OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 17 – Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29  (Related)

This cycle of stories, about Moses’ leadership of the people during the wilderness wanderings, is one of my favourite books of the OT, and, I very much hope, the subject of a book I hope to write before too long. The odd selection of verses which our lectionary gives us provides rich pickings, and there are loads of ways in which we might approach it. We could talk about grumbling; the way it spreads from ‘the rabble’ to everyone else, the way it uses false nostalgia to make slavery in Egypt seem a better option than freedom, and the way in which it almost destroys the leadership. Or we could come at it from Moses’ point of view; the leader trying to do his best but being beaten down at every turn by his ungrateful congregation, but praying for them anyway.

But the linking of this passage with the Gospel reading for today clearly intends us to concentrate on what was probably a separate narrative which has become interwoven, that of the anointing of the 70 elders. The hinge point is Moses’ despair at having to deal with all these infantile manifestations among the people to whom God has sent him. The burden is just too much for him, and he wants to commit divine suicide: like a few other OT characters he asks God to kill him rather than make him carry on with the torture of having to deal with his people.

I once helped to run a clergy training day on stress, with a colleague who came from an engineering background. He brought some really useful insights about how, in the world of civil engineering, you cope with stress. You either lighten the load, strengthen the material it is made from, or share the load between several different places. It is the latter approach which God takes for Moses here. Exodus 18 and Moses’ meeting with Jethro notwithstanding, the implication here is that he is carrying the weight alone – at least that’s what it feels like to him. So the Spirit of God, who helps him in his leadership role, is to be received by another 70 leaders. The two elders who didn’t turn up but received the Spirit nevertheless are included in the story because they allow Moses to say that he wished that all God’s people could be Spirit-filled prophets, a verse much used in certain sections of the Church today.

Whether or not the elders got much choice about their anointing we are not told. But it does run counter to many in the Church today, who are happy merely to be led by others, and to moan about it when things don’t all go their way. I can remember taking a service as holiday cover for a friend deep in the Welsh Valleys, where I was expected to swing incense, genuflect in odd places and so on. I arrived early, and was coached in my rustiness by a very helpful verger. ‘You really know your stuff, don’t you?’ I commented. She told me she’d been verger here for 50 odd years, and again I told her how brilliant she was in her tutoring of me. ‘You wouldn’t like to preach the sermon as well, would you?’ I asked. Her face dropped, and almost in terror, she replied ‘Oh no, Father. I know my place!’ Sadly too many Christians ‘know their place’ under the benign dictatorship of the clergy: Moses at least would love them all to be Spirit-filled ministers.

This passage is one of the few mass fillings with the Holy Spirit in the OT: usually he comes upon individuals at specific times for specific tasks. But other passages look forward to the fulfilment of Moses’ wishes, notably Joel chapter 2, where the prophet looks forward to the time when everyone, men and women, young and old, rich and poor, will be filled with the Spirit. The Apostles gathered on the Day of Pentecost saw that event as the fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy, but then so did the early pioneers of Pentecostalism and charismatic renewal , begging the question about how the Church which had seen a universal outpouring of the Spirit had lost the plot so badly that it needed another one! And how today do we live in so many churches where spirit-filled leaders are struggling against grumbling congregations.

I wonder how many in our churches ever stop to ask themselves how they make their leaders feel. Maybe some of us need a new experience of the Holy Spirit to run our moaning into joyful praise, and maybe some of our leaders need to run the risk of handing over some power to everyone.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 16 – Proverbs 31:10-31 (Related)

One year on Mothering Sunday my wife received a card from our highly creative elder son, which marked her out of 13 as a good Mum, according to the criteria of Proverbs 31. Sadly she failed miserably when it came to buying fields and selling clothes, but she did pretty well on the rest, if you translate for example the Hebrew for ‘from afar’ in v.14 as ‘from Tesco’s’. It’s a lovely picture, and as someone once said, about as realistic as Snow White. And of course nowadays, in these days of ‘househusbands’ it’s a notoriously difficult passage to read because it can be seen as politically incorrect, and about keeping the little wifey at home while the men go and do the important stuff. So what positives might we gain from this text?

The first thing to look at is the context, and if this passage is linked, as many think, to the first nine verses of chapter 31, it puts a new slant on it. King Lemuel (no idea who he was!) has been taught wisdom by his mother, including the kind of characteristics he might find in a good wife. As both Queen Mother and Mother-in-Law she clearly values the kind of characteristics listed in this passage. In fact it’s an acrostic poem, with each verse beginning with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet, so it is literally an A to Z of good character (according, of course, to the culture of the time). I wonder what words we would use if we were to construct such a poem today?

But what constitutes good character? The word translated ‘noble’ in v.10 and 29 is a Hebrew word from the context of battle: great warriors are described in the same way. This is far from the shrinking violet ‘little woman at home’ persona which our culture has been rejecting for decades. So a better translation then ‘noble’ might be ‘courageous’. She is an entrepreneur, a diligent worker, a carer and a provider for the family, and her contributions to the stability of society are obviously valued highly here. But not just the family: in v.20 her care for the poor is held up as a virtue, and she is clearly not so wrapped up in her family group that she turns a blind eye to the needs of others. Charity might begin at home, but it doesn’t stay there.

