Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 14 – Genesis 50:15-21 (Related)

On a first reading today’s passage, and that of the accompanying gospel from Matthew 18, are both about forgiveness. But in fact there is so much more to it that that. I want to encourage us to read it today from the point of view suggested by the Romans 14 Epistle (although I would have preferred Philippians 2) about seeing things through another’s eyes.

The story is straightforward. Joseph’s brothers, who, you will remember, have chucked him in a pit, sold him as a slave, and reported his death to his Father Jacob, are expecting Joseph to act as they would have done now that dear old Dad, the glue in this dysfunctional family, has died. Their guilty consciences are still expecting punishment, and now is the time, they fear. And, it has to be said, Joseph has not always treated them with total kindness. But the bottom line is that they expect he will act out of cruelty and revenge, as they did all those years ago. So they make up a story about Jacob’s final wishes, just to cover their backs.

Joseph, though, will have none of it, and would have forgiven them, the passage suggests, even without the supposed words of Jacob from beyond the grave. He puts flesh onto the bare bones of the idea of forgiveness with three things: humility, understanding and action. Maybe we, as those commanded (and indeed threatened) to forgiveness by the Gospel, can gain some insight into what this might actually look like.

Humility – ‘Am I in the place of God?’ asks Joseph. God alone is the one able to forgive or not, although of course as Jesus’ followers we do have the power to bind or loose on earth, whatever that means! To refuse to forgive is to attempt to hold on to some kind of power over people, and that is not our job. Forgiveness requires the humility to believe that ‘It is [God’s] to avenge – [he] will repay’ (Deuteronomy 32:35) and to let go of the desire to punish and leave it up to him.

Understanding – ‘God intended it for good’. Just as it is up to the person injured to choose to forgive – it can’t simply be demanded of you – so it is the privilege of the person injured to see things not from our own point of view but from God’s. Imagine how hurtful this comment would have been had it come from the brothers! ‘It was fine to sling you in a pit because God has brought good out of it!’ Please don’t ever say anything like this to someone who has been mistreated. But it is Joseph’s privilege to understand the hand of God even through the pain. I preached on this passage on my final Sunday at the church which I had been forced to leave through having been bullied out, and I made the point that there is a great difference between the perfect will of God and the redemptive will of God. Only the victim can articulate this kind of understanding, but it does remind us that God is greater than our pain.

Action – ‘I will provide for you’. Again the brothers can only think of what they would do in his place, but Joseph reassures them and in doing so puts his money where his mouth is. His forgiveness is not going to be mere words: he is going to take deliberate action to bless those who have sinned against him. Sometimes, of course, this is neither possible nor desirable. Sometimes you just have to get out and go as far away as you can – we’ll consider trust in a moment. But since their paths had to keep crossing, Joseph decided to bless rather than to curse.

So let’s end with perhaps the most important aspect of putting ourselves in others’ shoes. Are they to be trusted? When we have been hurt by someone else, is it possible to rebuild trust? In fact this whole paragraph is about trust, or the lack of it. The brothers have apparently been reconciled to Joseph in chapter 45, but they clearly don’t trust him an inch if they think that now Dad has died he can finally get the vengeance he has been brewing up. And Joseph’s articulation to them of his humility, understanding and actions in the future are clearly meant to rebuild trust between them. So when well-meaning Christians tell damaged people that they just have to let go, forgive and be reconciled, is this sound advice, or yet another barb in the whipping they have already received?

The answer is ‘It depends’. I love that line in Romans 12 (where the Deuteronomy bit about vengeance is quoted by Paul: ‘If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.’ (12:18). Clearly it isn’t always possible, and doesn’t always depend on us. My advice to a victim of repeated domestic violence, for example, would be to get out now and get away. Trust is what got you those repeated beatings in the first place: you trusted someone who was untrustworthy. But at other times, yes, trust can and should be rebuilt. But it takes time – note that Joseph promises to provide for the brothers and their children.

