Tag Archives: anti-Semitic

Sunday, August 17th

TENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Isaiah 56:1, 6–8
Psalm 67
Romans 11:1–2a, 29–32
Matthew 15: 10–28

PRAYER OF THE DAY: God of all peoples, your arms reach out to embrace all those who call upon you. Teach us as disciples of your Son to love the world with compassion and constancy, that your name may be known throughout the earth, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

I don’t much like the story from this Sunday’s gospel lesson. I don’t care for the way Jesus treats the Canaanite woman who comes pleading for the life of her daughter. Perhaps it is because I have memories of the night I was alone in the hospital with my own little daughter who had just been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and was spiking a high fever. I recall how desperate and afraid I was; how hard it was to get the attention of anybody on the floor after midnight; how anxious I was as I waited for help to arrive. Thankfully, the nurses and doctors were kind and reassuring-once they finally arrived. They did not rebuff my pleas for help as Jesus did initially. I can only imagine how panicked I would have become if they had told me they did not have time to deal with my daughter’s situation, that she was not their responsibility or that I should just take a number and sit down.

I have heard all of the explanations for why Jesus treated the Canaanite woman as he did: he was testing her faith to be sure it was genuine; he was using her to make a point to his disciples; his banter was actually fun loving and gentle. None of that flies with me. When someone is pleading with you for the life of her child, you don’t question her sincerity, use her as a teaching tool or make jokes with her. So as far as I am concerned, Jesus has some explaining to do.

But then again, I am not sure that my own experiences with Jesus are so very different from those of this woman. I have prayed mightily for loved ones in desperate need only to watch them continue in their suffering. I pray regularly for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit on my church and on my ministry, but continue to struggle with getting my church excited about the good news of Jesus Christ. Often, it seems, Jesus is ignoring me.

Still, the Canaanite woman continues to pray. Though ignored, rebuffed and denied, she just keeps coming back for more. She cannot help but believe that behind what looks like a decisive “no” there is a “yes.” In that respect, this woman is in step with the psalms of lament I have often discussed on this blog. Like the psalmists, she keeps on praying when it seems there is no more point to prayer. She keeps on pressing Jesus for help even when it seems too late for any meaningful help to arrive. She keeps on talking after being told by the disciples and Jesus himself to shut up. In the end, it turns out that she is right. Even under the cloud of “no” Jesus is, as Paul says, “the ‘yes’ to all of God’s promises.”

So maybe this story is about patience. Maybe our lesson is all about the time it takes to hear Jesus and the kind of prayer required to penetrate the darkness of his absence. Maybe the Canaanite woman is showing us that we must not take “no” for an answer because “no” is entirely out of character for the one who is God’s “yes.” The story does not tell us how long this encounter lasted. Perhaps this woman had been dogging Jesus for days before his disciples had finally had enough. Perhaps she had to endure hours of silence from Jesus before he finally spoke-with a denial. Her arguments with him might have been more extensive than the brief report we have in the lesson. Yet however lengthy or brief this encounter may have been, the woman never wavered in her belief that Jesus could and would save her daughter.

That is very much how prayer is for me a lot of the time. I pray for what I think is needed; I continue to pray when it does not materialize; I trust that eventually I will hear God’s “yes” in Jesus Christ. For some of my prayers, I have been blessed with a clear and resounding “yes.” Sometimes God’s “yes” has come after years of praying and in such a different manner than I had hoped for and expected that I fail to recognize it until long after the fact. For many of my prayers, God’s “yes” has not yet come into view. But I continue to pray to the Son of David because I know that his last word to us is always “yes.”

