Old Testament Lectionary March 8th Lent 3 Exodus 20:1-17

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.

As we have looked at two previous covenants God made with his people, through Noah and then through Abraham, we come this week to a new and very different arrangement. We noted that the covenant with Noah required nothing from the human side: it was pure grace from God. Abraham had to do a bit more: walk blamelessly and get circumcised. But as we come to what might be described as a covenant through Moses, a whole lot more is required, as set out in what we commonly (but mistakenly) call ‘The Ten Commandments’.

It is true to say that this passage has formed the background to right behaviour in many societies: even if we’re not that good at keeping these ‘Laws’ we know that we ought to. Full of liars, thieves, adulterers etc as our society might be, we still know instinctively what is right and wrong, as even a most perfunctory watching of Gogglebox demonstrates. So what are we to make of this passage? If it isn’t about ‘Commandments’, what is it?

Ten Commandments - Civic Center Park - DSC01371.jpg

The Hebrew refers simply to ten ‘Words’, which is significant in a language which isn’t short of terms for Laws or Commandments: read Psalm 119 if that’s in any doubt. I think it’s most helpful to think of these ‘words’ as ‘teachings’. In other words, if we want our society to go well, and if we want to live in ways which mean that we are walking blamelessly before God, then these are really good ways to behave. You can’t for example ‘command’ anyone to love anyone else, but to teach that love for God is a good thing makes perfect sense.

The fact that there are two tablets of stone is significant: it probably isn’t the case that they wouldn’t all fit on just one. It’s more likely to be the equivalent of copies in duplicate for each party in an agreement. But it is also true that the ‘words’ fall neatly into the first four which are about our relationship with God, and the rest which are about how we treat what Jesus was later to call ‘our neighbour’. Our society is, of course, much happier with the second category than the first, although Christians would want to acknowledge that without the first we struggle to stay motivated enough to manage the second.

So what are Christians to make of these words, particularly since we live not under law but under grace? Firstly, few would deny that a society based on the principles of respect for life, property and family would be a healthy one, our determination to destroy the latter notwithstanding. Paul noted in Galatians 5 that against good behaviour there is no law: live Christ-like lives and you will not come into conflict with the Jewish Law, even though you are no longer bound slavishly to it. Jesus, of course, upheld the Law, but made even more stringent demands on his disciples. It is interesting to note the seeds of Jesus’ teaching in the Ten Commandments themselves: the final one about coveting seems slightly unusual, not just because it is the one that every single one of us breaks regularly, but because in itself it doesn’t really appear to do much harm. So when Jesus tells us that anger can merely be the first step towards violence, lust towards adultery, and so on, we can see that covetousness is something which can lead us in directions it would be better if we did not start out down. Commandments they may not be, but these ‘Words’ are wise for us to heed, individually and as a society. And especially the first four.

OT Lectionary Sunday 13th September Trinity 13 Genesis 50:15-21

 

Two words can sum up the thrust of today’s OT passage: grace and mercy. Joseph’s brothers, those who left him half-dead and then sold him into slavery, are worried because now that Dad has died the respect which Joseph has had for him might run out and he might wreak an awful revenge on them from his position of power. So, whether out of fear for their lives or genuine repentance (it’s hard to tell which from the text – maybe it was a mixture of both) they grovel before him asking that he will forgive them. Joseph’s response shows both grace and mercy, but something else besides which we will come to in a minute.

And old children’s song helpfully tells us that

‘Grace is when God gives us/the things we don’t deserve’

and

‘Mercy is when God does not/give us what we deserve’

Joseph shows both to his brothers, putting away their sins against him, and promising to provide for them into the future. It would be interesting to speculate just what his tears in v 17 were about. Gratitude that they had finally apologised to him? Horror that they should think him capable of such revenge? Maybe, but I wonder also whether his tears were about glimpsing the bigger picture. Showing grace and mercy are human activities, and very good ones too, but behind it all Joseph is able to see the hand of a loving and powerful God.

He has already made the point, in chapter 45, that what they intended as harm for him was used by God to a greater purpose. He repeats the point here, as evidence that to take the path of revenge would be to go counter to God’s larger purposes. I think there is something here for those of us who suffer, and something for those who must forgive.