But trust is not to be confused with forgiveness, and the two are not interdependent. If you have heard the command to forgive to include restoration, you might have felt deeply upset, and even scared, by today’s Gospel, if you have not found reconciliation to be possible. You clearly can’t have forgiven them, or you’d be best mates now. So no way is God going to forgive you. But if we redefine forgiveness as we did above, as the deliberate choice to place someone who has harmed you into God’s hands for him to punish, that is completely different from liking or trusting them. It’s much more about letting go and walking away than hugging them and making up. The second isn’t always possible: the first is a choice any of us can make.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 13 – Ezekiel 33:7-11 (Related)

I recently taught a course on Christian initiation at the theological college where it has been my pleasure to work, and I expressed the opinion that virtually all of the problems of the church today had at their root poor and unbiblical practices in initiation, or what has to happen in order for people to join the Church. In particular the notion of repenting, which lies at the heart of both the OT and the Gospel set for today, has, I suggested, gone completely out of fashion, so that everybody is welcome to baptism and to church membership with no questions asked, and no requirement of any change of lifestyle. The constant preaching of repentance by the prophets, John the Baptist,  Jesus himself, and the Apostles, has been soft-pedalled almost out of existence. This appears, in my experience, to be as true for Alpha converts as for those pressganged onto the PCC by the vicar because we need a new treasurer.

The word ‘you’ rings like a refrain through our passage as Ezekiel is reminded by God about the nature of his calling: he is to be like a smoke alarm sounding off to the nation warning them of danger. His job is to make the noise: it is the people’s responsibility to take notice, or to wave something in front of the alarm or press the off button. If people choose to ignore it and die of smoke inhalation, that can’t be blamed on the alarm.

There is an interesting contrast with v.2 of this chapter, where God calls the people to appoint a watchman to warn of coming attackers, and v.7 where it is God, not the people, choosing the watchman. This task is too important to be left to democracy! But while this passage gives us an interesting insight into the role of the prophet – to call out evil and to challenge the people to repentance, it would be too easy to read it merely as a piece of Ezekiel’s autobiography which has nothing to say to us. It is the Gospel passage which broadens out this calling from odd individuals (sometimes very odd!) to the Church as a whole. It simply won’t do to take the ‘I must mind my own business’ line: Christian behaviour and discipleship are not about individual choices. We are the body of Christ, and our Christian life is to be lived together. You only have to look around to see the damage done to the Church’s reputation by a small number of child abuse cases. I can’t help but wonder how often the policies described in Matthew 18 have ever been used in local churches. Or indeed how often new converts are told that that might be if necessary.

But coming back to Ezekiel, we might ask the question ‘Why?’ What’s the point of God sending a warning if the exile is going to happen regardless? There is an answer to that question in v.11, in some words which have become liturgical for Anglicans. God will do all he can to save people from death and destruction. He hates it when people flap their spiritual tea towels at the prophets to get the noise to stop. That poignant final question, ‘Why will you die, house of Israel?’ expresses God’s deep longing for right living in the face of a human refusal to listen and take heed of the warnings. We may not all be called and commissioned like Ezekiel into a specific prophetic ministry, but we are all part of a church which needs to put more beef into repentance than a quick prayer at the start of a service. We need to be encouraging one another to lived changed lives.

Old Testament Lectionary

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 12 – Jeremiah 15:15-21

Now firmly into retirement, I have of course been reflecting on the ministry which has just come to an end, helped this last week by a stay with good friends who laboured with me in my first incumbency. You can’t help but ask questions about what it has all been about, what were the ups and downs, the triumphs and the disasters, and in particular who have I been as a leader?

I have always thought of myself as a teacher, and my dear readers will be able to assess the accuracy or not of this estimate. But my spiritual director used to say that my main gifting was a prophetic one. I could see what had to be done, I could see where a course of action might lead, I was deeply uncomfortable with compromise of any kind, and I was not afraid to tell inconvenient truths. Well, if that is me, I certainly know how Jeremiah felt.

Today’s passage is one of several Laments which occur in this book. We all know what it means to lament, but we may not know that lament is a liturgical form widely recognised in the Bible. It isn’t just a random few verses of moaning: it’s a journey with different phases.  There is usually a cry to God, a description of the particular suffering which the writer is going through, questions to God about why this is happening, condemnation of his enemies, fervent prayer for deliverance, a confession of trust, and sometimes some kind of a response from God. Of course not all elements are there in every single passage, and not necessarily in the same order, but this is the general pattern. Psalm 13 is one good example.