Isaiah 56:1, 6–8

The fifty sixth chapter of the Book of Isaiah opens into what scholars agree is a third collection of prophetic oracles separate from the prophet Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C.E. (Isaiah 1-39) and Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) who prophesied toward the end of the Babylonian Exile. These prophesies comprising what is commonly called “Third Isaiah” (Isaiah 56-66) come from a period beginning shortly after the return of the exiled Jews from Babylon in 539 B.C.E., but before the rebuilding of the temple in about 515 B.C.E. The band of exiles inspired by the poetic promises of Second Isaiah to brave the dangerous journey across the Iraqi desert from Babylon to Palestine arrived home to find Jerusalem in ruins and the land inhabited by hostile tribes. The Eden like path through the desert promised by Second Isaiah did not materialize. Life in Palestine proved to be difficult, dangerous and unpromising. The people were understandably disappointed and demoralized. This was the tough audience to which Third Isaiah was called to appeal. A people led to such a desperate plight through listening to a prophet’s promises were probably not in any mood to listen to yet another prophet! Third Isaiah opens with the words, “Maintain justice and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come.” Vs. 1. You can almost hear the people groaning in the background, “Oh no! Here we go again!”

It is not clear to me why the lectionary omits verses 2-5 as they seem to make up an integral part of the reading. “Happy is the mortal…” (Vs. 2) echoes the form of Psalm 1 which sets forth the two paths a human life may take: righteousness or wickedness. Righteousness is not simply general goodness or ethical behavior. It is a life of faithfulness to Israel’s covenant relationship with her God. Sabbath observation is a critical sign of such faithfulness. According to Genesis 2:1-3, Sabbath rest is woven into the very fabric of creation. Though ever a central commandment, Sabbath observance became even more important during the Babylonian Exile where it served as a line of demarcation between Israel’s covenant life and the surrounding pagan culture. The Sabbath was a visible sign of Jewish solidarity and identity.

It appears that Sabbath observance might have gone a bit lax within the community of the returned exiles. That would explain why the prophet urges his people to keep it. Vs. 2. Verses 3-5 are remarkable in that they offer full membership and participation in the covenant community to eunuchs and foreigners, both of which were excluded from the assembly of Israel under some provisions of the Pentateuch. Eg., Deuteronomy 23:1-8. Only decades later Ezra the scribe would take a more severe and exclusive stance toward outsiders. Ezra 9-10. As far as Third Isaiah is concerned, however, Sabbath observance and adherence to the commandments are what determine membership in the community of Israel, not blood. Foreigners are not merely tolerated but welcomed and encouraged to flock to the Lord’s mountain that the sanctuary there might become “a house of prayer for all peoples.” Vs. 7. Such is the generous invitation from the God who “gathers the outcasts of Israel.” Vs. 8.

This openness to foreigners runs contrary to the current mood in our country, which is now more consistent with that of Ezra. Presented with these two words of scripture (Isaiah and Ezra) each carrying a very different message, we must determine which one of the two is God’s word to us at this time. The temptation is to select the one that comports with our own view of what is right and just. That can be hazardous as human nature always bends the scriptures to favor its own self-centered needs and desires. In the end, the polestar of our hermeneutic is Jesus. This Sunday’s gospel tips the scale decisively in the direction of openness and inclusion.

Psalm 67

Based on verse 6, most commentators agree that this psalm is a harvest hymn giving thanks for a bountiful year. The song has a recognizable structure. It opens and closes with prayers for blessing that ultimately will lead to worldwide recognition and praise of Israel’s God. The middle section falls into two parts calling for universal praise: verses 3-4 call the nations to praise God for God’s just judgment and guidance. Verses 5-6 invite praise for God’s generous bounty in the form of a fruitful yield. Rogerson, J.W. and McKray, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 81.

“The Lord Bless us and keep us; the Lord make his face to shine upon us.” Vs. 1. These ancient lines are similar to and might be taken from the “Aaronic Benediction” (Numbers 6:24-26). Use of the word “Elohim” for “God” as opposed to “Yahweh” has suggested to some scholars that the psalm may have originated in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. More likely, however, this is a very ancient form that has its roots in the period of the Judges. There is no mention of monarchy (either North or South) or Jerusalem.

