rhythm of these two sections makes clear that they are different. We will explore each separately and then consider why the tradition has brought them together and passed them on to us as they are.

  1. Psalm 19A shows singular forms, yet it has elements of a song of praise, or a didactic poem. It exhibits signs of great age. Both parts of the psalm were probably intoned as cultic songs in the worship of Israel, probably in the cycle of autumnal festivals (see Friday’s reading on the Exodus passage). 

Vs 1 announces the theme which is then developed in two parts: vss 2-4a describing the process of communication and vss 4b-6 describing the actions of the sun.

Vss 1-2 include four verbs (declare & proclaims in vs 1 and pours forth and declares in vs 2) that describe the powerful testimony of the heavens. The word translated pours forth is literally ‘to bubble forth’ denoting ecstatic, bubbling, excited speech. Words describing singing or praising are noticeably absent. In vs 2 the transmission day to day and night to night are “like two choruses that take turns” (F. Nötscher). 

Vs 3 introduces a paradox – there is no speech and a voice is not heard, yet their ‘voice’ (see footnote: the Hebrew is ‘line’) goes out through all the world. The Hebrew word ‘line’ is unusual. In Isaiah 28.10, 13 it is used of the “stammering utterance of ecstatic prophets”: it refers to speech that is unintelligible. 

Does this mean that vs 3 says that the declaration poured forth in vss 1-2 is then unintelligible to humankind? This raises important questions about ‘natural theology’: can humankind learn what we need to know about God from ‘the book of nature’? Romans 1.18ff would suggest that we can’t. The Romantic movement of the late 18th and 19th centuries says we can. We tend to read Psalm 19 through romantic eyes which makes sense to us, but we need to remember that such a reading might not be true to Scripture! Vs 3 of Psalm 19 deserves careful consideration.

Vss 4b – 6 tell of the sun. Many ancient Near Eastern cultures had narratives of a sun god, but here the important part is vss 4b-5a, that God has set a tent for the sun which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy. Far from being a deity, the sun lives in a tent (a reference to Israel’s earlier social context as tent-dwelling wanderers) and is likened to a bridegroom and a strong man (vs 5b).

  1. Psalm 19B is a hymn in praise of the Torah but from vss 12ff it can also be categorised as a prayer song. It cannot be dated before the time of Ezra (the restoration of Israel following the Babylonian captivity).

It is similar to Psalms 1 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 H-J. 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).

Vss 7- 10 are a hymn extolling the Torah with a cascading series of six synonyms for the Torah (= decrees, precepts, commandment, fear, ordinances), in each case … of the Lord. Ascribed to each of these synonyms are six differing attributes or effects of the Torah (reviving, making wise, rejoicing the heart, enlightening the eyes, enduring forever, righteous altogether). Vs 10 ties these together with a poetic description of the desirability and sweetness of the Torah.

Vss 10-14 comprise a reflective question in vss 11-12a, followed by a prayer for protection from hidden faults (vs 12b) and the insolent (vs 13a). Vs 14 is a formula of dedication.

  1. Why have these Psalms been combined and what is their meaning? Many commentators have spoken of the mysterious life force in nature as witness to the glory of God, that is here linked to another living entity in the unbreakable demand of the moral commandment. Kant spoke of the ‘starry heavens above’ and the ‘moral law within’ as a ‘divine unity’. The Catholic synthesis of natural law and biblical revelation reflects this approach.

But if our reading of vs 3 is correct then the teaching and praising of nature, which powerfully penetrates heaven and earth, remains an unfathomable secret… a powerful message comes our way, but we do not understand it. The glossolalian [= speaking in tongues] ciphers of transmission in the heart of nature, which praise and teach the Creator, no one can perceive. The cosmos celebrates God’s glory, but it does not teach his will. (Kraus, 1993: 275).

This has profound implications for people of faith – for our understanding of nature and its appreciation (contra the intuitions and values of Romanticism), the aesthetics we bring to art in its depiction of landscape and the natural world, our views on the limitations and insights of science as a way of perceiving and understanding the universe, and our theological grasp of natural law and revelation.

Exodus 23.1-9:  The giving of the law commences in Exodus 20 and runs through to Exodus 31. In chapter 32 the narrative of Exodus resumes with the worship of the Golden Calf. The Lectionary has passed over the opening three chapters of the giving of the law (Ex 20-22) and over the next three days brings us three collections of laws from Exodus 23.