So what does this particular lament teach us, apart, of course from the fact that lament is a good, right and healthy response to suffering. Three things hit me about Jeremiah, and three about God.

Jeremiah’s honesty. It takes either a very brave constitution or a tremendous amount of suffering to enable one to accuse God of being a disappointment. That’s just what Jeremiah does in v.18, and elsewhere in the book, notably 20:7: ‘You deceived me, Lord, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed.’ You’re not playing fair, O Lord – you’re a cheat and a bully! This might come as a shock to people who have been brought up always to speak nicely to God, but the real rawness of Jeremiah’s pain screams through his words, and we cannot but admire his honesty. We feel it, after all, so it won’t be any surprise to God if we pray it. And note too that Jeremiah is also honest about the other side of the situation: he knows that God is merciful (v.15). But that is exactly the problem – where is your mercy now?

Jeremiah’s passion. What exactly has got him into this mess? His passion for God, for justice, and for the people to whom he has been sent. V.16 explains that Jeremiah has been marked out as God’s, and his delight has been to serve him and to proclaim his words (v.16). Because of his prophetic calling he has made some choices, some sacrifices, and while he doesn’t begrudge them, he feels it grossly unfair that making those sacrifices has ended up in his being so depressed.

Jeremiah’s isolation. What is more, his calling from God has led to him being a lone voice, crying as it were in the wilderness where no-one appears to be able to hear him. His grasp of the seriousness of the situation leading up to the exile meant that he wasn’t a lot of fun to be around, and that laughter and levity were highly inappropriate (v.17).

So no wonder he screams out at the God who has put such a costly calling on his life. His honesty is a good example to any of God’s people who feel keenly the weight of their calling, especially when it leads to rejection and suffering, as Jesus in today’s Gospel knew it would. But while it can be a very healthy thing to rant at God, the downside is that he can be as honest back to you as you have been to him.

God’s rebuke. So God begins by calling Jeremiah to repent. Not, I don’t think, of his honesty, but of his doubts; the ‘Why do I bother when no-body takes a blind bit of notice?’ line of thinking he has got himself into. If you really want to be my prophet, as you claim, then speak words which are ‘worthy’ – the Hebrew yaqar means ‘weighty, influential, important’. In other words – man up! You’re not getting anything which does not go with the job, so stop whingeing about it and get on with being a prophet. This is exactly the sort of thing a prophet might say to others, so God is simply giving him a taste of his own medicine.

God’s protection. However, the God who called him into this prophetic ministry is on his side, and promises his protection (v.20-21). I’ll leave it to you to judge, as you read the rest of Jeremiah’s career, just what the cash value of that protection is, as those threatened by his words go to extraordinary lengths to try to shut him up. But as one Christian leader once said, ‘Christian ministry won’t harm you. It might kill you, but it won’t harm you!’ Like Jesus, we have to grasp the eternal dimension and have a firm faith in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting if we are to get through the suffering of this life.

God’s warning. I think the most important little phrase in this passage comes in v.19: ‘Let this people turn to you, but you must not turn to them.’ The ultimate failure for prophets is to lose their cutting edge, to get sucked in to the very actions they are denouncing and to go soft on the sin they are calling people to reject. That is why we need prophets, as well as pastors and teachers, to lead the body of Christ. It isn’t the most comfortable calling, but God help us if that kind of voice is silenced.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 10 – Isaiah 56:1-8 (Related)

First of all, apologies for last week’s omission. I have now located my proper computer and I’m ready to rock and roll from the new house in Sheffield, surrounded though I am with other, as yet unpacked, boxes.