“Let all peoples praise you, Oh God (Elohim).” Again, God’s works on behalf of Israel are to result in the praise of all people. This hymn affirms the belief that God is the God not only of Israel, but of all the earth. He is therefore exalted as a righteous judge and guide for all peoples. This echo of themes found in Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-66) has led a few commentators to date it after the Babylonian Exile. But that is hardly a foregone conclusion. Israel always viewed her God as supreme over all the nations. Moreover, the similarities to Second Isaiah could be the result of editing at a later time.

As noted above, verse 5 suggests that the psalm may have been composed for use as a hymn of thanksgiving for a fruitful harvest. Just as the Lord has brought about a successful growing year resulting in prosperity for Israel, so God’s life giving power will spread to the whole earth as Israel’s God is recognized as God of all peoples. The psalm concludes with a prayer for continued blessing that will have ripple effects to the ends of the earth. In the end, all the ends of the earth will revere the God of Israel who is, in reality, the God of all peoples. Vs. 6.

Romans 11:1–2a, 29–32

This chapter of Romans is critically important. It deals with a question very near to St. Paul’s heart, namely, the place of his own people, the Jews, in God’s redemptive purpose for creation. If there is one take away verse in this chapter it is verse 1: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!” This verse is important because it puts the lie to nearly two millennia of Christian theology teaching precisely the view that Paul here rejects, namely, “supersessionism.” In short, supersessionism is the belief that Christianity is the fulfillment of Biblical Judaism. From this conclusion it follows that Jews who deny that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah fall short of their calling as God’s Chosen people. In its more extreme forms, the doctrine holds Jews solely responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus and for that reason maintains that they are thoroughly rejected by God. This view has dominated the thinking of Christian theologians about Judaism until relatively recently and continues to enjoy support in many quarters.

It is important to remember that, in Paul’s time, there was no “Christianity” distinct from Judaism. The Jesus movement, sometimes called simply “the way,” was a reform movement within Judaism. Neither Paul nor Jesus ever dreamed of starting a new religion separate from Judaism. For Paul, Jesus was the fulfillment of the Jewish hope and the conduit through which gentile believers were brought into God’s covenant relationship with Israel. Both Israel and the church were indispensable partners with God in the drama of redemption.

So how did we get to where we are today? The answer to that question is bigger than can be addressed on this post. But suffice to say that throughout the first century the line between church and synagogue had not been sharply drawn. It appears that Paul moved freely between the church and the synagogue in his ministry. Although some rupture occurred between the Jesus movement in Palestine and the Sanhedrin governing most of the Jewish community in the 90s C.E., there is documentation showing that disciples of Jesus worshiped in synagogues well into the 2nd Century C.E. If an event signifying the final break between church and synagogue could be identified, it would probably be the rise of emperor Constantine under whose influence Christianity became the dominant religion within the Roman Empire. In 380 C.E. Christianity was declared the official religion of the empire by emperor Theodosius. From that point forward, all other religion, Judaism included, was disfavored if not strictly illegal. The Jews found themselves increasingly alienated in an increasingly Christianized Europe. Suspicion and fear of these communities that would not be assimilated into the larger culture often erupted into violent pogroms. The carnage reached its climax during the middle ages when knights on their way to crusades against Muslims in the Holy Land routinely destroyed Jewish communities and murdered their inhabitants along the way. Although the Renaissance saw greater tolerance and acceptance of Jews that continued throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries, anti-semitism lay close under the surface. A deadly mix of these fierce cultural undercurrents of fear and hatred against Jews with the pseudo-scientific theory of white supremacy bequeathed by Enlightenment rationalism run amok infected Germany and several other nations with genocidal madness never before seen on the planet. The slaughter of six million Jews in the heart of Christian Europe finally led to a much needed (and far too tardy) reconsideration of the doctrine of supersessionism.

Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is a good place to start in reconsidering the relationship of the church to Israel. Paul’s assertion that God does not reject Israel is simply the natural outcome of the view he has been expressing from the beginning concerning salvation by grace. God does not go back on his promises. Therefore, Israel’s disobedience no more invalidates God’s covenant with her than does the church’s disobedience void the promises made in baptism. “The gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” Vs. 29. It is unfortunate that the lectionary omits Paul’s words to his gentile audience about the importance of Israel in the redemptive purpose of God and the fact that they, as outsiders to the covenant, have been graciously incorporated into the household of God just as wild olive branches grafted into a cultivated tree. Vss. 17-24. As such, the gentiles ought not to vaunt their status over Jews who as yet do not recognize Jesus as Messiah. The rejection of Jesus by some Jews does not amount to God’s rejection of them. All Israel is and remains God’s elect by grace. Knowingly or unknowingly, they are fulfilling the purpose for which God called them.

Paul goes on to explain that the hearts of many of the Jewish people have been hardened toward Jesus-not because God is rejecting them, but because this hardening will open the way for faith among the gentiles. The faith of the gentiles will, in turn, awaken jealousy among the Jews that will ultimately draw them to faith in Jesus. Vss. 11-12; 25-28. I must confess in all humility that this is where I fall off the caboose in Pauls’ train of thought. It is not clear to me how Israel’s rejection of Jesus facilitates the faith of the gentiles or how the faith of the gentiles will finally draw Israel to Jesus. Obviously, that is not how things worked out historically. Nevertheless, be that as it may, Paul is absolutely clear about two things: 1) Israel is God’s people by the grace of election every bit as much as the church; 2) Israel plays an indispensable role in the redemption God is working out for all of creation. The church must therefore never understand itself as “the new and improved Israel” or as Israel’s replacement.

Matthew 15: 10–28

Every so often, the lectionary gets things right. Here the juxtaposition of Jesus’ teaching on “cleanness” and “uncleanness” is further illuminated by the story of the Canaanite woman. Jesus makes the point that one does not become unclean by what s/he consumes or by what s/he handles. Nor does one avoid uncleanness by adhering strictly to ritual practices. One is polluted by those things that fester deep in the heart. From a heart infected by greed, lust, anger and folly proceed evil words and actions.

In the Gospel of Mark, the woman in our lesson is described as Syro-Phoenician. Mark 7:24-30. Matthew identifies her as a Canaanite. Throughout the Pentateuch Moses repeatedly warned the people of Israel to have no dealings of any kind with Canaanites. Canaanites were to be exterminated thoroughly without mercy: “But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breaths, but you shall utterly destroy them…” Deuteronomy 20:16-17. Canaanites were repeatedly blamed throughout the Book of Judges for leading Israel into idolatry and betrayal of her covenant with God. That there probably were no persons living at the time of Jesus whose linage could have been traced to the Canaanite peoples of the Bronze Age is beside the point. Matthew wishes to make clear that this woman is the epitome of “unclean” in terms of Hebrew sensibilities. Yet she recognizes Jesus as “Lord,” and addresses him as “Son of David.” Her persistent plea for Jesus’ salvation for her daughter comes from a heartfelt confidence in Jesus’ ability and willingness to save. She, unlike Jesus’ ritually sensitive critics, is “clean.”

It is important that we avoid “dumbing down” this story. It is tempting to treat it as a morality play praising the heartfelt devotion of this woman while deriding the superficial ritualism of the Pharisees. Let us give the Pharisees their due. Faithful practices are essential to the development of character shaped by virtue. The ritual provisions of the Torah were designed to remind Israel in each of the most mundane and routine tasks of daily living that she belonged to her God. Prayer was woven into the fabric of work and play. Each meal was an act of worship and a celebration of community. There was no artificial division in Hebrew thought between secular and sacred such as we more or less take for granted today.

Jesus had no objection to ritual observances, but he would have us know that all such observances presuppose a covenant relationship of grace between God and the community of faith. To those on the outside, these observances must witness to the generosity of God and serve as an invitation to participate in that generosity. A community formed by the virtues of Torah and which practices Torah accordingly appeals to persons experiencing a hunger they didn’t know they had for a God they do not yet know. It is precisely for this reason that Judaism has in fact drawn proselytes from all the surrounding cultures in which it has made its home. That Jews have not historically sought such converts only further serves to illustrate the point.

