Re the Daily Office Readings August 5 Anno Domini 2020

The Readings: Judges 7:19––8:12; Acts 3:12-26; John 1:29-42

(The Lectionary, oddly, omits vv.13-21; they are retained in the above link.)

Gideon (“Hacker”)/Jerubbaal (“Let Baal contend against him”) becomes a more ambiguous character as the story proceeds. The hacking moves from the Baal altar and sacred pole to the Midianites with their leaders Zebah and Zalmunna, to the officials and elders of Succoth and Penuel. Commentators argue about the latter: personal vengeance (Boling) or military justice (Alter); perhaps the ambiguity of the action is equally important. There’s no celebration of the God-given victory, simply a quick return to the local rivalries and jockeying for status.

As speeches aiming at repentance go, Peter’s is one of the gentlest: you’re in the inside lane, you acted “in ignorance,” repent so that “the times of refreshing may come.” At the other end of the spectrum, Stephen’s combative sermon, which, not surprisingly, lead to his stoning (Acts 7). Is Luke inviting us to wonder about how the Gospel is proclaimed?

John the Baptist does his work, pointing folk to Jesus (vv.35ff), and now it’s Simon who acquires a new name (‘Cephas’ in Aramaic, ‘Peter’ in Greek [recall ‘petrify’, ‘petroleum’, etc.]). Vv.29-34 are curious stylistically, with no indication of John’s audience. Probably the author is reporting of John’s testimony to us, the readers. Jesus: “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” “the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit,” “the Son of God:” The author is, as it were, writing checks; let us see how he cashes them, how he shows Jesus enacting these descriptions.

Re the Daily Office Readings August 4 Anno Domini 2020

Photo by Balaji Malliswamy

The Readings: Judges 7:1-18; Acts 3:1-11; John 1:19-28

Plenty to wonder about in today’s readings.

Judges: one of the challenges in the story is how to make God’s action visible (“You have too many people on your side. If I were to hand Midian over to them, the Israelites might claim credit for themselves rather than for me, thinking, We saved ourselves.” [CEB]). To play—shamelessly—with Gideon’s jars (vv.16, 19f), “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Cor. 4:7 NRS). What does this suggest for interpreting our own experiences of weakness?

Another challenge: Gideon’s lack of confidence. Here God’s humility is on full display: one would think that God’s word would be more impressive than an enemy conversation about a dream, but if what Gideon needs is the latter, God accommodates. This humility shows up often enough that we might wonder why it’s not more prominent in our descriptions of the divine character.

Acts: there were various non-risky ways Peter could have responded to the lame beggar. But this is the Peter who, in the middle of a storm no less, said to Jesus “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (Matt. 14:28). “…in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” In our context (COVID 19, again), what might Jesus desire to heal?

John: a cautionary story re the importance of asking the right questions. The folk from Jerusalem have their set questions—and the entire conversation is an exercise in talking past each other.

Re the Daily Office Readings August 3 Anno Domini 2020

Photo by Anton

The Readings: Judges 6:25-40; Acts 2:37-47; John 1:1-18

One of those days in which the readings head off in three different directions…

It is surprising that ‘Gideon’ is not a more popular name, for in today’s text he’s so wonderfully human. He obeys the command re the altar, pole, and bull—but does so at night. Under the Spirit’s possession he musters the tribes—and then as he waits for them to arrive requests additional signs of divine favor!

Luke reports of the first converts after Peter’s sermon “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people” (2:44-47a). Impossible not to notice the brutal contrast with Washington’s failure to continue enhanced unemployment benefits in the face of the growing COVID 19 pandemic. “In God we trust” needs an asterisk identifying the god in question.

John’s prologue speaks of Jesus as “full of grace and truth” (v.14) That looks an echo of the Hebrew phrase chesed we’emet (“steadfast love and faithfulness” in Exodus 34:6). At the same, the Greek aletheia ‘truth’ emphasizes more the cognitive (cf. John 8:32; 18:37). Then v.17: “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” That raises a number of questions we might keep in mind as we continue to read John:

  • Would John like Matthew’s “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (5:17)?
  • Would John like Paul’s “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good. (Rom. 7:12)?
  • Where does John show “grace and truth” coming through Jesus in contrast to the law?

