The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 26, 5 November 2017

Track One:
Exodus 33:12-23
Psalm 99

Track Two:
Isaiah 45:1-7
Psalm 96

I Thessalonians 1:1-10
St. Matthew 22:15-22

Background: Mitzvah

Mitzvah is the Hebrew word for “commandment.” It refers not only to those commandments, which we memorized as a child, but to the 603 other commandments that rabbinic Judaism considers as given at Sinai, and an addition seven commandments given later. This collection can be divided into the following areas: 1) The Ten Commandments, 2) The Covenant Code, 3) The Ritual Decalogue, 4) The Priestly Code, 5) The Holiness Code, and 6) The Deuteronomic Code. This collection covers all of the aspects of life, ritual behavior, and social norms. As the so-called Five Books of Moses were brought into a collective form, the editors and redactors brought their own understandings, and traditions into the collection, giving us the wisdom of the elders through the ages. With the advent of the Synagogue and the Rabbinate during the Persian Period, these materials took on a greater importance among the people. In today’s Gospel, Jesus tries to ground these commandments in the Kingdom to come.

First Reading: Joshua 3:7-17

The Lord said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses. You are the one who shall command the priests who bear the Ark of the Covenant, ‘When you come to the edge of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan.’” Joshua then said to the Israelites, “Draw near and hear the words of the Lord your God.” Joshua said, “By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites: the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is going to pass before you into the Jordan. So now select twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe. When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan flowing from above shall be cut off; they shall stand in a single heap.”

When the people set out from their tents to cross over the Jordan, the priests bearing the Ark of the Covenant were in front of the people. Now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest. So when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the edge of the water, the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, while those flowing toward the sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, were wholly cut off. Then the people crossed over opposite Jericho. While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.

Joshua is a complex book, and a difficult read for any of us in this century who have seen the horrors of genocide and total warfare. It is really two books, one detailing the conquests of the Israelites, and the second records the allotments of the lands that were conquered. Most of the book was brought together in the seventh century BCE, under the Josianic reforms, and has both the hand of the Priestly and the Deuteronomic authors/editors evident in the text.

In an effort to underscore the miracle of liberation and the scene at the Reed Sea, the author of this section of Joshua repeats the Mosaic miracle. The crossing over into the land of promise is a seminal event, and so it is dressed in the glory of that former even. Now the Ark serves as the protective device, as it is carried in front of the people. There is anticipation in the text, “As I was with Moses, I shall be with you.” That is the theological element that stirs this text. The other arrangements in the text seem largely logistical. The theme of protection and privilege is seen in the “mounding up” of the Jordan so that the people can pass over on dry land.

Breaking open Joshua:
1.      What events from your life do you repeat in order to understand them better?
2.      What protections does God offer to you?
3.      When have you entered a land of promise?

Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37 Confitemini Domino

     Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, *
and his mercy endures for ever.
2      Let all those whom the Lord has redeemed proclaim *
that he redeemed them from the hand of the foe.
3      He gathered them out of the lands; *
from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.
4      Some wandered in desert wastes; *
they found no way to a city where they might dwell.
5      They were hungry and thirsty; *
their spirits languished within them.
6      Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, *
and he delivered them from their distress.
7      He put their feet on a straight path *
to go to a city where they might dwell.
33    The Lord changed rivers into deserts, *
and water-springs into thirsty ground,
34    A fruitful land into salt flats, *
because of the wickedness of those who dwell there.
35    He changed deserts into pools of water *
and dry land into water-springs.
36    He settled the hungry there, *
and they founded a city to dwell in.
37    They sowed fields, and planted vineyards, *
and brought in a fruitful harvest.

The redeemed ones in verse 2 of the psalm are not theologically redeemed, which is what we are used to, but rather they are politically redeemed. “The hand of the foe” clues us into this distinction. The bulk of the psalm meditates and recalls the wanderings in the wilderness, and thus is a good partner to the Joshua text. The redemption and gathering, however, may not be a match. This psalm, which notes that they are “gathered from the lands,” may be a sign that this is a psalm rejoicing in the return from exile. Thus it may actually date from the same period as the Joshua text, but refer to a different event. The word translated as “west” in verse three can actually be translated as “from the sea”, which would add additional weight to the exile argument. The elided section, verses 8-32 describes the wandering in wilderness in detail, and describes God’s presence with them. God is described as the one who makes things different. The wilderness can become pools, or it may be the result of a river become dry. God is the ultimate master of the situation.

Breaking open Psalm 107:
1.     Have you ever been redeemed from a difficult situation?
2.     Describe your situation and redemption>
3.    Did God have a role in your redemption?