Nonetheless, when religious practices become ends in themselves their meaning is distorted no matter how deeply scriptural they may be. That goes for Christian as well as Jewish practices. When prayer, the sacraments, preaching, fasting, tithing and Bible Study are used to manipulate, control and maintain power rather than to strengthen the covenant and nourish the community of faith, they become demonic. When observance becomes a measure of one’s worthiness to be part of the community of faith rather than means for inviting participation and strengthening membership, it conceals an unclean devotion to self-promotion and control of others. Under these circumstances, the joyous invitation to repent and believe in the good news is obscured.

 

 

Sunday, May 4th

THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 2:14a, 36–41
Psalm 116:1–4, 12–19
1 Peter 1:17–23
Luke 24:13–35

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, your Son makes himself known to all his disciples in the breaking of bread. Open the eyes of our faith, that we may see him in his redeeming work, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“We had hoped that [Jesus] was the one to redeem Israel.” Luke 24:21. So remarked one of two disciples as they traveled the road back home to Emmaus. “We had hoped…” How many devastating tales of disappointment begin with those words! “We had hoped that this treatment would put Mom into remission.” “We had hoped this new youth program would revitalize our church.” “We had hoped that this time the pregnancy would take.” The road to Emmaus is a highway of heartbreak. I have traveled a stretch or two on that road myself and I expect you have too.

It is tempting to race too quickly down that road toward the end of the story where the resurrected Christ is made known to his disciples. There is nothing we Americans like more than a happy ending. We are a “can do” people who believe that “if you can dream it, you can do it.” This is the time of year for beaming graduates to stand robed and tasseled as a parade of commencement speakers assure them that their dreams are within their reach. We love those narratives about children born with disabilities or into a life of poverty who nevertheless overcome their limitations to achieve success and do great things. They reinforce our deeply held belief that, with enough grit and determination, there is nothing we cannot achieve.

That is an inspiring vision. There is just one problem with it, however. It’s a lie. Indeed, it is a lie so powerfully ingrained upon our psyches that it threatens to distort our hearing of the Easter story. Jesus was not an “overcomer.” His resurrection was not the culmination of hard work, determination and careful planning. Jesus’ life, the life to which he calls us, got him nailed to the cross. By all reasonable standards of success, Jesus was a failure. At least that is how we must judge him if success means achieving your vision. Jesus’ vision was God’s reign on earth as in heaven. That hasn’t happened yet and there is no indication that it will be happening anytime soon. We can only conclude that Jesus’ timing must have been off. Perhaps he didn’t plan as carefully as he should have. Or maybe he just didn’t try hard enough. In any case, he failed.

You need to accept the failure of Jesus before you can hear the good news of Easter. That good news is that God judges Jesus differently. God raised up the man who failed to redeem Israel, the man who could not even get his closest disciples to understand his vision, the man who could not make a dent in the grinding poverty, brutal oppression and hardened cynicism of his day. Success, according to God, is not the highest good. Faithfulness and obedience to Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims are what matter. They matter even when they don’t seem to be effective. In fact, I will say that faithfulness and obedience to Jesus matter especially when they don’t seem to be effective. Such faithfulness might not get you to the Olympics. Such obedience might actually prevent you from getting that promotion you were hoping for. There is no guarantee that obedience to Jesus will make your marriage, your career, your health or anything else in life work out well for you. Those guarantees simply are not part of the discipleship package. The one guarantee you have, and the only one that really matters, is the guarantee that wherever the road to Emmaus might lead, you will meet the resurrected Christ at every turn.

The truth is, there are plenty of dreams beyond our reach. There is much that we will never overcome. Contrary to a well-known saying, life does in fact throw things at us that are too much for us to bear. But here is the thing. Life never throws anything at us that God cannot bear. A lot of religion equates God’s favor with wealth, success, achievement and happiness. If you lack these goods, it must be because you are out of touch with God. But the good news of Easter is that Jesus meets us on the road to Emmaus as we bear the pain of our disappointed hopes. The good news is that Jesus is present in the midst of broken marriages, ruined careers, messed up lives and failing health. He brings the miracle of resurrection to where it is most needed-where all other hopes have been dashed.