Re the Daily Office Readings August 2 Anno Domini 2020

Judges 6:1-24; 2 Cor. 9:6-15; Mark 3:20-30

(The Lectionary ends the Mark reading at v.30; the above link takes the reading through v.35, for which see below.)

In the middle of encouraging the Corinthians to participate in the collection for the Jerusalem Christians Paul cites Psalm 112:9, which provides a point of entry into today’s readings.

Psalm 112 together with Psalm 111 form the only diptych in the Psalter, Ps 111 celebrating the Lord, Ps 112 celebrating the one who fears the Lord, and whose character and actions mirror the Lord’s. In the Book of Common Prayer the pair appears on pp.754-755, and repay extended contemplation. So Paul cites 112:9 as part of his encouragement that the Corinthians’ generosity mirror the Lord’s.

The pair Ps 111-112 provide a way of hearing the Judges reading: the Lord is about to do something about the Midianites; the Lord invites Gideon’s participation.

Mark, meanwhile, has given us one story (the dispute with the scribes, vv.22-30) sandwiched by another story (Jesus’ upset family, vv.19b-21, 31-35). Ps 111-112’s invitation to mirror the character and actions of the Lord: the downside is that folk respond in different ways, creating divisions. And when push comes to shove, Jesus is clear where he lands: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (v.35). Generosity.

Re the Daily Office Readings August 1 Anno Domini 2020

Jael by Maarten van Heemskerck

The Readings: Judges 5:19-31; Acts 2:22-36; Matthew 28:11-20

Three texts with their own surprises today.

Deborah and Barak’s victory song ends straining against the constraints of the genre. Here’s Davis (from her Opening Israel’s Scriptures): “No sooner has Sisera ‘fallen ruined’ (5:27) than the poetic narrator takes us to an elegant house in Canaanite territory, where the enemy commander’s mother waits by the window for his returning chariot. In a surprising shift in point of view, we are admitted to the thoughts of someone we would never expect to know; through her, we see manifested the multiple and conflicting cruelties of war. With one side of her thoughts, Sisera’s mother is the heartless enemy, relishing the picture of his men dividing up the sexual spoils of war—Israelite women, ‘a womb or two for every chieftain’ (5:30). Yet at the same time, she is a woman longing for her son, puzzled that his chariot is ‘shamefully slow to come’ (5:28), more fearful than she admits to herself and her female attendants.” And if we were to let that scene shape our imaginations…

The Acts reading continues Peter’s speech at the Feast of Pentecost. Jesus of Nazareth was divinely credentialed through “miracles, wonders, and signs.” But “You, with the help of wicked men, had Jesus killed by nailing him to a cross.” But as Jesus’ resurrection makes clear, “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” The reading breaks off there, to be continued tomorrow. The break invites us to wonder what comes next. Does Peter follow the lead of one of Jesus’ parables (“As for my enemies who don’t want me as their king, bring them here and slaughter them before me” [Lk. 19:27])? CEB) How is Jesus going to play “Lord and Christ”?

There’s a parallel moment in the Matthew reading. “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore…” How’s Jesus going to continue? “So I’m through with you losers and am bringing in the angels to do the job right?” (Recall “Then all the disciples left Jesus and ran away” [Matt. 26:56]!) But Jesus employs this authority to stay vulnerable: “go and make disciples of all nations… I myself will be with you every day.”

We’ve had enough bad experiences of power and authority that words like ‘lord’, ‘authority’, ‘father’, etc. can trigger. Today’s Acts and Matthew texts are important also because they let us watch what Jesus does with power and authority—also so that we can continue to learn how to use these in less destructive ways. “You know that those who rule the Gentiles show off their authority over them and their high-ranking officials order them around. But that’s not the way it will be with you. Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. Whoever wants to be first among you will be your slave–just as the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people” (Matt. 20:25-28).