But to get even more deeply into the text, we need to note two changes within the passage as a whole. The first is a move from what she does to who she is. Before v.25 there is a list of her achievements and actions, but after that it is much more about her strength, wisdom and efficiency. Both her husband and her children praise her, and are clearly proud of her. But above all she fears the Lord (v.31), an assertion which provides the climax to the passage. All that she does, the text implies, flows not just from her devotion to her family, but also to her God. No wonder her husband has full confidence in her (v.11).

The second change is more subtle, though, but even more profound. In v.10 the question is asked (by the Queen Mother?) ‘Who can find such a great woman?’ Then through most of the text such a find is described – she does this, that and the other. But then there is an abrupt change in v.29. Instead of talking about the good wife, the writer suddenly talks to her: ‘… you surpass them all.’ Apparently many Jewish husbands, as part of their Sabbath rituals each Friday evening, recite these words to their wives. There are loads of great women about, but you beat the lot of them! I’m guessing those wives really look forward to that weekly affirmation of who they are, and I wonder whether the rest of us might have something to learn from those Jewish men.

So I wonder whether a more constructive approach to this text, rather than avoiding it as portraying stereotypes which are just not acceptable in the 21st century, might be to learn from the intentions behind it: to affirm the tremendous value of women in our society, and to bring regular personal praise to the one God has given to us.

OT Lectionary</strong

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 15 – Isaiah 50:4-9a (Related)

The Penny Drops!

The Gospel reading for today, which guides the choice of the related OT passage, is about a penny dropping for Peter. Through a series of clever questions Jesus helps Peter to articulate just who he thinks his master is, and, in Matthew’s version of this incident, to give Peter his commission as the rock on which the Church is to be built. If we get this penny-dropping moment, then we’ll be able better to understand the parallel dynamics in Isaiah 50.

The middle chapters of Isaiah (40 – 56), known as ‘Deutero’ – or Second – Isaiah contain four ‘Servant Songs’, and todays passage is the third, and least well-known of these songs. We’re particularly familiar with the fourth, from Is 53, the ‘lamb to the slaughter/by his stripes we are healed’ one which is used extensively during Holy Week. Ever since Philip encountered the Ethiopian official in Acts 8, people have been asking questions about who this ‘servant’ is, and the consensus is that the prophet is referring to the nation of Israel, rather than any particular individual. Of course the NT Christians saw in these words with hindsight a picture of what had happened to Jesus, the perfect Jew, but that isn’t what Isaiah meant by them. To understand what is going on here, we will have to look into the context of Deutero-Isaiah’s writing.

For maybe 70 years the nation had been in exile in Babylon, which they understood was a punishment for their false worship and unjust living. They had gone in spite of many warnings from the prophets, including Isaiah of Jerusalem, who wrote the first 39 chapters of the book we call Isaiah. But in chapter 40 a profound change of mood comes, and rather than a warning, the prophet’s message is ‘Comfort my people’. Their punishment is coming to an end, and they are soon to be returning home. So what are these servant songs doing in this context, with all their talk about torture, mocking and spitting? Perhaps it is to help the people experience a penny-dropping moment.

They can’t help but have been asking the question ‘Why?’ What has all this exile been about? The prophet’s words are to do two things: to reassure them that actually God has been with them all through their ordeal, and that it has not been purposeless, as he has been forming and shaping the people for their future ministry.

It is God who has enabled them to make it through, to get out of bed each morning and carry on. He has been teaching them and instructing them, however little it felt like that, and putting backbone and resilience into them, they have survived the beatings and the racist abuse of the Babylonian slave-masters, and been enabled to become stronger and more resilient. Above all, God has been building their confidence in him, in the face of the Babylonian competition of local gods.

Of course none of it felt like that at the time: it just felt as though they were a broken, guilty and enslaved people who were getting beaten up far from home, a home they never thought they would see again. But that is the point of the story: when we think things can’t get any worse, God is at work unseen, building strength into us and preparing us for the calling he has given us.

So what was the calling of the Jewish nation? The same as it had always been, and the same as Peter’s was to be: to teach others about God. Out of their own distress had come an understanding of suffering, but also an understanding of the faithfulness of God. Those who have learnt important lessons are to become teachers for others: those who have been through desperate times are those who have learnt how to sustain others weary of their own suffering. Once you get that, it might just begin to make sense of what you have been allowed to go through. This passage is about the point of hard times, words to a nation tempted to believe it had all been completely pointless. And once the penny drops, it might just be possible to begin to co-operate with God as he shapes you in the crucible, rather than merely wondering in a agonised way what it’s all about.

As we emerge cautiously from the Coronavirus pandemic, we too might be asking what it has all been about, and as churches begin to plan for their future ministry we may be wondering what lessons have been learnt from it all. This passage encourages us to give thanks to God that he has never left us, and that even though we may have been to hell and back he has enabled us to keep going, and has been building into us good things which only in the future we may come to appreciate fully. That’s a good penny to have dropped.