Acts 2:14a, 36–41

This week’s lesson is a continuation of Peter’s Pentecost sermon, part of which we heard last week. For an outline of Peter’s argument, see my post of April 27th. The sermon concludes with the bold declaration: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Vs. 36. The crowd responds in the only way possible where credence is given to such a message: “What shall we do?” vs. 37. What is left to be done when you discover that God has offered you his best and you have rejected it? Repentance might seem like the natural response, but it is hardly that. How can one repent after having thrown God’s greatest gift back in God’s face? You have passed the point of no return and now there is no going back-unless God makes a way of return. That is the gospel: God responds to the crucifixion of Jesus by raising him up and offering him back to us, the same people who murdered him.

Again, care must be taken to avoid giving this text an anti-Semitic slant. Peter does not lay responsibility for the crucifixion solely on his fellow Jews. Though Jews, to be sure, this group is made up of pilgrims from all nations. Acts 2:5-11. They may or may not have been in Jerusalem for Passover when Jesus was tried, convicted and executed. More to the point, their diversity foreshadows the church’s worldwide mission soon to include the gentiles. The gentiles are no less in need of the gospel than are the Jews. It is the sin of the world that put Jesus on the cross and the sin of the world that is overcome by the cross. All people are implicated in Jesus’ death on the cross just as all people are so reconciled. The Jews bear no more guilt than the rest of us for what transpired in Jerusalem two thousand years ago. We would be naïve to assume that Jesus would have fared any better had he come to the United States of the 21st Century rather than 1st Century Palestine. (Though, of course, we would put him down by lethal injection rather than by crucifixion and so to that extent, I suppose we can say that we have progressed a little over the ways of Rome.) Repentance, then, is a gift of the Holy Spirit poured out upon all flesh. It is freedom to turn away from our death dealing ways to the alternative life Jesus offers to us.

“…be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Vs. 38. Much energy has been expended in speculation over how baptism might have been practiced in the early church and whether a Trinitarian formula was used or merely the name of Jesus. I am not particularly interested in those arguments. What we know is that the Trinitarian baptismal formula was around from at least the writing of Matthew’s gospel toward the end of the 1st Century. There isn’t a scrap of textual evidence to support the spurious supposition that this formula was a later addition to the text. Moreover, the church has consistently spoken of “baptism into Christ” throughout history without implying anything less than fully Trinitarian baptism. There seems to me no sound theological reason to baptize in anything less than God’s Trinitarian Name. As to Peter’s call for his hearers to be baptized “into the name of Jesus,” I agree with St. Basil:

“Let no one be misled by the fact of the apostle’s frequently omitting the name of the Father and of the Holy Spirit when making mention of baptism, or on this account imagine that the invocation of the names is not observed. As many of you, he says, as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ; and again, as many of you as were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death. For the naming of Christ is the confession of the whole, showing forth as it does the God who gave, the Son who received, and the Spirit who is, the unction.” De Spiritu Sancto, 12:28.

“For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.” Vs. 39. This declaration echoes Isaiah 57:19 and Ephesians 2:13-17 emphasizing the breadth of the promise which, referring back to the citation to Joel 2:28-32 at Acts 2:17-21, is the promise of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Something more than terror, sorrow and regret is required for true repentance. In the end, the penitent must cry out, “create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Psalm 51:10. Pentecost is God’s affirmative response to that petition. As Peter points out, his hearers are witnesses to God’s pouring out his Spirit “upon all flesh.” Vs. 17. As Peter will soon learn in Acts 10, “all flesh” is a category far broader than he now imagines.

Psalm 116:1–4, 12–19

The prominent Hebrew Scripture scholar, Walter Brueggemann would probably call this a psalm of “new orientation” described in this way: “…the psalms regularly bear witness to the surprising gift of new life just when none had been expected. That new orientation is not a return to the old stable orientation, for there is no such going back. The psalmists know that we can never go home again. Once there has been an exchange of real candor, as there is here between Yahweh and Israel, there is no return to the precandor situation.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms-A Theological Commentary, (c. 1984 by Augsburg Publishing House) pp. 123-124.