Re the Daily Office Readings July 31 Anno Domini 2020

Photo by Leon LIu

The Readings: Judges 5:1-18; Acts 2:1-21; Matthew 28:1-10

The Lectionary splits Deborah’s song in two; we’ll get the second half tomorrow. Meanwhile the middle of v.11? The KJV reads:

there shall they rehearse the righteous acts of the LORD,
even the righteous acts toward the inhabitants of his villages in Israel:

In later translations the underlined phrases are replaced by “triumphs” (NRSV), “victories” (CEB), “blessings” and “saving acts” (NJB), or “bounties” (Alter). The challenge the translators are addressing: the Hebrew text is using tsidqot (literally “righteousnesses”) as shorthand for actions motivated by righteousness, with ‘righteousness’ itself often denoting, as someone put it, doing right to those to whom one is obligated. The LORD has made promises to Israel; here the LORD is doing right by Israel, keeping those promises, giving victories.

The KJV helpfully puts words or phrases the translators supply in italics. In this verse their additions limit the “righteous acts” to the LORD. A more straightforward translation might distribute these acts—so NRSV and CEB:

there they repeat the LORD’s victories,
his villagers’ victories in Israel. (CEB)

The LORD’s righteousness is mirrored by the righteousness of those who respond to Deborah and Barak’s muster (with positive and negative examples enumerated in vv.12-18). With Romans still ringing in our ears, we might recall “For in it [the Gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from [divine] faithfulness to [human] faithfulness” (1:17a, my translation).

And that righteousness, on full display in the remaining two readings.

Parenthetically, we might title the Matthew reading “The LORD who couldn’t stay on script.” After the carefully scripted angelic appearance, complete with special effects, in which the angel explains What Needs to Come Next, Jesus tosses the script and comes onstage to greet Mary and Mary. Paul nailed it: “And the life that I now live in my body, I live by faith, indeed, by the faithfulness of God’s Son, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20 CEB).

Re the Daily Office Readings July 30 Anno Domini 2020

Photo by Roger Starnes Sr

The Readings: Judges 4:4-23; Acts 1:15-26; Matthew 27:55-66

King Jabin has 900 chariots of iron, which is 900 more than Barak son of Abinoam has. 900 reasons for discouragement or despair, and if those are our current demons, Barak’s story is just what the doctor ordered.

If we have the bandwidth for additional issues, we might wonder about Jael’s “Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; have no fear.” In the early stories deception is a not uncommon tactic (Abraham, Rebekah, the Hebrew midwives, David, etc.); how might we think about this? Lopsided power relations seem to affect the moral calculus, with something of the trickster (e.g., Br’er Rabbit) in, say, Jacob. Churchill: “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” But from about the exile (586 BC) onwards deception seems to fade as a tactic, not because the heroes become more virtuous, but perhaps because innocent suffering is reimagined as potentially redemptive (the servant in Isa 40-55, Daniel, the Maccabean martyrs).

There is a delicious irony in Matthew’s text. Joseph of Arimathea and “the chief priests and the Pharisees” (yes, an odd combination) have quite different agendas, but share the same assumption, that Jesus will stay dead. Even King Jabin’s 900 chariots wouldn’t have helped with that one.

Re the Daily Office Readings July 29 Anno Domini 2020

Photo by JImmy Chang

The Readings: Judges 3:12-30; Acts 1:1-14; Matthew 27:45-54

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Who is speaking? It could easily be so many people in so many different times and places, including the Israelites suffering under Moabite oppression (the first reading), the author of Psalm 22, or the strange Jew—Jesus—who’s the focus of Matthew’s story.

Matthew’s brief notes (vv.51-54) tell us that this is an unusual death, prompting God to start the General Resurrection early. And, as Luke tells the story, after Jesus is raised the disciples ask “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” A reasonable question, and a question that implies other questions, e.g., method.

