Today in the Spirit: Proper 25A

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We continue in the liturgical year through the period leading up to his crucifixion in which Jesus is tested by the religious leaders of Jerusalem. In Year A, we skip the narrative with the query of the Sadducees about marriage at the resurrection (that comes in Year C) and move to the Pharisees’ questioning Jesus about which is the greatest commandment. The assigned Gospel reading out of Matthew 22:34-46 brings together both this question from the Pharisees and one that follows from Jesus to them about whose son is the Christ. 

The appointed OT reading from Exodus 22:21-27 is part of a list of commandments from YHWH to the people of Israel about how to treat aliens, orphans, widows and the poor. The obvious connection to the Gospel reading is with Jesus’ citing Leviticus 19:18, You shall love your neighbor as yourself, as part of his reply to the Pharisees’ question on the greatest commandment. The selection of Psalm 1 this week brings us closer to understanding from a biblical perspective the collision of wills between the religious leaders and the Son of God at the time of his death. The Pharisees feign delight…in the law of the LORD through their interrogations, but Jesus will show them to be imposters and hypocrites. They are the wicked who stand in the way of sinners

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The second in a series of consecutive Epistle readings out of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is from 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8. Here, in response to accusing Jews in Thessalonica and maybe Philippi, Paul commends to the Thessalonian saints his own behavior and that of his team who were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children (7). The assigned Collect is a prayer to God for peace among the people of God, believing God to be sovereign over “all things both in heaven and on earth.”  

The Collect

Almighty and everlasting God, you govern all things both in heaven and on earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of your people, and in our time grant us your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

You Shall Not Wrong a Sojourner (Exodus 22:21-27)

“You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless. If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him. If ever you take your neighbor’s cloak in pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down, for that is his only covering, and it is his cloak for his body; in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.”

Our OT reading this week is a portion of a larger section of Exodus (21:1-23:9) containing miscellaneous laws from YHWH about how his people shall live together in holiness, maintaining responsibility for one another. The main verbs wrong and mistreat shed light on a particularly ugly reality of the human condition under the bondage of sin–our tendency, either from pure prejudice or self-protection, to abuse the disadvantaged in society. We grab from those we can succeed in taking. The passage makes it clear that it is in the character of the One God both to stand up for the alien, widows and orphans, and the poor, and against those who would oppress them.

As for personal application, we might have to open our hearts to hear God speaking to us through filters that cause us to distance ourselves from the force of the message. We say, “We live in a society more advanced;” or “we have laws protecting the disadvantaged;” or “we have been brought up to be ‘nice.’” And, though in God’s providence this is less true than before, we also have succeeded in separating ourselves in communities or neighborhoods to avoid much contact with the poor.

In spite of all these filters shielding us from too much bother from the OT law, God reveals higher standards in the NT that take us beyond just avoiding mistreatment of the poor to welcoming all. Consider one passage of Jesus’ teaching in Luke, whose Gospel champions reaching out to those in need:  “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:12-14).

Today, Holy Spirit, I invite you to break through any comfort I might feel about obedience to this passage from Exodus and speak to me of the compulsion to reach out to the disadvantaged where I live with actions that communicate the love of Jesus.

On His Law He Meditates Day and Night (Psalm 1)

Blessed is the man
    who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
    nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
 but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree
    planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
    and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
    but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
    nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
 for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.

Consider the phrase on [YHWH’s] law he meditates day and night. We might very well picture a person sitting with his eyes squinting over an open book at all hours of the day. Well, taking into account there were really no books (and few scrolls) to speak of, we may need to adjust our thinking. The Hebrew word (haga) translated meditates here is most often used in the OT for mutters or speaks or moans (see Isaiah 8:19, 59:3). So we may do better imagining our blessed person in this psalm pondering in his mind about the similarities and contrasts he sees between the world around him and what he knows of God’s law, and even occasionally speaking up about it. The law of the LORD here and elsewhere in the OT is not simply the word written but the special revelation of the One God to his people Israel, communicating not only what humans are to do in the world but also, and more importantly, who God is.