Our psalm for Sunday fits this description to a tee. Formally, it is a prayer of thanksgiving offered by a person who has just come through a very difficult time in his or her life and has reached a level of recovery. It might well be sung by someone who has endured a long and difficult tour of cancer therapy and received news that he or she is finally “cancer free.” Or it might be heard on the lips of someone who has gone through a difficult divorce that brought to an end a relationship that was supposed to last until death, and thereafter found the way back from heartbreak and despair to a healed life of love and trust. This psalm could be the song of a recovered alcoholic or the survivor of an abusive relationship.

The psalm does not explain what caused the psalmist’s suffering. Nor does it suggest that the psalmist is somehow at fault or that his or her suffering is part of some greater plan. Sometimes suffering just is. There is no explanation for it, but one thing is clear. The psalmist knows that God has not deserted him or her throughout the dark times. God has been present all along the difficult journey from darkness into light. It is important to understand, as Brueggemann observes, that this journey does not take the psalmist back to “the way things were.” The scars of surgery remain even after a full recovery. Life after divorce can be filled with love, life and hope-but it does not restore the relationship that was lost. There is no way back to the way things were. There is only the way forward into a better future that God promises. That promise lies at the core of our Easter faith.

The “cup of salvation in verse 13 likely refers to the thank offering given in response to God’s answer to his/her cry for salvation. See Numbers 28:7. It could also simply be a metaphor describing the psalmist’s experience of salvation. Either way, it is a graphic expression of thanksgiving.

“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” Vs. 15. The Hebrew is difficult, but the meaning appears to be that God protects his “saints” (righteous ones) from an untimely death. Such persons must die eventually, but God experiences acutely their passing.

The dating of this psalm is difficult and scholars are divided over whether it was composed before or after the Babylonian Exile. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 81. As I have often said before, these psalms have undergone a lengthy history of editing and revision to make them relevant to each succeeding generation. Consequently, the pre or post-exilic dating controversy may be one of degree. Perhaps it is a matter of both/and rather than either/or.

1 Peter 1:17–23

For my comments on the context of this epistle, see my post of April 27th. See also, the Summary Article by Professor Marc Kolden of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN at enterthebible.org.

The opening verse is a little off setting. The reference to God as one who judges everyone impartially according to deeds rubs my Lutheran sensibilities the wrong way. I believe, however, that it was probably heard altogether differently by slaves, women and the poor living in a strictly hierarchical society where class distinctions, the privileges they confer and the burdens they impose went largely unquestioned. A God whose eye is blind to class distinctions, but sharply focused on justice and righteousness offers hope to the oppressed even as he threatens the position of the oppressor. Furthermore, a community that values slaves and free, men and women, rich and poor as indispensable members of the one Body of Christ cannot help but undermine the hierarchical culture in which it exists. Not surprisingly, then, the powers that be eyed this odd community with suspicion.

“You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” Vss. 18-19. The Greek word rendered “ransomed,” was used for the manumission of slaves in Greco-Roman culture. The slave’s price could be deposited by the person wishing to redeem him/her in the temple of the local god or goddess. The temple, in turn, would pay the slave’s owner and the slave would henceforth be regarded as free from his/her master, but a slave to the god whose temple paid the manumission price. Beale, G.K. and Carson, D.A., Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament, (c. 2007 by G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson; pub. by Baker Academic) pp. 1018-1019. So also these believers to whom Peter writes have been bought with the blood of Christ from the tyranny of “futile ways inherited from your fathers.” Vs. 18.

Peter’s reference to “futile ways” suggests that the churches to which he writes are primarily gentile in composition. The Greek adjective translated as “futile” is used throughout the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) to modify words for pagan idols and temples. Ibid. 1019. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that the pre-Christian lifestyle of these believers was pagan rather than Jewish. Nonetheless, it is worth remembering that the cultural line of demarcation between Jew and gentile was not as sharply drawn throughout the far flung regions of the empire as it was in Palestine. Certainty about the composition of these churches, therefore, is impossible to establish.