Vss 1-9 follow on from the readings from Tuesday this week and relate to procedural justice – how fairness will operate in bearing witness (vs 1), conducting lawsuits (vss 2, 6-9). Vs 4-5 deal with how we are to deal with the animals of our enemies, with the underlying principle that we are not to oppress or abandon animals if their owners are our enemies: the beginnings perhaps of ‘animal rights’? Vs 9 introduces a key principle for the protection of aliens and refugees grounded in the people’s memory of Egypt.

Colossians 2.16-23: This passage is a counterpoint to the Exodus readings for the week which deal with the inauguration of the Jewish festivals (see tomorrow). Here the writer of Colossians speaks of Christian liberty from observing festivals (vs 16) or other ‘inspired’ views of what is required in worship (vs 18).  What matters is holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body … grows with a growth that is from God (vs 19).

This view of Christian freedom is then grounded in our liberty from the elemental spirits of the universe (vs 20). In vs 23 the writer denies that asceticism is of value in checking self-indulgence.

This view of the body is quite different to Paul’s concept in 1 Corinthians 12.12ff. There we are all members of the body and the body is Christ. There we might be an eye or ear, but in Colossians Christ has become the head and Christians are but subordinate ‘members’ under the control of the head, who is Christ.

Friday, October 2, 2020Psalm 19; Exodus 23:14-19; Philippians 2:14-18; 3:1-4a
For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Exodus 23.14-19: The heart of this passage is the establishment of the Jewish calendar. Scholars note that this is the oldest version of the various Jewish calendars (see Deuteronomy 16, Leviticus 23 and Numbers 28ff which are later versions of Israel’s calendar). The three festivals are unleavened bread (vs 15 – note that it is not here associated with Passover which is unmentioned, and the separation of unleavened bread from some kind of Passover sacrifice may lie behind the unusual prohibition of vs 18), the festival of harvest (vs 16a) and the festival of ingathering (vs 16b). These were believed to occur around the time of the barley harvest (around the time of Passover in April), the wheat harvest 7 weeks later (around Pentecost in June) and then the ‘final ingathering’ of olives and grapes in September. It is an agricultural calendar rather than a cultic calendar.

Life has always been governed by various overlays of time. In agricultural economies such calendars were determinative of sowing and harvest and so much of life. We live with different rhythms, but rhythms no less determinative of life: the financial year, the football year, the holiday seasons, the cold and heat of our various seasons. 

Now that I have an electronic calendar I have constructed my own calendar and sense of time. This is built primarily around the ancient Celtic calendar of two main festivals a year (Samhain – Nov 1; and Beltane – May 1) that happily synchronise (approximately with the liturgical calendar (Easter – April/May; and All Saints – Nov 1). Fitting almost as neatly is the calendars of the Indigenous Bunurong people native to where I live with their 6 seasons. In that calendar summer (Bullarto-n’yoweenth) begins around early November and deep winter (Perrin) in early May. By also linking in other cultures and nations I know (for instance) that yesterday was the Mid-Autumn Mooncake Festival in China and tomorrow is the start of the Jewish feast of Succoth.

What calendars regulate or inform your life? Is your team still in the football competition or has your ‘season’ ended?  And what of the ‘roadmap to Covid-normal’ – the calendar that regulates all our lives now? 

Vs 19a introduces the concept of ‘first fruits’, something worthy of far more in-depth teaching than we can manage here, and 19b is thought to refer to a Canaanite ritual, possibly of a fertility cult that was prohibited to Israel.

Philippians 2.14-18 is a lovely passage of teaching. It continues the warm and encouraging tone of the earlier readings from Monday and Tuesday. Paul enjoins and positive and peaceful approach to faith (vs 15) before quoting Deuteronomy 32.5 in vs 15b and Daniel 12.3 in vs 15c. The motto of the Baptist College of Victoria is Ad Iustitiam (Towards Rightousness) and is also drawn from Daniel 12.3.

Vs 17a introduces a sombre tone before the mood of rejoicing and gladness is reasserted in vss 17b-18 and 3.1a.

