Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Psalms 78-80 and Matthew 12

Psalm 78 – “O my people, listen to my instructions. Open your ears to what I am saying, for I will speak to you in a parable. I will teach you hidden lessons from our past—stories we have heard and known, stories our ancestors handed down to us” (78:1-3).

“We will not hide these truths from our children; we will tell the next generation about the glorious deeds of the Lord, about his power and his mighty wonders” (78:4). Another meditation on the history of the chosen people – “the mysteries of our past.” I love this. I think it acknowledges that the “stories” are parables that convey deeply spiritual insights, not simple history or literal fact.

“He commanded our ancestors to teach them to their children, so the next generation might know them . . . and they in turn will teach their own children. So each generation should set its hope anew on God, not forgetting his glorious miracles and obeying his commands” (78:5-7).

“Then they will not be like their ancestors—stubborn, rebellious, and unfaithful, refusing to give their hearts to God” (78:8). There will be those too, unfortunately, but the dream will live on.

“[H]e divided the sea and led them through, making the water stand up like walls. In the daytime he led them by a cloud, and all night by a pillar of fire. He split open the rocks in the wilderness to give them water, as from a gushing spring. He made streams pour from the rock, making the waters flow down like a river!” (78:13-16).

Still the people “stubbornly tested God in their hearts” (78:18). They refused to believe God or to obey Him. And still “he rained down manna for them to eat; he gave them bread from heaven” (78:24).

He also raised His anger against them; but “in spite of this, the people kept sinning. Despite his wonders, they refused to trust him” (78:32). “So he ended their lives in failure, their years in terror. When God began killing them, they finally sought him. They repented and took God seriously. Then they remembered that God was their rock, that God Most High was their redeemer” (78:33-35).

There is no constancy to their faithfulness, however: “But though they outwardly flattered him and used their tongues to lie to him, in their hearts they were not true to him, they were unfaithful to his covenant” (78:36-37).

Compassionately “he remembered that they were merely mortal, gone like a breath of wind that never returns” (78:39).

Back and forth – faithfulness, unfaithfulness, enduring love of God, God’s wrath. The story is a long one, one that will go through all of history. Here the narrative goes through the time from Moses to David and retrospectively back to Jacob. One of the things the Jews had to accept was that even when they thought they understood the plan of the Most High, they were forced to see that his plan might change when confronted with the failures of his people.

Psalm 79 – Another cry to God for the suffering his people have endured and are enduring five hundred years or so after David’s time. “O God, pagan nations have conquered your land, your special possession. They have defiled your holy Temple and made Jerusalem a heap of ruins. They have left the bodies of your servants as food for the birds of heaven. The flesh of your godly ones has become food for the wild animals” (79:1-2).

“We are mocked by our neighbors, an object of scorn and derision to those around us. O Lord, how long will you be angry with us? Forever? How long will your jealousy burn like fire?” (79:4-5).

“Pour out your wrath on the nations that refuse to acknowledge you—on kingdoms that do not call upon your name. For they have devoured your people Israel, making the land a desolate wilderness” (79:6-7).

“Let your compassion quickly meet our needs, for we are on the brink of despair” (79:8). Why should the pagans [unbelievers of every stripe] be able to ask, “‘Where is their God’” (79:10).  He begs God to bring his wrath down on them and vindicate the people who are crying out to Him. “Then we your people, the sheep of your pasture, will thank you forever and ever, praising your greatness from generation to generation” (79:13).

Psalm 80 – “Please listen, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph’s descendants like a flock” (80:1).

“Show us your mighty power. Come to rescue us! Turn us again to yourself, O God. Make your face shine down upon us. Only then will we be saved” (80:2-3).

“You have fed us with sorrow and made us drink tears by the bucketful. You have made us the scorn of neighboring nations. Our enemies treat us as a joke. Turn us again to yourself, O God of Heaven’s Armies. Make your face shine down upon us” (80:5-7).