And so to Isaiah, and to the eternal question ‘Just who is God for?’ That’s the subject both for today’s Gospel and for our OT passage, which I have taken the liberty of unfilleting in order that it might make some sense. It might seem a silly question, although both theologically and practically it is a vitally important one. Theologically it is raised by the very idea of a ‘chosen people’, those whom in the OT God had apparently selected to be his own special possession, those who would have a relationship with him and a privileged position in his heart and purposes which other nations were not to share. Is God, then, as universal as we might think? And of course practically it is raised by our natural human tendency to want to be with ‘PLU’s – People Like Us – rather than those who are in some way different. This attitude has manifested itself down the ages through the middle-class culture of the British Church, through apartheid in Dutch South Africa, to denominational mistrust across the globe, and has done so with differing attempts at theological justification.

So let’s go back to basics. When God called Abraham back in Genesis 12, the call was twofold – to be a blessing and to bless. Right at the very start of the Jewish nation there was built in a universality which has always been God’s purpose for this people. But throughout the OT, and on into the New and the Church today, two things have happened. First of all God’s people have been too welcoming, and secondly they have not been welcoming enough.

From very early on the Jewish people formed relationships with other nations, usually either through intermarriage or political expediency, on their terms, not God’s. This inevitably led to false worship, idolatry, and of course idolatry inevitably leads to immorality, since only the True God, Yahweh, is a God or righteousness (far more, incidentally, in the Bible than he is a God of love). The OT prophets could see this happening and so they responded with all that stuff about separation from the nations around, and the need for purity and exclusivism. But that in turn led to a kind of arrogant superiority which made God’s people look down their noses not only at ‘foreigners’ but also at those of their own race whom they considered to be sinners. That’s the kind of attitude characterised by the Pharisees in the time of Jesus. Again the prophets responded, this time with the opposite message, recalling the people to their original vocation to bless other nations, not just to receive God’s blessings for themselves. The classic example of this comes in Is 49:6.

The early Church had to battle with the same question, and it wasn’t until Acts 15 that they finally realised that you didn’t have to be Jewish to follow Jesus, and then only after two dramatic interventions by the Holy Spirit. And all this in spite of Jesus’ quoting from our passage when he cleansed the Temple from those who were out to make money – significantly this market place was set up in the Court of the Gentiles, the nearest non-Jews could get to God. Yet still today, in so many ways, the Church is an exclusive organisation. Every church I have visited in my diocesan ministry has told me that it was a very welcoming place, yet most of the time I have been left standing like a lemon at the back with my coffee while everyone else talks to their friends. When I was a parish priest we tried to enforce a rule that after worship you weren’t allowed to speak to a friend before you had first spoken to someone you didn’t know.

Isaiah today reinforces the original message to Abraham – you are there to be a blessing to all. Even eunuchs, specifically banned from Israelite worship in Leviticus 21 and 22, are included in this dramatic reversal of Scripture – if they are welcome, anybody is.

Yet Isaiah is not taking one prophetic side against the other with his universality. He is very keen to make the point that this inclusion has to be on God’s terms, so that ‘outsiders’ are drawn to God, rather than ‘insiders’ being tempted away from him. Note the conditions Isaiah builds into this passage: maintaining  justice, not doing evil, binding oneself to God to minister to him and love him, and interestingly keeping the Sabbath, which is mentioned twice. This inclusion is not a watering down of the faith, but rather an invitation to all to experience its benefits.

It would be worth pondering three things: firstly, where in my church is there any kind of exclusion, any kind of fear of non-PLUs, any practical actions which ‘others’ might find offputting and unwelcoming? Secondly, where are the areas where our desire to be inclusive has compromised the gospel? And thirdly, might it be possible that like many many churches, we’re blind to our exclusion and kidding ourselves?

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel.

Trinity 8 – Isaiah 55:1-5

Two days ago we moved house, following my retirement. For several weeks we have been ‘eating up’, attempting to empty our freezer and use up any odd ends of jars and packets of food in the pantry. If you’ve done this, you’ll know that there are some unusual meals to be had! But one of the first jobs on arrival in our new home was a ‘big shop’, to restock ourselves with all the essentials which we had gradually been reducing in order to make the move smoother.

