Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Psalms 58-61 and Matthew 5

Psalm 58 – “Justice—do you rulers know the meaning of the word? Do you judge the people fairly? No! You plot injustice in your hearts. You spread violence throughout the land” (58:1-2).

“May they disappear like water into thirsty ground. Make their weapons useless in their hands” (58:7).

“The godly will rejoice when they see injustice avenged. They will wash their feet in the blood of the wicked. Then at last everyone will say, ‘There truly is a reward for those who live for God; surely there is a God who judges justly here on earth.’” (58:10-11).

Psalm 59 – This is introduced as a prayer offered by the innocent David when he is hunted for no reason by the paranoid and dangerous Saul: “Rescue me from my enemies, O God. Protect me from those who have come to destroy me. Rescue me from these criminals; save me from these murderers” (59:1-2).

“I have done nothing wrong, yet they prepare to attack me. Wake up! See what is happening and help me!” (59:4).

“They come out at night, snarling like vicious dogs as they prowl the streets. Listen to the filth that comes from their mouths; their words cut like swords. ‘After all, who can hear us?’ they sneer. But Lord, you laugh at them. You scoff at tall the hostile nations” (59:6-8).

“You are my strength; I wait for you to rescue me, for you, O God, are my fortress. In his unfailing love, my God will stand with me. He will let me look down in triumph on all my enemies. Don’t kill them, for my people soon forget such lessons; stagger them with your power, and bring them to their knees” (59:9-11).

“O my Strength, to you I sing praises, for you O God, are my refuge, the God who shows me unfailing love” (59:17).

Psalm 60 – A song of war at a time when things do not look good. “You have rejected us, O God, and broken our defenses. You have been angry with us; now restore us to your favor. You have shaken our land and split it open. Seal the cracks, for the land trembles. You have been very hard on us, making us drink wine that sent us reeling” (60:1-3).

“Now rescue your beloved people. Answer and save us by your power” (60:5).

“Oh, please help us against our enemies, for all human help is useless. With God’s help we will do mighy things, for he will trample down our foes” (60:11-12).

Psalm 61 – “O God, listen to my cry! Hear my prayer! From the ends of the earth, I cry to you for help when my heart is overwhelmed. Lead me to the towering rock of safety, for you are my safe refuge, a fortress where my enemies cannot reach me. Let me live forever in your sanctuary, safe beneath the shelter of your wings” (61:2-4).

“May [the king] reign under God’s protection forever. May your unfailing love and faithfulness watch over him” (61:6-7).

How often it is that we just need your presence as a refuge. From time immemorial we have yearned for your “tent” and your wings over us.

Matthew 5 - Jesus teaches the crowds on the mountainside: “God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted. God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth. God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied” (5:3-6). He blesses also “those who are merciful . . . those whose hearts are pure . . . those who work for peace. . . [and] those who are persecuted for doing right” (5:7-10). Those who are mocked and persecuted will also be rewarded.

Those who give themselves over to God are the “salt of the earth” (5:13), but it is important to keep salty or flavor-adding in the world.

“You are the light of the world” (5:14). “No one lights a lamp and then puts it undr a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it give light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father” (5:15-16).

It is interesting that Matthew has Jesus teaching from the mountainside as Moses did in Exodus. Luke places Jesus on a “plain,” a flat stretch of land. Luke also has him present his ideas in terms of both blessings and curses, something Matthew doesn’t do. This has to be a reference to Deuteronomy 11. In Deuteronomy, Moses sets before the people “a blessing and a curse,” a blessing if they obey and a curse if they do not.  The blessing is to be pronounced on Mt. Gerizim and the curse of Mt. Ebal, both in Samaria—there was a deep ravine between these mountains.  They “frame the important political and cultic center of Shechem (today Nablus).”

He goes on to assure them that he has come NOT “to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets , . . [but] to accomplish their purpose” (5:17). “[U]ntil heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved” (5:18).

I think this is a challenging statement, which Christians have largely ignored. He brings out the heart of what God intends to underpin the Old Covenant.  The excessive legalism, which we associate with Pharisaical Judaism is no different from the legalism we criticize in the Catholic Church or the legalism Quakers often display over their “testimonies” or their “process.” It is simply part of the “fleshly,” “superficial” nature of men to reduce what is profoundly spiritual to easily evaluated and administered regulations.

The standard Jesus applies to our behavior is even stricter than that of the Pharisees; it reaches into us, even to our deepest selves.

“I tell you unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:20). You have heard it said, do no murder; but I say if you are “even angry with a brother or sister you will be subject to judgment” (5:22). Be reconciled; come to terms with those who would accuse you (5:25). This is along the same lines as loving one’s enemy but it is said differently.

It is still wrong to commit adultery, but adultery here is even looking at a woman with lust. If your right eye offends cut it out. Whoever divorces his wife, “except on the ground of unfaithfulness, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman also commits adultery” (5:32).

You have heard not to swear falsely, but I say do not swear at all (5:34). You have heard it said, “An eye for an eye, . . .[b]ut I say to you, Do not resist and evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. . .” (5:38-39) 

Give to everyone who begs from you (5:42). You have heard it said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he give his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike” (5:43-45).

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48). This is a hard word, but I think Jesus meant it.  Quakers believed it could be achieved, and I believe so too, but only by joining ourselves to God through love of Christ who bridges that gap for us between God’s expectation and our capacity to respond. We join ourselves to Him by our best love, as he joined himself to us through his best love – taking on for us all the failure we corporately bear.  Only by seeing it like this can we, who say we believe in perfection and who live lives with relatively clear consciences, avoid the pride that could undermine us.  And we also need to see ourselves more than as individuals but as joined with others in their pain, in their faults and in their efforts. 

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