Redemption by the blood of a lamb is deeply rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures. While it is impossible to link this assertion to any particular text, it seems to me that Peter must have the Exodus/Passover narrative in mind. Although the Passover meal does not have anything to do with the remission of sin, that does not seem to be Peter’s emphasis here. The point he makes is that the believers to whom he writes have been rescued from slavery to their “futile” and destructive lifestyles by God’s costly act of deliverance. Like the Exodus of old, this redemption of the church was not in any sense her own doing. It was brought about by the victory won for her through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Luke 24:13–35

The story of Jesus’ appearance to Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus is found only in Luke’s gospel. There are two towns identified in the literature of antiquity as “Emmaus.” One is twenty miles from Jerusalem and the other is about four miles away. Given that the two disciples made the round trip in a single day, the latter is almost certainly the one to which Luke refers. Travel was hazardous along country roads connecting cities and villages in 1st Century Palestine. Bandits frequently attacked lone travelers as Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates. It would not be unusual for travelers to seek safety in numbers and quite natural that a single traveler would join a group of two for that reason.

It is evident that these two disciples have discounted the testimony of the women concerning the message of the angels at Jesus’ tomb. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Vs. 21. The cross represents for these two disciples a ruined hope. Jesus begins employing the scriptures to place the cross in a new context for them. He argues from the scriptures that, so far from signaling defeat, the cross represents the fulfilment of God’s redemptive purpose. It was “necessary” that the messiah should suffer. As I indicated last week in connection with Peter’s Pentecost sermon, we need to take care in discussing the “necessity” of Jesus’ crucifixion. Once again, the crucifixion was not necessary to satisfy God’s need to see sin properly punished. The necessity arises from Jesus’ determination to be genuinely human in a violent and inhuman world. The cross was the cost of Jesus’ faithfulness to his Father’s will in the midst of a sinful world. It is a cost shared by all who follow Jesus.

We are not told what the disciples expected in terms of Israel’s redemption. Whatever those expectations were, they were too small. We can hear echoes here of Isaiah where the Lord says of Israel and his prophet, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6. That, indeed, will be the theme throughout the Book of Acts as the church breaks out of its ethnic shell to embrace the ends of the earth. One cannot read the Gospel of Luke without encountering at every turn premonitions of its sequel.

This narrative again reinforces the nature and purpose of the Bible as faithful testimony to Jesus as Messiah and God’s Son. Jesus and only Jesus can interpret the scriptures for the church and the scriptures are rightly interpreted for the church only as testimony to Jesus. I cannot overstate the importance of making this point at every available opportunity because the Bible is probably the most misunderstood, misused and blatantly abused piece of literature on the face of the earth. It has been claimed as the source of moral norms for the western world; a full proof guide to financial planning; a handbook on marriage/child rearing; a political/social manifesto for America; an oracle for divining the end of the world and probably much more. The Bible does not claim to be any such thing and whoever asserts that it does obviously has never read it. But don’t get me started on that.

“Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” Vs. 30. There is something so pure, so innocent and so beautiful about this simple request. It is hardly surprising that it has found its way into our liturgy for evening prayer. See Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 309. That Jesus is finally made known to these disciples in the breaking of the bread is of course pregnant with Eucharistic imagery. Not only the identity of Jesus, but also the meaning of the scriptures becomes clear to the disciples as they recall how their “hearts burned” as Jesus interpreted them. Vs. 32. Although meal fellowship is important in all of the gospels, it is particularly emphasized in Luke. In Luke’s gospel Jesus seems always to be coming from or going to a meal. He dines with outcasts and tax collectors as well as with distinguished religious leaders. Jesus’ practice of meal hospitality extends to crowds of five thousand. It is fitting, then, that the disciples should finally connect the dots at the table where Jesus presides.