Philippians 3.2-4 introduces a strongly polemical passage, clearly directed against a group committed to circumcision which Paul contrasts with his own confidence in the flesh and that it is we who are the circumcision who worship in the Spirit of God (vs 3.3)

Saturday, October 3, 2020Psalm 19; Exodus 23:10-13; John 7:40-52
For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Exodus 23.10-13: These few verses outline the law of sabbath for the land (vss 10-11) and for humans and animals (vs 12). Note the contrast with the alternate law on the sabbath (Exodus 20.8-11) where the Sabbath was grounded in the creation and God resting on the 7th day. Here the purpose of the law is that the land shall rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. (vs 10b).   The purpose here is threefold – to let the land rest, for the poor to eat, and the wild animals find food. 

Similarly, here the Sabbath is for the sake of humans and animals so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your homeborn slave and the resident alien may be refreshed (vs 12).

How different might the world have looked if this understanding and logic of the Sabbath had entered into Western consciousness rather the Exodus 20 rendering of the law?

John 7.40-52: This passage deals again with the issue of Jesus’ authority. The crowd has different views of Jesus (vss 40-44) and while some wanted to arrest him, his authority has overawed the temple police (vs 46). 

While the people were divided in their view of Jesus, the chief priests and Pharisees are united in their unbelief.  Vs 48 is filled with irony. In suggesting that no one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him, the Pharisees set up the rejoinder from Nicodemus in vs 51. John reminds us that Nicodemus had already sought Jesus out (vs 50). Their final rejoinder to Nicodemus again emphasises that Galilee is no place from which a prophet comes.

Daily Readings for the 17th Week after Pentecost

Monday, September 21, 2020Psalm 119:97-104; Exodus 16:31-35; Romans 16:1-16

Psalm 119 is the longest of all the Psalms. At 176 verses it is the longest single chapter of Scripture. 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. What an irony that the lectionary serves up passages from Romans – Paul’s great treatise on the limitations of law, alongside the greatest celebration and affirmation of the law that we find in Scripture! 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.

Vss 97-104 juxtaposes the spirituality of the law (the Torah tradition) with that of Wisdom. The superiority of the law as a spiritual path is shown in the superior wisdom of the person devoted to the law over enemies (vs 98), teachers (vs 99), and the aged (vs 100). It is more effective than wisdom in guiding the feet (vs 101) for it is taught by the Lord not a human teacher (vs 102). Vss 103-104 celebrate the pleasures and reliable guidance that come through the law.

Exodus 16.31-35 brings together various traditions about manna.  Vs 31 starts with its name followed by a description of its appearance and taste. The description of the taste as wafers made with honey differs from that of Numbers 11 which describes a taste of cakes baked with oil. The rabbinic interpretation took this to mean that its wonderful properties allowed it to change at will and suit every man’s taste to a delicacy (Brevard Childs).

Vss 32 and 33 double up in their statement of a command to preserve an omer (a daily ration) of manna to be preserved throughout your generations as a testimony to the Lord’s keeping of the people. This stands in tension with the tradition that the manna would only keep for a day, except on the Sabbath. Vss 34 includes the problematic placement of the jar of manna before the covenant (or treaty or testimony) where the Ark of the Covenant had not yet been either commanded or built. All this suggests that the writer is drawing together the traditions from long ago and binding together at the heart of Israel’s worship not just the law reflected in the covenant, but God’s gracious provision and deliverance as experienced in the wilderness wanderings.

Vs 35 would confirm this perspective with a historical note that the reliance on manna only continued while the people were in the desert, and after they entered the promised land they relied on more usual food sources.

Romans 16.1-16: I plan to preach on this chapter in October and will not make detailed commentary here. It is essentially a chapter of greetings and commendations, typical of the form of Biblical letters which open with a thanksgiving and blessing, convey their theological and ethical teaching, and conclude with personal greetings and information. Within the doctrinal focus that many evangelicals have brought to the letters, and being at such remove from the historical circumstances described in these greetings, we have tended to gloss over and even avoid these chapters. They are a bit like the OT genealogies: faced with long lists of either ‘begatting’ or of greeting, our eyes tend to glaze over and we move on.

But in an age of quarantine and lockdown the greetings at the end of the New Testament letters are rich sources of both encouragement and ideas! This was people keeping in touch when they were prevented from meeting by distance and the limited communications of their day. This was how they held communities together, and encouraged people who they couldn’t touch, or telephone, or email. The way Paul talks to them can teach us much about how we might address, affirm and encourage one another.