This passage invites God’s people to a big shop with a difference. If you’re familiar with this passage from the old Authorised Version, you’ll remember that it started with the Hebrew cry ‘Ho!’ This probably echoed the cries of street vendors and water sellers in the marketplaces of Babylon, where the Israelites were in exile, but we might better translate it as ‘Hey!’ or ‘Listen up!’ This signals an important message which demands our full attention, and when we do listen up we can quickly see why: this big shop is all free! Sadly the huge Morrisons which is our new corner shop didn’t appear to have read Isaiah 55, but for these hungry and thirsty exiles the message was clear. No money required!

This chapter forms the climax to the central chapters of what we call the book of Isaiah, chapters 40 – 55, which are from an unknown prophet who was sent to the nation in exile to tell them that it was soon to be over, and they would soon be on their way home. The exile, symbolised by hunger and thirst (although those were probably physical realities too) is to be replaced by a feast, not just of Morrison’s Savers, but of ‘the richest of fare’. The speaker in this passage is calling out to hungry people ‘Listen up! Come and get food and drink from me! And don’t bother to bring your credit cards – it’s all on me!’

This lavish generosity of God is a great picture of his grace delivered to us by Jesus. But just as last week we thought about the importance of the word ‘if’ in God’s promises to Solomon, there are strings attached, even though it is all a free gift. Isaiah doesn’t make God’s generosity conditional as it was in 1 Kings last week, but he does talk about consequences. However the consequences aren’t portrayed as a burden, but a glorious privilege.

New Priorities

In v.2 the people are invited to rethink what is important, and we are invited in turn to consider what it is we labour for and spend on. Later on, once they have returned, the people are going to be told off by the prophet Haggai for engaging in home improvements while God’s house lies in ruins. So Isaiah here suggests that they rethink, and invest in eternity, not just a comfy life for now. After all, they or their parents had seen the Holy City destroyed at a stroke. That which God offers is eternal, indestructible, rich and ultimately satisfying.

A New Deal

The idea of ‘covenant’ is a vitally important one in the OT. Basically it is the deal between the people and God of a mutual relationship. Like a marriage covenant it binds two parties together, but also like a marriage it can be broken, and in fact the people are constantly breaking the relationship with God by their behaviour, their false worship, and the injustice and oppression which inevitably follow. But this time it’s going to be for ever. What he promised to David, Israel’s greatest king, is going to be made real, lasting and permanent. We now realise that this is going to happen through great David’s greater Son, and though we might play fast and loose with God, his desire for us, whether we like it or not, is going to be unwavering and unfaltering.

But coming out of these two gifts of God’s grace is a new responsibility. His people are going to be his witnesses to everyone else, those outside the Covenant with Israel. This echoes God’s original words to Abraham, right back in Genesis 12, that the purpose of God’s covenant people was to be blessed by God and to be a blessing to all the other nations around. In spite of the constant drag towards narrow nationalism and holy huddle mentality on the part of the Jews (and tragically on the part of many Christian churches today) the whole point is witness and outreach, and many prophets, including whoever wrote this portion of Isaiah, had to keep calling people back to this privilege and responsibility. And note the PS in v.5 – why is all this so important? Not for you; not for Israel, not even for the other nations, but ‘because of the Lord your God’. Nothing less is appropriate for our splendid God.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 4 – Zechariah 9:9-12 (Related)

As you will have noticed, I like to take our OT passages as a whole (and often as more than a whole as we place the allotted verses in a larger context). But this week I was struck by one phrase, and decided it was worth exploring. The phrase comes in v.12: ‘prisoners of hope’. What’s all that about then? Isn’t hope a good thing? How then can it imprison us? There’s something important here to explore, particularly from the context in which we’re all living at the moment.

To understand the phrase, we do, of course, have to look at the rest of the passage. It’s a prophetic oracle of restoration after exile, but the language is important. It uses what’s called the Zion tradition, a belief among earlier prophets that God would ride out as a mighty warrior to protect Jerusalem from her enemies. You can find this kind of language in the Psalms, notably  2, 46, 47 and 48, as well as in some prophetic books. When the Holy City is under threat God will rouse himself and come to her rescue, scattering and punishing her enemies and renewing his reign over them. This is the kind of language used in this passage, although of course the strange reference to donkeys makes us think immediately of Palm Sunday, a thought to which we shall return.