Track Two:

First Reading: Micah 3:5-12

Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets
who lead my people astray,
who cry “Peace”
when they have something to eat,
but declare war against those
who put nothing into their mouths.
Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision,
and darkness to you, without revelation.
The sun shall go down upon the prophets,
and the day shall be black over them;
the seers shall be disgraced,
and the diviners put to shame;
they shall all cover their lips,
for there is no answer from God.
But as for me, I am filled with power,
with the spirit of the Lord,
and with justice and might,
to declare to Jacob his transgression
and to Israel his sin.
Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob
and chiefs of the house of Israel,
who abhor justice
and pervert all equity,
who build Zion with blood
and Jerusalem with wrong!
Its rulers give judgment for a bribe,
its priests teach for a price,
its prophets give oracles for money;
yet they lean upon the Lord and say,
“Surely the Lord is with us!
No harm shall come upon us.”
Therefore because of you
Zion shall be plowed as a field;
Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins,
and the mountain of the house a wooded height.

Scholars divide the book of Micah in three sections, 1) Chapters 1-3, the work of Micah the Prophet, 2) Chapters 4-5, a later updating of the text, and 3) Chapters 6 and 7, a further updating of the text. Nonetheless we apparently have material that his inspired people over a long period of time (perhaps two centuries) and has engendered additional thought and meditation. We have revelations of both God’s salvation and God’s judgment. Thus the prophet’s work initiates a stream of development and realization of God’s presence in the world, and the work of God’s people within time and in the world.

Our reading concerns the prophets, and wrestles with the problem of how do we receive or hear them. Are they true prophets, or do they represent a spurious truth? Micah represents them as opportunistic, prophesying peace to the one who could pay, and seeing war for the one who has little or nothing to pay. The prophet’s primary product was words, crafted to give thought to what is or what might be. We are inured to words in our day because we have so many of them. These people, however, knew the power of the words, and lived in the shadow of that power. Should the people depend on these spurious oracles, the future might indeed be bleak, “Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins.”

Breaking open Micah:
1.     Who do you think the prophets of our time are?
2.     In what ways have they been truthful or dishonest?
3.    How powerful are words in your life?

Psalm 43 Judica me, Deus

     Give judgment for me, O God,
and defend my cause against an ungodly people; *
deliver me from the deceitful and the wicked.
2      For you are the God of my strength;
why have you put me from you? *
and why do I go so heavily while the enemy oppresses me?
3      Send out your light and your truth, that they may lead me, *
and bring me to your holy hill
and to your dwelling;
4      That I may go to the altar of God,
to the God of my joy and gladness; *
and on the harp I will give thanks to you, O God my God.
5      Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? *
and why are you so disquieted within me?
6      Put your trust in God; *
for I will yet give thanks to him,
who is the help of my countenance, and my God.

This psalm may have been originally joined to Psalm 42, and you may wish to read them together as a unit.  Psalm 42 describes the enemies of the people, and 43 then takes on the defense of God’s own. The foes are unnamed, but verse three gives us the notion that they have made exiles of the people, who are now returning to the holy mountain, Zion. God is seen here as joy and happiness, a happy remedy to the disquieted soul.

Breaking open the Psalm 43:
1.     Where do you see God’s light?
2.     What does it mean to you?
3.    What areas of your life need light?

Second Reading: I Thessalonians 2:9-13

You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers. As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.

We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God's word, which is also at work in you believers.

What I described to you last Sunday continues on this Sunday. Paul wants to make certain that the Thessalonians know his integrity and purpose in continuing his relationship with them. Themes of motherhood and the relationship with children are used to describe his understanding of the relationship that he has with this congregation.

Breaking open I Thessalonians:
1.     Who has served as a parent to you?
2.     What sets them apart in your mind?
3.    How do you take care of others?

The Gospel: St. Matthew 23:1-12

Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father-- the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Jesus asks his hearers to call to mind the discrepancy between what the teachers of Israel say (which he encourages them to do) and what is the actual product in their own lives. It is something to be left behind and abandoned. Jesus wants them to understand what the law is for, and what its instruction should actually be. This is seen in the relationship that the student has with the master, “Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.” The question is, who is to honor your righteousness? Jesus sees that the people are tempted by the adulations of others, when it is God’s honor that is to be sought.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     What religious rules seem arbitrary to you?
2.     How do you deal with them?
3.    What rules do you apply to others.

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

Almighty and merciful God, it is only by your gift that your faithful people offer you true and laudable service: Grant that we may run without stumbling to obtain your heavenly promises; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2017, Michael T. Hiller


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