One of the significant elements of this long collection of greetings is found in vs 7, addressed to Andronicus and Junia (or Junias, or Julia). The most ancient papyrus manuscript we have has the feminine form Julia. What is significant is that Julia is described as prominent among the apostles and [was] in Christ before me (vs 7b). Feminist historians see here evidence of leadership by a woman at the highest levels of the early church, evidence subsequently erased by the emendation of Julia (fem.) to Junia (masc.). Or did the copyist who wrote out that earlier manuscript simply make a mistake?

Read the greetings and see if any of Paul’s feelings resonate with you about people you have known in the church. Try replacing the names Paul uses with some of those you know. How would you affirm them? What messages would you have passed on to them?

Note that there is mention of the church in their house (vs 5) and a family (vs 10b), and two lists of people who seem to belong together in separate groups (vs 14, and vs 15). What are the affinity groups, networks and families that you would like to address in your church?

Tuesday, September 22, 2020Psalm 119:97-104; Numbers 11:1-9; Romans 16:17-20

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Numbers 11.1-9 presents another tradition of the manna. The Exodus story (see yesterday) comes from before the people get to Sinai. This story comes after the people leave Sinai (see Numbers 10.11 ff). Note the threatening anger of the Lord and the recurring motif of the people’s complaining (vss 1-3). Vs 4 draws an interesting contrast between the rabble among them and the Israelites also… Their graphic recall of the food of Egypt and their disdain for the manner are clear (vss 4b-6).

The manna is described differently. While still shaped like coriander seed, the colour and flavour are different (cf. yesterday’s reading). There is also a description of how it was processed to be eaten (vs 8).

Romans 16.17-20 moves from greetings and encouragement to warnings and denunciation. As we worked our way through the earlier chapters of Romans we could sense a debate or dispute within the community about the relative place of law on the one hand and faith and grace on the other. Without naming it in these terms, Paul here brings a dispute into the open identifying those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching you have learned (vs 17). Their implied judgement (vs 20a) is harsh.  Vs 20b looks like a closing benediction but Paul resumes his greetings in vs 21 and then offers an extended final doxology in vss 25-27.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020Psalm 119:97-104; Numbers 11:18-23, 31-32; Matthew 18:1-5
For the Psalm, see Monday.

Numbers 11.18-23 follows yesterday’s reading in which the grumbling of the people was treated in detail. Here God’s answer to their complaint of a lack of meat is given. Vs20 expresses this abundant gift almost as a punishment: You shall eat … for a whole month – until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you.  

The description of the quails on the ground is of hyperbolic abundance: they lay on the ground all around the camp to a radius of a day’s journey, piled on the earth in every direction to a depth of two cubits (approximately 1 metre). A sceptic might ask whether the ‘day’s journey’ was measured under normal conditions or when wading waist-deep in quails?  

With the manna, one omer (approximately 2.3-2.5 litres) was a daily ration – but with the quails the least anyone gathered was ten homers (one homer = approx 220 litres). So according to Numbers 11 the minimum any single person gathered of quails was 2,200 litres. They were then spread around the camp, presumably to dry.

Now if we ‘do the math’, 600,000 people gathering a minimum of 2,200 litres each yields a harvest of 1,320,000,000 (=1.3 billion) litres of quail. Estimates today of total world production of farmed quail is 1.4 billion individual birds, but the Numbers figure is 1.3 billion litres of quail. That certainly is an image of abundance bordering on the noisome! It also makes sense of vs 20 and quail coming out of your nostrils – the stench of that many drying quail would have ‘got right up your nose’.

Last week I provided the link to a song Then the quail came by Noel Paul Stookey – a folk song based on this passage. If you didn’t listen then, it is even more poignant to hear in the context of today’s reading.

Matthew 18.1-5 has no parallel in Mark or Luke, although Mark 10.14-15 contains a similar (but slightly different) teaching. Note that here Jesus is using the child as an example, as a simile: unless you become like children you will never enter the kingdom of God (vs 3)  and Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (vs 4) (emphasis added). In Mark the kingdom belongs to such as these (Mk 10.14). Mark states whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it (10.15). It may just be a matter of style, but Mark seems to have a stronger identification of child-likeness with the Kingdom of God.