Well, that’s interesting, but it doesn’t explain why hope might become a prison. Here the context might help us. The nation, not her enemies, has been scattered. Jerusalem has been smashed down, and the nation has suffered abject defeat and captivity in exile. And contrary to expectations God apparently did not lift and finger to help: indeed many prophets have said that it was God himself who did the defeating and scattering.

And yet the Zion theology was still alive and strong. People were still hoping that the Divine Warrior might yet wake up and rescue them by smashing up their enemies. It is this very hope which keeps them prisoners, says Zechariah. The expectation that God will do what he has always done will not die, and so they are kept imprisoned, and, significantly, prevented from seeing any other outcome. They have put God in a box, and in so doing have boxed themselves in. In fact you can see that this hope has survived into the NT when the disciples ask Jesus, just before his ascension, ‘Are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ (Acts 1:6). Jesus has tried to subvert this Zion Warrior tradition by the style of his entry to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, but like many the disciples were kept prisoner by their hope, and simply hadn’t got the message that God was acting though Jesus in a new and different way.

This raises an important question for us. What from the past might be imprisoning us, and preventing us from expecting that God will do something new and different? I can remember as a keen young charismatic in the 80s hearing someone commenting that the frequent charismatic prayer ‘Lord, do it again!’ was a much less biblical prayer than ‘Lord, do something new!’ So often our imagination cannot stretch beyond more of the same, a repeat performance of what we have seen in the past. It is this limited vision which can make us into prisoners.

At a time when we are all longing to ‘get back to normal’ this might just be an important word from God to his Church. Zechariah describes this prison of hope as a ‘waterless pit’, a place of dryness, frustration and dashed expectations. God’s desire is to return us to a ‘fortress’, a strong place from where we can experience safety, confidence, and more blessing than ever before.

OT Lectionary Oct 11th Trinity 19 Job 23:1-9, 16-17

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages

All three of today’s readings are in some sense about finding (or not) God. Hebrews 4 assures us that we always have complete access to God through Jesus our High Priest, while Mark 10 reminds us that even when we find him we might also find him too demanding, such that we want to lose him again. But poor old Job has a more basic and fundamental dilemma – he can’t find God at all.

A psychiatrist in a famous joke is trying to convince a delusional patient that in fact he isn’t dead. After much fruitless discussion he has an idea: he asks his patient if dead men bleed when cut. ‘Of course not’ came the reply. ‘Dead men don’t bleed!’ So the doctor grabs a nearby scalpel and plunges it into the patient’s arm. Seeing the blood starting to flow, the patient declared in alarm ‘I was wrong – dead men do bleed!’

Job is sitting in the ash heap, bereaved, afflicted and apparently abandoned by God, and as if that isn’t bad enough he has three friends trying to help him by telling him that it’s all his own fault, as we sometimes are today by well-meaning prayer ministry team members who have had it revealed to them by the Lord in a word of knowledge that there is some secret sin in our lives which is preventing us from getting healed. The ‘comforters’, annoying though they are, can’t on one level be blamed: they are upset because their friend’s suffering refuses to fit in with their world-view where all suffering has to be the direct result of personal sin. So they try to force Job to admit his guilt by browbeating him to confess it all, to agree with them that dead men do bleed after all. Difficult thought this proves to be, it is even harder for them to give in and admit that innocent people do suffer.

Ilya Repin. Job and His Friends.

Job, though, is convinced of his innocence, which of course you could be in those days before Jesus came and complicated it all by saying that to think about it is just as bad as actually doing it. He knew only too well that he hadn’t committed adultery or anything like that, so his friends’ attempts to convince him that somehow he must have done were, understandably, rather annoying to him. So what he needed to do was to get things clear with God, who, he had every confidence, would agree with his take that in fact he was innocent. The problem was that God was nowhere to be found: wherever Job looked, there was nothing but absence.

