Words on the Word – Sunday 25th October

The Lectionary Readings for Today:

  • Deuteronomy 34: 1-12 or Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
  • Psalm 90: 1-6, 13-17 or Psalm 1
  • 1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8
  • Matthew 22: 34-46

You can find the Lectionary readings together online here.

Deuteronomy 34

So much of significance happens in this short passage.

First of all, Moses is shown the entire sweep of the Promised Land, and then within moments he is told that he shall not enter it himself. This follows Moses’ unfaithfulness at Meribah (Numbers 20).

With that, Moses dies. Significantly, we are told, Moses dies and is buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in Moab.

The significance of Moab? Well, the Moabites and the Israelites never really saw eye-to-eye. Moab the person was the son of Lot by an incestuous relationship with his own daughter – the penalty for which sin prevented the Moabites entering the assembly of the Lord down to the tenth generation (Deuteronomy 23). The Moabites saw the Israelites as a threat.

Do you remember Balaam’s ass? Balaam had been commanded by Balak, King of Moab, to curse the Israelites, but as you will recall, Balaam blessed them instead.

Do you remember the story of Ruth? Elimelech’s family were forced to move from Bethlehem to Moab because of the famine, and one of these wives, named Ruth, returned with her Mother-in-law Naomi to Bethlehem when Elimelech died. Ruth the Moabite.

Contemporary histories tell us that Moab fell to the Assyrians in the latter part of the 8th Century BC, as featured in the oracle against Moab in Isaiah 15-16. Moab was then conquered by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians in the 6th Century BC, before ultimately falling to Rome.

Yet despite even all this humiliation, God provides even the Moabites, via Ruth, a part to play in the history of God’s people. When Stephen Fry chose what he considered the most mocking send-up of obscure Bible references he chose “Moab is my washpot” for the title of his first autobiography. Little did he know that by selecting Psalm 60:8 (or Psalm 108:9) he was in fact choosing a pivotal verse in the history of the Royal Line of David.

We conclude with the introduction of Joshua son of Nun, who will take over from Moses, and despite his ignominious burial, a moving tribute to the great leader.

Leviticus 19

This is the passage “Be holy as I am holy”.

I can offer no finer words than the Blog post I read earlier this week and which I commend to you now. Read it here.

You may also be interested in the Methodist Holiness Journal, edited by the eminent Revd Dr Andrew Stobart. Past issues are free to download. See here.

Psalm 90

We used to sing Psalms in school, as I have previously mentioned. Psalm 90 was a strong favourite, with its thunderous tune in the minor key and its fearful words.
We were reminded in its terrifying poetry of our own mortality (“The days of our age are threescore years and ten; and though men be so strong that they come to fourscore years”), of our sinfulness and of our hopelessness in the face of God’s wrath.
Then the tune would change into a major key at verse 13, as the Psalmist begs forgiveness and mercy, trusting in the God who has been faithful and merciful before to do so again now.

There are many versions available online – here’s a fine one, albeit to another tune, sung by the Choir of Westminster Abbey. Listen to it here.

Psalm 1

BLESSED – so begins the first Psalm in the First of the Five Books of the Psalter. So too begins Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 5, more commonly called The Sermon On The Mount.

This is no mere coincidence. Time and time again, Jewish Matthew is writing to his Jewish audience about Jesus the Jew, stressing over and over again the links with the Hebrew Scriptures (which we call the Old Testament), and more specifically the first five books called the Torah or Pentateuch.

The Psalmist is not promising future blessings (nor indeed is Jesus), but is saying “You are already blessed because…”

That’s why in some translations we see the word “Happy” instead of “Blessed”. It refers to that sense of inner joy, knowing that you have not walked in the counsel of the wicked nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful (Jewish repetition for emphasis there).

Note then how the Psalmist turns immediately to the polar opposite of the transgressor, by referring to the delight of the one who meditates on God’s Law.
This is a prequel to Psalm 19, which itself is a foretaste of the rapturous Psalm 119.
While there is a danger of abusing this text for a ‘prosperity gospel’ it is more to do with one’s name being fruitful – held favourably in the memories of our descendants rather than prospering in material terms.

This long-lasting memory is then contrasted again with the transience of the wicked, who like the verses in Psalm 90, are compared to dried grass which just blows away into dust.

1 Thessalonians 2

The preaching of the Gospel is never motivated by a desire to appeal to worldly vanities or the approval of mortals. It cannot be suppressed by threats of oppression – indeed such opposition paradoxically only fans the flames and makes them burn brighter – but is emboldened by the Holy Spirit.

Paul and his companions (Silas and Timothy) wanted to preach to the Thessalonians simply because they loved them, and were determined not to let anything get in their way.

Notice how Paul uses the rhetorical device of “litotes” – using a negative in order to affirm something strongly postive. Just like we would say “It’s not bad” when we actually mean something is very good.

THE ESV Study Bible Notes help to bring this out more clearly:

Paul states his thesis in general terms before demonstrating it with specific regard to the Thessalonian mission. Negatively, Paul insists that the missionaries were not characterised by a faulty message, impure motives, or dubious methods. Positively, he states that they preached the gospel as those approved by God and as those committed to speaking in order not to please their human audience but to please God who tests our hearts. Not only did God sanction the missionaries to proclaim his gospel; God continues to approve of their inner motives and integrity. Similarly, negatively, Paul asserts that he and his fellow missionaries had not spoken as charlatans or false prophets in order to gratify their own vanity, line their own pockets, or gain (even legitimate) honour. Positively, he stresses the missionaries’ sincerity and selfless and profound devotion toward the Thessalonian believers, extending beyond the call of duty.

Matthew 22

What is the Law? It was a question at the very heart of what it meant to be Jewish.
Matthew deliberately organised his Gospel as a commentary on Torah / Law, even down to grouping Jesus’ teaching into five (compare with the Pentateuch!) extended blocks of teaching.

Writing to Jews, his emphasis was primarily on Jesus as the fulfilling / interpretation / embodiment of the Law, as well as Messianic fulfilment of OT prophecies.
What question could they ask Jesus? Are you on the side of the Law or not?

Again a trap is in the balance. If Jesus says “I’m on the side of the Law” then these Pharisees will challenge him for all the breaches of the 613 individual laws that made up their legal code. If he says “I’m not on the side of the Law” then he is admitting that the Law doesn’t apply to him and they’ll get him anyway.

So Jesus begins by reciting the Shema : “Hear, O Israel, The Lord your God is One God. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and with all your strength” thus proving his Jewishness if such proof was needed.

Then he goes straight into the Golden Rule – Love your neighbour as yourself. Within those two laws, he says, the whole Torah is contained. Brilliant! Never has the lawyer’s flabber been so gasted, as Frankie Howerd would say.

Thus we become aware of the link with Psalm 1 (delight in God’s Law), and with Leviticus 199 (the holiness of God).

The ground prepared, Jesus asks them about their understanding of the Messiah.
The light goes on, but these Pharisees aren’t brave enough to step away from the shadows.

Grace and peace,

Stephen Froggatt

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