Thursday, September 24, 2020Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Isaiah 48:17-21; James 4:11-16
Psalm 78 is a recitation of the story of God’s deliverance of Israel, and the people’s perfidy and resistance. Psalm 78 is unique piece in the Old Testament and it is hard to categorise. It could be designated a historical psalm, but there are also elements of thanksgiving. Vss 1-2 suggest that what follows would be a wisdom poem, but throughout the principles of the Deuteronomic history can be seen in how the historical material is presented. It is a didactic poem which joins together various traditions already established within Israel.

It begins with a formula for opening a teaching session and I will utter dark sayings from of old (vs 2b) suggests the revelation of enigmatic, even secret principles.

In vss 12-16 we can see why this Psalm has been included in this cycle of the Lectionary: here yet again is retold the history of the deliverance from Egypt (vs 12) the miracle by the sea (vs 13) , the pillars of cloud and fire (vs 14) and the miracle of the water from the rock (vss 15-16).

Isaiah 48.17-21 is an oracle of deliverance announcing the departure of Israel from their captivity in Babylon (see vs 20) in the early 6th Century BCE. The prophetic ‘signature’ Thus says the Lord opens vs 17 and vss 18-19 are a rebuke alluding to the faithlessness of Israel. Vs 20 announces God’s purpose and calls on the people to depart from Babylon / Chaldea. Vs 21 draws a direct parallel between this deliverance and the events of the Exodus / Wilderness Wandering that we have been reading through the lens of so many other parts of Israel’s story. Vs 15 retells the Meribah story.

James 4.11-16:   The letter of James is an unusual book. Luther deemed it ‘an epistle of straw’ and wondered why it had been included in the New Testament. He believed that it tended towards a faith built on law and judgement rather than grace. It has none of the usual greetings and personal touches that mark other New Testament letters and has the form more of a tract than a real letter written to address a particular issue. It has minimal reference to Jesus or Christ after the opening verse. There are several references to ‘the Lord’, but it is not always clear that this is a reference to Jesus: see 3.9 (the Lord and Father), 5.4 (the Lord of hosts). Even the coming of the Lord (5.7) could be a reference to the OT concept of the day of the Lord. It appears to have origins in Judaism or at least a Jewish worldview yet is written into a Christian context.

Today’s passage engages ethical teaching on two main themes: judging another (vss 11-12) and ‘boasting about tomorrow’ (vss 13-16). The first has a fascinating argument – the one who judges another actually speaks evil against the law and judges the law (vs 11b). This is consistent with James’ high estimation of the law (e.g. 2.8-13) and in contrast with Paul’s view of the law as seen in (for instance) Romans 4.13-16 and Romans chapter 7. For James, all judgement belongs to God (vs 12a) which then excludes any right for us to judge (vs 12b)

Vss 13-16 teach a humble and trusting attitude to the future in which believers should not presume

to know what tomorrow will bring. The saying in vs 15b has been taken up in the Islamic world as:

إن شاء الله

 ‘inshallah’ meaning “if Allah wills”

I think one of the cultural differences between Christians and Muslims is the much stronger sense in Islamic thought of the sovereignty of God as a day-to-day reality. The phrase ‘inshallah’ falls more readily to their lips than to ours and in this I think they have honoured God somewhat better than we have.

Friday, September 25, 2020Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Numbers 20:1-13; Acts 13:32-41
For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Numbers 20.1-13 is a parallel account of the miracle of Exodus 17.1-7. Comparison of the two accounts yields significant agreement and variations. The place is called Massah (=test) and Meribah (=quarrel) in Ex 17 but only Meribah in Numbers 20. The language of Numbers reflects a more liturgical or religious framing of the narrative: (the (whole) congregation – vss 1, 2a, 8b, 11b; the assembly (of the Lord) – vss 4, 6a, 10, 12; assemble the congregation – vs 8). Vs 12 introduces a new element – the judgement of Moses for his lack of faith with the Lord pronouncing that he (Moses) shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.