You may have experienced something like this at some time in your life, and it can be mildly comforting to know that even this sense of complete abandonment has biblical precedent. But the key verse, I think, and the nearest we’ll get to a happy ending for a few chapters yet, comes right at the end of our text. God has terrified Job by his refusal to show up and vindicate him, yet (v 17) ‘I am not silenced by the darkness’. Anyone who has known severely depressed people will know that silence is the hallmark of despair, but Job has not yet got there. While he still has the strength and will to rant against God, he is still alive, and, paradoxically still has hope. It is when we decide simply to ‘curse God and die’ that we are really love. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

OT Lectionary Oct 4th Trinity 18 Genesis 2:18-24

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages

At the end of the first account of creation in 1:31 God surveys his creations and declares that it is all good. But here, for the first time, in 2:18, God sees something which is not good: the solitary life of the man. So begins the story of Eve, of marital relationships, and of family life, about which Jesus has much to say in the gospel reading for today.

This passage is, of course, something of a red rag to the bull of feminism, but the language is carefully used to avoid any kind of pecking order (in spite of what later exegesis has made of it). The Hebrew ‘ezer (help) is almost always used of help from God, and thus denotes help from a superior above, rather than the aid of a junior assistant. But this might go the other way, and exalt the woman above the man, so it is qualified by the word which the NIV unhelpfully translates as ‘suitable’ for him, but which actually has the meaning of being ‘alongside’ him. So mutuality is the name of the game.

The naming of the animals demonstrates this same kind of mutuality with all creation. Naming implies dominion, but also care and respect, rather than domination. Those of us who have kids name them, and however bizarrely some might go about this task, it is still done out of love and reverence. Names can be used cruelly, but this is not the intention of living parents.

Michelangelo. The Creation of Eve.

The divine surgery uses an unusual word for the anaesthetisation, almost always used of God’s action on humans, and often for a period of divine revelation. But the result is a companion for mutual enjoyment. It is interesting that in the first account of creation in Genesis 1, the man and the woman are commanded to be fruitful (1:28), but there is no such command here. The sexual union which they are to enjoy seems to be completely divorced from procreation, but rather seems to be just for fun and pleasure. The final verse emphasises this: their life together was literally ‘shameless’.

This is a passage which is often used in the battle over appropriate sexuality, and of course Jesus uses it, in today’s Gospel reading, to speak about the danger and harm of divorce. The repeated emphasis on ‘male and female’ has been used heavily by the anti-gay-marriage lobby, and it is difficult to see how it cannot be taken as normative about what ‘marriage’ is, as indeed it has been for millennia. Whatever one thinks about gay partnerships, it is surely difficult to call them ‘marriages’.

But to sidestep this controversy, the passage has been seen as a foundational one for understanding God’s purpose for married relationships. They are to be based on mutual love, care and respect, they are to be shamelessly intimate, and they are meant to bring lifelong joy and companionship. In the next chapter we are going to see how it can all go wrong, and we are still living with those consequences in many tragic marriages today, where one partner or the other attempts to dominate or harm the other. We ignore God’s purposes at our peril.

OT Lectionary Sept 27th Trinity 17 Numbers 11

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages

Nostalgia, they say, isn’t what it used to be. When things get tough, everything from the past suddenly looks wonderfully attractive, even cucumbers, melon and garlic. Every church leader knows that, and many agree with it, while others, like Moses, have to contend with it again and again among the people they are called to lead.


Our passage today gives us a picture of church which is all too familiar. The people want to go backwards, and they remember the past selectively, focussing on the garlic but not on the slavery, the beatings, the sheer exhaustion and hopelessness of it all. The Devil you know is obviously preferable to the unknown future, and they feel insecure in spite of God’s promises to them, showing that here as in so many places the root problem is faithlessness. So upset are they that Moses can hear the sound of weeping, which is odd because it is usually the presence of onions, rather than the lack of them, which causes people to cry.

Just as the people turn on Moses in their distress, so Moses turns on God, pouring out to him his utter exhaustion with the task to which he has been called. In fact there are several occasions when Moses reaches the end of his tether, and it is fascinating to note (and I do intend to write a book about this one day) how each time Moses complains to God and asks that he might die rather than carry on with this miserable existence, his cries bring about divine and supernatural action. For those in any doubt this passage proves once and for all that God is male. According to all the Mars vs Venus literature when women are upset they want a hug, not a solution, whereas men simply want to get on and solve the problem, which is why blokes so often get it wrong. God does not say ‘There there’ to Moses: he acts, by anointing with his Spirit a task force who can share the burden with him.

