The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 25, 26 October 2014

Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17


Leviticus 19:1-3, 15-18
Psalm 1

I Thessalonians 2:1-8
St. Matthew 22:34-46

Background: Leviticus

There has been resurgence around the book of Leviticus largely due to its provisions in the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26) and how that plays out around the role of women and gay and lesbian people in contemporary Western culture.  The name of the book refers to the Levites descended from the tribe of Aaron.  The Levites were the priests of Israel.  The Hebrew Name (Wayikra) is taken from the first word of the book, “And he called.”  The object of the book’s pronouncements is not just the priests of Israel, but rather the entire people.  It is not a book of doctrine.  Its contents address the ritual and cultic life of Israel. Thus it is largely concerned with the Temple and Sacrifice (and the priesthood that was of service in the Temple), and personal holiness and ritual purity.

The traditional author is Moses, but modern scholarship assigns the book to a much later time.  It most likely developed at the end of the Kings of Judea (around the seventh century BCE) and continued to be edited into a final form some time during or after the exilic period (around the sixth to the fourth century BCE).  The book would have had two primary periods of importance, perhaps stemming first from the reforms of Josiah, and later as people returned from exile and sought to restore temple worship in Jerusalem.  The material was written by people with a priestly bias, hence it is assigned to the P strand.  Some see the Holiness Code as a separate strand that was incorporated into the priestly material.  In the contemporary discussions about the Levitical material it is interesting that many only desire to explore facets of the Law that support a certain political or social view, while ignoring the other provisions.

Track 1:

Deuteronomy 34:1-12

Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the LORD showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain-- that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees-- as far as Zoar. The LORD said to him, "This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, `I will give it to your descendants'; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there." Then Moses, the servant of the LORD, died there in the land of Moab, at the LORD's command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.

Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the LORD had commanded Moses.

Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the LORD sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.

Although born in the Nile River valley, it is the mountains to which Moses is not only drawn, but on and in which he has some of his most potent moments.  Here, from the sacred mountaintop, Moses is privileged to see the land of promise – the land given by God to Israel.  As the book describes the scope of Moses’ vision of this new land we become aware of an anachronism.  The land of Dan, at the presumable time of writing, lay in the north. The original assignment of the tribe of Dan was to a location in the south. The tribe migrated northward at a later date.  The promise to Abraham is recalled again in verse four, which looks back to the period of the Patriarchs. Moses is not allowed into the land which YHWH has shown to him, and is granted a gracious death, ‘by the word of the Lord.” The Midrash sees this action as “death by a kiss”, a sweet remembrance of Moses’ relationship with YHWH.  Moses’ grave is unknown, largely because, “you shall have no other gods before me.” This powerful leader will live only in memory, but not in a cult.  He dies at 120 years, a number of symbolic importance (3 x 40). And with its reveries on the prophetic era, and on the insuperable prophetic ministry of Moses, the Pentateuch, acknowledging the Spirit’s gifts in Joshua, comes to an end, a new era springing from the old.

Breaking open Deuteronomy:

1.     How is Joshua designated as a new leader for Israel?
2.     What are your thoughts about God’s “death by a kiss” for Moses?  What images does it bring up for you.
3.     Are there eras in your life, as there were in the life of Moses?

Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 Domine, refugium

Lord, you have been our refuge *
from one generation to another.

Before the mountains were brought forth,
or the land and the earth were born, *
from age to age you are God.

You turn us back to the dust and say, *
"Go back, O child of earth."

For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past *
and like a watch in the night.

You sweep us away like a dream; *
we fade away suddenly like the grass.

In the morning it is green and flourishes; *
in the evening it is dried up and withered.

Return, O LORD; how long will you tarry? *
be gracious to your servants.

Satisfy us by your loving-kindness in the morning; *
so shall we rejoice and be glad all the days of our life.

Make us glad by the measure of the days that you afflicted us *
and the years in which we suffered adversity.

Show your servants your works *
and your splendor to their children.

May the graciousness of the LORD our God be upon us; *
prosper the work of our hands;
prosper our handiwork.

Our attention is quickly drawn to Moses (the ascription of the psalm is avoided in the BCP/LBW translation), “A prayer of Moses, man of God.” Rooted in his mortality, we then perceive the God who has been both refuge and abode for generations. Thus the psalm contrasts Moses’ mortality with God’s immortality.  The next verses underscore that contrast, “You bring man back to the dust”, and “For a thousand years in your eyes are like yesterday gone.” Especially beautify is the verse dealing with sleep, death, dawn and renewal.

The lectionary selection skips to verse 13, where God is asked to return and to see the state of God’s people. Using the metaphor of the day as the scene and stage upon and within which life is lived, the psalmist requests God’s on-going presence in time and in the cyclical renewal of each day.  It reminds me of Martin Luther’s explanation of Baptism in the Small Catechism,

What then is the significance of such a baptism with water? - Answer.
It signifies that daily the old person in us with all our sins and evil desires is to be drowned through sorrow for sin and repentance, and that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.[1]

The final verse is translated by Robert Alter as, “And may the sweetness of the master, our God be upon us and the work of our hands firmly found for us.”[2] He observes that this is the action that is used for undergirding dynasties, or for keeping large buildings. It is, pardon my pun, foundational.