How has Moses failed to trust in me enough to honour me as holy in the sight of the Israelites (vs 12)? Moses, in word and action has been entirely responsive to the Lord until vs 10. He was instructed to speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water (vs 8) but he raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff (vs 10). Whether it was the striking instead of speaking, or the striking twice (where in Exodus 17 he only struck once) or the self-aggrandizing statement of vs 10b that does not acknowledge the Lord but says “Listen, you rebels, must we [not the Lord!] bring water out of this rock?” – or whether all three betray a rising sense of power and arrogance on the part of Moses and Aaron – we cannot be sure, but the Lord saw their actions as a lack of trust and a betrayal of the Lord’s holiness.

Acts 13.32-41 is part of a sermon Paul preached in Antioch in Pisidia in the centre of western Turkey – not Syrian Antioch which was the church that had commissioned Paul and Barnabus for their preaching journey. The sermon was addressed to You Israelites and others who fear God (vs 16b cf. vs 26). The Jewish audience can also be discerned in reference to our ancestors (vs 32). Paul then explains the resurrection by referring to three texts from the OT. The logic seems to be:-

33b:  you are my Son (addressed to David – and Jesus?)

34b: I will give you (Jesus) the holy promises made to David (i.e. Jesus is made holy by receiving the promises)

35b: You will not let your Holy One (Jesus) experience corruption.

Vss 36-37 clarify that David died and experienced corruption but not Jesus followed by a succinct expression of the gospel (vs 39) and a warning, again grounded in the OT (vs 40-41).

Saturday, September 26, 2020Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Numbers 27:12-14; Mark 11:27-33
For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Numbers 27.12-14:  Following yesterday’s divine declaration that Moses would not lead the people into the land given to Israel, today’s short reading begins the story of the succession of power and leadership from Moses to Joshua. Only half the story is told as vss 15-23 tell of the commissioning of Joshua. In vss 12-14 the judgement of the Lord already rendered is given greater clarity and detail as Moses is commanded to go into the mountains, view the promised land, after which he will be gathered to your people, as your brother Aaron was (vs 13). This sounds as if ‘the gathering’ is imminent, but the book of Numbers has another nine chapters to go with no description of the aging or death of Moses. It is not until the end of the next book, in Deuteronomy chapter 34, that Moses dies and is gathered to [his] people.

The key point in this reading is in vs 14: because you rebelled against my word in the wilderness of Zin when the congregation quarrelled with me. On this occasion the NIV perhaps captures their failing more accurately when it renders the text: for when the community rebelled at the waters in the Desert of Zin, both of you disobeyed my command to honor me as holy before their eyes.

Mark 11 tells the beginning of the last climactic week of Jesus’ life. Vss 1-26 tell of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the cursing of the fig tree, the cleansing (or cursing?) of the temple, and the withering of the fig tree before we come to this argument with the chief priests, the scribes and the elders (vs 27). This passage begins a series of arguments/controversies that continue unbroken with various enemies until 12.40. Then follows teaching about the end from 12.41 to 13.37. Chapter 14 opens with the plot to kill Jesus and unfolds the events of the Thursday before Passover.

Jesus’ enemies are variously described and it was as early as 3.6 that the Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. This is not the place to analyse the range of enemies arrayed against Jesus, but here three significant groups – the chief priests, the scribes (see Mk 3.22) and the elders – come together arguing with Jesus. This particular encounter ends in a stalemate (vs 33), but by Mark 14.53 this group have the upper hand: They took Jesus to the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders and the scribes were assembled. This was the council (Mk 14.55), the leadership of the Jewish people (that is, the Temple leadership), rather than the Herodians (a group clustered around the political leadership of Herod) and the Pharisees, a moral and religious group more identified with local synagogues and dispersed Judaism than temple-focussed religion.

It is appropriate and fitting that in every age we should reflect on who are the enemies of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes it is political folks (like the Herodians) who are the power as it was under the Nazis). Perhaps in some ages it is the centralised power of the church authorities – popes and councils who have condemned heretics and destroyed new spiritual movements. It may be movement like the Sadducees – highly cultured people suspicious of miracle and the spiritual realm.  It also sometimes can be the Pharisees – very devout and religious people committed to their communities and highly moral, but inflexible and judgemental. 

All these groups (or people who have drunk deep from the spirit of them) are found among the people of God. (On a personal note, I confess that my own personal temptation may be that of the intellectualising Sadducee.) In our zeal to share the good news with others, it is always salutary to remind ourselves of the saying of Jesus: Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. (Mt 23.25). 

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