“You cleared the ground for us, and we took root and filled the land . . . We spread our branches west to the Mediterranean Sea; our shoots spread east to the Euphrates River” (80:9-11). But now we are in ruins. “Come back, we beg you . . . Look down from heaven and see our plight. Take care of this grapevine that you yourself have planted, this son you have raised for yourself” (80:14-15).

“Strengthen the man you love, the son of your choice. Then we will never abandon you again. Revive us so we can call on your name once more” (80:17-18).

Matthew 12 - Jesus permits his hungry disciples to pick corn on the Sabbath. When some Pharisees complain about it, he reminds them about the time when David and his companions ate the bread of the Presence, loaves only the priests were allowed to eat.

“I tell you, something greater than the temple is here” (12:6). “[Y]ou would not have condemned my innocent disciples if you knew the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’ For the Son of Man is Lord, even over the Sabbath!” (12:7-8).

When Jesus goes to the synagogue, he notices a man with a deformed hand. The Pharisees ask Jesus if it is permitted to heal on the Sabbath. They want him to say “yes” so they could “bring charges against him” (12:10). Jesus compares it to rescuing a sheep from your sheepfold on the Sabbath.  “’Yes, the law permits a person to do good on the Sabbath’” (12:12).

When Jesus heals the man, the Pharisees are furious; they meet to plot a way to kill him (12:13).  Jesus leaves. 

He cures many and tells them not to tell.  Matthew quotes from Isaiah 42: “’Look at my Servant, whom I have chosen. He is my Beloved, who pleases me. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations. He will not fight or shout or raise his voice in public. He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle. Finally he will cause justice to be victorious. And his name will be the hope of all the world’” (12:18-21).

A “demon-possessed” man who is mute and blind is brought to Jesus to be healed.  The Pharisees think his power to cast out evil comes from the Evil One.  Jesus knows they are thinking this and says, “Any kingdom divided by civil war is doomed . . . and if Satan is casting out Satan, he is divided and fighting against himself. His own kingdom will not survive” (12:25-26).  This “demon” is being cast out by the Spirit of God” for only “someone . . . stronger” than Satan could “tie him up and . . . plunder his house” (12:29). And sins against this Holy Spirit are the only sins that “sill never be forgiven, either in this world or in the world to come” (12:32).

’A tree is identified by its fruit. If a tree is good, its fruit will be good. If a tree is bad, its fruit will be bad’” (12:33).

The scribes and Pharisees want to see a sign to prove that Jesus teaches with authority. Mark has this but ends with saying no sign will be given “to this generation.” Jesus says, “’Only an evil, adulterous generation would demand a miraculous sign; but the only sign I will give them is the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights’” (12:39).

The nuanced difference between Luke’s and Matthew’s allusion to Jonah is in the fact that Matthew also uses Jonah’s time inside the great fish as a “type” representing Jesus’ time in the tomb.  Luke simply uses Jonah to bring to everyone’s attention the fact that the people of Nineveh responded more faithfully to God’s word than the people of this generation are.  Luke does not refer to Jonah’s time in the “heart of earth.”

Unclean or evil spirits “cast out” sometimes come and find the place empty and swept clean so they get a bunch of other unclean spirits to come and move in, so that the “last state of that person is worse than the first” (12:43). This may relate to the saying above where Jesus, speaking of whose power he is exercising in casting out Satan, says that before a house can be robbed the strong man in it must first be restrained.  If the house is cleared out, there is an emptiness there that is vulnerable. He says it will be the same with this generation.

Jesus’ mother and brethren seek him, and Jesus questions their true relationship with him. “’Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?’” (12:48). Then Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “these are my mother and brothers. Anyone who does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother!’” (12:49-50).

Reflection: I hear here the call to be of one, undivided heart and will, to plant oneself in the will of God and be single-hearted there, allowing God to bring forth the fruit.  The people of Nineveh allowed themselves to be won over to the Word of God, and now they stand to judge us though they were not part of the holy community of Israel.  Their will and their faithfulness brought forth fruit that identified them as responders to God’s voice.  Listen and do – these are the keys of belonging.  Mary did these things and as we do them too, we become like her – the temples of our Lord in the world.

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