But even this group don’t get it. Even with this spiritual anointing they are jealous for their position, and are peeved that two elders who didn’t turn up for the event had nevertheless been anointed. Moses himself makes a prophetic statement, which looks over the horizon to Pentecost, wishing that all of God’s people could receive his Spirit and become prophets.

Grumbling congregations, burnt-out leaders, jealous church officers; nostalgia for the past golden age, death wishes, despair: all these are sadly around as much as ever in today’s church. Even the other side of the cross and Pentecost we still hanker for the good old days, and often wear our leaders out doing so. This story challenges us to reflect on what we might be doing to those whom God has set over us. How terrible if we were causing them to despair of life itself. It also calls us to believe in the future which is coming, even if it seems aeons away, to look forward with faith and hope, and to walk together confidently under the anointing of God’s Holy Spirit.

OT Lectionary Sept 20th Trinity 16 Jeremiah 11:18-20

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages

This passage begins a section of Jeremiah’s prophecy which contains a series of laments. Jeremiah’s image is as a bit of a misery, living as he did during a time when the national life of Israel was unravelling, and which culminated in the destruction of the city of Jerusalem by the invading Babylonians. Clearly he is deeply distressed about what he can see happening around him, and about what he sees as the inevitable destruction to come. But in this section we get a glimpse of a deeper sorrow: that of misunderstanding, betrayal and violence. This is a classic case of ‘Shoot the messenger’. It has been said that the foremost task of a leader is to define reality: sadly many people have no interest in reality and become deeply hostile towards those who try to make them see  what is going on and where things are headed. Jeremiah seems to feel that this betrayal is even worse because it comes from the people among whom he lives, the men of Anathoth. They ought to be his friends, but they have chosen to make an enemy of him.

God has somehow revealed to the prophet the plans of those who oppose him, and his punishment is clearly because of his godly calling and life. the unusual reference to the tree in v 19 may be an ironic reference to Psalm 1, where those who remain faithful to God, as Jeremiah clearly does, are likened to a flourishing tree. ‘Well, let’s chop that tree down!’ say his opponents. Jeremiah’s response is a cry both for vengeance and vindication, and God’s response, immediately after  our set section, is a promise of vengeance with a vengeance.

Rembrandt. The Prophet Jeremiah Mourning  over the Destruction of Jerusalem.

Many church leaders will know this kind of opposition from those among whom God has called them to serve, and the severe pain of violent opposition from the very people who ought to be alongside him. Many will know the almost equally painful experience of passive-aggressive behaviour among other church members. We know from other passages (for example 20:7) that Jeremiah felt that God was as much to blame as his earthly enemies for his distress. And of course today’s Gospel reminds us that Jesus himself was the victim of misunderstanding, hostility, and his Father’s will.

So what of the cry for vengeance? And of God’s promise to do exactly that? How does that square with the NT calls for us to turn the other cheek and forgive our enemies? Clearly God thinks it is an appropriate cry, since he agrees to do what the prophet begs him to do. The first thing to note is that Jeremiah’s cry is real. I’m never quite convinced by nice Christians who have been through hell but blithely say ‘But I forgave them!’ Some experiences are so damaging that the pain goes on for years afterwards, and it is only human for us to cry for punishment on those who have caused such pain to us and to our families. The Bible certainly seems to validate such cries for vengeance, but the NT adds a further dimension. My favourite definition of forgiveness is ‘the handing back to God of the right to punish.’ However much I might want my enemies to roast in eternal brimstone, I can choose to let God alone have the right to punish, knowing that ‘the judge of the earth will do right’. This sets me free from their power, and it also gives me the satisfaction of knowing that if it comes to it God can mete out much more severe punishment than I ever could. Forgiveness cannot simply mean having nice feelings toward those who have so damaged us, or even trusting them again. But to give back to God the right to deal appropriately with them is as good as it gets, and is a gloriously liberating choice to make.