Breaking open Psalm 90:

1.     What are the mortalities of your life?
2.     How do you live with the reality of death?
3.     How are you reborn each day?


Track 2:

Leviticus 19:1-2,15-18

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:
Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.

You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD.

You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

Although we are two chapters into the so-called Holiness Code, it is this verse that effectively enunciates the Code’s purpose and themes, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” The verses that immediately follow recount some of the Decalogue, and provisions for sacrifice. At verse thirteen begins a series of decrees that are of a social nature, dealing with the deaf and the blind, and striking something of a social balance, "you shall not favor the wretched and you shall not defer to the rich.” Suddenly we find ourselves really in a commentary on the Decalogue as the author speaks about slander, murder, and vengeance.  These are the practicalities of day-to-day holiness.

Breaking open Leviticus:

1.     In what ways are you holy?
2.     How do you strive to be holy?
3.     How do you treat people less fortunate than you?

Psalm 1 Page Beatus vir qui non abiit

Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, *
nor lingered in the way of sinners,
nor sat in the seats of the scornful!

Their delight is in the law of the LORD, *
and they meditate on his law day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water,
bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; *
everything they do shall prosper.

It is not so with the wicked; *
they are like chaff which the wind blows away.

Therefore the wicked shall not stand upright when judgment comes, *
nor the sinner in the council of the righteous.

For the LORD knows the way of the righteous, *
but the way of the wicked is doomed.

As we (in the Bible Study Group at Saint Mark’s Church, Santa Clara, CA.) have been discovering in our study of Ivoni Richter Reimer’s study on Women in the Acts of the Apostles[3] the verbs that begin this psalm can be signs of important religious, cultic, or educational activity[4].  The psalmist praises those who have not “walked” (pursued a course of action), “stood” (aligned him or herself with), or “sat” (accepted the opinion or teachings of an individual or school) with the wicked, or with offenders, or with scoffers.  We are talking about a different kind of person here.  This is the person who “meditates” (in the Hebrew, literally, “murmurs”) on the Law.  If you have ever been to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem you will understand the power of the word “murmur.”

What follows are the results of holiness (see Leviticus above) and the psalmist's use of powerful images rooted in creation and in the cycle of the day.  Here holiness is seen in the stability of being planted by a constant supply of water, the production of fruit, and a liveliness that confounds the seasons. Contrasted with this image is a scene of the unholy – one word describes them “chaff”, useless leavings consigned to the wind.

Breaking open Psalm 1:

1.     Who do you think are the councils of the wicked?
2.     In what ways have your participated (or not) with them?
3.     How do you meditate?

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

Paul had his problems in Philippi (See Acts 16) – accusations by disreputable people, and complaints to the authorities by certain Jews.  This leads to imprisonment and to ministry.  The passage speaks to a time when philosophers and “missionaries” were a dime-a-dozen.  Paul pleads that this is not the case with him, for our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery.” Although we might think otherwise, this is not a man who is feathering his own nest with false praise. He glories in his ministry of nursing the faithful “her own children.” The closing verse of the pericope underscores the relationship that Paul feels for these people. 

Breaking open I Thessalonians:
  1. What does the image of Paul as a nurse bring to you.
  2. In the preaching that you have heard over time, what sounded “made up” to you?
  3. What did you receive as genuine?

St. Matthew 22:34-46

When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" He said to him, "`You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: "What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?" They said to him, "The son of David." He said to them, "How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,

`The Lord said to my Lord,
"Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet"'?

If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?" No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

The pericope on the question about taxes is followed by another pericope that involves a question about resurrection (Matthew 22:23-33).  First it was the Pharisees, and then the Sadducees, and now we are back to the Pharisees again.  Now they reach to the true aim of their questioning – Jesus and the Law.  They ask what is the greatest of the Commandments, which is followed by another question, this time one posed by Jesus. Any scribe worth his salt would have know the answer to the first question (in part), for it was recited daily by Jews in the Great Shema. The second half that Jesus supplies is from Leviticus 19:18, a practice known in Jewish catechetics. 

Now it is Jesus’ turn – he asks about their thoughts on the Messiah, “Whose son is he?” The reply is quick, “David’s” (see Psalm 110:1). Why does Matthew preserve this conversation?  Some commentators argue that Matthew may be actually devaluing the designation of Jesus as “David’s son.” Matthew may be arguing for stronger terminology and identity.  Although both Messiah and “David’s son”, Jesus is more.

Breaking open Gospel:
1.     What were the Pharisees hoping to accomplish?
2.     What was Jesus hoping to accomplish?
3.     What “stronger terminology” do you use for Jesus.

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

All questions and commentary copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller

[1] Luther, M (2001) Luthers’ Small Catechism, Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis, MN., p. 48
[2] Alter, R. (2007) The Book of Psalms, A Translation with Commentary, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, p. 320.
[3] Richter Reimer, I (1995) Women in the Acts of the Apostles: a feminist liberation perspective, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN.
[4] See especially her comments on the person and ministry of Lydia (Chapter 4), and the other women who gathered with her and with Paul and Silas in Acts. 


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