For us, the law of the LORD is Jesus Christ. We see in his person, in his words and actions and character, as much as our limited minds can handle as revelation of the Father God. So Paul writes expansively in Colossians: He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation…He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation (1:15,19). And in 2 Corinthians: For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (4:6). Do you find the Holy Spirit is working in you in such a way that, increasingly, you are contemplating Jesus in the world around you, reflecting on how his teachings apply in every circumstance, muttering to yourself for his intervention in the wars overseas and troubles at home? If so, hear this psalm whispering in your ear, Blessed are you.

Today, in the Spirit, hearing Psalm 1, we give thanks for the sanctifying work of the Son of God, causing us to meditate on him more and more, and convincing us that we are, by his grace, blessed and no longer wicked in the sight of the Father.

As You Know (1 Thessalonians 2:1-8)

For you yourselves know, brothers, that our coming to you was not in vain. But though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict (1-2).

For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness (5).

Paul uses the phrase (as) you know or (as) we know multiple times in every letter of his we have in the NT. (Perhaps the most famous is in Romans 8:28, And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose). In most cases the tone of this language is not mean-spirited or condescending, but friendly, intended for edification. It is a rhetorical device designed most often to make clear that which may have been left hazy in the heads of the saints from his teaching in person, and to remind them of the content of sound doctrine.

Note that Paul uses this convention three times in the Epistle reading for this Sunday. Against the accusations of Jewish opponents haranguing the saints in Thessalonica, Paul urges them gently to remember what they learned from their experience of him. Devotionally, beloved, we find the Holy Spirit giving us a kind of “as you know” push forward in our walk with Jesus. We may have an experience of hearing clearly from God. At the moment we are clear as to what are the next steps forward, but as the days pass and life circumstances press upon us, we forget and lose the impulse to act.

Enter the Holy Spirit with friendly reminders–maybe in prayer or through Scripture or in fellowship with others. Here is the friendship of Christ. The Puritan Richard Sibbes puts the matter of Christ’s interaction with us this way: “There is liberty which is the life of friendship; there is a free intercourse between friends, a free opening of secrets. So here Christ opens his secrets to us, and we to him.”

Today, Holy Spirit, we receive the congenial as you know of St. Paul to the Thessalonians as a reminder of truth and a reminder of your kind “intercourse” with us as a friend.   

What Do You Think about the Christ? (Matthew 22:34-46)

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David, in 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 then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions (41-46).

In this passage about the identity of the Christ, only Matthew gives us this opening dialogue between Jesus and his audience before he goes to the question of logic in Psalm 110. Matthew has Jesus speaking specifically to a group of Pharisees (that’s important) and asking two questions: “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” He waits for their answer, “The son of David.” 

We must not make too much of it, but there may be some devotional value in concentrating on this little opening exchange. To the non-believing Pharisees those preliminary questions are demanding more than just an answer to a Bible quiz, but reflection on their understanding of the coming Messiah. The overall challenge is over the divinity of this coming One, with a stream of thought that goes like this, What do you think about the Christ…He is not the son of David…How is it then that the Christ cannot be God? 

And what about us who are believers? Does not Jesus provoke in us similar reflection? You who confess faith in Jesus as the Messiah–What do you think? Is he to you merely the sum of his words and deeds on the pages of a book? Is he a healer? Is he a teacher? Is he the Son of God? While Jesus in Matthew presses the Pharisees to put aside stubborn unbelief, his invitation to us is to cast aside reduced belief. Jesus brings out a hint of Jesus’ divinity in Psalm 110. The author of Hebrew finds in Psalm 45 something more explicit on the divinity of Christ. He writes: But of the Son [the Father God] says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom. (from Psalm 45:6,7). Astounding!

Today, in the Spirit, who is in us to build us up in a life of devotion to Christ as God, we read Jesus to the Pharisees and hear the question in our hearts, “What do you think about the Christ?” 

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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