Let’s begin with forgiveness. I have written elsewhere[i] about an important paper on the nature of forgiveness, so I won’t repeat is here. but I am interested that Joseph does three things. He looks their sin fair and square in the face and calls it what it is – ‘You intended to harm me’ v 20. No excuses: he tells it like it is. Secondly he refuses to take revenge, even though it was well within his power to do so. The most helpful definition of forgiveness I have heard is ‘Handing back to God the right to punish those who have hurt us’. Most of our angst and bitterness comes from the fact that we would like to take revenge ourselves, but most of the time we don’t have the ability to. To give back to God the right to punish sets us free from all that agonised bitterness.

But then Joseph goes one step further: he ‘spoke kindly to them’ v 21. Much of the time this is a step too far. We can forgive people, if we use the definition above, without having to trust them, or even to like them. Much of the time the wisest way is simply to avoid them. But Joseph somehow manages to maintain relationship with those who were so cruel to him.

I think that third step is optional, so don’t beat yourself up if you simply can’t be around those who have hurt you so much. However, the first two are essential.

And once we gain the perspective which comes from having genuinely forgiven, that makes it easier to seek God’s larger purposes. I know how much this hurt, but what did God give me, or build into me through it. what is there, in the harm intended by others, which he has turned to his purposes?

[i] Leach, J God’s Upgrades … My Adventures (Milton Keynes: Authentic, 2014) p 168ff.

 

Coming soon – my new Wednesday blog ‘Through the Bible in Just Over a Year’ – 600 words introducing each book of the Bible, and how we might read it today as Christian disciples.

OT Lectionary Aug 3rd Trinity 7 Is 55:1-5

File:Derby Cathedral - June 2008.jpg 

When we lived in Derby I loved going to the Easter Eve extravaganza at the Cathedral, a truly splendid feast of liturgical excellence and celebratory joy. But the highlight for me was to process out at the end of the service, at around midnight, into the thumping heart of Derby’s Nightclub district, for the ‘Proclamation of the Easter Gospel’. It was really powerful to hear the words ringing through the air: ‘The one you are looking for is not here: he is risen!’ I don’t actually know how much impact this actually had on the passing clubbers, but I found it a moving and memorable occasion.

 

This passage from the prophecy of Isaiah has something of this feel to it. At a first reading it looks as though God is calling the exiles, those who for decades have lived displaced and hard lives, to come back to him and receive, through his grace, the good things which are freely available to them. Indeed it may have this meaning. But there is another theme which brings this interpretation into question. The ‘summoning of the nations’ motif, which is common in Isaiah, comes in in verse 5. The OT is full of reminders that the calling of God’s chosen people is not merely to their own nation: they are to be messengers of God’s grace to the nations. So might the be a passage which hops about between being addressed to Israel and to the pagan nations for whose blessing Israel exists? And might the appeal of verses 1 to 3 to ‘come, buy, eat’ be addressed not only to Israel but also to those currently outside the covenant? Is the prophet saying, in effect, ‘What you’re looking for is not to be found where you’re looking!’? This would also make sense of the following verses.

 

It is a sad reflection that God’s people, whether in Israel or in the Church, need to be called back to him, and reminded that it’s all free, paid for by grace alone. We should already know that, and be living in that truth. But it’s a real challenge for us to think that others, outside our faith, might be attracted to God when they see our splendour (v5).

 

No doubt there is a link here. The almost total lack of people coming running to the church might have something to do with our lack of splendour. I can remember a preacher long ago wishing for the time when the Prime Minister would ring up the Archbishop of Canterbury and say ‘Help me, man of God! What can I do about unemployment, or the economy, or whatever. I need God’s wisdom!’ As far as I’m aware this dream does not often become reality in British politics, but Isaiah hold before us the hope that I might, or indeed will. When the church can convincingly say to the world ‘What you’re looking for is not to be found where you’re looking!’ we might see some more people come running. But before we can do that we need God’s splendour, a splendour which can only come when we ourselves learn more and more what it is to seek God’s grace, and, abandoning all the stuff which this world tells us will bring fulfilment, live wholeheartedly for him. While we continue as weak and compromised as we so often are, nobody else will have any interest in us.