Ehud’s story (the first reading), a scatological tale the first hearers must have relished, suggests one method. And there are so many so richly deserving Eglons out there—in most times and places, and so many means of assassination. Jesus parries the question, handing the task of the continuing discipling of the disciples to the Holy Spirit: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses…”

Ehud was the “deliverer” God raised up, but Ehud chose the method, and the editor of Judges omitted the customary “and N judged Israel for X years.” (Would you have brought your case to Ehud?) And, despite Jesus’ consistent example and teaching, method remained an issue (“Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” [Lk. 9:54]; “They said, ‘Lord, look, here are two swords.’ He replied, ‘It is enough’” [Lk. 22:38].)

Method remains an issue. Everything we say and do witnesses to some kingdom. May we continue seeking to allow the Spirit to teach us to witness to Jesus’ kingdom.

Shifting gears, some acknowledgement that the Lectionary has begun leading us through Acts seems appropriate. “When God wants to change the world”—recall “My God, my God…” above—“he doesn’t send in the tanks. He sends in the meek, the mourners, those who are hungry and thirsty for God’s justice, the peacemakers, and so on” (N. T. Wright, Simply Jesus p.218).

Re the Daily Office Readings July 28 Anno Domini 2020

NGC 5907 from nasa.gov.

The Readings: Judges 2:1-5, 11-23; Romans 16:17-27; Matthew 27:32-44

The NRSV’s notes on the text of today’s Romans reading attest to the difficulty of deciding how Paul ended this unique letter. Early manuscripts may put v.20b in its present location or after v.23 or after v.27. Both vv.17-20a and vv.25-27 have been identified as possible interpolations. That said, the text as we have it is the text to which the reader appends “The Word of the Lord.”

Romans 1-11 closed with a sort of hymn and doxology (11:33-36); 16:25-27 give us a second doxology. Both focus on God’s wisdom, incommensurate with our own. It’s both ironic and appropriate that they occur in this letter, which, of all Paul’s letters, skates closest to attempting to scrutinize God’s inscrutable ways.

And here in the doxologies what might seem theological abstractions and the very existential meet: it’s precisely God’s wisdom that we count on, counting on God to wisely thread the (moving) needle between God’s sovereignty and our freedom, between God’s commitments to justice and redemption. We need God to make good on the commitments to Israel, because this is the God who’s made equally weighty and risky commitments to us.

“To bring about the obedience of faith” (v.26), echoing “to bring about the obedience of faith” with which the letter started (1:5). We’re not in the grandstands, but on the field, and in God’s wisdom (?!) we also factor into the fulfillment of God’s dreams. “And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Lev. 26:12).

Re the Daily Office Readings July 27 Anno Domini 2020

Photo by Torkos Akos

The Readings: Joshua 24:16-33; Romans 16:1-16; Matthew 27:24-31

There are a number of translation issues to notice in the Romans text:

  • Phoebe, who, commentators guess, probably brought this letter to Rome, is identified as a “deacon” (v.1 NRSV). It’s probably too early to assume the definition this word later has, but it pretty clearly indicates a recognized office.
  • Phoebe is also identified as a “benefactor” (v.2); Dunn thinks that “patron” would be a more natural translation.
  • “Junia” (v.7) “prominent among the apostles,” was recognized as a woman’s name by patristic commentators; modern translations (e.g., RSV), tended to read “Junias” (a man’s name). Current evidence re names from that period suggests that NRSV has it right in restoring “Junia” and relegating “Junias” to a footnote.

The greetings (vv.3-16) are notable by their length, probably part of Paul’s effort to win acceptance of the letter and his ministry. Notable within the greetings: “So far as this list is concerned…Paul attributes leading roles to more women than men in the churches addressed. We cannot rule out the possibility that the more restrictive rulings on women’s participation in leadership probably reflected in 1 Clement (e.g., 1 Clem. 20.7 [sic—the reference is probably to 21.7] with the Pastorals) constituted a second or third generation reaction against the greater charismatic liberty of the earlier years” (Dunn).